From Macao to Havana

"103 days, 16 dead, considered fortunate, all's well"

Research Paper (postgraduate) 2014 30 Pages

History - Miscellaneous



From Macao to Havana:

1. Introduction

2. The origin and development of labour migration from China to Cuba

3. Norwegian shippers and the “Treaty Ports”?

4. Constantin in far eastern waters prior to the voyage from Macao to Havana

5. The passage to Havana

6. How profitable was the coolie transport to the shippers?

7. Discussion and Conclusion

8. References (printed sources)

9. Primary sources

10. Electronic sources

11. Illustrations

From Macao to Havana:

”103 days, 16 dead, considered fortunate, all´s well”

”What do you want?” [Asked the captain]

At this Jukes lost his footing and began to flounder. ”I was thinking of our passengers,” he said, in a manner of a man clutching at a straw.

”Passengers?” wondered the captain gravely. What passengers?

”Why, the Chinaman, sir,” explained Jukes, very sick of this conversation.

”The Chinamen! Why don’t you speak plainly? Couldn’t tell what you meant. Never heard a lot of coolies spoken of as passengers before. Passengers, indeed! What’s come to you?” (Joseph Conrad: Typhon)

1. Introduction

This is primarily the story about the Norwegian ship Constantin[1] which was caught up in an international network of trade with migrant Chinese workers known as coolies . Constantin belonged to a partnership of owners (partsrederi), a kind of ownership that was common in Norwegian shipping as far as sailing vessels were concerned. Part-owners in Constantin were Jens Amundsen and two of his brothers who each owned 1/6 of the ship, while P. Anker in Fredrikshald had a smaller part, but he was the managing owner (”korresponderende reder”). There were also other part owners. In 1866 Constantin sailed from Macao to Havana in 103 days with 295 Chinese “coolies”. 16 of them died during the passage which the captain considered fortunate because he thought it was a moderate number. Initially Constantin´s captain referred to them as ”passengers” when he sent a letter informing the managing owner about the matter. In comparison the captain in the short novel Typhon, from which I have quoted, had never heard of “a lot of coolies spoken of as passengers before”. The short novel was conceived some 30-35 years after Constantin made the passage to Cuba. By then the worst abuses of coolie-trade was said to have been alleviated. But it was still not common among sailors to think of coolies as ”passengers”.

Constantin and the mutiny which took place on board the ship in 1866 caught the imagination of those connected to the sea. It gave raise to oral traditions which has found its way into Norwegian maritime literature (See for example J. S. Worm-Müller 1935, Vol. 2:1, 332-338, including notes; O. Ditlev-Simonsen 1945: 57-58; B. Nygård 1958; H. A. Veel 1962: 113-115). The focus of these narratives about Constantin has been on the dramatic and rebellious event which was close to kill the captain and set the ship on fire. It is a question if the story about the mutiny can be verified or if the narrated sequence of dramatic events could be a myth or some sort of itinerant story. This will be discussed further on in due place[2]. However, nothing has been told about the reason why and how Constantin had been chartered for the special trade, nor has there been a serious discussion whether the “Chinamen” were considered to be passengers or people kept in bondage on board the ship. The aim of this study is partly to probe for the motives behind the decision to accept to be involved in coolie trade, partly to see if it is possible to infer from the sources what attitudes the sailors had to the “Chinamen”. The reconstruction of events and attitudes into a coherent narration implies, as often in history, that analogues events and circumstances are relied upon in the reconstruction of the story.

On the other hand, even value judgements are inevitably included in the choice of subject and in the main research questions. It cannot be otherwise in a topic like the present. Were the Chinese, seen from the captain´s point of view, just “a lot of coolies” or were they considered as passengers? Why did the captain enter into a trade which to posterity has proved to be morally abominable? To what extent was it morally questioned already at the time when the passage occurred? How profitable was the coolie trade to the shippers compared to the profit made by the international network of slave traders? When pursuing those questions, we shall also investigate the combined roles of the captain as a sailor and as a merchant in order to see how free or restricted he was in relation to the managing ship-owner. To what extent could he decide where to sail to obtain a cargo? Were there any restrictions concerning what sort of passengers he could chose to take on board? These are some of the questions, while the overall problem is how a descriptive and analytic narration about Constantin fits into a larger context of trade and commerce?

