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Arnold J Meagher

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The Coolie Trade: The Traffic in Chinese Laborers to Latin America
by Arnold J Meagher   

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Publisher:  Xlibris ISBN-10:  9781436309424 Type: 


Copyright:  March 12, 2008

Barnes &

A record of the capture, voyage, and sale of 250,000 Chinese male laborers to meet the labor needs of sugar plantations and guano pits mainly in Cuba and Peru.

The Coolie Trade is an in-depth study of the traffic in
Chinese indentured laborers to Latin America (Release Date: June 2008) – The phenomenon ofindentured labor spread throughout the western world in thelatter two-thirds of the nineteenth century appearing in such farflung places as Mauritius, South Africa, Australia, Malaya, the Fiji Islands, and Latin America. With the abolition of theAfrican slave trade, the demands of Europe’s expanding industrialism activated an intercontinental search for laborers.
Natives of the subcontinent of India, Pacific Islanders, and
Chinese were the principal victims of a system of indentured
labor, i.e. contract labor under penal sanction, which in practice
differed little from the system of slavery it replaced. Latin American plantation owners and exploiters of guano and nitrate fields, unsuccessful elsewhere, turned toward the teeming population of China for their manpower needs. Between 1847 and 1874, vessels of 20 western nations transported over a quarter of a million involuntary male Chinese to the Caribbean and tropical South America.

This book presents a comprehensive study of this migration, which was larger in scope and much more documented than the contemporary migration of Chinese to California. Chinese migration to Latin America was initiated and sustained not by the spontaneous action of free agents, but rather by the persuasion, deceit, and coercion of emigration recruiters in the employ of western entrepreneurs.
The voyage to the Americas in former slave ships was a prolonged battle for survival with the elements, disease, ruthless crews, and scheming fellow passengers that took the lives of approximately one emigrant in every eight.
In Latin America, Chinese laborers, like the Negro slaves they replaced, were sold to the highest bidder, exploited, oppressed, and kept in varying degrees of dehumanizing bondage. The impact of this new slave trade on China overshadowed whatever significance the migration had in the New World. Problems arising from the illegal recruitment of laborers on China’s southern coast not only forced the
Chinese Government to break with centuries of tradition and officially sanction emigration, but aroused China to take an active interest in her subjects abroad, which helped to draw China out of isolationism, and promoted diplomatic contact with a new area of the globe-the South American continent.
This work relies heavily upon the correspondence of consuls and diplomats on the China coast and in Latin America contained in the archives of the British Public Record Office and in the British Parliamentary Papers; the China coast newspapers of the nineteenth century, both English and Portuguese, including the official weekly publications of the Hong Kong and Macau governments; and the official correspondence between Macau and Lisbon contained in Lisbon's Arquivo Historico Ultramarino.

Highly-recommended to the researcher and student of history as well as to Chinese entrepreneurs and diplomats seeking economic opportunities and raw materials throughout Latin America, The Coolie Trade may be a very useful resource in understanding the economic, cultural, and political impact of Chinese indentured labor on both China and Latin America.
The Coolie Trade: The Traffic in Chinese Laborers to Latin America 1847–1874
by Arnold J. Meagher PhD, Publication Date: June 2008
Trade Paperback; $23.99; ISBN13 978-1-4363-0942-4
Cloth Hardback; $34.99; ISBN13 978-1-4363-0943-1
Available from Xlibris at (888) 795-4274 x.7876 or at;;; Author email:

Professional Reviews

Kirkus Discoveries Review
Meagher, Arnold J. THE COOLIE TRADE: The Traffic in Chinese Laborers to Latin America, 1847-1874, March 12, 2008.
A thorough study of the roots of modern human trafficking and Chines emigration.
Against the backdrop of China’s rapid advance to the forefront of the world economy and sharp scrutiny over global trends in human trafficking, Meagher’s exhaustive survey of Chinese indentured labor is a richly informative, timely release. His volume, much broader in scope than the Latin America in his subtitle indicates, is a careful examination of cultural, political and socioeconomic factors that contributed to this phenomenon. Meagher argues that the termination of the African slave trade, an urgent need for laborers in the West and a deteriorating Chinese economy conspired to spawn the emigration of more than a quarter million Chinese laborers to Latin America in the span of 28 years. Beginning in 1847, Chinese emigration quickly evolved into a prosperous black market cottage industry that, alongside the illicit opium trade, attracted enterprising, often dubious characters. These overlords relentlessly plundered China’s human resources to satisfy a labor vacuum in the West. Scheming brokers often used any means available—false promises, deceit and fraud—to lure prey aboard ships. Victims of kidnapping account for more than a quarter of the human cargo, while appalling prison-like conditions, mutinies and disease resulted in a 12 percent mortality rate during the nine-month voyage. Great Britain and the United States abandoned the coolie trade in the mid 1860s after much public outcry. Trafficking, however, continued to flourish until 1874 aboard other ships sailing for Latin America, often destined for Cuba and Peru, where booming sugar, guano and mining industries demanded a steady flow of fresh workers. This authoritative account is acutely critical of the coolie trade as a means by which the slave trade continued in the West, but suggests it did have its advantages: challenging draconian Chinese taboos that once forbade emigration and introducing Chinese culture to Western society.
The author’s fluid, conversational style elevates Meagher’s work from the weight that often bogs down other academic texts.
Engaging and topical fare.

