Infinite Indenture: 19th-Century Chinese Coolie Labor across Empires

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 10:45 AM
Roosevelt Room 1 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Molly Giblin, Dominican University
In 1866, French, British, and Chinese diplomats agreed to enforce a section of the 1860 Convention of Peking that regulated the labor of Chinese indentured servants, known popularly as coolies. It limited daily working hours, and stipulated that contracts between a laborer and a European employer could last no more than five years. The Convention guaranteed special privileges for Europeans in China, and also aimed to ease access to Chinese goods and labor. However, individual French businessmen soon identified loopholes in the regulations, and worked in partnership with the diplomats who had signed the convention to exploit them. When an army of indentured Chinese gardeners finished their work at the 1867 Exposition Internationale in Paris, they were sent first to French territories in the Caribbean, then effectively sold to nearby British planters. As a French official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs commented, while the Convention limited terms for laborers within the French empire, no law governed contract limitations for coolies once they were transported on foreign ships to foreign empires.

As scholars have long acknowledged, access to inexpensive bonded Chinese labor was essential to the maintenance of imperial hegemony after the slave trade was outlawed in the early nineteenth century. Transferring coolies out of the metropole was also part of a long-term process of controlling the migration of subaltern groups – in this case, assuring that Chinese worked but did not remain in France. It kept large numbers of Chinese laborers in the service of European state and corporate entities. Extending contracts also emphasized the contingent nature of the labor while effectively transforming indenture into a permanent state. The practice of transferring Chinese laborers reveals deliberate collaboration across empires that tied older French and British colonial spaces and personages with new fields of conquest and semi-colonial subjects in Asia.