Cubans practicing tai chi in a square

Cubans practicing tai chi in a square

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution brought great changes to the world. Among these changes was the abolition of slavery of Africans. In 1807, England, which was the center of industrialization, was the first European power to oppose continued trafficking in slaves. As a result, this brought about a need to find a willing and paid labor force to replace the African slaves.

These workers, who mostly came from China or India, were called “contract laborers” and provided a transition from slave labor to semi-free labor. Because of the poverty in their home countries, they were hired voluntarily and were paid, but with strict conditions on their contracts that in many cases perpetuated slavery in another guise. The contracts stipulated very restrictive rights and conditions and were not often honored.

Although the practice of bringing Asian contract laborers to the Caribbean dates to the early 19th century, it was not until 1847 that Britain took control of China and signed the first Treaty of Nanking.This greatly facilitated contracting of laborers. Approximately 600 workers came to Cuba that year on two different ships, the Oquendo and the Duke of Argyle. This project of importing workers lasted until 1874. The Chinese workers played an important role in Cuba, as the island had a strong labor market for Chinese workers in the transition to the abolition of slavery.

In 1848, a group of Chinese workers was sent to California during the gold rush that erupted in that region. A second group of Chinese immigrants arrived in Panama in 1850. U.S. businessman Henry Chauncey gained permission to build a railroad from Panama City to Colon. Due to the need for manual labor, he recruited many workers, including a large number of Chinese. The Asian presence in the other Caribbean countries originated in these three sites.

The practice was not generalized throughout the region, however. Asian workers were very important in sugar production and the plantation economy in Trinidad and Guyana, for example, but not in Jamaica, Martinique, Grenada, St. Lucia and St. Vincent. On other islands, such as Barbados, they never became part of the labor force. It is estimated that about 125,000 Chinese workers came to Cuba and that as many as 150,000 came to Peru. The way they were treated and the degree to which their contracts were honored depended on the need for labor in the area they came to and whether or not slavery still existed at that site.

The need for manual labor and the dynamic of the contract labor system framed the community’s evolution over the course of the last decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century. Labor mobility by Asians to different agricultural complexes promoted, almost immediately, the appearance of interracial unions and marriages, allowing the Chinese community to grow and prosper quickly in the Caribbean. The Asian immigration of the 19th century led to the formation of famous Chinese communities in San Francisco, Cuba, Peru and Jamaica, among other places.

Author: José Lee Borges
Published: June 24, 2012.

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