Journal Of Overseas Chinese (JOC) Review
Journal of Chinese Overseas, May 2009, Book Review by Professor LI ANSHAN,
School of International Studies, Peking University
As China returns to the center of the world arena, Chinese studies have become a hot topic in academia. This “China frenzy” explains why, after more than 30 years, a Ph D dissertation on Chinese indentured labor completed in 1975 has “come out of the closet.”
Chinese immigration, in its broad sense, is both the cause and product of globalization. As early as the late Qing dynasty, the Chinese were, willingly or otherwise, spread all over the world. The “coolie trade,” as “a new slavery disguised under the cloak of work contracts”, was an important part of the process and an unsavory chapter in human history. Dr. Arnold J. Meagher’s work, The Coolie Trade, The Traffic in Chinese Laborers to Latin America 1847-1874, is a masterpiece, which tries “to present a comprehensive study of Chinese indentured labor in Latin America”.
The work is solid in its data. The author tries every means to use as much material from different sources as possible, as is often permitted in historical works. The data including government archives and various secondary sources are taken from both the origin and destination of the traffic. Moreover, the appendices include a reservoir of documents for the researcher and historian interested in the subject. The work is also comprehensive in its content. It deals with not only the historical international context, the recruitment of Chinese labor in the Chinese coastal regions and the ports of departure, and the voyages to the New World, but also with the mutinies which took place in the course of the voyages, and the life of Chinese indentured laborers in Latin America. What is more, the author devotes one chapter to studying world opinions on the subject and the termination of the “coolie trade.”
History is regarded as a discipline of humanities as its writing inevitably involves sensibility and emotion, revealing the writer’s motivation and judgment. On the one hand, the author of this work objectively studies the process, mechanism and results of the coolie trade, and on the other hand, severely criticizes this abominable commerce in human life, initiated and sustained by persuasion, deceit and coercion. He fully sympathizes with the Chinese indentured laborers who suffered from exploitation and oppression and were kept in “varying degrees of dehumanizing bondage”. He offers a unique viewpoint on the nature of the Chinese indentured labor system: It is important to distinguish between the abstract legal system of indenture embodied in government decrees and written contracts, and the actual day-to-day life of the indentured worker. The book concludes that the indenture system should fall under the expanded definition of slavery adopted by the United Nations in the Supplementary Convention on Slavery at Geneva in 1956 (pp. 298-99).
However, the book needs to be updated. In the 1980s, Chinese scholars such as Chen Hansheng, Chen Zexian, Peng Jiali and others collected and published historical data on overseas Chinese indentured labor in the compilation, Collection of Sources on Chinese Indentured Labor, (In Chinese?) which includes documents from government archives on Chinese indentured laborers in Cuba, Peru, Brazil, Mexico, Panama, Chile, Guatemala, etc. Other Chinese scholars such as Wu Fengbin, Luo Rongqu, Zhang Kai, Xu Shicheng, Li Chunhui and Yang Shengmao, who began studying and writing about – also in the 1980s – Chinese immigrants in Latin America concentrating on indentured labor. All these works have added to the scholarship of the subject, yet they are not mentioned in this book based on the author’s Ph D dissertation dated 1975, when he had no opportunity to make use of the findings of the Chinese scholars. That explains why the work is a bit weak in certain aspects such as the Chinese government’s attitude toward the trade. Moreover, quite a few excellent works in other languages on indentured laborers have been published since the late 1970s, such as Denise Helly’s Idéologie et Ethnicité: les Chinois Macao à Cuba, 1847-1886 (1979), Walton Look Lai’s two prominent works on Chinese indentured labor, Indentured Labor, Caribbean Sugar (1993) and The Chinese in the West Indies, 1806-1995 (1998), Trev Sue-A-Quan’s Cane Teapers: Chinese Indentured Immigrants in Guyana (1999), Trevor Millett’s The Chinese in Trinidad (1993), and Humberto Rodriguez Pastor’s several important works on the Chinese in Peru. The above-mentioned studies could have been used to good purpose by the author in the revision of his work for publication.

There are a few leaks, which may be mentioned in the present volume, such as a blank in footnote 42 on p. 35. Some works (such as by Chen Ta) appear in the text but cannot be found in the bibliography. In the final analysis, though, this work makes a good contribution to the scholarship of indentured labor and the understanding of this dehumanizing chapter in human history.

