Atlantic History Chinese Indentured Servitude in the Atlantic World
Lomarsh Roopnarine
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0294


Although the first shipload of about 400 Chinese indentured servants arrived in Trinidad in 1806, their entrance in the Caribbean and Latin America flourished only after African slave emancipation in the second half of the 19th century, except for Cuba, where they labored alongside slaves. The Chinese were one of the many overseas groups brought to the Caribbean and Latin America to supplant the loss of slave labor. Of the estimated 250,000 who arrived, most went to Cuba (125,000), Peru (95,000), and the British Caribbean (18,000). A few thousand went to Suriname and the French Caribbean. Among the Chinese, the most noticeable feature was a gender disparity. More than 90 percent of them were young men. Some indentured Chinese came on their own free will but an unknown number were forced into serving terms of labor overseas either by recruiters or by their clan debtors. Their indentured contracts were limited and were designed mainly to benefit their overlord. They received fixed wages, basic free housing, and limited medical care while they provided labor for a period of years for their employers. Their contracts did not include a return passage home and, when their five-year contracts expired, some re-indentured. However, most of them drifted away from the plantation system to engage in retail business, form distinct communities, or integrate themselves into the host society. In the Caribbean, Chinese indentured servants worked mainly on the sugar plantations, whereas in Peru they worked in the silver mines and in the Guano fields. While they had representation from their home government and had the right to challenge their working conditions, they were ill-treated by their employers. They suffered high death rates, and, in some places, like Peru, they were treated worse than slaves. The system of Chinese indentured servitude finally collapsed when pressure was placed on the planters by the Chinese government, by European governments, and by the general public to implement serious reforms, namely to include a return passage and to enact contracts that provided for better treatment. Reforms ultimately failed to materialize. By 1875, Chinese indentured service to Latin America had become a labor practice of the past. I would like to thank our student helper, Tamiia Ingram, in the Department of History & Philosophy at Jackson State University for locating some the above citations.

General Overviews

That this is the first article to treat Chinese indentured servitude in Atlantic history is indicative of the marginalization of the field. No single comprehensive book covering Chinese indentured servitude in the Caribbean and Latin America exists. General studies are available (Aldus 1876, Campbell 1971) and country-specific studies exist (Clementi 1915 and Kirkpatrick 1993 [both cited under Guyana], Look Lai 1998 [cited under British Caribbean], Hu-DeHart 1993 [cited under Cuba], Stewart 1951 [cited under Peru], Ankum-Houwink 1985 [cited under Suriname]). Comparative studies on Chinese indentured laborers in the Caribbean and Latin America do not exist. Moreover, the literature on Chinese indentured historiography is marked by language insularity. Most studies on Chinese indentured servitude in Cuba and Peru and in the British and Dutch Caribbean are in Spanish, English, and Dutch, respectively. Some studies are available in a different language from that of the host country. Thematically, the published works can be divided into general, regional, and country-specific studies. Only a handful books examine Chinese indentured servitude using a broad perspective or approach, documenting the policy and process of recruitment in China, the sea voyage experience, and the treatment of the laborers during indenture (Aldus 1876, Campbell 1971, Irick 1982).

  • Aldus, Don. Coolie Traffic and Kidnapping. London: McCorquodale, 1876.

    The book paints a horrible story of how Chinese were kidnapped into serving as indentured labor overseas. The book documents the suffering and deaths Chinese encountered on the high seas in traveling to the New World.

  • Campbell, Persia. Chinese Coolie Emigration to Countries within the British Empire. London: Frank Cass, 1971.

    Originally published in 1923. A comprehensive analysis of the movement, organization, and consequences of Chinese contract laborers to colonies of the British Empire in the 19th century.

  • Chang, Victor, ed. Special Issue: The Chinese in the Caribbean. Caribbean Quarterly 50.2 (June 2004).

    This special issue in Caribbean Quarterly, a journal based at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, deals with Chinese immigration and settlement and the contributions and achievements of the Chinese in the Caribbean and Latin America.

  • Hui, Ong Jin. “Chinese Indentured Labour: Coolies and Colonies.” In The Cambridge Survey of World Migration. Edited by Robin Cohen, 51–55. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    This short article provides a concise survey of the movement of Chinese indentured laborers to the Caribbean and Latin America regarding their plantation experience. Statistics are provided.

  • Irick, Robert Lee. Ch’ing Policy towards the Coolie Trade, 1847–1878. Taipei: Chinese Materials Center, 1982.

    The book covers the Ch’ing government’s policy toward the coolie trade from its period of origin from 1847 to 1859, the locally based Sino-Western attempts to regulate it in Canton in 1859–1860, the government’s own attempts from 1866 to 1872, the abolition of the trade in 1874, and the final attempt to protect Chinese emigrants abroad.

  • Jung, Moon-Ho. Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

    This book examines the experience of Chinese migrants in Louisiana after the Civil War. The author examines how the arrival of Chinese labor fitted into US political debates on race, labor, and immigration between the 1830s and the 1880s.

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