Skip to main content Accessibility help

Immigration into the Caribbean; The Introduction of Chinese and East Indian Indentured Labourers Between 1839 and 1917

  • P.C. Emmer


It seems no exaggeration to say that the Caribbean used to ‘eat’ people. The autochthonous inhabitants of the region, the Amerindians, estimated to have numbered about one million before Columbus, quickly embarked on a course of rapid demographic decline after the intrusion of the Europeans. Around 1700 all Amerindians had virtually disappeared from the islands and only a fraction of them remained in the hinterland of the Guianas.



Hide All


1 Watts, David, The West Indies, Patterns of Development, Culture and Environmental Change since 1492 (Cambridge 1987) 7374, 93, 101, 122 and 126:Knight, Franklin W,The Caribbean; the Genesis of a Fragmented Nationalism (Oxford 1978) 322.

2 The figures are derived from: Gemery, Henry A., 'Markets for Migrants: English Indentured Servitude and Emigration in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries' in: Emmer, P.C. ed., Colonialism and Migration; Indentured Labour before and after Slavery (Dor-drecht 1986) 40 (British Caribbean); Pluchon, P., ‘Le peuplement blanc’ in: Pluchon, P. ed., Histoire des Antilles et de la Guyane (Toulouse 1982) 167, 168 (French Caribbean); Engerman, Stanley L., ‘Servants to Slaves to Servants; Contract Labour and European Expansion’ in: ed, Emmer., Colonialism and Migration, 271 (Dutch and Danish Carib-bean). The number of Spanish migrating to the Caribbean has not been calculated at all. B.H. Slicher van Bath, The Absence of White Contract Labour in Spanish America during the Colonial Period', in: Emmer ed., Colonialism and Migration, 25, mentions 200,000 migrants to Spanish America as a whole until 1600. MOrner, Magnus, Adven-turers and Proletarians; The Story of Migrants in Latin America (Pittsburgh 1985) 14 mentions that there is only one – very unlikely – estimate of 52,000 for the eighteenth century. If we assume that another 50,000 Spanish migrated to the New World during the seventeenth century, we arrive at a grand total of 300,000 migrants for the whole of Spanish America between 1500 and 1800. Watts, West Indies, 122, mentions that during the sixteenth century about 10% of the migrants to Spanish America went to the Caribbean. If we assume that this percentage did not change during the subsequent two centuries, we arrive at a total of about 30,000 immigrants coming to the Spanish Caribbean between 1500 and 1800. In private correspondence Magnus MOrner has urged me to increase the number of Spanish immigrants for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. If we double their numbers (seventeenth century: 100,000; eighteenth century 100,000), the total number of Spanish migrants coming to the Americas would amount to 400,000 and the emigration to Cuba between 1500 and 1800 would then come to 40,000.

3 These figures are taken from Knight, Caribbean, 238–239 (table 4). Added to the number of whites are half the number of mulattoes. In comparing the immigration figures and the population figures of the Europeans and their descendants in the Caribbean it should be noted that there existed a return migration to Europe. Its scale, however, is not known. For this reason a comparison between these figures and similar statistics concerning the African population in the Caribbean is flawed, since Africans hardly left the region.

4 Figures on slave immigration between 1500 and 1870 from Rawley, James A., The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade; A History (New York 1981) 54 and 428. Figures on the black presence in the Caribbean around 1820 in Knight, Caribbean, 238–239) (table 4). Added to the number of blacks are half the number of mulattoes.

5 This point is convincingly argued by Seymour Drescher, Econocide; British Slavery in the Era of Abolition (Pittsburgh 1977).

