Asian and Black Labor in Cuba

By Emily Gardin

Asian indentured laborers and Black slaves are the foundation of Cuba’s modern economy. Cuba’s dependence on sugar for economic revenue hinged on plantations that produced it. Hence, Cuba used slaves and coolies as a labor source to cultivate cash crops, predominantly sugar and coffee. By 1860, Cuba produced nearly one-third of the world’s sugar (Levinson and Knight). Although British enforcement finally ended the transatlantic slave trade, Cuba did not end its participation in the slave trade until 1867; and even then, Cuban chattel slavery was not abolished until 1886. Although the Portuguese ended the coolie trade in 1874, the coolie trade in Cuba was formally abolished in 1877 with the Sino-Spanish Treaty. The treaty provided that the Chinese under contract in Cuba had their contracts terminated (University of Minnesota). Despite the distinctions between slaves and coolies, they were both exploited as substitutes for labor.

In specific, the Haitian Revolution, the end of the transatlantic slave trade and the turmoil in China after the First and Second Opium wars made slaves and coolies vulnerable to exploitation. As a direct result of the abolition of the slave trade and slavery, a large-scale trade in Asia for indentured laborers began. Europeans began recruiting Chinese laborers for work as a cheap source of labor. Similarly, the Haitian Revolution heightened British vulnerability to the potential outcomes of insurrection. After the Haitian Revolution, slavery in Cuba became especially profitable because Haiti retreated from the global sugar market. Consequently, Cuba took Haiti’s place as the largest sugar producer. Incidentally, the Opium wars led to the loss of control over the emigration of Chinese and economic turmoil. As a direct result, laborers from China were kidnapped or signed contracts based on misleading promises to the Caribbean and South America.

In “Chinese Coolie Labor in Cuba in the Nineteenth Century: Free Labor of Neoslavery”, Table 1 showcases Coolie Imports to Cuba from 1847 to 1874. In the figure, one can observe that after the African slave trade gradually dwindled and ended with the last shipments in 1865 and 1866, the number of coolie imports increased, reaching 12,391 in 1866 and 14,263 in 1867. Therefore, coolies allowed the Cuba’s labor economy to prosper after the labor shortage following the end of the slave trade. However, the table does not take into account that although the African slave trade ended, Cuban chattel slavery was not abolished until 1886. Hence, Black and Asian individuals contributed to Latin America’s economic flourishing following the abolishment of the African slave trade.

In summation, Cuba remained unchallenged as the world’s largest sugar producer until the 1960s at the expense of Black slaves and Asian coolies. Despite the fact that Chinese laborers were often on contracts, they were still subjected to harsh conditions and were exploited for the cultivation of cash crops. Indentured servitude was profitable for slave and coolie owners because of the demand of sugar and coffee. Slaves and coolies alike were used as a gratis and inexpensive labor force. Ultimately, slaves and coolies created Cuba’s modern economy and agriculture through coerced servitude.

My interest in the subjugation of minority communities through coercion inspired my research on slavery and indentured servitude in Cuba. In addition, my passion in exploring the history of colonialism and the construction of a racial caste system in Latin America has propelled my research surrounding the history of Black and Asian servitude and Latinx identity.


Works Cited

Levinson, Sandra H., and Franklin W. Knight. “Cuba.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.,

“Coolie Trade in the 19th Century.” College of Liberal Arts | University of Minnesota, University of Minnesota, 16 June 2015,

Hu-Dehart, Evelyn (1994) “Chinese Coolie Labor in Cuba in the Nineteenth Century: Free Labor of Neoslavery,” Contributions in Black Studies: Vol. 12 , Article 5.