Samiksha Jaiswal (Editor)


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Coolie (alternatively spelled cooli, cooly, quli, koelie, and other such variations), during the 19th and early 20th century, was a term for an indentured servant indentured to a company, mainly from the Indian subcontinent or South China.


Today, it is used varyingly as a legal, inoffensive word (for example, in India for helpers carrying luggage in railway stations) and also used as a racial slur in Africa for certain people from Asia, particularly in South Africa.


The origins of the word are uncertain but it is thought to have originated from the Tamil word for a payment for work, kuli (கூலி). An alternative etymological explanation is that the word came from the Urdu qulī (क़ुली, قلی), which itself could be from the Turkish word for slave (or as a general name for imperial subjects regardless of other social status), kul. The word was used in this sense for labourers from India. In 1727, Dr. Engelbert Kämpfer described "coolies" as dock labourers who would unload Dutch merchant ships at Nagasaki in Japan.

The Chinese word 苦 力 (pinyin: kǔlì) means "bitterly hard (use of strength)" and is occasionally translated as "bitter labour".

History of the coolie trade

Social and political pressure led to the abolition of the slave trade throughout the British Empire in 1807, with other European nations following suit. Labour-intensive industries, such as cotton and sugar plantations, mines and railway construction, in the colonies were left without a cheap source of manpower. As a consequence, a large-scale slavery-like trade in Asian (primarily Indian and Chinese) indentured labourers began in the 1820s to fill this vacuum. Some of these labourers signed contracts based on misleading promises, some were kidnapped and sold into the trade, some were victims of clan violence whose captors sold them to coolie brokers, while others sold themselves to pay off gambling debts. British companies were the first to experiment with this potential new form of cheap labour in 1807, when they imported 200 Chinese men to work in Trinidad.

The coolie trade was often compared to the earlier slave trade and they accomplished very similar things.

Although there are reports of ships for Asian coolies carrying women and children, the great majority of them were men. Finally, regulations were put in place, as early as 1837 by the British authorities in India to safeguard these principles of voluntary, contractual work and safe and sanitary transportation although in practice this rarely occurred especially during examples such as the Pacific Passage or the Guano Pits of Peru. The Chinese government also made efforts to secure the well-being of their nation's workers, with representations being made to relevant governments around the world.

Chinese coolies

Workers from China were mainly transported to work in Peru and Cuba, but they also worked in British colonies such as Singapore, Jamaica, British Guiana (now Guyana), British Malaya, Trinidad and Tobago, British Honduras (now Belize) and in the Dutch colonies Dutch East Indies and Suriname. The first shipment of Chinese labourers was to the British colony of Trinidad in 1806.

In 1847 two ships from Cuba transported workers to Havana to work in the sugar cane fields from the port of Xiamen, one of the five Chinese treaty ports opened to the British by the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. The trade soon spread to other ports in Guangdong and demand became particularly strong in Peru for workers in the silver mines and the guano collecting industry. Australia began importing workers in 1848 and the United States began using them in 1865 on the First Transcontinental Railroad construction. These workers were deceived about their terms of employment to a much greater extent than their Indian counterparts, and consequently, there was a much higher level of Chinese emigration during this period.

The trade flourished from 1847 to 1854 without incident, until reports began to surface of the mistreatment of the workers in Cuba and Peru. As the British government had political and legal responsibility for many of the ports involved, including Amoy, the trade was shut down at these places. However, the trade simply shifted to the more accommodating port in the Portuguese enclave of Macau.

Many coolies were first deceived or kidnapped and then kept in barracoons (detention centres) or loading vessels in the ports of departure, as were African slaves. In 1875, British commissioners estimated that approximately eighty percent of the workers had been abducted. Their voyages, which are sometimes called the Pacific Passage, were as inhumane and dangerous as the notorious Middle Passage of the Atlantic slave trade. Mortality was very high. For example, it is estimated that from 1847 to 1859, the average mortality for coolies aboard ships to Cuba was 15.2 percent, and losses among those aboard ships to Peru were 40 percent in the 1850s and 30.44 percent from 1860 to 1863.