6 Eltis, David, Free and Coerced Transatlantic Migrations: Some Comparisons’, Ameri-can Historical Review 88 (1983) 251280, and Eltis, David, Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (New York and Oxford 1987) 249. On the ‘free’ Africans: Monica Schuler, 'Alas, Alas, Kongo'. A Social History of Indentured African Immigration into Jamaica, 1841–1865 (Baltimore and London 1980). On the free migration: Monica Schuler, 'Free Emigration to British and French Guiana, 1841–1857' in: Lovejoy, Paul E. ed., Africans in Bondage; Studies in Slavery and the Slave Trade (Wisconsin 1986) 155203.

7 On experiments with European colonisation in Surinam: Emmer, P.C., ‘Veranderingen op de Surinaamse arbeidsmarkt gedurende de negentiende eeuw; Smith en Marx in West Indie’, Economisch- en Sociaal-Historisch Jaarboek 47 (1984) 205222. On European migration into the nineteenth-century Caribbean: Laurence, K.O., Immigration into the West Indies in the 19th Century (Kingston 1971) 9, 11, 12, 23, 40. For Cuba: Momer, Adventurers and Proletarians, 62 (figure 11).

8 Ismail, Joseph, De immigratie van Indonesiers in Suriname (Leiden 1949). For a discussion of the differences between the British Indians and the Javanese during the period of their simultaneous introduction into Surinam between 1890 and 1916: Emmer, P.C., ‘Asians compared. Some Observations regarding Indian and Indonesian Indentured Labourers in Surinam, 1873–1939’, ltinerario 9, 1 (1987) 149155.

9 On the inter-Caribbean slave-trade: Eltis, D., ‘The Traffic in Slaves between the British West Indian Colonies, 1807–1833’, Economic History Review 25 (1972) 5564. On the migration within the Caribbean of Barbadians: Laurence, Immigration. 16, 44; of Jamaicans, Watts, West Indies, 482 and Franklin W. Knight, 'Jamaican Migrants and the Cuban Sugar Industry, 1900–1934' in: Manuel Moreno Fraginals, Frank Maya Pons and Stanley Engerman, L. ed., Between Slavery and Free Labour; the Spanish-Speaking Carib- bean in the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore and London 1985) 94117.

10 Patterson, Orlando, ‘Migration in Caribbean Societies: Socio-economic and Symbolic Resource’ in: McNeill, William H. and Adams, Ruth S. ed., Human Migration; Patterns and Policies (Bloomington and London 1976) 106146.

11 Meagher, Arnold Joseph, ‘The Introduction of Chinese Laborers to Latin America’ (Unpublished Ph.D.-thesis, University of California, Davis 1975) 5056.

12 Ibidem, 143–145 and Peter Richardson, 'Coolies, Peasants and Proletarians; the Ori- gins of Chinese Indentured Labour in South Africa, 1904–1907' in: Marks, Shula and Richardson, Peter ed., International Labour Migration; Historical Perspectives (London 1984) 167185.

13 , Meagher, ‘The Introduction of Chinese Laborers’, 55.

14 Ibidem, 37–42.

15 Tinker, Hugh, A New System of Slavery; The Export of Indian Labour Overseas, 1830–1920 (Oxford 1974) 3961 (chapter 3) and Mangru, Basdeo, Benevolent Neutrality; Indian Government Policy and Labour Migration to British Guiana, 1854–1884(London 1987) 6063.

16 , Tinker, New System of Slavery, 63.

17 Figures from: Omvedt, Gail, ‘Migration in Colonial India. The Articulation of Feuda-lism and Capitalism by the Colonial State’, Journal of Peasant Studies 7 (1980) 188; Engerman, ‘Servants to Slaves to Servants’, 272 and Mangru, Benevolent Neutrality, 63–65 and Davis, K., The Population of India and Pakistan (Princeton 1951) 9899, esp. table 35.

18 Boomgaard, Peter, ‘;Multiplying Masses: Nineteenth Century Population Growth in India and Indonesia’, ltinerario 9,I (1987) 135149.

19 The ending of Chinese emigration: Meagher, 'Introduction of Chinese Laborers', 307–346 (chapter VIII) and on the ending of emigration from British India: , Tinker, New System of Slavery, 334367 (chapter 9). For the ending of Javanese emigration to Surinam: , Ismael, Immigralie van Indonesiers, 6676.

