Coolie (variously spelled Cooly, Kuli, Quli, Koelie etc.) is:
When it first entered the English language, "coolie" was a designative term describing a low-status class of workers rather than a pejorative term for them. However, in the wake of centuries of colonialism and the social inequalities thereof, it has taken on not only the characteristics of a slur in the general sense but also that of a racial epithet. In this last sense, it has been applied to Asian people regardless of their professions or socio-economic standing with obviously insulting intent.
For example, by the 1850s in Trinidad, the annual Muharram or Hosay festival that came over from India was being called "the Coolie Carnival." Through the Caribbean, as well as in Sri Lanka, South Africa, and elsewhere, the word soon came to denote any person of Indian origin or descent.
By the mid to late 19 century in the United States, the term "coolie" and other trappings of the "coolie stereotype" were already being used to mock (for example) Chinese-American launderers or restaurateurs who owned their own businesses.
The term coolie was applied to workers from Asia, especially those who were sent abroad to most of the Americas, to Oceania and the Pacific Islands, and to Africa (especially South Africa and islands like Mauritius and Réunion). It was also applied within Asian areas under European control such as Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Slavery had been widespread in the British empire, but social and political pressure led to its being outlawed by the Slave Trade Act 1807; within a few decades, many other European nations had outlawed slavery. But the highly intensive colonial labour on sugar cane or cotton plantations, in mines or railways, required cheap manpower.
Experiments were carried with Malagasy, Japanese, Breton or Congolese laborers. Ultimately the "ideal coolies" were the Indians, shipped to many Indian Ocean islands, East and South Africa, Fiji, Guyana, Martinique, Trinidad, Jamaica, to name only some of the lands where taylorization was applied as a means of increasing productivity worldwide.
Chinese coolies were also sent to the New World. They worked in guano pits in Peru, in sugar cane fields in Cuba and built the railways in the United States and British Columbia. Hugh Tinker called the coolie trade "a new form of slavery".
Most Indian indentured labour was recruited for the British colonies through "Colonial Agents" who travelled to India. In India, they engaged the services of arkatias or recruiters who knew the places to find likely enlistees. A male/female ratio of 10:4 was sought, but women proved difficult to recruit for overseas and allegations of deception and kidnapping seem plausible. "Emigration Depots" were set up in Kolkata, Madras and Bombay although the latter was closed rather quickly when abuses were made public in India.
Many voluntary émigrées came from among the very poor people of Madras, Bengal, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar. Once established, this system gained momentum as British policies destroyed domestic or cottage industry, crafts and family farms through taxation and the zamindar system. Famines continued to flow out of India for decades.
Around 1845, after the end of the first Opium War (1840-1842), a center for emigration at Shantou organised a network for transporting Chinese from Guangdong, Amoy, and Macau to the Americas, especially to the silver mines in Peru and the sugar plantations of Cuba and other West Indian islands. Most of them would have been kidnapped from Guangdong province.
The coolie trade was criticised for unfairness to workers, and for being de facto slavery. Labourers would be transported aboard packed vessels to be sent to their destinations, and many would die on the way there due to malnutrition, disease, or other mistreatment. Mutinies were also known to occur during transportation. The Dea del Mar which had set sail to Callao from Macao in 1865 with 550 Chinese on board, arrived in Tahiti with 162 of them still alive.
This movement of labour population, the first form of wages in the wake of slavery, was referred to as a trade as it reminded one of the status applied to the slave, who was considered as a piece of furniture, which one could inherit legally. Though coolies were typically classified as indentured servants with a five-year contract, the remnants of slavery remained, and there was often a considerable gap between the law and its application.
Many investigators of the coolie trade reported dire and inhumane conditions, with flogging, sexual abuse and restrictive confinement being commonplace. Many workers were not able to regain their freedom after serving five years for a planter, as was stated in the contract. The same situation prevailed in the West Indies and Mauritius.
In the British Empire, coolies were indentured labourers who lived under conditions often resembling slavery. The system, inaugurated in 1834 in Mauritius, involved the use of licensed agents after slavery had been abolished in the British Empire. Thus, indenture followed closely on the heels of slavery in order to replace the slaves. The labourers were however only slightly better off than the slaves had been. They were supposed to receive either minimal wages or some small form of payout (such as a small parcel of land, or the money for their return passage) upon completion of their indentures. Unlike slaves, these imported servants could not be bought or sold.
A massive number of Tamil coolies were shipped to Sri Lanka by the British for the coffee and tea plantations. It was also used to augment the minority populations of Sri Lanka. This was the second wave of settlement after the Tamils settled in Jaffna by the Dutch as laborers for tobacco cultivation. This tactic of demographic alteration was used by the British to suppress the native Sinhalese of Sri Lanka who had revolted numerous times against the British. A similar settlement also took place in Malaysia.
The permanent settlement of formerly indentured Indians created problems, particularly in Africa. The Natal province of the Union of South Africa and Kenya amassed clusters of such immigrants. In the Transvaal, after the conclusion of the Second Boer War, the deficiency of native African labor in the Rand mines led to the enactment of an ordinance in February 1904 that provided for the import of Chinese laborers.
The Boer element in the Transvaal was bitterly opposed to this ordinance, alleging it would introduce a new factor into the already serious racial tensions of South Africa. This issue was largely responsible for the Liberal triumph in the United Kingdom general election, 1906, by which time over 50,000 Asian labourers already had been imported.
The decision to put an end to indentured servitude first affected Natal and Mauritius in 1910. Other regions followed in 1917.