They were sold and were taken to work in plantations or mines with very bad living and working conditions. The duration of a contract was typically five to eight years, but many coolies did not live out their term of service because of the hard labour and mistreatment. Those who did live were often forced to remain in servitude beyond the contracted period. The coolies who worked on the sugar plantations in Cuba and in the guano beds of the Chincha Islands (the islands of Hell) of Peru were treated brutally. Seventy-five percent of the Chinese coolies in Cuba died before fulfilling their contracts. More than two-thirds of the Chinese coolies who arrived in Peru between 1849 and 1874 died within the contract period. In 1860 it was calculated that of the 4000 coolies brought to the Chinchas since the trade began, not one had survived.

Because of these unbearable conditions, Chinese coolies often revolted against their Ko-Hung bosses and foreign company bosses at ports of departure, on ships, and in foreign lands. The coolies were put in the same neighbourhoods as Africans and, since most were unable to return to their homeland or have their wives come to the New World, many married African women. The coolies' interracial relationships and marriages with Africans, Europeans and Indigenous peoples, formed some of the modern world's Afro-Asian and Asian Latin American populations.

Chinese immigration to the United States was almost entirely voluntary, but working and social conditions were still harsh. In 1868, the Burlingame Treaty allowed unrestricted Chinese immigration into the country. Within a decade significant levels of anti-Chinese sentiment had built up, stoked by populists such as Denis Kearney with racist slogans – "To an American, death is preferable to life on a par with the Chinese."

Although Chinese workers contributed to the building of the first Transcontinental Railroad in the United States and of the Canadian Pacific Railway in western Canada, Chinese settlement was discouraged after completion of the construction. California's Anti-Coolie Act of 1862 and the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 contributed to the curtailment of Chinese immigration to the United States.

Notwithstanding such attempts to restrict the influx of cheap labour from China, beginning in the 1870s Chinese workers helped construct a vast network of levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. These levees made thousands of acres of fertile marshlands available for agricultural production.

The 1879 Constitution of the State of California declared that "Asiatic coolieism is a form of human slavery, and is forever prohibited in this State, and all contracts for coolie labour shall be void."

Colonos asiáticos is a Spanish term for coolies. The Spanish colony of Cuba feared slavery uprisings such as those that took place in Haiti and used coolies as a transition between slaves and free labor. They were neither free nor slaves. Indentured Chinese servants also labored in the sugarcane fields of Cuba well after the 1884 abolition of slavery in that country. Two scholars of Chinese labor in Cuba, Juan Pastrana and Juan Perez de la Riva, substantiated horrific conditions of Chinese coolies in Cuba and stated that coolies were slaves in all but name. Denise Helly is one researcher who believes that despite their slave-like treatment, the free and legal status of the Asian laborers in Cuba separated them from slaves. The coolies could challenge their superiors, run away, petition government officials, and rebel according to Rodriguez Pastor and Trazegnies Granda. Once they had fulfilled their contracts the colonos asiáticos integrated into the countries of Peru, The Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba. They adopted cultural traditions from the natives and also welcomed in non-Chinese to experience and participate into their own traditions. Before the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Havana had Latin America's largest Chinatown.

In South America, Chinese indentured labourers worked in Peru's silver mines and coastal industries (i.e., guano, sugar, and cotton) from the early 1850s to the mid-1870s; about 100,000 people immigrated as indentured workers. They participated in the War of the Pacific, looting and burning down the haciendas where they worked, after the capture of Lima by the invading Chilean army in January 1880. Some 2000 coolies even joined the Chilean Army in Peru, taking care of the wounded and burying the dead. Others were sent by Chileans to work in the newly conquered nitrate fields.

The Chinese Engineering and Mining Corporation, of which later U.S. president Herbert Hoover was a director, was instrumental in supplying Chinese coolie labour to South African mines from c.1902 to c.1910 at the request of mine owners, who considered such labour cheaper than native African and white labour. The horrendous conditions suffered by the coolie labourers led to questions in the British parliament as recorded in Hansard.

