Chinese coolies in Cuba and Peru : race, labor, and immigration, 1839-1886
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This dissertation examines the experience of the tens of thousands of Chinese indentured laborers (colonos asiáticos or “coolies”) who went to Cuba and Peru as replacements for African slaves during the middle of the nineteenth century. Despite major sociopolitical differences (i.e., colonial slave society vs. independent republic without slavery), this comparative project reveals the common nature in the transition from slavery to free labor. Specifically, the indenture system, how the Chinese reacted to their situation, and how they influenced labor relations mirrored each other in the two societies. I contend that colonos asiáticos, while neither slaves nor free laborers, created a foundation for a shift from slavery to free labor. Elites in both places tried to fit the Chinese into competing projects of liberal “progress” and conservative efforts to stem this change, causing them to imagine these immigrant laborers in contradictory ways (i.e., free vs. slave, white vs. non-white, hard-working vs. lazy, cultured vs. morally corrupt). This ambiguity excused treating Asian laborers as if they were slaves, but it also justified treating them as free people. Moreover, Chinese acts of resistance slowly helped undermine this labor regime. Eventually, international pressure, which never would have reached such heights if the Chinese had remained passive, forced an end to the “coolie” trade and left these two societies with little option but to move even closer to free labor. That said, this work also considers the ways in which the differing socio-political contexts altered the Chinese experience. In particular, in contrast to Peru, Cuba’s status as a colonial slave society made it easier for the island’s elites to justify exploiting these workers and to protect themselves from mass rebellion. My dissertation places the histories of Cuba and Peru into a global perspective. It focuses on the transnational migration of the Chinese, on their social integration into their new Latin American host societies, as well as on the international reaction to the situation of immigrant laborers in Latin America.