20 The drastic increase in labour productivity on West Indian plantations is demonstra-ted by Ward, J.R., British West Indian Slavery, 1750–1834; The Process of Amelioration (Oxford 1988). I am grateful for the advice of David Eltis on this matter.

21 , Meagher, ‘Introduction of Chinese Laborers’, 6268.

22 , Tinker, New System of Slavery, 50, 57.

23 Richardson, ‘Coolies, Peasants and Proletarians’, 175–178 vividly describes the rural poverty in China at the end of the nineteenth century, which concurs with Meagher's remarks about China's poverty fifty years earlier.

24 , Meagher, ‘Introduction of Chinese Laborers’, 6883.

25 Ibidem, 83.

26 Tinker, New System of Slavery, 137, 138 and P.C. Emmer, ‘The Coolie Ships; The Transportation of Indentured Labourers between Calcutta and Paramaribo, 1873–1921’ in: Friedland, Klaus ed., Maritime Aspects of Migration (Cologne; forthcoming) 45.

27 , Tinker, New System of Slavery, 101.

28 Emmer, P.C., ‘The Meek Hindu; the recruitment of Indian indentured labourers for service overseas, 1870–1916’ in: Emmer, ed., Colonialism and Migration, 187205.

29 Emmer, P.C., ‘The Great Escape: The Migration of Female Indentured Servants from British India to Surinam, 1873–1916’ in: Richardson, David ed., Abolition and its Aftermath; the Historical Context (London 1985) 251252.

30 , Meagher, ‘Introduction of Chinese Laborers’, 8397.

31 , Tinker, New System of Slavery, 88–89, and Mangru, Benevolent Neutrality, 96–101.

32 McNeill, James and Lai, Chimman, Report to the Government of India on the Conditions of Indian Immigrants in Four British Colonies and Surinam (London 1915).

33 , Emmer, ‘Great Escape’, 255.

34 , Emmer, ‘Meek Hindu, 196.

35 , Meagher, ‘Introduction of Chinese Laborers’, 142144.

36 Ibidem, 157–158.

37 Ibidem, 164–166. Helly, Denise, ldeologie et ethnicite; Les Chinois de Macao a Cuba (Montreal 1979) 133 mentions the frequent use of steamers since 1865.

38 , Meagher, Introduction of Chinese Laborers, 182.

39 , Tinker, New System of Slavery, 163; , Meagher, ‘Introduction of Chinese Laborers’, 181182. I am grateful to Ralph Schlomowitz (The Flinders University of South Australia) for his comments on this issue.

40 , Tinker, New System of Slavery, 145, 147, 148.

41 Ibidem, 116–176; Lubbock, Basil, Coolie Ships and Oil Sailers (Glasgow 1935) 70112.

42 , Emmer, ‘Coolie Ships’, 9.

43 , Meagher, Introduction of Chinese Laborers, 189.

44 Ibidem, 199; Lubbock, Coolie Ships and Oil Sailers, 3851.

45 The emigration from China to Cuba was halted by the Chinese, British (Hong Kong) and Portuguese (Macao) governments. Laurence, Immigration into the West Indies, 33 indicates that Spanish-Chinese negotiations on further imports of Chinese immi- grants ‘achieved nothing’ obviously because the Chinese demands would raise the price of Chinese immigrant labour. Meagher, ‘Introduction of Chinese Laborers’, 277 also mentions the relative high costs of introducing Chinese immigrant labour in British Guiana in comparison to indentured labour from India. ‘It would seem that the Chinese were a kind of luxury that the colonies indulged in whenever they had some extra capital at hand.’ The end of Indian emigration in Tinker, New System of Slavery, 348.