In 1866, the British, French and Chinese governments agreed to mitigate the abuse by requiring all traders to pay for the return of all workers after their contract ended. The employers in the British West Indies declined these conditions, bringing the trade there to an end. Until the trade was finally abolished in 1875, over 150,000 coolies had been sold to Cuba alone, the majority having been shipped from Macau. These labourers endured conditions far worse than those experienced by their Indian counterparts. Even after the 1866 reforms, the scale of abuse and conditions of near slavery did not get any better – if anything they deteriorated. In the early 1870s increased media exposure of the trade led to a public outcry, and the British, as well as the Qing government, put pressure on the Portuguese authorities to bring the trade at Macau to an end; this was ultimately achieved in 1874. By that time, a total of up to half a million Chinese workers had been exported.

The term coolie was also applied to Chinese workers recruited for contracts on cacao plantations in German Samoa. German planters went to great lengths to secure access to their "coolie" labour supply from China. In 1908 a Chinese commissioner, Lin Shu Fen, reported on the cruel treatment of coolie workers on German plantations in the western Samoan Islands. The trade began largely after the establishment of colonial German Samoa in 1900 and lasted until the arrival of New Zealand forces in 1914. More than 2000 Chinese "coolies" were present in the islands in 1914 and most were eventually repatriated by the New Zealand administration.

Indian coolies

By the 1820s, many Indians were voluntarily enlisting to go abroad for work, in the hopes of a better life. European merchants and businessmen quickly took advantage of this and began recruiting them for work as a cheap source of labour. The British began shipping Indians to colonies around the world, including Mauritius, Fiji, Natal, British East Africa, and British Malaya. The Dutch also shipped workers to labour on the plantations on Suriname and the Dutch East Indies. A system of agents was used to infiltrate the rural villages of India and recruit labourers. They would often deceive the credulous workers about the great opportunities that awaited them for their own material betterment abroad. The Indians primarily came from the Indo-Gangetic Plain, but also from Tamil Nadu and other areas to the south of the country.

Without permission from the British authorities, the French attempted to illegally transport Indian workers to their sugar producing colony, the Reunion Island, from as early as 1826. By 1830, over 3000 labourers had been transported. After this trade was discovered, the French successfully negotiated with the British in 1860 for permission to transport over 6,000 workers annually, on condition that the trade would be suspended if abuses were discovered to be taking place.

The British began to transport Indians to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, starting in 1829. Slavery had been abolished with the planters receiving two million pounds sterling in compensation for the loss of their slaves. The planters turned to bringing in a large number of indentured labourers from India to work in the sugar cane fields. Between 1834 and 1921, around half a million indentured labourers were present on the island. They worked on sugar estates, factories, in transport and on construction sites.

In 1837, the Raj issued a set of regulations for the trade. The rules provided for each labourer to be personally authorised for transportation by an officer designated by the Government, it limited the length of service to five years subject to voluntary renewal, it made the contractor responsible for returning the worker after the contract elapsed and required the vessels to conform to basic health standards.

Despite this, conditions on the ships were often extremely crowded, with rampant disease and malnutrition. The workers were paid a pittance for their labour, and were expected to work in often awful and harsh conditions. Although there were no large scale scandals involving coolie abuse in British colonies, workers often ended up being forced to work, and manipulated in such a way that they became dependent on the plantation owners so that in practice they remained there long after their contracts expired; possibly as little as 10% of the coolies actually returned to their original country of origin. Colonial legislation was also passed to severely limit their freedoms; in Mauritius a compulsory pass system was instituted to enable their movements to be easily tracked. Conditions were much worse in the French colonies of Reunion and Guadeloupe and Martinique, where workers were 'systematically overworked' and abnormally high mortality rates were recorded for those working in the mines.

However, there were also attempts by the British authorities to regulate and mitigate the worst abuses. Workers were regularly checked up on by health inspectors, and they were vetted before transportation to ensure that they were suitably healthy and fit to be able to endure the rigours of labour. Children under the age of 15 were not allowed to be transported from their parents under any circumstances.

