Chinese Indentured Labour in Peru
Lawrence A. Clayton on the Chinese labourers who came to work in Peru, often in appalling conditions.
In Lima, Peru, one can see today men, women and children of unmistakable Oriental descent. Some of the girls are strikingly beautiful, combining not only features of the East but traces of Spain and ancient America. While their Spanish ancestors may have arrived almost 450 years ago with the irresistible Conquistadors of Francisco Pizarro, and their Indian lineage may be traced back to the origins of man in the Western Hemisphere, we know more precisely when their Oriental progenitors – their great- grandfathers, perhaps – came to the Americas. They were shepherded off great sailing ships in the mid-nineteenth century as virtual slaves, having been transported from their Chinese home- land across the immense Pacific to labour as contract workers on the plantations and the guano islands of Peru.
China in the nineteenth century was in turmoil: a good place to leave in search of a 'better life', which was perceived to be in the Americas. Indeed, millions of European peasants were crossing the Atlantic in the opposite direction with the same intention – to reach the lands of opportunity, space, and peace. China in the 1840s and 1850s seemed to lack all three. Her stability had been undermined by a swelling population, a demoralising and belligerent foreign presence, and a series of internal revolutions that shook the land and displaced her people. Perhaps the most dramatic instance of instability was the Opium War of the early 1840s. The lucrative trade in opium controlled by foreigners – especially the British - had been opposed by the Chinese government as contributing to the demoralisation and debasement of its people. Unwilling to forego such a profitable enterprise, foreign ships and soldiers forced the Ch'ing dynasty to accept the traffic which then increased dramatically between 1842 and 1850. That this terrible drug was so popular should not be surprising. It possessed the power to induce an artificial tranquility that numbed the mind and clouded the senses: a viable alternative for a peasantry afflicted with the trials of being poor and Chinese in the mid-nineteenth century.
Between 1741 and 1850 the population of China had increased over 200 per cent. Where 143 million souls had previously existed, now 400 million crowded the land for a livelihood. Arable land had increased only 35 per cent and the tendency was to push more and more people into less and less land, leading to growing congestion and poverty. The peasants' wretched existence plagued the land generally and led not only to an increase in the use of opium but to the expansion of other vices such as gambling, drinking, prostitution and the practice of slavery. Even inflation, which we tend to consider a modern problem, ravaged China in the 1840s and 1850s as silver poured out of the country to purchase the opium. Against this background there rose a messianic figure, Hung Hsiuch'uan, who started a revolution that caused further distress to the common people and increased the temptation to emigrate.
Hung was a self-professed Christian who found a ready following among the Hakka, a people from central China who had moved to south China several centuries before. Always considered outsiders, they had adopted Christianity from Western missionaries and further exacerbated the feelings of hostility of the original inhabitants who held to the ancient faiths. If today we cherish the notion of the inscrutable East, how must the West have appeared to the Chinese in the nineteenth century as it offered the Christian principles of charity, love and salvation with one hand and opium with the other? Hung preached redemption and reform, championed the virtues enshrined in the Ten Commandments, and attacked the reigning vices that not only defiled the body but were manifested in a political corruption of enormous magnitude. The result was the Taiping Revolution that erupted in 1850 and did not peter out until fourteen years later. It engulfed some of China's major provinces in internecine warfare, and ultimately affected sixteen of China's eighteen territorial divisions.
The Taiping Revolution had wide and deep consequences. It reduced the power of the Manchu dynasty in favour of native Chinese gentry, and eventually helped to inspire later revolutionaries such as Sun Yat-sen, who shepherded China from empire to republic early in the twentieth century. Other rebellions followed more closely on the heels of the Taiping Revolution and kept China in turmoil well into the 1870s. Meanwhile, far across the Pacific to the east, the small nation of Peru was developing enterprises that necessitated heavy drafts of labour. In retrospect, immigration from China to Peru to redress this imbalance seemed eminently rational.
Peru had tried to induce European immigrants to its shores in the mid- nineteenth century, but with no success. Several score German, Spanish and Irish labourers had been persuaded to try their fortunes there between the 1840s and 1870s, but Peru offered little work other than hard plantation labour. Land available to homestead was scarce; there existed only a meagre commercial and middle class to work into; and dominating the scene was a ruling caste of Creoles who despised poor and lower- class immigrant Europeans. At the same time, China was flooded with displaced millions who sought an escape from the uncertainties of life in their homeland. Why not give them the opportunity to work in a land that needed their labour?