School of International Studies, Peking University

Labour History Review
Labour History, Vol. 97, November 2009. Published by the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History
Arnold J. Meagher, The Coolie Trade: The Traffic in Chinese Laborers to Latin America 1847–1874, Xlibris, Philadelphia, 2008. pp. 486. US $34.99 cloth, US $23.99 paper.
Arnold J. Meagher's 1975 dissertation on the Chinese 'coolie trade' to Latin America and the Caribbean has long served as a foundational study on this tragic chapter of international labour history. Inspired by the urging of friends and by the recent increase in China's political and economic ties with Latin America, Meagher rescued his dissertation from the drawer in which it had languished for over 30 years. Now this remarkable work is widely accessible through the self publishing company Xlibris. Despite the gap in time and the fact that it has not been substantially revised, this book remains the most comprehensive study of the system of indentured labour in Latin America. Well researched and clearly written, it reminds scholars of the importance of returning to foundational works, even as they pursue new avenues of inquiry. 1 Following the abolition of the slave trade, planters and capitalists turned to a system of Asian indentured labour for their Caribbean colonies. While the British government recruited East Indians and Chinese for the West Indies, private merchants controlled the importation of Chinese to Spain's colony of Cuba and newly independent Peru. From 1847 to 1874 over 250,000 Chinese indentured labourers were kidnapped or otherwise coerced into signing contracts in Cuba and Peru. In great detail, Meagher chronicles this largely involuntary migration of Chinese who toiled on sugar plantations in Cuba and guano beds and nitrate fields in Peru under abominable conditions. Individual chapters discuss the mechanics of recruitment and passage to the New World, shipboard mutinies, conditions and treatment in Latin America, and international opinion and the termination of the coolie trade. Meagher points out that even as Britain and the United States decried slavery in Spain's colonies, their businessmen profited from the equally unscrupulous coolie trade. 2 The intricacies of recruiting schemes in China's coastal cities are revealed. Western capitalists came to rely on a class of professional recruiters or crimps who secured men (often their own kinsmen or acquaintances) through gambling debt, fraudulent claims, and kidnapping. Evidence suggests that the coolies were not completely naïve. Some entered into contracts with multiple brokers, obtaining the promised food, clothing, lodging, and advance before moving on to another recruiting station (p. 124). Once en route, one out of eight coolies died on the voyage from inclement weather, disease, cruel treatment, and suicide. Mutinies also claimed lives, the most extreme example being the United States vessel Flora Temple, in which 850 passengers died (p. 188). Contemporary accounts from consular officials and travellers provide haunting images of conditions in Cuba and Peru. Meagher describes indentureship on the Chincha Islands as 'the most abject slavery' in which men suffered under a severe climate and received floggings for not fulfilling daily guano quotas (p. 224). The two chapters on the Chinese experiences under indenture actually go beyond Latin America in scope, discussing how the system operated in the British, Dutch, and French colonies, Brazil, and other parts of Latin America such as Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico, Venezuela, and El Salvador. 3 In a concluding chapter that will pique the interest of labour historians, Meagher assesses the coolie trade in terms of the debate on what constitutes slave versus free labour. He acknowledges the differences between the two institutions 'on the abstract legal level', pointing out that under the indenture system 'the servitude was not necessarily perpetual, nor was it inheritable' (p. 298). But he contrasts the formal, official regulations established by contract and government decree with the actual experiences of labourers on the ground, concluding that the nineteenth century coolie trade to Latin America can be categorised within the expanded definition of contemporary slavery adopted by the United Nations in 1956 (pp. 298–99). 4 Among the primary sources Meagher taps are the extensive collection of British consular and diplomatic correspondence from China and Latin America, nineteenth century Chinese treaty port newspapers in English and Portuguese, government documents from Macau, and travel literature. Meagher acknowledges that further research in Cuba, Peru and the West Indies, as well as in historical archives in Portugal and Spain, would resolve 'gaps in the historical record' (p. 24). On the Chinese side, the ten-volume compilation of documentary material on Chinese labourers (including Latin America) edited by Chen Hansheng in 1984 lends additional insight into Qing government policies toward the trade. Scholarship by Denise Helly and Evelyn Hu-DeHart on Chinese coolies in Cuba, Walton Look Lai on East Indians and Chinese in the British Caribbean, and Humberto Rodríguez Pastor on the Chinese in Peru further investigate the questions Meagher raises. In more recent studies, Asian Americanists Moon-Ho Jung analyses the debates in the United States on the coolie trade, while Lisa Yun probes coolie subjectivity and the nature of the contract. Nevertheless, the fact that Arnold Meagher's study remains an important work for anyone engaging in new research on the topic attests to his meticulous research and thorough analysis. 5

Rutgers University, New Jersey KATHLEEN LÓPEZ

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