As trade and transportation of migrant Chinese workers first and foremost was an international phenomenon, I shall trace the origin and the development of migration from China to Cuba in a global perspective on the basis of international literature. The space available restricts the number of works that I have included in my review. However, they all express current and accepted state of knowledge seen from different perspectives, including the deplorable conditions of the coolies themselves. I shall subsequently, according to the Norwegian maritime literature, try to map as far as possible how Norwegian shippers adapted to or adjusted themselves to this special international market and the opportunities it offered. And finally I shall concentrate on Constantin and invite the reader to follow the ship and its captain in far eastern waters prior to the voyage from Macao to Havana. I shall present an interpretation of the mutiny, and briefly consider the balance sheet drawn up by the captain after the ship had reached Havana after 105 days at sea. What did it all signify for the owners? Can anything be said about Norwegian shipping and its relation to international trade with human beings?

The investigation, as far as Constantin is concerned, is mainly built on primary sources. I have had access to the correspondence between the captain and the managing owner of Constantin (Haldens Historiske Samlinger, Firma P. Anker, skipperbrev [captain´s letters] og kopiböker [letter books of managing owner] 1865-1866). The correspondence is formal, short and strictly business oriented and it has to be complemented by other sources which can fill in the gaps in the correspondence if we want to reconstruct a continuous narrative of past events. Events described and analysed in international literature on the subject of coolie trade, must function both as missing links between the different parts of my primary sources and a possible validation of interpretations and conclusions. This is an approach which is quite common in historical research. I have, among other things, looked for similar and comparable events and descriptions. It will be apparent when I have had to rely on evidence which can be considered analogous.

As this is primarily a story about only one ship, Constantin, and only one voyage, it has also to be seen against the dark and menacing background of organized trade with Asian cheap labour which has caught the attention of many historians. As far as Norwegian shipping is concerned, it is a case-study with limited room for wider interpretation unless it is seen in a greater context. I hope that this approach will give some knowledge and explanation about the implications of the trade. And as such, it can be a complement to other studies.

2. The origin and development of labour migration from China to Cuba

The following part of the study is a brief summary of selected literature in order to draw up a larger context against which the event involving the Norwegian ship is to be seen. I am, as will be apparent, greatly indebted to Lisa Yun and other researchers who have written excellent books on Coolie trade and even one on Chinese history. I shall only refer to some of them in this introduction, while relevant Swedish and Norwegian literature on relations with China will be presented in due course. Firstly, Lisa Yun´s mapping of the problem, the ”new slavery” which was intended to supersede black African slavery, gives a deeper meaning and understanding of the single event which I have investigated. Her principal approach has been to analyse the oral and written testimonies of the coolie experiences in Cuba and their testimonies as a historical source to the Coolie trade (Lisa Yun, 2008). Secondly, David Northrup has written a book on ”Indentured labour in the age of capitalism” (D. Northrup, 1995). It has a wider perspective than Cuba and Latin America, which is interesting from a comparative point of view, even if comparison is outside the scope of this study. Northrup covers the period from 1834 to 1922. Thirdly, Irick has investigated the imperial policy towards the trade with coolies in “Ch’ing Policy toward the Coolie Trade 1847-1878” (R. Irick 1982). Arnold J. Meagher has attacked the topic from a different point of view than the three others. His book is a broad narrative about ”The Traffic in Chinese Labourers to Latin America 1847-1874” (A. J. Meagher 1975 and 2008). The publication from 2008 is an extended version and further elaboration of his Ph. D. thesis, 1975). Besides the book is also, according to the author himself, primarily a resource document to the researcher and historian. This is amply exemplified by Lisa Yun and David Northrup. Both Lisa Yun and David Northrup have referred to and relied on many facts and figures from Meagher. Their references are to his unpublished dissertation from 1975, not to the enlarged publication from 2008 of which they, for simple reasons of chronology, had no knowledge. For a general overview of Chinese history, I have leaned against “China, a New History” (J. King Fairbank and M. Goldman: 2006).

