The coolie speaks: Chinese indentured laborers and African slaves in Cuba (2008)

The coolie speaks by Lisa Yun describes particular experiences in a slave society in the Americas.

The book’s introduction begins (p. xv) with a quotation from George Orwell’s 1942 essay on Rudyard Kipling, in which Orwell notes that “We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are ‘enlightened’ all maintain that these coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living … demands that the robbery shall continue.”

Lisa Yun notes (p. xvi) that the lives of Chinese coolies in Cuba, as revealed by 2,841 of them in written and oral testimonies, were intensely violent ones involving “unrelenting struggles for not only freedom from bondage, but also for transcultural practices and strategic language use, and for racialized and collective consciousness.”

The primary source for the study comes from the petitions and depositions in the fourteen-volume set of Guba huagong chengci (Testimonies given by Chinese labor in Cuba) and the four-volume set of Guba huagong kougongce (Volumes of testimonies given by Chinese labor in Cuba).

In Chapter 3, The petitions: Writing as resistance, the author notes (pp. 82-83) that “The importance of remembering and reclaiming history as a witness, even the act of stating ‘I do not remember the name,’ is a recurrent trope [literary or rhetorical device involving the figurative use of a word or phrase] of the testimonies. Despite not remembering ‘the names,’ the reiteration of ‘someone’s’ existence calls attention to the politics of claiming identity and memory in histories of bondage and resistance. As can be found in histories of African slavery, Chinese coolies were either re-named with Spanish names, or they bore some appellation [name] assigned to them by sellers, owners, or overseers.”

Below is a list of the book’s chapters. After each chapter I’ve selected three of a larger number of subtopics featured in each of of the chapters.

Chapter 1: Historic context of coolie traffic to the Americas – The narrative of transition; Chinese and Indian coolie labor; Coolies on American ships

Chapter 2: The coolie testimonies – The Commission Investigation; Methodological challenges of reading testimonies; Who were the coolies?

Chapter 3: The petitions – Chasing freedom; Slaves of the market; The paper chase petition

Chapter 4: The depositions – Race, resistance, and spectacular subordination; The peculiar fatality of color; The cost of domination

Chapter 5: An Afro-Chinese author and the next generation – The subversive and the translator; The motley tongue; Coolies and Californians

Conclusion: Old and new maps of coolies


A Feb. 11, 2016 New York Times article is entitled: “Eric Foner Wins Historical Society Book Prize.”

The opening paragraphs read:

Eric Foner, the much-decorated Columbia University historian, will take on the title American Historian Laureate in April when the New-York Historical Society presents him with its annual American History Book Prize for “Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.”

The book, published by W.W. Norton, reconstructs the clandestine efforts by black and white abolitionists to help fugitive slaves passing through New York, a city with deep connections to the Southern cotton trade and the textile industry. The book also takes a broader view, exploring how these slaves and their allies in the Underground Railroad, while small in number, powerfully shaped national politics, playing a major role in sectional conflict and the coming of the Civil War.

“Eric Foner’s riveting, inspiring story of fugitive slaves and the individuals who helped them to reach freedom contributes to our understanding of the history of Amercian slavery,” Louise Mirrer, the society’s president and chief executive said in a statement. The book’s emphasis on New York and the North as centers both of abolitionist activity and pro-slavery sympathies, she added, also “echoes our institution’s rich museum and library collections and programming,” including its major 2005 exhibition “Slavery in New York.”

[End of excerpt]


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