Rebecca Liu, *23

Department of English

Contract Spirit: Race, Labor, and Social Reproduction after the Coolie Trade



Contract Spirit: Race, Labor, and Social Reproduction after the Coolie Trade identifies the centrality of Asian indenture and the contract form for understanding Asian racialization in the Americas from the nineteenth century to the present. Following the abolition of the slave trade in the early nineteenth century, Britain, Spain, and newly independent colonies like Peru settled on Asian contract laborers, commonly called “coolies,” as an alternative source of cheap labor that could circumvent prohibitions against slavery but could nonetheless maintain lucrative plantation economies. The resulting coolie trade to Cuba and Peru lasted from 1847 to 1874, with coolies from China often forced through deception or outright violence to “sign” contracts before embarking on the harrowing, six-month journey to the Americas. Upon completion of their contracts, Chinese coolies were often made to recontract against their will, turning the supposedly voluntary form of contract labor into a perpetual form of bondage. The dissertation theorizes “contract spirit,” an expression borrowed from my archives, as an ideology that instills in coolies the “essence” of the legal contract—its presumption of exchange, consent, will, capacity, and legality—as well as the imperative to always have a contract and comply with its terms or face deportation and the destruction of diasporic worlds. Analyzing a wide array of sources in English, Spanish, and Chinese—from the contracts themselves, official and personal correspondences, and coolie burial practices, to Chinese Peruvian modernist poetry, contemporary Asian American novels and films, and the persistent genre of the testimonial—this dissertation tracks how “contract spirit,” though instituted in the nineteenth century, continues to shape Asian diasporic racialization, gender, kinship, belonging, and social reproduction long after the end of the coolie trade. In doing so, Contract Spirit retells the history of racial capitalism through the figure of the Asian migrant laborer and the contract, uncovering the key role both have played in the social reproduction of our times.

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