In 1849 a Chinese law was passed by the Peruvian Congress to encourage the importation of Chinese coolies. They were to work on the expanding sugar and cotton plantations which dotted coastal valleys. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861 and constricted the normal sources of raw cotton for English and French mills, they turned to other areas of the world such as Peru. Furthermore, there was at the same time a growth in the Western demand for sugar, and ideal growing conditions in Peru generated expansion and improvement in its sugar industry.
Demands for fertilisers in Europe and North America led to the development of guano, Peru's most famous industry (see previous article). One aspect of this industry made it terribly unpleasant and unhealthy: the stinking clouds of dust raised by digging and loading guano onto ships gathered like flies around a dung heap made life on the islands almost unbearable, and Peruvians loathed to labour on those piles of rich fertiliser. Already short of hands on the plantations and islands, contracted labour from China appeared as an admirable solution to this problem.
In October, 1849 the first Chinese coolies arrived in Peru. There were seventy-nine in this initial consignment: before the coolie trade ended almost a quarter of a century later, over 100,000 of their fellow countrymen had been imported. Their journey to South America began in the hamlets and cities of southern China. Tormented by the desperate situation in their homeland, most were willing to be persuaded that a better life awaited them in Peru or alternatively in Cuba, Panama or the United States, all of which imported Chinese peasants by the thousands during this period. Almost all the coolies recruited were illiterate and the tactics and devices employed by the recruiting agents ranged from the use of narcotics and alcohol to deception and violence. Runners or crimps were Chinese recruiters who made the initial contacts with peasants in the country. They received about $4 or $5 for every individual delivered to the Portuguese port of Macao. Since it was illegal for Chinese citizens to emigrate, the neutral port of Macao became the centre of the trade. Virtually all the workers thus induced to leave China were male. At Macao ships of half-a-dozen European and American nationalities awaited their human cargo, although after 1855 the British with- drew and in 1862 the North Americans followed suit.
Politically, it was not a very auspicious time to inaugurate a new trade in what was virtually slave labour. The slave trade from Africa to America had all but ceased. The last great importers of slaves from Africa in the nineteenth century – the Brazilians – had been forced by British sensibilities and men-of-war to outlaw the trade in 1830, and by the 1850s it had effectively come to an end. But while the slave-trade as such became increasingly a memory, ocean transport of immigrants, not a few of them indentured and little better off than slaves, increased dramatically in that same period.
The movement of Chinese citizens from Macao to Peru raised none of the objections the slave trade had: it was after all going to be regulated. The Chinese coolies signed contracts freely admitting their wish to emigrate.
By all indications, Peruvian sailing vessels dominated the trade. Nine thousand miles separated the port of Atacao from Callao and the voyage between them took four or five months. The coolie on the Peruvian voyage lived on a meagre ration of rice, salt pork or beef and those vegetables that could survive so long a voyage. Tea and water made up the balance. A large percentage of the coolies suffered from scurvy and dysentery during the voyage. Allowed little exercise, plagued by bad ventilation, poor food, and unsanitary conditions, many never reached Peru. The Empresa , for example, sailed with 323 coolies aboard in 1852 and arrived in Callao 114 days later minus 77, or 24 per cent of her original cargo. Indeed, the average mortality rate during the first fifteen years of the trade was drawn between 25 and 30 per cent, compared with c. 10 per cent in the last days of the Atlantic slave trade. Revolts at sea were attempted and led to the virtual imprisonment of the ship's human cargo during the whole of the voyage. Contemporary observers noted that all exits, doors and hatches from the coolie quarters to the open decks were guarded day and night, in some instances with cannon trained on these dangerous points.
The notorious trade soon drew the attention of the British. Other nations were no less sensitive to this inhumane business, but it was the British who were in the best position to affect the trade with their warships and their particular sense of offended morality. After 1855 they effectively closed Hong Kong by enacting such strict regulations that no one could expect to make a profit from shipping coolies from that port. Then in 1856 Peru itself forbade the further introduction of coolies under the system that had so abused the minds and bodies of the Chinese. But this act by well- meaning Peruvians, including the President, Ramon Castilla, was subsequently overridden by economic necessity. Cotton and sugar planters led the battle in Congress to reopen the trade officially, claiming the continued import of Chinese contract labourers was essential for the agricultural survival of the country. Thus in 1861 Congress overrode a veto by President Castilla and the trade opened up once again officially for it had never really ceased, special licences having been granted between 1856 and 1861. New economic imperatives arose in the 1860s and gave spur to the trade. The building of railways increased demands for coolie labour. Furthermore, when the Union blockade of the Confederacy began to take full effect, demand for Peruvian cotton rose, reinforcing the urgency of acquiring further contract labour from China. Ultimately, however, indignation at the immorality of the trade overrode material justifications for its continued existence. The case of the Maria Luz brought on the final crisis. In 1872 Maria Luz put into Yokohama harbour, damaged by heavy seas and carrying over 200 coolies on their way to Peru. Some of the Chinese escaped and made their way to an English ship, the Iron Duke , then also in Yokohama. Tales of beatings, deceit in Macao, and other woes brought on an international crisis when Japan intervened and tried Captain Ricardo Herrera, the master of Maria Luz . The affair generated international indignation over the coolie trade and eventually led Portugal, already suffering from an accumulation of ill-will engendered over the years, to forbid the trade in 1874. Since her port of Macao was the centre of the trade, this had the effect of severing the traffic permanently.