The first campaign against the 'coolie' trade in England likened the system of indentured labour to the slavery of the past. In response to this pressure, the labour export was temporarily stopped in 1839 by the authorities when the scale of the abuses became known, but it was soon renewed due to its growing economic importance. A more rigorous regulatory framework was put into place and severe penalties were imposed for infractions in 1842. In that year, almost 35,000 people were shipped to Mauritius.

In 1844, the trade was expanded to the colonies in the West Indies, including Jamaica, Trinidad and Demerara, where the Asian population was soon a major component of the island demographic.

Starting in 1879, many Indians were transported to Fiji to work on the sugar cane plantations. Many of them chose to stay after their term of indenture elapsed and today they number about 40% of the total population. Indian workers were also imported into the Dutch colony of Suriname after the Dutch signed a treaty with the United Kingdom on the recruitment of contract workers in 1870. In Mauritius, the Indian population are now demographically dominant, with Indian festivals being celebrated as national holidays.

This system prevailed until the early twentieth century. Increasing focus on the brutalities and abuses of the trade by the sensationalist media of the time, incited public outrage and lead to the official ending of the coolie trade in 1916 by the British government. By that time tens of thousands of Chinese workers were being used along the Western Front by the allied forces (see Chinese Labour Corps).

Sex ratios and intermarriage among coolies

A major difference between the Chinese and the Indian coolie trades was that women and children were brought from India, along with men, while Chinese coolies were 99% male. This led to a high rate of Chinese men marrying women of other ethnicities like Indian women and mixed race Creole women. The contrast with the female to male ratio among Indian and Chinese immigrants has been compared by historians. In Sumatra in the Dutch East Indies just 18,731 Chinese women and 92,985 Chinese men served as coolies on plantations. Chinese women migrated less than Javanese and Indian women as indentured coolies. The number of Chinese women as coolies was "very small" while Chinese men were easily taken into the coolie trade. In Cuba men made up the vast majority of Chinese indentured servants on sugar plantations and in Peru non-Chinese women married the mostly male Chinese coolies.

Chinese women were scarce in every place where Chinese indentured laborers were brought, the migration was dominated by Chinese men. Up to the 1940s men made up the vast majority of the Costa Rican Chinese community. Males made up the majority of the original Chinese community in Mexico and they married Mexican women.

In the early 1900s, the Chinese communities in Manila, Singapore, Mauritius, New Zealand, Victoria in Australia, the United States, and Victoria in British Columbia in Canada were all male dominated.