I have also chosen to refer to a book by Lubbock (repr. 1955 [1935]) about Coolie ships and oil sailors even if the author is less specific about his sources than those mentioned above. As to sources Lubbock refers in the preface to ‘a number of old seamen and /…/ Anglo-American Employees̕ for much of the information given in this book /…/. However, I find no disagreement between him and the other authors as to the heart of the matter. His language has more flavour, realism and a taste of experience.

What is meant by the term “coolie”? Historically a coolie was an Asian manual worker, often migrant labourer whose conditions of work and life was reminiscent of slavery. It was used particularly in southern China, the Indian subcontinent and the densely populated South East Asian territories during the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. Thus the word refers commonly to an Asian migrant worker of Chinese or Indian origin. Linguistically the word appears to be of Hindu origin from an aboriginal tribal name, but even Tamil “kuli” is a possibility (See for example The New Encyclopædia Britannica: 1992 and/or W. Skeat: 1910). The term can be difficult to conceptualize as it is often substituted for indentured labour and even contract labour. In the Spanish speaking Havana as the port of destination for the immigrants in this study, they were often spoken of as “les chinos”. The word ‘coolie̕ was not introduced formally into the Spanish language till after 1925 as it is not registered by “Real Academie Española” till later, where it has been listed and spelt “culi”. (Diccionario de la lengua Española: 1925 and 2001).[3]

Labour migration from China is only one part of what is known as ”indentured labour trade”. Indentured labour was to become a horrific and a terrifying experience of more than two million people migrating from Asia to Africa, and the South Pacific Islands from about 1830 to the end of the First World War. In 1875 the trade was discontinued for more than two decades. When it was resumed, it was subject to stricter regulations. Between the two great wars it took mainly the shape of migration to and from the big rice fields in Thailand and other South East Asian countries.

The trade originated in the 1830ties to replace African slave trade as a way of recruiting cheap labour to work on sugar plantations. However, it spread to many different locations in South and North America, South Africa, South East Asia and Australia where cheap labour was in demand. The implication of the term, ”indentured labour”, meant that there in principle was a labour contract, usually a long-term contract, between a worker and an employer or his representative, in return for free passage overseas and other benefits. The benefits could for example be a moderate wage, housing and the like, often even a promise of free passage home after the termination of the contract. More often than not, the contract was denied and torn to pieces by the employer, leaving the employee without legal rights. He became totally dependant on his employer. Despite many similar experiences between the indentured migrants of different origins, there were also great differences due to their origins and the country of destination. Labour migration from China to different locations of the world in the 19th century is well documented and compared to indentured labour of different origin and destinations. Among those, Chinese emigrants to Cuba were worst off, and I shall focus primarily on the so called Chinese indentured labour trade to Cuba, also known as Chinese coolie trade.

China had a long tradition of migrations as Chinese, mostly people from the provinces of Fukien and Kwangtung in the south, had for centuries emigrated to other areas in South East Asia in search for work, opportunities for establishing business and even colonies. But the pattern of migration took a new turn after the first Opium War (1839-41) when the number of migrant workers swelled to new proportions. As a result of the Chinese defeat in the Opium War, which was a trade conflict, certain Chinese ports were opened to trade and residences for European merchants under the protection of the dominant colonial powers, primarily Great Britain, but even France, Portugal, Germany and the United States. The ports became known as treaty ports. The Chinese treaty ports grew from 5 in 1842 to more than 50 before the First World War. The treaty ports were in themselves a prerequisite for opening up of coolie trade as Chinese law had laid constraints on emigration, probably based on cultural inclinations related to Confucian principles. According to these, a Chinese was expected not to leave the land of his ancestors´ graves. However, when the imperial government was weakened, both from internal opposition and external pressure, it had only limited means to enforce the law and protect its citizens from being exploited. The coolie trafficking followed in the wake of the Opium Trade.

