Broadside (40 x 27 cm / 15.5 x 10.5 inches), printed on both sides (Spanish, front / Chinese, verso) on laid watermarked paper with illustrated letterhead to Spanish side, contemporarily filled in with manuscript in pen, plus extensive contemporary manuscript signatures, annotations and hand stamps in margins (Good, some wear and minor loss along old folds, some light stains, some holes in upper blank margin, some marginal tears without loss).
From 1847 to 1877 the Compañia Asiatica de la Habana arranged for the importation of tens of thousands of Chinese migrant labourers to Cuba to work on the sugar plantations. This was done in the hope of, at least partially, replacing slaves of African descent, hitherto the island’s prime labour force, as maintaining the established system was gradually becoming untenable. The Compañia, aided by its agents, marshalled prospective Chinese migrant labourers in Macao, where they had to sign contracts committing them to terms of labour in Cuba, in return for certain compensation, provisions and guarantees of working conditions. From there, they were transported in ships to Cuba, where they found themselves on sugar plantations. As it turned out, the Chinese labourers were often deceived, coerced, and treated harshly, no better than slaves; even their meagre contractual rights were commonly not honoured. Only foreign pressure after thirty years brought an end to this ignoble system.
The present broadside is an original contract that the Compañia Asiatica de la Habana agents required a Chinese labourer to sign, in advance of his departure to Cuba. The document is printed on both sides, with Spanish text on the front (with the Compañia’s pictorial letterhead), and the text in Chinese translation on the verso. The Spanish side of the document feature blank areas that are filled in with the particulars in manuscript.
In this case the contract is made out for “Chy Anung” of the village of “Yn Cong”, China, who is “23” years of age. The printed text featuring seven clauses, guaranteed in the name of Vargas y Ca, the Compañia’s agents in Macao, and pledges Chy Anung to work in Cuba as labourer for a term of eight years. It outlines the terms of his employment and promises him a specific salary as well as amounts of food, medicine, clothing and accommodation. The contract is dated at Macao, October 18, 1858. At the bottom it is signed by Chy Anung in manuscript in Chinese and is countersigned by for Vagas y Ca and the Spanish Consul General in Macao, accompanied by the consular hand stamp. At the top is a manuscript annotation referring to the “Maria Elizabeth” and the No. “163”, indicating that Chy Anung will be transported to Cuba aboard a vessel of that name.
On the verso, the aforementioned Spanish text is translated into Chinese, and is again singed at the bottom by Chy Anung. Indicating that the present document was to accompany him throughout his term or labour, almost as if it were a passport, there are copious manuscript annotations and a hand stamp with dates ranging from 1859 to 1861, following Chy Anung’s progress in Cuba.
While examples of such Compañia Asiatica de la Habana contracts appear occasionally on the market, they are rare. They provide highly valuable insights into a historically important migrationlabour scheme that deserves far more attention from today’s scholars. The Beineke Library (Yale University) possesses a fine archive with much original documentation on the subject, including examples of labour contracts similar to the present example.
Chinese Migrant Labour in Cuba: Replacing One Form of Slavery with Another
Up to the mid-19th Century the sugar economy, fuelled by the enslavement of people of African decent, had been the mainstay of the Cuban economy, making Havana one of the New World’s wealthiest cities. However, while slavery would not be fully illegalized in Cuba until 1886, by the 1840s the global abolitionist movement was gaining traction. Cuban plantation owners were no longer able to import new slaves into the country, and pressure from liberal groups in Spain (which still ruled Cuba) led to ever more regulations on how the existing slaves should be treated. Moreover, slaves came to challenge their masters on greater basis, making the environment on plantations tense. This made the system of African slavery in Cuba increasingly unviable and, anticipating outright abolition, many plantation owners came to look for an alternative labour force.
Cuba looked across the globe for a solution to it labour problems. China was home to millions of desperately poor agrarian workers whose lives in the their native land were so harsh that they were open to virtually any other possibilities, including starting new lives in a distant, mysterious land.
