Award Information

Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
The “Chinese Solution” to the Labor Question in Africa: Chinese Workers, African Railroads and the International Regulation of Labor Migration, 1860-1935

My dissertation investigates how Chinese and West African societies navigated their integration into an emerging international order during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by participating in common debates over the legal framework governing international labor migration. Over the second half of the nineteenth century, the successive abolitions of slavery led European colonial powers to recruit African and Asian contract laborers from beyond their colonial domain. During this period, British, French, German, Portuguese and Belgian colonial administrators all sought to draw Chinese laborers to their African possessions. Chinese workers' exploits during the construction of the Transcontinental Railway in the United States made them especially prized railway workers. In Africa, rival empires competed to attract workers from West African communities who had helped build some of Africa's earliest railroads. Imperial competition for control over African and Asian migration spurred debates over how international norms concerning migration and labor should apply to Asians and Africans. I trace common participation in these debates through the stories of French West African and Chinese laborers who built three railways: the Soudan Railway (in present-day Mali) from 1880 to 1886, the Matadi Railway in the Congo Free State (present-day Congo-Kinshasa) from 1890 to 1898, and the Congo-Océan Railway in the French Congo (present-day Congo-Brazzaville) from 1921 to 1934. I argue that the recruitment of laborers from French West Africa and China for railroad projects across Africa helped incite Chinese and Senegalese societies to challenge emerging norms of labor and free migration. In the process, new loyalties tied migrant laborers to political élites in their home countries, and after World War I, new bonds of solidarity formed between Chinese and West African workers and political activists.