Modern use

  • In 1938, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the term in one of his "Fireside Chats" (Number 13, 24 July 1938) while telling a story about "Two Chinese coolies" arguing in a crowd.
  • In the 1899 novelette "Typhoon" by Joseph Conrad, the captain is transporting a group of coolies in the South China Sea.
  • In the 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai, when his officers are ordered to participate in the construction of the bridge, British officer Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) declares that they will not be used as coolies by their captors. The enlisted men cheer when their social betters are excused the work.
  • In Indonesian, kuli is now a term for construction workers, and is mostly no longer considered an offensive word. In slang languages, the construction workers are frequently termed as "kuproy" (kuli proyek, literally meaning "project coolies")
  • In Malay, "kuli" is an Asian slave.
  • In Thai, kuli (กุลี) still retains its original meaning as manual labourers, but is considered to be offensive. In September 2005 Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand used this term when referring to the labourers who built the new international airport. He thanked them for their hard work. Reuters, a news source from Bangkok, reported of Thai labour groups angered by his use of the term.
  • In South Africa, the term Coolie referred to indentured workers from India. It is no longer an accepted term and it, and its Zulu version, amakhula, is considered an extremely derogatory term for people of Indian descent.
  • The word qūlī is now commonly used in Hindi to refer to luggage porters at hotel lobbies and railway and bus stations. Nevertheless, the use of such (especially by foreigners) may still be regarded as a slur by some.
  • In Ethiopia, Cooli are those who carry heavy loads for someone. The word is not used as a slur however. The term used to refer to Arab day-laborers who migrated to Ethiopia for labour work.
  • The Dutch word koelie, refers to a worker who performs very hard, exacting labour. The word generally has no particular ethnic connotations among the Dutch, but it is a racial slur amongst Surinamese of Indian heritage.
  • Among overseas Vietnamese, coolie ("cu li" in Vietnamese) means a labourer, but in recent times the word has gained a second meaning a person who works a part-time job.
  • In Finland, when freshmen of a technical university take care of student union club tasks (usually arranging a party or such activity), they are referred as "kuli" or performing a "kuli duty".
  • In the United States Marine Corps, a Lance Corporal is sometimes referred to jokingly as a "Lance Coolie", due to their often being picked for work details or chosen to perform menial tasks not related to their actual Military Occupational Specialty, especially in units that do not have many Privates or Privates First Class.
  • In Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, Suriname, Jamaica, Belize, Fiji, Mauritius, and South Africa, coolie is used loosely to refer to anyone of Indian or South Asian descent. It is sometimes used in a racially derogatory context and sometimes used in friendly banter.
  • The 2014 chutney song called Coolie Bai Dance by the Indo-Guyanese singer, Romeo "Mystic" Nermal, is about the lifestyle of the traditional, villager "coolie" (Indo-Caribbean) people in Guyana and the rest of the Caribbean.
  • In many English-speaking countries, the conical Asian hat worn by many Asians to protect themselves from the sun is called a "coolie hat."
  • In the Information Technology industry, offshore workers are sometimes referred to as 'coolies' because of their lower wages.
  • The term "coolie" appears in the Eddy Howard song, "The Rickety Rickshaw Man".
  • The term "coolie" appears in the Chris LeDoux song, "Daydream Cowboy".
  • Poet and semiologist Khal Torabully coined the word coolitude to refer to a postcolonial, postmodern vision of humanism and diversity born from the indenture or coolie experience.
  • In Turkish, köle is the term for slave.
  • In Hungarian, "kulimunka", literally "coolie work", refers to back-breaking, repetitive work.
  • In India, the term is often used to refer to a person paid to carry people's bags at a railway station
  • In Sri Lanka, "kuliwada" is the term for manual labor.
  • Films

    Coolie (1983) is an Indian film about a coolie, played by Amitabh Bachchan, who works at a railway station and has a lover. His lover's father once murdered a girl's father in an attempt to force her to marry him, but she did not give in. After 10 years of imprisonment, he flooded her village (injuring her new husband) and causing her to awaken with amnesia. It also starred Rishi Kapoor, Kader Khan, Waheeda Rehman among others.

    In the racially controversial film "The Mask of Fu Manchu" (1932) Sir Denis Nayland Smith mentions his team's temporarily hired Chinese workers at the 27:20 mark regarding Dr. Fu Manchu, "... his spies are all around us. I can't even trust our own Coolies."

    The film "The Sand Pebbles" (1966) depicts Coolies working as laborers assisting American sailors aboard an American gun boat in 1926 civil war era China. The story, among many parallel story lines, involves an American Navy engineer (Steve McQueen) befriending a Coolie working under his command (Mako) in the engine room. The film was nominated for 8 Oscars. Richard Attenborough won the best supporting actor Golden Globe.

    The film Romper Stomper (1992) shows a white power skinhead named Hando (played by Russell Crowe) expressing distress about the idea of being a coolie in his own country. Also, the gang he directs makes frequent attacks at gangs of working class Vietnamese Australians.

    The documentary film directed by Yung Chang called Up the Yangtze (2007) follows the life of a family in China that is relocated due to the flooding of the Yangtze. The daughter is sent directly from finishing middle school to work on a cruise ship for western tourists, to earn money for her family. Her father referred to himself as a "coolie" who used to carry bags on and off of boats.


    In Hell on Wheels (e.g., season 3, episode 1), frequent references are made to the hardworking, underpaid Chinese coolies who helped build the Transcontinental Railroad.


    White Coolies by Betty Jeffrey (1954), an non-fiction account of a group of Australian nurses held captive and used as slave labour by the Japanese in WWII.


    The 2014 chutney song called Coolie Bai Dance by the Indo-Guyanese singer, Romeo "Mystic" Nermal, is about the lifestyle of the traditional, villager "coolie" (Indo-Caribbean) people in Guyana and the rest of the Caribbean.


    Coolie Wikipedia