The word coolie, meaning a labourer, has a variety of other implications and is sometimes regarded as offensive or a pejorative, depending upon the historical and geographical context. It is similar, in many respects, to the Spanish term peón, although both terms are used in some countries, with slightly differing implications.
The word originated in South Asia in the 17th century and meant day labourer but since the 20th century, the word means porters at railway stations.Bollywood films celebrating coolies include Deewaar (1975), Coolie (1983) and Coolie No. 1 (1995).
However, coolie is now regarded as derogatory and/or a racial slur in the Caribbean, Africa, Oceania, North America, South America, Southeast Asia and Europe - in reference to people from Asia.[a] This is particularly so in South Africa, East Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Suriname, Jamaica, Mauritius, Fiji, and the Malay Peninsula. In 2000, the parliament of South Africa enacted the Promotion of Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, which has among its primary objectives the prevention of hate speech terms such as coolie (koelie).
An etymological explanation is that the word came from Hindustani word qul? (, ), which itself could be from the Ottoman Turkish word for slave (or as a general name for imperial subjects regardless of other social status), (qul). Another explanation is that the Hindustani word qul? originated from the Gujarati aboriginal tribe or caste known as Kuli, and the word was picked up by the Portuguese who then used it in South India, hence the Tamil word kuli. 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.
Social and political pressure led to the abolition of the slave trade throughout the British Empire in 1833, 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. For those who did sign on voluntarily, they generally signed on for a period of two to five years. In addition to having their passage paid for, coolies were also paid under twenty cents per day, on average. However, over a dollar would be taken from them every month in order to pay off their 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. One of the first people to begin importing coolies from the East was Sir John Gladstone.
The coolie trade was often compared to the earlier slave trade and they accomplished very similar things. Much like slave plantations, one Caribbean estate could have over six hundred coolies, with Indians making up over half. Much like slave plantations, there were preconceived notions of how different ethnicities worked. In his paper "Eastern Coolie Labour", W. L. Distant recalled his time on an estate observing the work ethic and behaviors of coolies. Just as many believed that Africans had an affinity for hard outdoor labor, Distant believed that Indian, Chinese, and Japanese coolies were different in their ability to perform certain jobs. Indian coolies were viewed as lower in status. Those who ran estates believed that Chinese and Japanese coolies were harder working, united, and clean. Indian coolies, on the other hand, were viewed as dirty and were treated as children who required constant supervision.
Although there are reports of ships for Asian coolies carrying women and children, the great majority of them were men. 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.
Workers from China were mainly transported to work in Peru and Cuba. However, many Chinese laborers worked in British colonies such as Singapore, New South Wales, Jamaica, British Guiana (now Guyana), British Malaya, Trinidad and Tobago, British Honduras (now Belize) - as well as in the Dutch colonies within the Dutch East Indies, and Suriname. The first shipment of Chinese labourers was to the British colony of Trinidad in 1806.
The coolie-slave trade, mainly consisting of debt slavery, was called the 'pig trade' as their living conditions were not dissimilar to that of livestock; on some vessels as many as 40 percent of the coolies died en route. As many as 500 were crammed into a single ship hold, leaving no room to move. The recruited labourers were required to pay for their ship fares from meager earnings which were frequently below living expenses, forcing them into virtual slavery. The coolies were also stamped on their backs like livestock. Foreign merchants took advantage of the British terms imposed on China after the Opium Wars, as well as resulting political and economic chaos, to broker deals for 'contracted' workers . Portuguese Macao was the center of this trade: coolie-slaves were described as "the only real business" in Macao from 1848 to 1873, generating enormous profits for the Portuguese until it was banned due to pressure from the British government.
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 - such ports were immediately closed. Despite these closures, the trade simply shifted to the more accommodating port within 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. 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; it is estimated that from 1847 to 1859, the average mortality rate for coolies aboard ships to Cuba was 15.2 percent, and losses among those aboard ships to Peru were as high as 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 due to hard labour and mistreatment. Survivors 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 immigrants in the United States were also subject to harsh working and social conditions. 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 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 levied a monthly tax on Chinese immigrants doing business in the state, and the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited immigration of Chinese laborers (repealed 1943).
Despite 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 Pérez 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.