Prior to the Opium wars (1839-60) and the outbreak of the great Taiping rebellion in 1851, the Chinese population had grown exponentially. “Beginning with 143 millions in 1741 and ending with 432 million in 1851. /…/ If, with greater caution, we assume lower totals /…/ we are still face a startling fact: something like a doubling of the vast Chinese population [in a century]”. (J. K. Fairbank 2006: 168). This led to an enormous pressure on the resources, primarily arable land, needed to support a rapidly growing population. The result was misery and it left a great proportion of the population destitute. In the wake of the population explosion came interior migrations. The interior migration took mainly two separate directions, one towards the scarcely populated Chinese territory in the North, the other towards the coastal cities in the East and South which increasingly had come under the dominance of external powers. The cities had a very high population density, which signified that there was a large surplus of cheap labour ready to accept poor labour conditions and ”moderate” wages. Many hoped they would have better opportunities abroad. China could under these circumstances supply the overseas labour market with cheap, migrant labourers. Even then only a small portion of the migrants went overseas, while the rest went to neighbouring territories in south East Asia and the Straits which were already overpopulated.

It is thus hardly surprising that the first organized voyage of migrant Chinese labourers (582 men) were recruited from one of the South East Asian territories, Singapore. They left Singapore for Mauritius in 1843. The success of this experiment opened up regular trade routes from the Chinese mainland to the Caribbean Islands, first and foremost Cuba. According to the British Consulate General in Havana, 121810 Chinese were landed in the period 1847 to 1873, as compared to 149065 that had embarked in China. Accordingly, the mortality-rate was 11.8%. Especially between 1847 and 1852 the trade grew rapidly and peaked in the beginning of the 1870ties, to come to a halt in the second half of the 1870´s. The emigrants came initially directly from the treaty port of Amoy [Xiamen], later also from Swatow, Canton and Hong Kong. Since the English Parliament had interfered in the trade already in 1855 by passing ”the Chinese passengers act”, Macao, which was beyond British control, very soon became the main port of embarkation to Cuba and other south American destinations, while emigration to California, Australia and South East Asia shifted almost exclusively to Hong Kong. However, emigrants continued to be recruited from other areas and transported to Macao for embarkation to overseas destinations. Macao, across the estuary of the Pearl River (Zhu Jiang) from Hong Kong, was under the rule of Portuguese, who had established the Portuguese enclave already in the 1550´s.

In order to organize trade on all levels from recruiting coolies to sharing the huge profits, a network had grown up consisting of agents and shipping companies, bankers, businesses, prominent families, and governing agencies crossing borders of colonial empires. They had apparently shifted the emphasis to trade with coolies, but did not discontinue trade with African slaves even if that met with increased costs and difficulties and had been forced to become ´clandestine´. “Participating commercial interests in coolie trade were the same as those that financed the African slave trade. While original financing for this labour-acquisition venture originated in Cuba, supplemental financing came from a multinational network of banks and firms in New York, Boston, London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Liverpool.” (Lisa Yun op. cit. p. 14)

Very soon the transportation of migrant Chinese workers came under heavy attack and criticism from many quarters because of grave abuses. Chinese brokers and their agents were used to deliver emigrants. As emigration was forbidden according to Chinese law, the brokers and their agents were usually recruited among rough and brutal criminals who did not refrain from kidnapping if softer methods of persuasion and threat did not give the required result. When left to the firm organizing the transportation, the emigrants had to go through a humiliating procedure which took place in front of the companies´ premises where the emigrants were contained until further transport. The area was named ”pig pen” by the Chinese. Within this area, they were stripped naked and observed to see if they were fit for work and worth the cost of transportation to the destination. If approved, made to put their mark on labour contracts and then stamped or painted with the letter of their destination: C for Cuba, P for Peru, and S for the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands (R. Irick 1983: 26-27 and Meagher 2008: 94-95).