46 , Meagher, ‘Introduction of Chinese Laborers’, 232., Helly, Ideologic el ethnicili, 146178.Vriezen, Humphrey E. Lamur and Jean A., ‘Chinese kontraktanten in Suriname’, OSO, tijdschrift voor Surinaamse taalkunde, letterkunde en geschiedenis 4,2 (1985) 169179.

47 , Meagher, ‘Introduction of Chinese Laborers,’ 236 and, Helly, Idiologie el ethniciti, 212. In 1874 on average 50% of the imported Chinese labourers had stayed in Cuba for more than 11 years and 50% for less than 11 years. The total number of Chinese immigrants imported into Cuba was 125,634. In 1874 68,825 Chinese were living on the island, i.e. a mortality of 450 °/°° over ca. 22 years or on average 40.9 °/°° per annum.

48 Scott, Rebecca J., Slave Emancipation in Cuba; The Transition to Free Labor, 1860–1899 (Princeton 1985) 32, 98.Ankum-Houwink, J., ‘Chinese Contract Migrants in Surinam between 1853 and 1870’, Boletin de Estudios Latinoamericanos y del Caribe 17 (1974) 47.

49 Emmer, Pieter, ‘The Importations of British Indians into Surinam (Dutch Guiana), 1873–1916’ in: Marks and Richardson ed., International Labour Migration, 91 and Emmer 'Great Escape', 255; Trinidad: McNeill and Chimman Lai, Report 1, 7 and 9; Weller, Judith Ann, The East Indian Indenture in Trinidad (Rio Piedras 1968) 90. Guiana: McNeill and Chimman Lai, Report, 63–64 and Potter, Lesley Marianne, ‘Internal Migration and Re-Settlement of East Indians in Guyana, 1870–1920’ (Unpublished Ph.D.-thesis, Depart-ment of Geography, McGill University, Montreal 1975). I am grateful to Ralph Schlomowitz (The Flinders University of South Australia) for his comments on this issue.

50 , Emmer, ‘Importation of British Indians’, 107; Rodney, Walter, A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881–1905 (Baltimore and London 1981)4748; Moore, Brian L., , Race, Power and Social Segmentation in Colonial Society; Guyana After Slavery, 1838–1891 (New York 1987) 167171; Brereton, Bridget, Race Relations in Colonial Trinidad, 1870–1900 (Cambridge 1979) 178. Labour Law offences in Trinidad: Trotman, David Vincent, ‘Crime and the Plantation Society: Trinidad 1838–1900’ (Unpublished Ph.D.-thesis, Department of History, The Johns Hopkins University 1981) 267. The decline in numbers of offences (Ibidem, 260–261) is unfortunately not given as a percentage of the indentured population.

51 , Emmer, ‘Importation of British Indians’, 109. Adamson, Alan H., Sugar without Slaves; the Political Economy of British Guiana, 1838–1904, (New Haven and London 1972) 154; , Emmer, ‘Great Escape, 256; Moore, Race, Power and Social Segmentation, 172173; , Brereton, Race Relations, 179. The desertion rate on Trinidad is calculated from McNeill and Chimman Lai, Report I, 8 (indentured population figures) and 24 (desertion).

52 Corbitt, Duvon Clough, A Study of the Chinese in Cuba, 1847–1947 (Wilmore 1971) 92.Lowenthal, David, West Indian Societies (Oxford 1972) 203.

53 Surinam: , Emmer, ‘Great Escape, 253256; Trinidad: Lai, McNeill and Chimman, Report, 7, 9; Guiana: , Potter, ‘Internal Migration’, 322332.

54 Brawer, Milton Jacon, ‘Fertility Differences, Family Structure and Modernization in two Populations in Trinidad’ (Unpublished Ph.D.- thesis, Dept. of Sociology, Colum-bia University 1965); , Potter, ‘Internal Migration’, 333348. On the persistant high mortality rate: Johnson, G.W. Roberts and M.A., ‘Factors involved in Immigration and Movements in the Working Force of British Guiana in the 19th Century’, Social and Economic Studies 23,1 (1974) 71.

