Coolie History and Teaching about Race in Social Studies
By Jason Oliver Chang
The curricular framework of Social Studies is well suited to organize lessons on the study of race and racism. Too often black racial formations are the sole acknowledgement of systemic and ongoing oppression, discrimination, and inequality. While attention to racial blackness is central to understanding key tenets of the development of a stratified global system it is not sufficient. Too often the so called, race problem, is taught as a binary black-white problem. Not only is this not historically accurate it is also politically misguided as our daily lives do not bear out in simplified binaries. Teaching race in more complicated ways will help to equip folks with a more sensitive set of cognitive frameworks to think about the world they encounter and make. This lesson provides resources on the history of coolies, or nineteenth-century Asian contract laborers, to expand discussions of race in social studies. Coolie history is an important chapter in the study of race because the hundreds of thousands of mostly Chinese and South Asian workers involved in this global labor circuit were demanded as a response to the problems of the masses of enslaved Africans. By the 1830s Asian coolies were seen as the best solution to labor shortages that resulted from British emancipation of African slaves and the decline of the African slave trade. Coolie history helps to illustrate how the study of race must ask questions not only of how are racial identities formed, imposed, and contested, but also what are the larger political and ideological functions of those racial formations beyond the attendant violence to the targeted population. As Vijay Prashad has poigniantly described, if the study of blackness is to inquiry into what it feels like to be a problem, then one direction we might take with the study of the production of Asian racial difference is to ask what does it feel like to be a solution. The materials in this lesson provide details on the coolie trade as well as audio of the written testimonies and stories recorded by coolies.
Social Studies Themes
Global Connections: Studying coolie history provides encounters with the global dimensions of labor migration and the interconnectedness of forced labor regimes.
Individuals, Groups and Institutions: Studying coolie history shows interactions between non-white groups.
Power, Authority, and Governance: Studying coolie history provides encounters with the creation and evolution of a stratified and racialized workforce along with the institutions that sought to manage, maintain, and reform its structure.

Primary Sources on Coolies:

Chinese in Guyana

Penobscot Marine Museum: Log of the Coolie Master

The Coolie, His Rights and Wrongs

Chinese Bondage in Peru

President Lincoln’s Message on the “Asiatic Coolie Trade”

Coolie Traffic and Kidnapping

Secondary Sources:

Kathy Lopez. Chinese Cubans

Lisa Yun. Coolie Speaks

Walton Look Lai. Indentured Labor, Caribbean Sugar

Moon-Ho Jung. Coolies and Cane

Gaiutra Bahadur. Coolie Woman

Albert Meagher. The Coolie Trade

Dr. Chang is an Assistant Professor of History and Asian American Studies at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. His first book Chino: Anti-Chinese Racism in Mexico, 1880-1940 with University of Illinois Press examines the role that racial ideology and its associated violence had in the formation of Mexican mestizo national identity and the consolidation of the revolutionary state. His current work explores the lives and politics of Asian mariners on U.S. vessels and Asian diasporas in the caribbean.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s