In 1802 Denmark became the first country to stop participating in the Atlantic slave trade. England followed in 1807, the United States in 1808, Holland in 1814, France in 1818, Spain in 1820, Portugal in 1836. Then the same multinational commercial interests that had operated the trade in Africans turned to Asia for laborers, and from 1840 to 1875, an estimated 138,000 Chinese men were shipped to Latin America and the Caribbean.
Proponents of this "coolie trade" claimed willing emigrants were indenturing themselves for a few years–usually between six and eight–after which they would be free to settle in the New World or return home. In fact, few of the laborers from China were voluntary; contracts, when they existed, were often signed under duress and rarely honored. Chinese, saying men were being sold like pigs, referred to the trade as "mai jui jai," the sale of piglets.
About 80% of the men shipped across the Pacific from China were kidnapped or decoyed; most were from the southern coastal region; and close to 100,000 landed in Peru. The Peruvian Congress–during a failed attempt to halt the traffic in 1856–likened it to "a kind of Negro slave trade." But traffickers found shipping Chinese yielded even greater profits than the African slave trade. According to James O'Kelly, a reporter for the New York Herald, the 900 Chinese on board a ship he visited in Havana, Cuba were worth $450,000 to their importers and had been obtained for a mere $50,000.
The length of a voyage–whether the route was north to Yokohama and Honolulu or through the reef-strewn China Sea, Straits of Sundra, and south of Australia–depended on the season, calms, storms, and stopovers for supplies and repairs. Most ships leaving Macao reached Callao, Peru in 120 days; the longest on record was 214. On average, one in seven died; the mortality rate for 1862, however was 41.5%, and on one ship, 246 out of 323 Chinese died.
Captives attempted mutinies on most voyages, sometimes more than once. Few, though, were successful, and victories were pyrrhic: mutineers, upon their return to China, were usually jailed, executed, or shipped out again.
Resistance persisted after landing in the form of escape, suicide, assassination of overseers, burning of cane fields, and outright rebellion. Punishment was always swift and harsh. But a laborer had little to lose since 50% to 75% died during the first years of their contracts and those who did survive often had their period of indenture extended repeatedly against their will.
Exporting guano for fertilizer was then Peru's greatest source of wealth, and Chinese performed the bulk of the work in this industry. But most contract laborers toiled on sugar (and, during the 1860s cotton) plantations or in small factories and, in the 1870s, for an American entrepreneur building a railroad. Some were put to work as cooks, bakers, mill hands, gardeners, porters, handymen, and house servants.
Since contract laborers could be obtained and replaced cheaply, masters had little incentive to treat them well. Those who dug guano fared the worst. As early as 1854, nine English shipmasters reported on the suffering of Chinese workers to Britain's Lords of the Privy Council of Trade. Diplomats, journalists, and abolitionists in many countries protested the trade. Free Chinese in Peru–self-employed as grocers, tailors, shoemakers, bakers, butchers, and tradesmen–complained so vociferously of abuses against the indentured that masters accused them of fomenting rebellion.
In Lima, societies such as the Fukien and Swatow Guild, the Kwangtung Guild, and the Tung Sheng Club submitted memorials to the Emperor in Peking through the United States Minister to Peru. The first memorials detailed the laborers' grievances and begged for help and protection. By 1871, they were asking the Emperor to either send an envoy to Peru to investigate the condition of Chinese or to commission the United States Minister in Lima to be their protector.
Finally, the Chinese government asked Yung Wing, a naturalized U.S. citizen, to conduct an investigation. His report included devastating photographs as well as depositions, and the Chinese government, armed with proof of abuses, negotiated an agreement with the Peruvian government that repudiated both involuntary and contract emigration. Chinese immigrants would also be placed on an equal footing with subjects of the most-favored-nation residing in Peru.
This treaty was ratified on August 7, 1875. But Peru's reputation had become so bad on the China coast that Chinese refused all Peruvian attempts to recruit them for labor. Yet few Chinese already in Peru returned to China. Many took Spanish names, converted to Catholicism, and married local women. Some brought over wives from China. And Lima's nineteenth century Chinatown on Calle Capon has evolved in the same location for over 150 years.
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