Far Flung Coolies: A Chinese Migration | campus.sg

Chinese coolies in the tobacco field; Tropenmuseum collection

For centuries, the Chinese have engaged in a global migration that has left an indelible mark on history beyond Chinatowns. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese labourers embarked on journeys spanning continents, most notably to seek their fortunes within the gold mines of the United States, Canada, Africa, and Australia. However, in parallel, a significant number of men found themselves coerced or even kidnapped to serve as coolies, leading to a mass involuntary migration.

After the African slave trade was outlawed in the 19th century, the British came up with a dodgy form of employment: indentured labour. And they turned to Asia to for what’s known as the “coolie trade.”

From 1847 to 1874, up to 500,000 Chinese coolies were shipped to the Americas, Africa, and Southeast Asia (including Singapore), often shanghaied into their new “careers”. 

Portuguese & Macao: origin of slaves

It was the colonial European powers – particularly the Portuguese – who were responsible for shipping the first batch of Chinese to far flung lands way back in the 16th century as slaves.

When Portugal started trading in Asia, they were already experienced slave traders. As far back as the 1520s, Chinese slaves were bought, and then traded in Lisbon in the 1540s. Some were brought over by Portuguese viceroys who procured them from China and Malacca along spice routes. Some of these slaves consisted of kidnapped boys as young as 5 years old. 

“The Living Hells (Sheng diyu tushuo)”, published in 1875, Cantonese publishing house

China’s relationship with the Portuguese began in 1557, who used Macao as a trading port for slaves from China, as well as (predominantly) Japan and the rest of Asia. From there, slaves were shipped to Goa (then a Portuguese colony) and Lisbon. From here, some found their way to Brazil, becoming the first Chinese to set foot there in the 16th century.

It wasn’t until 1624 that the King of Portugal forbade the enslavement of the Chinese and Japanese, due to international pressure rather than conscience. However, the Dutch continued what the Portuguese started and enslaved Asian people in colonial South Africa from the 1650s.

Fast forward to the 1840s and we start seeing the Chinese being traded again. This time under the official title of ‘coolie’

A new kind of slave

By the early 19th century, slave trading became outlawed across Europe – beginning with Denmark (1802), Britain (1807), Holland (1814), France (1818), Spain (1820) and finally Portugal in 1836. 

To replace African slaves, the British experimented with this ‘coolie’ system when they imported 200 Chinese to Trinidad in 1806. Coolie traders claimed that workers were willing to indenture themselves for 6-8 years. In reality, contracts were rarely honoured, and most of the men were kidnapped or deceived. The trade was even referred to as ‘mai jhu jai’ (sale of piglets).

Enslaved coolie in Peru, 1881

Macao to South America

For over 300 years, Portuguese Macao was a marketplace for human labour. It initially traded in slaves, and simply switched to trading coolies once Portugal outlawed slavery. Most of the coolies ended up in Latin America, and most of them ended up on sugar plantations.

The Portuguese brought coolies to its Brazilian tea plantations. The Dutch brought Chinese coolies from Macao to their colony, Suriname, to replace the African slaves in sugar plantations after slavery was outlawed. 

“On the Lower Deck” by Edgar Holden, 1864. Coolies preparing to mutiny.

Most coolies from Macao ended up in Spanish colonies, and many were shipped via the Philippines, which was under Spanish colonial rule for over 300 years (1565 to 1898). Over 100,000 coolies were sent to Peru from the 1850s to the 1870s for work in sugar plantations, as well as in the guano, rail, and cotton industries. About 125,000 coolies were sold to Cuba between 1847-1874 to work on sugar plantations and guano pits. 

Coolies were also shipped via the Caribbean to Louisiana (USA) between 1866 and 1870 to work in sugar plantations after the Civil War alongside African slaves.

The hazardous conditions the coolies faced resulted in a high mortality rate (up to half died). As a result, the Chinese government stepped in and eliminated the coolie trade in 1874. However, coolies were still used until the early 20th century.

An 1871 engraving titled ‘Chinese cheap labor in Louisiana’ Library of Congress

Chinese labour in other parts of the world

The British and French also imported coolies to Africa. The British began importing Chinese coolies into Mauritius in 1829 to replace their slave labour in sugar plantations. They also used them to work in gold mines in South Africa.

The French used coolies for railroad-building in Madagascar in 1896. Even the Germans were using coolies in German Samoa in the late 1800s for their tobacco plantations.

What happened after?

After their contracts ended, many coolies returned to China, although many stayed on and opened small grocery stores or restaurants. Many of the coolies who’ve settled overseas have thrived for generations, having intermingled with the local population, and married local wives.

They can generally be distinguished from newer immigrants from China by the languages they speak. In addition to local languages, they speak either Hakka or Cantonese (Taishanese), as they were mainly from Guangdong.

Those who chose to remain in their new homes came together to create a community where Chinese culture thrived. These areas are often referred to as “Chinatowns.”

Barrio Chino in Lima, Peru

In Cuba, the large Chinese population established Havana’s Chinatown (Barrio Chino de La Habana) in 1847, is one of the oldest in Latin America. Peru has one of the largest Chinatowns globally, established in the mid 19th century, called Calle Capón (Barrio Chino) in Lima. It houses over 6,000 Chinese restaurants called ‘chifas’ serving Chinese Peruvian fusion food. In Brazil, the Chinese live alongside a large Japanese population in Liberdade, Sao Paolo.

No matter where you are on the globe, the rich history and contributions of Chinese communities are a legacy worth remembering and celebrating.