Migrant Knowledge

Beyond Chinese “Coolies” as Victims

Two illustrations published in Harper’s Monthly Magazine in 1864 depict an uprising on a ship by Chinese “coolies” being sent from Macao, a Portuguese colony near Hong Kong, to Cuba. The images and the accompanying article describing the mutiny depict the Chinese indentured migrants rebelling against the ship’s captain and crew. Although their rebellion failed, the images provide tantalizing clues that allow us to see beyond the dominant image of the Chinese coolie as a passive victim. In addition to the instances of outright rebellion, of which there were many, Chinese emigrants also displayed their agency in the very act of choosing to migrate.

The Chinese coolie, much like the African slave, has been described by abolitionists and historians alike as a victim, someone to be pitied and saved. Although there has been a shift in the literature on enslaved Africans since the 1960s, focusing on the agency and resistance of African slaves, the Chinese coolie remains largely a silent victim. The idea of the migrant as a passive victim of conniving human traffickers continues to this day with the demonization of the human trafficker on the one hand and the passive victimized migrant on the other. While this view has been embraced by governments and migrant advocates around the world, it distracts us from the more complex relationship between migrants and smugglers and focuses us on the byproduct of exclusionary immigration policies rather than on the policies themselves.

The coolie trade in the nineteenth century was coercive. But most of that coercion was the result of capitalist labor demands and was not caused by the intermediaries who facilitated the trade. Today’s anti-trafficking laws also require the construction of migrants as victims and of traffickers as dangerous criminals. Therefore, the legal system, migrant advocates, law enforcement, and popular culture all reinforce notions of migrants as victims and smugglers as evil.

Imagining the Coolie Victim

The death rates for Chinese contract laborers to Cuba and Peru in the mid-nineteenth century demonstrated the horrific conditions for Chinese emigrants and motivated humanitarians to save the coolies whom they viewed as weak, vulnerable, and backward. Religious leaders, journalists, and politicians alike painted Chinese migrants as feminized, racially inferior and vulnerable to hyper-masculinized recruiters and coolie traders. Just one of many examples of this portrayal came from an American historian and pastor, John S. C. Abbott, who condemned the coolie trade as a form of slavery in an 1860 account of his trip to Cuba. Abbott’s Christian-inspired critique of the coolie trade expressed a hierarchical view of race in which the Chinese appeared as weak, dirty, and feminized victims of virile, superior whites. “What is to be the doom of these debased and fallen races?,” he asked. “How are they to be rescued from the tyranny of pride and avarice, and elevated to the dignity of manhood?”1 In a similar vein, an 1873 New York Times article reasoned that although the “‘heathen Chinee,’ taken as a moral fixture, may not be all that we could wish in the matter of manhood and honesty,” he was still a “creation of God’s formation” and therefore deserved the right to liberty.2 Americans, like the British and other Europeans, presented themselves as civilized men who could shield the victimized Chinese emigrant from the barbaric Spanish and Portuguese coolie traders and the effeminate and ineffective Chinese prince.

Coercion and Complicity

There is no doubt that the coolie trade often included some form of coercion and duplicity on the part of recruiters, shippers, and plantation owners. Government reports, journalistic accounts and courtroom testimony provide evidence that coolies were often tricked, had limited information or were forcibly held in barracoons and on ships. What is not often discussed in the historical accounts or in the abolitionist narratives is the extent to which Chinese or Indian migrants were complicit with the recruiters and lied to officials to pass the various inspections required before they would be allowed onto ships. The complicity of Chinese migrants does not excuse the deception, brutality, and coercion of the traders, but it reveals a more complicated picture than one of vulnerable and weak migrants being taken advantage of by malicious recruiters and foreign shippers.

The recruiting process was depicted by critics of the coolie trade as a thinly veiled system of kidnapping. The fact that Chinese sent to Cuba and Peru traveled on vessels that had been African slave ships and that the emigrants were held below decks with armed officers meting out strict corporal punishments lent weight to this argument. One British judge in Hong Kong compared the coolie trade to slavery and declared emphatically, “the coolies were being forcibly taken against their wills.”3 An 1859 New York Times article describing a rebellion against coolie traders ran a headline “Kidnapping Coolie—Excitement at Shanghai.”4 The Cuba Commission that was sent by the Chinese government to collect testimony from coolies working on plantations in Cuba in 1873 provided evidence from over two thousand Chinese laborers who said they were tricked and deceived by crimps (recruiters).5 Hsein Tso-Pang and fourteen other coolies stated that

the foreigners of Macao sent out vicious Chinese in order to kidnap and decoy men and to place these in barracoons and on board of ships from which they cannot escape, chastise them there without restraint, and conveying them against their will to Havana, after removing their queues and changing their clothing, offer them for sale in the men-market.

Others claimed they had been induced by “offers of employment abroad at high wages,” only to later discover that they had been “sold as slaves.”6

Lisa Yun’s excellent analysis of the 1874 Cuba Commission Report in her book The Coolie Speaks attempts to give voice to the Chinese laborer, but the commission’s framing, editorial choices, and conclusions did more than simply record laborers’ testimony. The Report created collective statements by groups of laborers and was shaped to construct a view of the coolies as victims—not of government indifference but rather of unscrupulous recruiters. Yun argues that although the Chinese voices are mediated and assembled together, they provide a “coolie narrative.”7 However, this narrative ends up reinforcing the idea of passive victims and conniving smugglers, a narrative that I would argue is more of a government perspective than that of the Chinese migrant.

In spite of the impossibility of hearing the unmediated voices of individual Chinese coolies in the Commission Report, the contradictions in the image of coolie as victim come through. Testimony of Chinese emigrants in court and a closer reading of the Commission Report reveal a more complex picture of emigrant complicity with their recruiters. According to the report, eight or nine out of every ten Chinese emigrants to Cuba had been taken against their will, however, the vast majority of these had been either decoyed (72%), entrapped (5%), or ensnared (10%). Only 7 percent indicated that they had been kidnapped, the same percentage who said they had emigrated voluntarily.8 Historian Philip Kuhn notes that although some Chinese emigrants paid for their own passage and some were coerced into signing contracts, most fell somewhere in-between, having indebted themselves to merchants, brokers, shipping companies, or relatives to pay for their passage.9 Kidnapping and voluntary emigration were the extreme ends of the spectrum from total coercion to free choice, but most Chinese fell somewhere in the middle. Their dire circumstances in China led them to choose a dangerous path of emigration and bonded labor.

The chance to escape poverty and family crisis at home may have made the idea of signing up as an indentured laborer seem like a possible pathway to freedom, or at least more freedom. If many of these people later regretted their decision, it does not diminish their agency in choosing the possibilities of migration over the certain impoverishment and bondage of remaining at home. The voices of these Asian workers, so lacking in the historical archive, are often overshadowed by the loud proclamations of humanitarians from Europe and the United States as well as of government officials in China, all actors that needed to paint Chinese migrant laborers as victims.

Producing Victims Today

We can see echoes of the victim narrative pushed by today’s anti-human trafficking scholars. A 2005 scholarly investigation into human trafficking to the United States repeats the century-old trope of migrants as victims of smugglers and reveals the ways in which this identity was imposed from the outside. The report, written by two academics at the University of Mississippi, was funded by the Department of Justice, which already suggests this research had a utilitarian, law enforcement purpose. The report acknowledges that “forced labor survivors often do not self-identify as victims,” but then it goes on to suggest that the victim status is one which specially trained law enforcement agents can discern to separate them from the “criminals.” One prosecutor cited in the report also recommended interviewing migrants just once because multiple interviews might produce conflicting testimony.10 The prosecutor’s goal was to gather evidence of victimization that could be used in a court proceeding. As one federal agent explained, “Without victims, there’s no case. There’s no violation.”11 The key to winning these cases rests on the jury being convinced of the victimhood of the migrants. As the report puts it, “the prosecutors must also make the jury recognize the suffering of the victim.” The flipside of the trafficking victim is the wily trafficker, who the report describes as “clever, cunning criminals who go to great lengths to conceal their criminality.”12

Looking back at the way in which nineteenth-century Chinese coolies were constructed as victims can help us to recognize these same patterns in how migrants and their smugglers are framed today. Seeing the smuggler and the migrant in more complex ways than simply as criminal and victim will help us to move beyond a state-centered perspective.

Elliot Young
Elliott Young is a professor of Latin American and borderlands history at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. For more on Chinese migrants, see his book Alien Nation: Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era through World War II  (University of North Carolina Press, 2014). His most recent book is Forever Prisoners: How the United States Made the World’s Largest Immigrant Detention System (Oxford University Press, 2021). His Twitter handle is @elliottyoungpdx.
  1. John S. C. Abbott, South and North, or Impressions Received During a Trip to Cuba and the South (New York: Abbey & Abbott, 1860), 50–51. ↩︎
  2. “The Coolie Trade,” New York Times, July 19, 1873. ↩︎
  3. Chief Justice Smale, in the matter of Kwok-a-Sing on Habeas Corpus, March 25, 1871, reprinted in John Smale, “Supreme Court, Hong Kong, March 25th, 1871—Judge Chambers Before the Hon. Chief Justice Smale, in the Matter of Kwok-a-sing on Habeas Corpus- Judgment,” in United States Department of State: The Executive Documents Printed by Order of the House of Representatives during the Second Session of the Forty-Second Congress (1871–1872) (Washington DC: U.S. Department of State, 1872), 201. A transcript of the decision was published in the Hong Kong Daily Press, April 5, 1871. ↩︎
  4. “China: Kidnapping Coolies—Excitement at Shanghai,” New York Times, October 21, 1859. ↩︎
  5. For an excellent analysis of the testimonies in the Cuba Commission Report, see Lisa Yun, The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008). ↩︎
  6. Denise Helly, The Cuba Commission Report: A Hidden History of the Chinese in Cuba (1874; Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 36–37. ↩︎
  7. Yun, The Coolie Speaks, 231. ↩︎
  8. These statistics are derived from the 962 coolies who left from Macao and gave testimony to the Cuba Commission. Helly, Cuba Commission Report, 37. ↩︎
  9. Philip A. Kuhn, Chinese Among Others: Emigration in Modern Times (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008), 113–14. ↩︎
  10. Kevin Bales and Setveen Lize, “Trafficking in Persons in the United States: A Report to the National Institute of Justice,” Croft Institute for International Studies, University of Mississippi, March 2005, https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/211980.pdf, 85. ↩︎
  11. Bales and Litze, “Trafficking,” 93. ↩︎
  12. Bales and Litze, “Trafficking,” 111, 110. ↩︎

Suggested citation: Elliot Young, "Beyond Chinese “Coolies” as Victims," Migrant Knowledge, July 14, 2021, https://migrantknowledge.org/2021/07/14/beyond-chinese-coolies-as-victims/.