If the average Chinese immigrant had been deceived, abused, and cajoled in China to get aboard a ship going to Peru, his arrival in that strange country only served to humiliate him more. Coolies not specifically consigned to a particular planter were sold by the Peruvian agents of companies who imported them. Henry Meiggs, the architect of Peru's railway system, paid $420 per coolie for one consignment headed towards the railroad camps, while the prices for the period ranged from $350 to $450. Legally, only the contract and not the coolie was for sale. But legal possession of the contract brought with it legal possession of that man's labour for a period of eight years.
From Callao, after a perfunctory official health inspection, the coolies were reshipped to plantations north and south along the coast, marched or carted off to the farms nearer the capital, transported up tracks to the railheads, or sent to labour on the stinking guano islands. It is ironic that the economic boom in Peru was in large part based on the labour of these Chinese coolies, for the profits from guano made it possible to end slavery there in 1855. Slave owners were compensated from government revenues generated by guano exports. As the slaves left the plantations, their place was filled by the coolies.
Guano profits also made it possible to abolish the ancient tributes exacted from the Indians, a remarkable anachronism in the mid-nineteenth century. Thus in 1854 not only Creole merchants profited from the guano boom: Blacks, Indians, Mestizos (Cholos in Peru), Mulattoes, Sambos also benefited from it. The one exception was the Chinese.
Those working for Henry Meiggs on the railroads were probably the best treated, while those assigned to the guano islands certainly suffered most. Meiggs' Chinese were all assigned numbers, the ultimate in depersonalisation, but com- pared to life on the guano islands, it was probably better to have a number in Meiggs' railroad gangs as they pushed high into the cold, clear Andes. Occasional accidents caused by landslides and the precipitous terrain were more than offset by Meiggs' generally humane treatment of his coolies, even if it was also based on the more calculating premise that healthy workers made better workers.
On the other hand, shovelling and sacking bird-shit on the hot and humid Chincha Islands cast a hellish hue on the coolie's existence. Occasionally winds would raise great stinking dust clouds that defiled everything on or near the islands. Coolies were required to fill between 80 and 100 wheelbarrows of guano each day. This amounted to four or five tons that had to be dug, loaded, and then pushed over to the chutes, called mangueras , that fed the fertiliser down onto the ships. Suffering from an inadequate diet – two pounds of rice and half a pound of meat per week – and an infernal setting, many attempted suicide by jumping into the sea or overdosing themselves with opium. To the coolie on the Chincha Islands suicide must have seemed a blessed relief from a life marked by sickness, lashings, unremitting monotony and a pestilential smell. Conditions improved somewhat in the late 1850s when the British in Peru – especially John Barton, the consul at Callao – protested actively against the severest forms of punishment then current on the islands. Not only had floggings occurred regularly, but men had been stretched out in the sun and tied to buoys either to bake or to drown out their disobedience.
By the early 1870s, the guano reserves themselves were being rapidly depleted and the standing army of 500 to 800 coolies that had made up the workforce for over twenty years dwindled rapidly. The great body of Chinese immigrants who had come over worked not on the guano islands or the railroads, but on the plantations of coastal Peru. Their lot was also harsh but eminently more bearable than those assigned to the islands. They increased the basic work force of Blacks, Sambos, Indians and Mestizos at a time of Peru's agricultural expansion - especially among the export-oriented sugar and cotton planters - and were deemed crucial to the success of these enterprises by the owners.