The Compañia Asiatica de la Habana was formed for the purpose of recruiting and transporting Chinese indentured labourers to Cuba. In 1847, it commenced importing Chinese workers from Macao, which became its preferred base of operations, in part due to the lax oversight of the Portuguese colony’s officials. The Compañia tended to employ agents in China (like Vargas y Ca) to find recruits in the Chinese countryside and to gather them in Macao for processing and transport overseas.
With the Compañia’s knowledge, the agents often used deception and even coercion to ‘convince’ Chinese peasants into signing up to servitude in Cuba. The Chinese labourers had to agree to harsh contracts for service of many years with no exit clause (such as that proscribed by the present document). As most of the signees were illiterate, they had no clear conception of what they were ‘agreeing’ to. Once processed in Macao, the migrant labourers often experienced harsh conditions aboard vessels on the very long trip to Cuba. Upon their arrival in Cuba they were pared off to sugar plantations, where they were commonly treated no better the African slaves. The plantation owners commonly did not honour their contractual obligations, and the Cuban authorities turned a blind eye to any abuses of the workers.
The Compañia’s importation of Chinese workers was no sideshow, but for a generation itradically altered the Cuban economy and the demographic makeup of many areas. Between 1847 and the early 1870s, it estimated that over 140,000 Chinese labourers were imported into Cuba, almost all being male. Most of the Chinese were settled in the areas between Havana and Matanzas and Cárdenas and Colón.
Not surprisingly, most of the Chinese labourers found their experience as indentured labourers to be unpleasant, and as soon as their contracts expired, returned to China or immigrated to America. The outward migration was also motivated by the fact that almost all of the Chinese labourers were men and there were very few Chinese women in Cuba, causing them to leave the island to find brides of their own background. Yet, thousands of Chinese Cubans remained on the island, many marrying locals of African or mixed descent, so integrating into the general society.
The experiences of the Chinese labourers in Cuba were not dissimilar to those of other indentured migrant communities in other colonies, such as the Indian labourers imported to British Guiana during the same era.
By the early 1870s, foreign diplomats in Havana, particularly those representing strongly abolitionist countries like Britain, became alarmed by the cruel treatment of the Chinese labourers in Cuba. As these nations were major commercial partners of Cuba and Spain, they had considerable leverage and proceeded to place intense pressure upon authorities in Madrid and Havana to improve the condition of the labourers, and perhaps even to end the Compañia’s
recruitment operations in China altogether. The foreign lobby also ensued that the Qing Court in Peking was made aware of the ‘atrocities’ that were befalling their subjects at the hands of Spanish nationals. China soon proceeded to pressure Spain by way of its trade with the Philippines. The Qing Court also sent a delegation of investigators to Cuba to assess the situation; they did not like what they saw.
Spain could no longer resist the foreign pressure, and at the Sino–Spanish Treaty of 1877, it agreed to cease all recruitment of Chinese labourers and to immediately release all the Chinese workers already in Cuba from their contracts. The Compañia’s scheme was now at an end.
The programme to import Chinese labour into Cuba from 1847 to 1877 had a powerful legacy, as while many Chinese Cubans left the island, the remaining people added a rich a cultural heritage to the broader society, particularly in Havana. Supplemented by a modest flow of (voluntary) Chinese immigration since the 1870s, a small but vibrant Chinatown, the Barrio Chino de La Habana, developed near the Capitolio, and today many thousands of Cubans count some Chinese decent, although integration and has limited the size and distinct nature of the self-identified Chinese community.
References: The Beinecke Library (Yale University) possesses an archive that contains several contracts similar to the present example, ‘Documents relating to slavery and indentured servitude in Cuba, 1859-1886’, Call number: GEN MSS 784. Cf. Joseph L. SCARPACI, Roberto SEGRE and Mario COYULA, Havana: Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis (Chapel Hill, NC, 2002), p. 26; Turner, Mary TURNER, ‚Chinese Contract Labour in Cuba, 1847-1874’, Caribbean Studies, vol. 14, no. 2 (1974), pp. 66–81.