In 1868, the Burlingame Treaty repealed the century old prohibition law of the Chinese government and opened a floodgate of Chinese immigration. But a mere decade later, the American economy was in a slump and Chinese laborers were hired as scabs when white workers went on strike. During these years of unemployment and depression, anti-Chinese sentiment built around the country, fueled by demagogues such as Denis Kearney of San Francisco, who would rail in front of crowds that "To an American, death is preferable to life on a par with the Chinese.
Although Chinese labor contributed to the building of the 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 oppression of Chinese laborers in the United States.
Notwithstanding such attempts to restrict the influx of cheap labor from China, beginning in the 1870s Chinese workers played an indispensable role in the construction of a vast network of levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. These levees opened up thousands of acres of fertile marshlands for agricultural production.
According to the Constitution of the State of California (1879):
The presence of foreigners ineligible to become citizens of the United States is declared to be dangerous to the well-being of the State, and the Legislature shall discourage their immigration by all the means within its power. Asiatic coolieism is a form of human slavery, and is forever prohibited in this State, and all contracts for coolie labor shall be void. All companies or corporations, whether formed in this country or any foreign country, for the importation of such labor, shall be subject to such penalties as the Legislature may prescribe.
Indentured Chinese servants also labored in the sugarcane fields of Cuba well after the 1884 abolition of slavery in that country. Many scholars debate whether the Chinese coolies of Cuba should be called "slaves", the authoritative scholars of Chinese labor in Cuba, Juan Pastrana and Juan Perez de la Riva, substantiated the horrific conditions of Chinese coolies in Cuba and unreservedly stated that coolies were slaves in all but name. Before the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Havana had Latin America's largest Chinatown.
In South America, Chinese indentured laborers 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 infamously participated in the War of the Pacific, looting and burning down the haciendas where they worked, subsequent to the fall of Lima to the invading Chilean army in January 1880.
Between 1836 and 1917, at least "238,000 Indians were introduced into British Guiana, 145,000 into Trinidad, 21,500 into Jamaica, 39,000 into Guadeloupe, 34,000 into Surinam, 1,550 into St. Lucia, 1,820 into St. Vincent, 2,570 into Grenada. In 1859, there were 6,748 Indians in Martinique." Although these were incomplete statistics, Eric Williams (see references) believed they were "sufficient to show a total introduction of nearly half a million Indians into the Caribbean" (Williams 100).
While Black slavery was abolished in 1848, coolies in Guadeloupe, the French West Indies, were brought from 1854 to 1889, but they were not to be recognised as French citizens until 1923, as a result of the 9-year court struggle of self-made Henri Sidambarom with the French Government.
Another man was to champion the cause of the coolies in Mauritius : Adolph von Plevitz, who denounced the inhuman treatments inflicted on those poorly educated labourers.
Coolie is a 1983 Indian film about a coolie Amitabh Bachchan who works on a railway station. His lover's father is man who murdered a girl's father 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 wake up with amnesia. It starred Amitabh Bachchan and Waheeda Rehman.
Guiana 1838 is a 2004 docu-drama that explores the unknown world of indentureship and slavery in the British Colonies of the West Indies. It reveals the trials and tribulation of both the resilent African slaves and the unsuspecting Indians from Calcutta who were sold on the golden dreams of "El Dorado" only to find themselves on a slave ship to hard labor in an unforgiving land.
In Donnie Yen's 1994 martial arts mini-series "Hung Hei-Gun: Decisive Battle With Praying Mantis Fists" (洪熙官: 决战螳螂拳, a.k.a. "The Kung Fu Master"), a flood causes a large section of a heavily traveled bridge to collapse. A supernaturally strong coolie named Tung Chin-gun builds a make shift section and charges people to cross it while he holds it above his head. At one point, he supports the combined weight of a merchant's retinue and live stock.
He later sets up a sign that reads "power for sale" and charges people to lift them to the top floor of a famous restaurant on a chair strapped to a long bamboo ladder. A rackish Manchu prince has two of his men ride the chair to the top, but as it nears the edge, they dig their feet into the ledge and push back with their legs, making it harder for Tung. Then the prince punches a heavy food cart at the coolie. He stops the cart with one hand and then pushes on the ladder with the other, overpowering the two men and sending them and the ladder flying into the restaurant.
When the prince challenges a fellow suitor to fight Tung over the right to marry a girl, legendary martial arts hero Hung Hei-Gun (Donnie Yen) opts to fight in the suitor's stead. (Hung later visits Tung at home and discovers he is competing in the fight in order to save up enough money to support his elderly blind mother). The battle takes place on a three-sided lei tai draped with a red cloth that reads "The Supreme Master in the world of martial arts". Despite the coolie's inhuman abilities, he lacks the Kung Fu training of which Hung is a master. Hung aims for a vital spot under Tung's arm and then unleashes a series of kicks that sends him flying from the fighting stage.
Literature and culture reflected the dereliction of the indentured, who created baitkas or village centres to learn or uphold their tales, religions, sacred texts and start a nucleus of political awareness. Yet the 1930s négritude movement, focusing on the plight of the Blacks, failed to chart the cultural suffering of the coolies. Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, for instance, spoke of the "Hindu man from Calcutta" in his Cahier d'un retour au pays natal , reflecting the perception he had of the coolie, as still exterior to the West Indian community.
Gilbert Gratiant was among the first writers of this region to give some presence to this citizen in limbo. A new awareness was expressed by Marcel Cabon, Loys Masson and Malcolm de Chazal in Mauritius.
Most recently, poet Khal Torabully's Cale d'étoiles-Coolitude (Azalées éditions, 1992) introduces the neologism, "coolitude." Torabully defines coolitude as a postcolonial and postmodern aesthetics, anchored in otherness, that goes beyond the specific condition of Asian migrant labor.