Cuba. [ca. 1865-1875]. Twenty-two partially-printed forms on folio sheets, completed in manuscript in a variety of hands. Most printed and accomplished on the recto only, though a few with print or manuscript on the verso as well. Some with old folds, chipping and small tears to edges of most documents, one document with the upper right corner cut away. Occasional foxing, tanning, and ink offsetting and bleedthrough. Several documents with additional manuscript annotations. About very good overall. Item #WRCAM56107
An important collection of contracts documenting Chinese indentured servitude in Cuba, two signed in Chinese. All but one are from various municipalities in the Matanzas Province, usually attested to with an ink or blind stamp from a local official, one with paper tax stamps affixed. Each contract stipulates the term of service for the "colono" - one or two years, along with wages to be paid, food and clothing issued, duties and hours to be worked, and so forth. The laborers are identified in the contracts by their assigned Spanish names with no surnames, though some forms have a section for their "nombre nacional" and place of origin as well. There are provisions for what happens if the servant cannot complete their term of service due to illness (pending agreement with the "patrono"), and a section on options for contract renewal. The latest of these contracts, dated May 24, 1875, bears the laborer's signature in Chinese. He is described as "al asiatico José," aged 30, of Macao, and is contracted to work for Ignacio de Cardenas for six years. Another contract, from Bejucal in the Mayabeque Province, is also signed in Chinese, this one by "Antonio," "natural del pueblo de Leo Chao en China." This is also the only document in the collection with a signature area labeled: "Firma del interpréte ó de dos personas de confianza del colono ó dos testigos."
Formal slavery continued in Cuba until it was abolished by Spanish royal decree in 1886; it was accompanied, however, by a significant population working in indentured servitude. As sugar exports rose in the mid to late 18th century, there was a dramatic increase in the need for enslaved workers. "One of the explicit goals of Spanish reformist policy in the last third of the eighteenth century became the need to emulate other European nations' success with slave plantation development in the Caribbean. Partly because of this, slave-based coffee and sugar estates sprang up in increasing numbers in portions of Cuba (especially around Havana), Santo Domingo, and Puerto Rico. An expanded slave trade was a necessary condition of such growth. In Cuba alone approximately seventy thousand slaves were imported between 1763 and 1792, and another three hundred twenty-five thousand were brought in between 1790 and 1820....For the entire nineteenth century, imports to Cuba amounted to about seven hundred thousand persons..." - Drescher.
The abolition of slavery in the British West Indies, however, meant that from the 1830s onward, a new source of labor was necessary. It is this gap that indentured servitude filled. Unlike the earlier waves of European immigrants who travelled to the New World as indentured servants, Asia was now the primary source. Between 1848 and 1874, 125,000 Chinese indentured servants arrived in Cuba alone - a figure outstripped only by the number who indentured themselves in California. "Some contemporaries and later historians...have condemned the servitude of the Asians as a thinly disguised revival of slavery. These critics have pointed to a variety of abuses to which the Asians were subjected, both legally - with severe laws governing absenteeism, vagrancy, and insufficient work - and illegally, in the form of harassment by vicious masters. Yet other observers have defended the system as a boon to the Asian workers. Voluntary reindenture at the end of their terms was common among the migrants, suggesting that many Asians judged the system to be beneficial to them" - Drescher.
Voluntary or not, a large number of Chinese migrants were laboring in Cuba in the 19th century; for most of them, these contracts are the only existing records of their work, if not of their lives. Seymour Drescher & Stanley L. Engerman, editors, A HISTORICAL GUIDE TO WORLD SLAVERY (New York, 1998), pp.140-42, 239-42.