The story is about brutality, fraud and deceit on an incredible scale. It is, however, difficult to have a definite opinion about the proportion between voluntary and involuntary emigrants, because they were mixed and eventually experienced the same treatment. But it seems also fair to maintain that there was a tremendous push in the Chinese society from the impoverished and destitute masses in Southern China to get away in order to improve their conditions of life. This push was met by a pull by an international network who saw and wanted to exploit the demand for cheap labour.

There were repeated and continuous allegations of slave trade and abuses. It was common knowledge among sailors that

The Chinese coolies were recruited by /…/ so-called brokers [who] were mostly half-caste Portuguese, scoundrels who would stop at nothing, and whose only idea was to fill the Emigrant enclosures which closely resembled the slave barracoons of the Bight of Benin. These Chinese enclosures were called ”Chu-tze-kwan,” meaning in English pig pens. Within their filthy portals the prospective emigrants were disciplined in the cruellest fashion by the salted cat-o’-nine tails and other typical refinements of torture. /…/Eastern diseases were rife, so that many a Chinese coolie died before his time came to embark. /…/When all the above means of recruiting were exhausted the brokers resorted to open kidnapping along the China Coasts. /…/ (B. Lubbock: repr. 1955, 32-33).

“Half-caste Portuguese” was an offensive and racist term often used by British sailors and British civil servants about descendants of people of mixed European (mostly Portuguese from Macao) and Asian origin. It is echoed in well-known English literature as for example Lord Jim by J. Conrad.

Even the Norwegian/Swedish consul in Hong Kong had expressed these allegations, which I shall return to in due course. However, before turning explicitly to Norwegian shippers, it is important to conclude that Great Britain as a treaty nation in 1855 passed the Chinese Passenger Act to counteract abuses. But the provisions of the act were not strictly enforced. Even the Chinese government tried with limited success to alleviate the worst abuses by reforms, regulations and punishment. The result was that for a time that Macao, under Portuguese authority, became the main port of embarkation to Cuba.

The trade was known as the ”new slave trade” (Lisa Yun 2007:7) as opposed to black slave trade from Africa which from the first decades of the 19th century had met with obstacles due to unilateral British ban on trade with African slaves in 1809 and was therefore towards the middle of the century reduced in scope and importance. There was continuously a drop in the number of slave imports from Africa for some decades after 1809. By 1847, the year when the coolie transport actually took off, it had dropped 90%. From then on the western powers undertook to transport a massive number of Chinese ”emigrants”, which reached zenith in the 1860´s and the first half of the 1970´s. ”When the coolies were introduced to Cuba in 1847 [black] slave importation had indeed reached its nadir”. Contrary to what might have been expected, as the coolie influx to Cuba grew, so did the black slave import. ”The coolie was not simply a replacement for the slave.” (Lisa Yun 2007: 7) The driving force was a huge demand for cheap labour. The expanding sugar market and the slave economy were communicating vessels. The trade was eventually discontinued for some decades after 1874 as a consequence of the Chinese Cuba Commission report.


[1] The Norwegian Maritime Museum: ref. NSM.K00284, alternatively 2909/26881. “Constantin” built in Honfleur 1856. Oil on canvas, painted by J. & F. Tudgay 1863. http://digitaltmuseum.no/things/fullrigger-constantin-oljemaleri/NSM/NSM.K00284?query=constantin&search_context=1&count=8&pos=0

[2] While there are primary sources proving without doubt that the transportation of coolies took place, we on the other hand dependent on printed secondary sources of a later date about the riot itself. The authors also refer to one another and are therefore not independent of each other.

[3] Culi (Del ingl. "coolie”, y este del hindi kulí, m., serviente indigena de la India, China y otros paises orientales) Diccionario de la langua Española, Madrid 2001.


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from macao havana




Title: From Macao to Havana