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 British Mauritius, British Fiji, New South Wales, British Natal, British East Africa, British Tanganyika, British Somaliland, British Bechuanaland, British Seychelles, British Uganda, British Northern Rhodesia, British Rhodesia, British Nyasaland, British Guiana, British Trinidad and Tobago, British Jamaica, British Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, British Honduras, Saint Kitts and Nevis, British Barbados, the rest of the British West Indies, and British Malaya. The Dutch shipped workers to labor on the plantations on Dutch Surinam the Netherlands Antilles, and the Dutch East Indies. The French shipped laborers to Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana, the rest of the French West Indies, and Réunion.
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. Indians had faced a great number of social and economic disasters, causing them to be more eager than other groups to leave India. In the last part of the nineteenth century alone, there were 24 famines.
Without permission from the British authorities, the French transported Indian workers to their sugar producing colony, Reunion Island, from as early as 1826. By 1830, over 3,000 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, limited the length of service to five years subject to voluntary renewal, 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. Coolies were also not informed about the length of the trip or about the island that they would be going to. 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. Generally, Indian coolies were noted to have higher mortality rates as a whole, and were less likely to be able to return home. Companies would often promise good food, durable clothing, adequate housing, safe passage, and schools. However, these promises were rarely kept, leading to the higher mortality rate and image of Indian coolies being "dirty".
The voyage itself was often a highly dangerous venture, especially for coolie women. Though some ships had made attempts to prevent assault, rape, and general mistreatment in sailor contracts, these crimes were still common. Even with punishments in place, on ship and land, men who assaulted women and children were rarely punished, leaving women in an even more vulnerable position.
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. The campaign against coolie emigration was led by Joseph Sturge, with the Society of Friends. Petitions from Sturge, the Society of Friends, various other humanitarian groups, and from citizens of entire cities were routinely sent to the Colonial Offices. 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.
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).
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. Polyandry was a common practice amongst Indian coolies. Between 1845 and 1917, twenty-five percent of all Indians brought to the Caribbean were women. With women as a severe minority, their morality was questioned and the actions of men as a result of having so few women was blamed on the women. Between 1858 and 1859, laws were put into place stating that the ratio of men to women could not exceed 2:1, whereas before it was 3:1. However, there continued to be a severe shortage of women. This gave women a new sense of power when it came to choosing a partner. With a shortage of women, it became the responsibility of the male suitor to provide a hefty dowry to a woman's father, regardless of what caste she came from. Unfortunately, this also put women in a very vulnerable position, especially when alone. Rape was a common occurrence, and there were accounts of women being bound and gagged in their own home by men. Between 1872 and 1900, it was reported that 87 women were murdered with 65 of those being married women who were accused of being unfaithful.
The scarcity of Indian women in the Caribbean may not have been completely due to the women's inability to perform work required of them. Many coolie women saw the chance to leave for the Caribbean as a way to escape abusive husbands, to hide pregnancy, to escape shame, or to simply find a better life. The 1883 Indian Immigration Act aimed to stop women from escaping their abusive husbands, which in turn made it much more difficult for women to emigrate. This in part due to an agent generally needing to travel to the woman's village in order to verify who she was.
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. One stark difference between Indian and Chinese coolies was the treatment of women, despite both groups having a severe shortage. Though there were crimes against women and women being murdered, these incidents were nowhere near as frequent as with Indian coolies. Though this was because there were so few Chinese, it became common for people to believe that Indians murder their women while Chinese women stay alive because, unlike their Indian counterparts, they are chaste.
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. Though the lack of women became a problem in later years, initially women were not high on the priority list when it came to coolie recruitment. Generally, it was believed that women were unwilling to perform the hard outdoor labor. Those who did perform it were still seen as not as good as men.
In 2000, the parliament of South Africa enacted the Promotion of Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act. The Act's primary objectives include the prevention of hate speech terms, such as coolie (koelie):
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.
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."
In the 1934 film, "Mandalay", the character, Tanya, played by Kay Francis, calls Nick, the club owner, "coolie", and he slaps her across the face in response.
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 the 1955 film The Left Hand of God Father Carmody (Humphrey Bogart) in the testy exchange with Dr. Sigman, the mission Doc, (E G Marshall) reminds the physician he is not one of his "coolie" patients.
In the 1899 novelette Typhoon by Joseph Conrad, the captain is transporting a group of coolies in the South China Sea. White Coolies by Betty Jeffrey (1954) is a 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.
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.