55 Lowenthal, West Indian Societies, 167.

56 Ibidem, 153. For Surinam: Biswamitre, C.R., ‘Hindostaans leven in: Helman, A. ed., Cultureel Mozaiek van Suriname; Bijdrage tot onderling begrip (Zutphen 1977) 205226. For Guadaloupe:, Singaravelou, Les Indiens de la Guadaloupe (Bordeaux 1975) 143152. For Trinidad: , Brereton, Race Relations, 165.

57 On the Chinese: , Meagher, ‘Introduction of Chinese Laborers’, 224., Corbitt, Study of the Chinese, 88.Percentages of returnees: Surinam: Emmer, ‘Coolie Ships’, 1011;Trinidad: Ramesar, Marianne D., ‘Indentured Labour in Trinidad 1880–1917’ in: Saunders, Kay ed., Indentured Labour in the British Empire, 1834–1920, (London and Canberra 1984) 62; Guiana: Nath, Dwarka, A History of Indians in Guyana (2nd ed., London 1970) 219, 222; Guadaloupe: , Singaravelou, Les Indiens de la Guadaloupe, 51, 57.Samaroo, Brinsley, ’In Sick Longing for the Further Shore": Return Migration by Caribbean East Indians During the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries’, in:Stinner, William F., de Albuquerque, Klaus and Bryce-Laporte, Roy S. ed., Return Migration and Remittances: Develo- ping A Caribbean Perspective (Washington D.C. 1982) 4573.

58 , Tinker, New System of Slavery. 106; , Emmer. ‘Coolie Ships’, 1011.

59 , Emmer, ‘Meek Hindu’, 197.

60 , Emmer, ‘Coolie Ships’, 1011;, Tinker, New System of Slavery, 278279.

61 , Emmer, ‘Coolie Ships’, 1011.

62 , Adamson, Sugar without Slaves, 165 (Guiana) and Green, William A., British Slave Emancipation; the Sugar Colonies and the Great Experiment, 1830–1865 (Oxford 1976) 197198 and Wood, Donald, Trinidad in Transition; The Years after Slavery (Oxford 1986) 53.

63 , Green, British Slave Emancipation, 255257. Beachy, R.W., The British West Indies Sugar Industry in the late 19th Century (reprint Westport 1978) 118137. For Surinam: Willemsen, Glenn, Koloniale politiek en transformatieprocessen in een plantage-economie, Surina-me, 1873–1940 (Amsterdam 1980) 5762.

64 Albert, Bill and Graves, Adrian, ‘Introduction’ Albert, Bill and Graves, Adrian ed., Crisis and Change in the International Sugar Economy 1860–1914 (Norwich and Edin-burgh Bill Albert and Adrian Graves, ‘Introduction’ in: Bill Albert and Adrian Graves ed., Crisis and Change in the International Sugar Economy 1860–1914 (Norwich and Edinburgh 1984) 3. 1984) 3.

65 A nice summary of the problems on the Caribbean labour market over a long time span: Mandle, Jay. R., Patterns of Caribbean Development; An Interpretive Essay on Economic Change (New York 1982) 3752.

66 Anthony Lemon, The Indian Communities of East Africa and the Caribbean’ in: Lemon, A. and Pollock, N.C. ed., Studies in Overseas Settlement and Population (London and New York 1980) 225243.

67 , Lowenthal, West Indian Societies, 156177.

68 Curaçao (1969) Jamaica (elections of 1980) and Grenada (1983). See also large-scale violence in Cuba after the Second World War, where Asian immigrants had virtually no lasting impact, as well as in Haïti, which received no Asians at all. All these examples indicate that there exists no simple relationship between the ethnic of diversity immigration into the Caribbean and political violence.

Immigration into the Caribbean; The Introduction of Chinese and East Indian Indentured Labourers Between 1839 and 1917

  • P.C. Emmer


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed