ABSTRACTS – LABOUR HISTORY NO. 113

LABOUR HISTORY AND THE “COOLIE QUESTION”
Edited by Diane Kirkby and Sophie Loy-Wilson

Stabilising Violence in Colonial Rule: Settlement and the Indentured Labour Trade in Queensland in the 1870s
Tracey Banivanua Mar

This article examines the dynamics of colonial violence through three apparently insignificant and disconnected events. In Queensland in the 1870s, a structural framework of laws and regulations standardised violent and often fatal conditions in the labour trade. In the imagined remoteness of frontiers from civilisation, Indigenous, indentured and non-white peoples were grouped together with environmental and natural hazards to be battled. Colonial governance called for more subtle forms of violence. Inaction and acquiescence played a role in the sanction, maintenance and institutionalisation of violence in conventionalised forms. The central theme of the article is that violence was inherent to the colonial project. It shows the shared role of humanitarian concerns and the need for land and labour in the performance and regulation of colonial violence. It provides insight into the role of violence in colonial relations more generally as it illustrates how violence in and around Queensland was consciously produced and operated. Each of the chosen incidents shows that violence was highly rationalised around principles such as race, and how implicit sanctions rendered violence non-visible as understandings of violence and its justification were normalised.

 

From Slavery to Freedom: Chinese Coolies on the Sugar Plantations of Nineteenth Century Cuba
Evelyn Hu-DeHart

To supplement a dwindling slave labour force on their sugar plantations, Cuban planters turned to south China’s Fujian and especially Guangdong provinces. From 1847 to 1874 they recruited 141,000 male labourers (125,000 of whom arrived in Cuba alive). Slave-like work and living conditions on plantations, with proximity to large numbers of slaves notwithstanding, Chinese coolies were not permanent or lifelong slaves. The main question asked is not whether Chinese coolies were slaves – a well-worn argument that is not re-hashed here – but whether as contract labourers they constituted the early stages of the transition from slave to free labour. The article examines the respective and divergent framing of the bilingual Spanish and Chinese contracts, and the series of regulations designed to control the Chinese workers. Based largely on these primary documents it follows the trajectory of their work history in Cuba from indenture to freedom by way of specific life experiences.

 

The Coolie Labour Crisis in Colonial Queensland
Phil Griffiths

The question of “coolie labour” was of great importance in colonial Australia. Like the debates and conflicts over Chinese immigration and Pacific Islander labour, the outcome helped shape dominant national strategies around labour, immigration and nationalism, summed up in the idea of a White Australia. Unlike the issue of Chinese immigration, the issue of importing indentured Indian “coolie” labour drove major capitalist interests into a prolonged and bitter conflict with each other. Sugar planters in Queensland demanded the government facilitate the large-scale recruitment of indentured labourers from British India, and liberal obstruction of this led the planters and their allies to campaign for separation from Queensland. This article describes this conflict, the divisions and rival perspectives within the ruling class that shaped it and the reasons that almost the entire southern establishment, Conservative as well as Liberal, galvanised against the planters. It outlines the role played by British anti-slavery thought, and the belief that such a plantation colony in the north would develop a radically different social and political structure, one that was a threat to the free-labour economy.

 

Bound for Slavery? A Quaker Humanitarian Critique of Waged Labour at Koloa Plantation, Hawaii, 1836
Audrey Peyper

The humanitarian testimonials of the “concerned travellers,” Quakers Daniel and Charles Wheeler, from Koloa Plantation on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai in June 1836, problematised the early years of the sugar plantation’s wage labour system. Although the newly introduced wage system was intended by the resident missionaries and the founding company to liberate the plantation labourers from existing feudal obligations, the Wheelers claimed a different form of “slavery” was being imposed on the indigenous Hawaiians employed within the new system. Produced in a climate of protectionist and abolitionist fervour in the mid-1830s “age of reform,” the Quaker humanitarian publications reflected wider contemporary concerns for indigenous populations and post-British-emancipation labour conditions. Through examination of the Wheelers’ critique of Koloa in the formative years of Hawaii’s foreign-owned sugar plantation system, this article contributes a new perspective on the critical question of whether earning wages under the conditions at Kauai in 1836 excluded the Koloa Plantation labourer from slavery.

 

Preserving the Contract: The Experience of Indentured Labourers in the Wide Bay and Burnett Districts in the Nineteenth Century
Margaret Slocomb

On the cusp of the pastoral boom of the late 1840s, squatters in the Northern Districts of New South Wales dreamed of the reliable shepherd who could be bought for ten pounds per annum. In the remote Burnett and Wide Bay districts, this aim was realised by the importation of so-called Asiatic labourers, first from Bengal and then from China. In the 1860s, thousands of South Sea Islanders joined these coolie ranks, labouring mostly on the coastal sugar plantations, but also as shepherds on the pastoral runs in the hinterland. Each of these experiments with indentured coloured labourers was deemed a failure by the white employers. In strictly economic terms, this judgement was patently false. On the other hand, as this paper discusses, the assertiveness of the immigrant workers for contractual rights defied their masters’ expectations of a cheap and docile labour force.

 

Reframing Chinese Labour Rights: Chinese Unionists, Pro-Labour Societies and the Nationalist Movement in Melbourne, 1900–10
Mei-fen Kuo

In the early twentieth century, Chinese cabinetmakers’ militancy in Melbourne not only secured a fair wage from Chinese employers but also influenced emerging pro-labour societies. The Chinese Cabinetmakers’ Union was founded in response to their exclusion from minimum wages law when Chinese cabinetmakers were reimagined as “coolies” to emphasise the threat of cheaper Chinese labour. As Australian discriminatory policies increasingly curtailed Chinese workers’ rights, the Chinese community was divided in response. The development of Chinese unions and pro-labour societies in Melbourne contrasted with Sydney where the Chinese merchant elite also mobilised against discrimination. The two groups had different perspectives on labour rights, which were being reshaped as part of an emerging Chinese nationalist movement. Chinese unionists in Melbourne participated in the Chinese nationalists’ movement through newspapers, public meetings, speeches, donations and outdoor excursions. The alliance of Chinese unionists and the prolabour societies reflected the fact that the Chinese working class in Melbourne demanded worker rights in a complex mix of the “politics of place,” embedded in a revolutionary nationalist movement and community organisation.

 

Coolies or Comrades? Labor Socialism and the Contradictions of Internationalism, 1909–22
Liam Byrne

In the first decades after Federation, Australian Labor Socialist intellectuals warned that capitalists desired to reduce Australian labour’s working conditions to the “coolie standard.” Such dire predictions replicated the derogatory and racialised discourse that defined the white Australian labour standard against that of the indentured “coolie.” Yet, alongside this, these movement intellectuals explicitly argued that white labour needed to unite with non-white workers in the region to resist the capitalists’ designs. They did so while maintaining faith in White Australia and racial exclusion. This article explores this tortured form of internationalism, and how the concept of the “coolie” was maintained, utilised, and transformed in the period of the early twentieth century. It writes against two trends: one that presents Australian labour as a homogenous intellectual bloc on the question of race and internationalism, and a second that identifies internationalism in the Australian labour movement as originating in the 1920s. It argues that in this period the concept of the “coolie” was utilised in both an overtly racialised manner, and began to act as a signifier of broader anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist critiques that helped consolidate an internationalist identity. These Labor Socialists helped establish the intellectual ground for more developed and consistent internationalist politics that would take root in the 1920s.

 

Sexuality, Nationalism, and “Race”: Humanitarian Debate about Indian Indenture in Fiji, 1910–18
Fiona Paisley

In a 1916 report C. F. Andrews and W. W. Pearson set out their first-hand impressions of Indian indenture to Fiji. The two Englishmen had trained as Anglican clergymen and were sympathisers of the Indian nationalist cause. They saw indenture as a negative moral influence both upon those indentured and upon Britain’s civilised status. Furthermore, they considered the end of indenture to be essential to raising India’s reputation in the eyes of the world. Their findings were in many ways concerned not with the actual conditions of indentured labour, but with the local and global effects of the indignities and exploitations experienced by those seemingly brought low by the experience, particularly women who were exploited by the system but who were, in Andrews’ and Pearson’s eyes, essential to changing indenture into Indian immigration. This paper considers the role that normative ideas about heterosexuality and gender relations played in the image of a spiritual, rural Indian migrant in the Pacific who Andrews and Pearson hoped would develop Fiji. Thereby veiling the longer history of unfree labour in the region since the previous century, their conclusions would be endorsed in Australia and London through networks of progressives and anti-slavery advocates seeking renewed international attention towards the Pacific, British imperial reform, and the greater role of Australia and New Zealand in the Pacific islands.

 

Indian Seamen and Australian Unions Fighting for Labour Rights: “The Real Facts of the Lascars’ Case” of 1939
Diane Kirkby and Lee-Ann Monk

In 1939, the outbreak of war prompted strikes by Indian seafarers across the empire. This article traces events in Australia as Indian seafarers asserted their labour rights and in doing so contested their exploitative working conditions as “lascars” or the seagoing equivalent of shore-based indentured “coolie” labour. While the Australian government responded in ways that reinforced the “coolie” status of Indian seafarers, the Australian labour movement, most notably the maritime unions, threw their support behind the strikers. The Seamen’s Union of Australia and Waterside Workers’ Federation provided material aid, funded the strikers’ legal costs and, significantly, challenged official and media representations of the Indian seafarers as “coolies” with explanations of their exploitative conditions as “workers.” This action was significant because western seafarers’ lack of support has been seen as contributing to Indian seafarers’ difficulties in challenging their working conditions and status as “lascars.” Showing how Indian and Australian workers together resisted labour categories and fought for political rights complicates prevailing views of the relationship between Australian unions and Asian workers and demonstrates a consistency with the earlier internationalism of Australian maritime unions identified by previous historians.