Life on the plantations of Peru was strictly regimented to maximise control over the coolie. Their quarters, called galpones , were barrack-style sheds locked at night to prevent escape. Most Chinese worked seven days a week from dawn to dusk with an hour off for lunch, which the coolie himself had to prepare. He was paid the equivalent of about $1 a week and usually spent this parsimonious wage at the store operated on the plantation by the owner. The only holidays granted in the early period after the introduction of the coolies into Peru was a three-day leave to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Even this diversion from the monotonous routine was qualitied by its very brevity and the ever-present frustrations of living without women. Virtually no Chinese women emigrated to Peru, and until the physical and social barriers between the coolies and Peruvian women began to break down in the late 1860s and 1870s, the Chinese males were deprived. As a result homosexuality was prevalent among the coolie population.
The coolie reacted to his general predicament with a mixture of resignation and desperation. Many escapes were attempted, singly or in groups, but re-capture meant severe fines, reduced rations, flogging and, in some cases, chains while labouring in the fields. Suicide was not an uncommon phenomenon, especially by hanging, and the mortality rate in general was high. Hundreds of Chinese were buried in shallow graves without coffins. Their only recourse was not simply suicide or hopeless escape. Rebellion and disorder had been the hallmark of mid-century Chinese life: and in the early 1870s desperate uprisings began to be organised by these men with nothing to lose. The most dramatic of these incidents took place in late 1870 in the Pativilca Valley, located a little over 100 miles north of Lima. Four white Peruvian members of the local plantation aristocracy were surprised while dining and were butchered by the coolies with machetes, knives and pistols. From here the rebels, numbering more than 500, turned to attack and sack the town of Pativilca. Many whites were brutally dismembered and decapitated, the women being repeatedly raped before death. The townspeople took refuge in the church and rallied to repulse the attacking coolies, who then turned from Pativilca and fell on the town of Barranca, nearby. The inhabitants there had already been forewarned of the approaching mob and the coolies were dispersed and broken up in a bloody counter-attack. By the time the last coolies, mounted and on foot, had been hunted down and recaptured, at least 150 and perhaps as many as 600 had been slain. Less than two dozen Peruvians had perished during the uprising: among these was a leading member of the Canaval family. The ships this family owned and operated possessed the record of having the highest mortality rate of any vessels engaged in the coolie trade. Perhaps it was no coincidence that this most violent incident broke out on the lands of the family whose treatment of coolies was notorious.
By the early 1870s, Peruvian critics of the coolie system began to gain the ascendancy over its defenders. They protested vehemently against the hard- ships endured by the coolie both on the voyage from China and in his life on the guano islands and plantations. They attacked the practice of forcing coolies to work on Sundays, illegal punishments, the cruelty of being deprived of wife and family, and called for reforms in the conditions under which they were employed and the abolition of the trade. Further- more, the growing body of free Chinese who had already fulfilled their contracts added their voices to those attacking the system. These free Chinese migrated mainly to the cities, particularly Lima, and from there – established as small merchants, food vendors, in domestic service and other activities – they brought the plight of their still-bonded fellows to the national consciousness. When the case of the Maria Luz finally forced the Portuguese to ban the coolie trade in 1874, conditions were already improving considerably in Peru. A treaty between Peru and China was ratified in 1876, which clearly forbade the old abuses and provided for the free immigration of citizens between both countries.
Before the end of the 1870s, the Peruvians, still looking for cheap, dependable labour, had turned to the Chinese in the United States as a potential source. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, coupled with anti-Chinese feelings manifested by rarial riots in San Francisco, resulted in an experiment in 1877. Twenty-three Chinese aboard a ship operated by the brothers Grace, Irish immigrants to Peru and the United States who were developing commercial links between the Americas, were brought from California to work on a sugar estate in northern Peru. The promise of this new source rapidly evaporated in 1879 when the War of the Pacific between Peru and Chile (1879-83) erupted. It proved disastrous for Peru, and the recovery of the nation eclipsed all other matters for the remainder of the century.
Some Chinese actually returned home under humanitarian provisions of the law that allowed them this alternative after serving out their contracts. The majority stayed and eventually migrated to the towns and cities of Peru. There they entered domestic service, started their humble businesses, and laid the foundations for their later commercial prosperity.
Dr Lawrence A. Clayton is Associate Professor of History, University of Alabama.
- Juan de Arona, La inmigraci Chinese Bondage in Peru: A History of the Chinese Coolie in Peru, 1849-1874 , Duke University Press (Durham, North Carolina, 1951)
- As general background to the period covered by this and the preceding article see Thomas J. Hutchinson, Two Years in Peru (London, 1873)
- Jose Mariategui, Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality (Austin, 1971)
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology