The Chinese Commission to Cuba (1874): Reexamining International Relations in the Nineteenth Century from a Transcultural Perspective
As the abolitionist movement gained momentum in the second half of the nineteenth century, agricultural producers in Cuba and South America urgently began looking for substitutes for their African slaves. The result was a massive growth in the “coolie trade”––the trafficking of laborers known as coolies––from China to plantations overseas. On paper, the indentured workers were abroad legally and voluntarily and were given regular salaries, certain benefits, as well as various legal rights not granted to slaves. In practice, however, coolies were often kidnapped before departure and abused upon arrival. Their relatively low wages and theoretically legal status attracted employers in agricultural production around the world. Virtually all the European colonies employed coolies; from the Spanish sugar plantations in Cuba to the German coconut fields in Samoa, coolies were a critical source of labor. For the trade in coolies between China and Latin America, a handful of Spanish conglomerates, such as La Zulueta y Compañía and La Alianza, held the monopoly.
The lucrative coolie trade between China and Latin America came to an abrupt end in the 1870s after allegations of abuse in the international press were subsequently confirmed by Western diplomats. A series of diplomatic struggles ensued between the Qing Dynasty and the Spanish Crown over the treatment of the coolies. Five nations–– England, Russia, France, Germany, and the United States––mediated between the two, but ultimately, they supported the Chinese case. These diplomatic disagreements resulted in the dispatch of a Qing delegation to Cuba to investigate the allegations of mistreatment. Its final report described the appalling working conditions of the Chinese coolies in the Spanish possessions. After the report was made public, resistance to the trade grew in Southern China, and the Spanish government was forced to end the trade in laborers between China and Latin America before both governments had even signed a final written agreement banning it.
The Qing delegation to Cuba, which ultimately brought down the global coolie network between China and the Spanish-speaking world, was covered extensively by the Chinese and international press throughout much of the 1870s. Information about the creation of the Commission, its journey, and the final report appeared in newspapers across the globe. As was already evident in contemporary assessments, the delegation’s journey was of historic significance, and many predicted it would have a huge impact on the Sino–Spanish coolie trade and on international agricultural production. Moreover, unlike repeated Chinese defeats at the hands of foreign powers, the Commission represented one of the few instances in the nineteenth century when the Qing Dynasty scored a diplomatic victory against a European nation
Chinese immigrants in Cuba repository collection
Scholars have generally focused on the important role of Overseas Chinese in the United States, but significant numbers of Chinese also migrated to other areas in the Americas, most notably Peru and Cuba. Cuban sugar planters solicited cheap Asian labor to supplement the island's slave population and increase sugar production in the context of rising international prices.
When repeated efforts to attract European immigrants failed, the Junto de Fomento transferred 100,000 pesos from the European Immigration Fund (Comision de Poblacion Blanca) in 1847 to insure and engage former slave traders of the firm Julieta y Cia to import contracted laborers from China to Cuba. (1) In the following twenty-six years, an estimated 124,873 to 150,000 Chinese migrants arrived in Cuba. (2) Among them were Hakka farmers, lured to ports like Hong Kong and Xiamen because of famine, many of whom had allegedly not understood the stipulations of their contracts. (3) Coolies also included some circulatory migrants to the Philippines and even natives indigenous to Mexico. (4) Notwithstanding its complexities, the coolie system first introduced Chinese to Cuba and created the basis of a significant mixed-race Chinese Cuban community.