BETWEEN 1846 AND 1874, OVER 290,000 CHINESE were embarked as indentured labourers destined mainly for Peru, Cuba and the British, French and Dutch West Indies. Of these, 15.13% did not reach their destination.
The demand for labour was high. Among the poor, penniless and destitute of southern China, the search for remunerated work was also high. When demand outran the initial willing supply, trickery and misrepresentation, even kidnapping, came to be used in obtaining recruits. These were among the several factors contributing to onboard suicides, attempted insurrections and successful mutinies when captains and some crew were killed or tortured, ships set on fire and sometimes entirely destroyed. There were also occurrences when recruits signed on, intent on piracy, which was occasionally successful.
Authorities in the ports of departure introduced legislation to counter abuses. Receiving countries also introduced legislation related to imported labour.
In this study, John Asome provides data on 732 voyages and commentary on a good number of these. As an expert in the field, Walton Look Lai, says, John Asome has filled, “an enormous gap in our knowledge of the Chinese coolie trade....He has enabled readers and future scholars to distinguish fact from myth, reality from exaggeration, in the understanding of this vast and complex experience.”
FROM THE PREFACE
By Walton Look Lai, retired History Lecturer, University of the West Indies, St Augustine,Trinidad & Tobago
Scholars of the nineteenth century Chinese migrations have justifiably seen the “coolie trade” to Latin America and the Caribbean (1846-1874) as the dark side of the diaspora experience. Organised and operated mainly by Western plantation and shipping interests, its cruelties and contradictions at the embarkation and destination ends have been described and analysed by contemporary official reports as well as by diaspora scholars. From the 1874 Cuban Commission Report compiled by the Chinese delegation of Chen Lanpin and others, to modern studies by Yen Ching Hwang and Arnold Meagher, supplemented over the years by a variety of single country studies, we have learnt all about the mechanics and motivations of this ethnic version of the worldwide indentured labor experiment, as well as about official Chinese state responses to it while it was happening.
A missing ingredient of these studies until now has been the voyages themselves, the story of what actually transpired on these seven hundred plus vessels traversing the long journey from the China coast to the Western Hemisphere. Conventional doctoral research would normally shy away from this task, not only because of the difficulties involved in amassing this vast material, but also because of what many would consider its dubious value in helping us to understand the totality of the trade itself.
Unshackled by these academic inhibitions, John Asome, a retired seaman and Australian economics graduate with his ancestral and family roots in Trinidad-Tobago, England, Hong Kong and Australia, has spent the better part of twenty years going where others dared not go before, and in the process has succeeded in filling an enormous gap in our knowledge of the Chinese coolie trade, the “transportation” dimension to supplement the “recruitment” and “work experience” dimensions of this unique diaspora story. Here, described in great detail, is the story of what actually happened on many of these seven hundred voyages to Cuba, Peru, the British, French and Dutch West Indies over the almost thirty years of its lifespan. In the process of chronicling these voyages, John Asome has enabled readers and future scholars to distinguish fact from myth, reality from exaggeration, in the understanding of this vast and complex experience. The concluding chapter – the Coolie Trade in Review – is an especially valuable summation. Whatever minor inconsistencies may inevitably emerge in this vast assemblage of data, all will be inspired by this brave project, all the more so because it is the result of one man’s single-minded devotion over the years, rather than the work of a collective body.