Image 1: An Ask reads: I watched Django Unchanged two days ago and wondered: why weren’t the Asians enslaved by their colonizers the way Africans were? 

Image 2: Newly arrived Indian Asian slave or manual laborers) in Trinidad.

On a matter of semantics, I’d say they were. I do not argue the slave labor/trade or indentured manual labor was in any way on the same scale as the African Slave trade ever was. But when the Europeans ran low on slave labor within the Americas themselves, they turned to import other people, and you can be assured that both African and Asian slave labor was imported (and even kept as manual forced labor in their own countries, or otherwise kept chained to their colonizers; like maintained opium addictions forced on China). 

The term “coolie” is now a modern slur, but was originally used to refer to these laborers. The fact that it is a slur is because of the historical past of forced labor on different Asian communities. It’s not a flattering term, by any means. From wiki-foot notes:

Most current dictionaries do not record any offensive meaning (“an unskilled laborer or porter usually in or from the Far East hired for low or subsistence wages” Merriam-Webster) or make a distinction between an offensive meaning in referring to “a person from the Indian subcontinent or of Indian descent” and an at least originally inoffensive, old-fashioned meaning, for example “dated an unskilled native labourer in India, China, and some other Asian countries” (Compact Oxford English Dictionary). However, some dictionaries indicate that the word may be considered offensive in all contexts today. For example, Longman's 1995 edition had “old-fashioned - an unskilled worker who is paid very low wages, especially in parts of Asia”, but the current version adds “taboo old-fashioned a very offensive word … Do not use this word”.

There is a book available entitled: “The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba" by Lisa Yun, which covers this subject in comparison to the Atlantic African Slave Trade. 

Introducing radical counter-visions of race and slavery, and probing the legal and philosophical questions raised by indenture, The Coolie Speaks offers the first critical reading of a massive testimony case from Cuba in 1874. From this case, Yun traces the emergence of a “coolie narrative” that forms a counterpart to the “slave narrative.” The written and oral testimonies of nearly 3,000 Chinese laborers in Cuba, who toiled alongside African slaves, offer a rare glimpse into the nature of bondage and the tortuous transition to freedom. Trapped in one of the last standing systems of slavery in the Americas, the Chinese described their hopes and struggles, and their unrelenting quest for freedom.

In many ways, there are a great number of parallels. People were shipped through the Pacific passage, on a dangerous, and often fatal boat passage. These people were often kidnapped, taken, and many people did not survive the passage or their service in the Americas, and in places like Cuba and Trinidad. Asian slaves were often forced to live in the same places as the African and Native slaves did, which accounts for the Afro-Asian-Latin populations in many places when people inter-married. However, variance of “slave” versus “free indentured worker” changed from country to country for Asian laborers.

 China in particular later fought to end the trade of their peoples directly, and there are significant differences to the Pacific and Atlantic trades in this respect, as well as others. (Not all were unwilling laborers, and perhaps could be termed “indentured servants”.) 

Asian slaves came from a variety of places in South, South East, and East Asia, and worked in a variety of other countries. 

Between 1838 and 1917, at least “238,909 Indians were introduced into British Guiana, 143,939 into Trinidad, 42,326 into Guadeloupe, 37,027 into Jamaica, 34,304 into Suriname, 25,209 into Martinique, 8,472 into French Guiana, 4,354 into Saint Lucia, 3,206 into Grenada, 2,472 into Saint Vincent, 337 into Saint Kitts, 326 into Saint Croix, and 315 into NevisBritish Honduras also received Indians, but they did not come by the indentureship scheme; some were exiled sepoy soldiers and families. Although these were incomplete statistics, Eric Williams (see references) believed they were “sufficient to show a total introduction of nearly half a million Indians into the Caribbean” Williams, Eric. 1962. History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago. Andre Deutsch, London. pg. 100 


Scholar Yan Qinghuang [Yen Ching-hwang] of HK University had authored a book entitled Chinese Coolies Overseas & Manchu Officials [i.e., Coolies and Mandarins] and pointed out that the British Opium War of 1839-1842 had coincided with the prosperity of slave-nature trafficking of Chinese coolies overseas, a trade that was first started by the Dutch in the 17th century. To understand how much miseries Chinese coolies had encountered, just read the following 19th century commentary in a Peruvian newspaper “South Pacific Times”:

Yen Ching-hwang stated that Xiamen (Amoy), a port which had replaced historical Quanzhou, would become the first port to see Chinese coolie sold overseas. British, which stationed warships near Gulangyu of Amoy for protecting its interests extracted from the 1842 Nanking Treaty, engaged in human trafficking no less notorious than the African slave trade. As much as 50,000 could have been abducted each year from the port of Amoy. Rioting in Amoy first began in 1847 against the British smugglers. By Nov 24th, British marines shot dead 10-12 Chinese. British and American merchants then turned to Shantou for trafficking coolies. In 1855, angry Chinese detained an American captain for his trafficking activity. As a result of the British authority’s desire for maintaining a good face in HK, smugglers flocked to Macau instead. Yen Ching-hwang stated that Macau would take the place of Amoy beginning from Nov 1852 when riots broke out as a result of the Chinese attacking a British smuggler for protecting a henchman. Macau, which the Portuguese first swindled from Ming China in AD 1553, already became a spot of crime syndicates with prostitution, human trafficking, opium, and etc. (Yen Ching-hwang stated that among Macau’s population of 4,049 people in AD 1810, White men counted 1,172 while White women counted 1,846. By AD 1830, Macau possessed 4,049 Portuguese, with White men 1,202 and White women 2,149, and 30,000 Chinese. Yen Ching-hwang concluded that the abnormally high number of White women in Macau exemplified the fact of prostitution in Macau.) Macau was to replace Amoy as the next launching pad for trafficking Chinese coolies. From 1847 to 1875, 99,149 out of 150,000 Chinese coolies sold to Cuba departed from Macau, and the Portuguese specialized in selling Chinese women and Chinese girls overseas as sex slaves throughout the latter half of the 19th century. Shanghai would follow the next. The word ‘shanghai’ literally means going to the seas, namely, abduction.

Imperial China & Yan Qinghuang’s Chinese Coolies Overseas & Manchu Officials. 

You can read a description of Trade & Trafficking here.

Some Scholars have thus dedicated part of their studies to comparative views of the Atlantic and Pacific Slave trades, and the differences and similarities of both. But in short, I think you will find both that there were Asian slaves shipped to the Americas, and that Asians within the United States may have been considered indentured servants, but were also treated to a variety of deplorable conditions that brought about death, overwork, increased racial prejudices against them, imprisonment, disease, etc.  However, I would caution that the most major differences were volume of people enslaved abroad, and how many of those people were considered to be Free People, and at what time that happened, although obviously the after-effects still play out in communities today.

In this sense, your answer is “There were Asian Slaves, but this was marked by different politics, policies, and standards than the Atlantic Slave Trade, and thus the after effects were different.”

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    Kuli is also used to refer to this kind of laborers in Indonesia. Nowadays the word itself means someone who does...
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