Asian Coolies - their hardship in the British colonies

A coolie is referred to an unskilled laborer hired by a company, mainly from the Indian subcontinent or Southern China. This term was used by the foreigners in the  by-gone days.  Across India, coolie is a common term used by people, meaning wages given to porters at railway stations, cart pullers or construction workers. The word is believed to have been  originated from the name of a Gujarati community - the ''Kolī'',who worked as day
laborers. Some consider it a word in Urdu ''qulī'' or Turkish word 'qul''. The other possibility of its origin is Tamil, an ancient Indian language, meaning a payment for work, kuli. work.

Image below: William Wilberforce (24 August 1759 – 29 July 1833) was an English politician, philanthropist, and was instrumental in eradicating  the slave trade and was mainly responsible for  the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. A native of Kingston upon Hull, Yorkshire, he was an independent Member of Parliament (MP) for Yorkshire (1784–1812). In 1785, he became an Evangelist. ----

William Wilberforce,English Politician
'coolies' in the
The Slave Trade Act received the Royal Assent on 25 March 1807 after years of debate, arguments, and discussions.  William Wilberforce (24 August 1759 – 29 July 1833), an English politician, philanthropist and a humane person was instrumental in the passage of this important bill that changed the the relationship between owners and workers. It is an important event  in world history. It almost put an end to untold atrocities committed  by one
race on other races. Prior to the Slave Trade Act, Wilberforce  had  headed the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade for 
twenty years until the passage of the bill of 1807. Labor - intensive industries such as cotton and sugar plantations, mines and railway construction, in the colonies, the slave owners and slave brokers felt the pinch, as the era of cheap labor and over exploitation of innocent people  was gone. In the wake of this huge shortage, the slavery took new avatar called ''indentured labor force'' which began its ugly head in the 1820s to fill the hiatus caused by slaves. Owing to the abolition of Slavery,  the planters received a whooping two million pounds sterling in compensation for the loss of their slaves from the British government. This new  slave-like trade was ridden with many problems much similar to slave trade. Workers were kidnapped and sold to coolie brokers some were victims  of clan violence.  They were forced to sign labor contracts. Most of the labor contracts as prescribed by the British law had some holes. More attention was paid to break the laws than to follow them. 

British companies were the first to experiment with this potential new form of cheap labor in 1807, when they imported 200 Chinese men to work in Trinidad. Workers from Chinese workers specifically  were transported to work in Peru and Cuba, but they also worked in British colonies such as Jamaica, British Guiana (now Guyana), British Malaya, Trinidad and Tobago, British Honduras (now Belize) and in the Dutch colonies Dutch East Indies and Suriname.

Kidnapping and cheating of  coolies was common. They were kept in barracoons (detention centers) or loading vessels in the ports of departure, as were African slaves.  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.

The British began shipping enlisted Indians to colonies around the world, including Mauritius, Fiji, Natal, British East Africa, and British Malaya. The Dutch also shipped workers to the Dutch east Indies. The Indians primarily came from the Indo-Gangetic Plain, but also from Tamil Nadu and other areas to the south of the country. A section of them especially the workers from rural India were subject to maximum exploitation. Between 1834 and 1921, around half a million indentured laborers - coolies were on labor contract in Mauritius in the Indian ocean. They worked on sugar estates, factories, in transport and on construction sites owned by the British masters. 

 In 1837, the Raj issued a new regulation limiting the years of contract to 5 years subject to renewal. The planter had to bear the transportation costs, etc and was responsible for the workers' health. In 1844, the trade was expanded to the colonies in the West Indies, including Jamaica, Trinidad, etc where the Asian population was soon a major component of the island' population. 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.  Regulatory framework to check over population was  put into place  in 1842 and severe penalties were imposed for breaking laws.  In Dutch colonies in East Indies and also in other colonies,  inter racial marriages between Indian women and Chinese became common as the workers were mostly Chinese males.


The Chinese coolies faced similar discriminatory problems on the plantations, etc. Chinese entry into the US was voluntary,unlike the British, French and Dutch colonies, but their survival in the wild west era - in a lawless land was a tough one. In those days ''To an American, death is preferable to life on a par with the Chinese."

The Chinese workers' contribution to the building of the first Transcontinental Railroad in the United States and of the Canadian Pacific Railway in western Canada was laudable. However, after the completion of projects,  Chinese settlement was discouraged. California's Anti-Coolie Act of 1862 and the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 were introduced  to  curtail  Chinese immigration to the United States.


The word coolie is often  used as a racial slur in Africa for certain people from Asia, particularly in South Africa.

There is a huge gravity dam in the State of Washington in the Pacific NW, USA called Grand Coulée across the Columbia river. It was built during the Great depression and the construction work gave employment to thousands of poor Americans. Coulee here apparently refers to unemployed poor Americans.