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Coolie Labor

The Treaty of Nanking ending the Opium War (1839-1842) between Britain and China granted all British citizens in China the privilege of extraterritoriality, under which they were subject to British law but immune from Chinese law. The privilege was extended to other European nations as well as to the United States through the most-favored-nation clause. With the increased suppression of the international slave trade, Latin American planters, particularly in the Caribbean, turned to China for an alternative source of labor. They used loopholes in the extraterritoriality clause, fraud, and coercion to induce Chinese workers to immigrate to Latin America.
The "coolie trade," as it became known, expanded during the 1840s and 1850s. Some laborers signed contacts based on misleading promises, some were kidnapped, some were victims of clan violence whose captors sold them to coolie brokers, while others sold themselves to pay off gambling debts. From 1847 to 1862, most Chinese contract laborers ("coolies") bound for Cuba were shipped on American vessels, and numbered about 6,000 per year. Conditions on board these and other ships were overcrowded, unsanitary, and brutal. The terms of the contract were often not honored, so many laborers ended up working on Cuban sugar plantations or in Peruvian guano pits. Like slaves, some were sold at auction, and most worked in gangs under the command of a strict overseer.
At first, the Chinese government did little for the coolies because of its disapproval of Chinese citizens leaving their ancestral country. When reports of atrocities mounted, though, the Chinese government promulgated rules to regulate labor recruitment and working conditions. In 1874, Chinese government officials were sent to investigate the situation in Cuba and Peru. The result was two treaties with Spain and Peru, aimed at improving treatment of the Chinese laborers.
Given the role of American shippers in the coolie trade, U. S. presidents from Pierce through Grant criticized the practice in their annual messages to Congress. In 1862, Congress enacted the Prohibition of Coolie Trade Act, which forbade American shippers’ participation in the illicit enterprise. By only allowing voluntary immigrants from China, the United States essentially prohibited coolie immigration. The Burlingame Treaty of 1868 sustained the policy of free immigration.
Nevertheless, the term "coolie" came to be applied broadly in the United States to label most Chinese immigrant laborers. Despite a lack of rights, these early Chinese immigrants were not coolies. They were voluntary immigrants who made their own arrangements and paid their own passage. At most, some borrowed money under the "ticket system" at high rates of interest. The "coolie" stereotype would be fixed in the American imagination and used by nativists seeking to stop the immigration of what was seen as an unassimilable rival labor source.
Source consulted:

Shih-Shan Henry Tsai, The Chinese Experience in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986)

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