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Coolie labourer c. 1900 in Zhenjiang, China. The bamboo pole he leans upon was used to hoist and carry the bundle at his feet with the pole over his shoulder and the bundle leaning against his back. On the left side of the image, in the background, another man uses this same technique of bearing a heavy load.

Coolie (variously spelled Cooly, Kuli, Quli, Koelie etc.) is:


In 1727 Dr. Engelbert Kämpfer described "coolies" as dock laborers who would unload Dutch merchant ships at Nagasaki.[2][3] According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word dates to the mid-17th century. The word coolie can be traced back to the Urdu word qulī (क़ुली, قلی), which means "(day-)labourer". This Urdu form has an initial uvular velar (a sound alien to Indic languages like Hindi), which clearly indicates its foreign origin. It is probably a borrowing from a Turkic language (via Persian), possibly a shortening of Arabic ghulam "servant". Alternative suggestions, viz. from Kulī, an aboriginal tribe in Gujarat[4][5] or to the Tamil word kuli கூலி ("wages") (Encyclopædia Britannica) are therefore less likely. Another form closely related to the Hindi qūlī is the Bengali kuli. It is also closely related to the Urdu term "qulī" or "kulī", meaning slave, which was possibly influenced by the unrelated Ottoman Turkish "qul" or Turkish "köle", also meaning slave.[6]

The Chinese word (Pinyin: kǔlì) literally means "bitterly hard (use of) strength". The most commonly used cultural Chinese term is (Pinyin: gū lí / Cantonese: Guu Lae).


File:East Indian Coolies in Trinidad - Project Gutenberg eText 16035.jpg

East Indian coolies on a Trinidad cacao estate, c. 1903.


19th century United States illustration showing a racist depiction of the Chinese now called "the coolie stereotype".

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.[citation needed]

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.[7]

By the mid- to late 19th-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.[8][9]


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.[citation needed] But the highly intensive colonial labour on sugar cane or cotton plantations, in mines or railways, required cheap manpower[citation needed].

Experiments were carried with Malagasy, Japanese, Breton, Portuguese, Yemeni and/or Congolese laborers. Ultimately the "ideal coolies" were the Indians, shipped to many Indian Ocean islands, East and South Africa, Fiji, Guyana, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Trinidad, Jamaica, Grenada, Suriname and Panama to name only some of the lands where 'Taylorization' was applied as a means of increasing productivity worldwide.[citation needed]

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 (Canada). The coolie trade became regarded as "a new form of slavery".[citation needed]

Recruitment and trade

After slavery was abolished there was a severe lack of labour in many European colonies. Although labourers were supposed to be recruited by voluntary negotiation, it is evident that trickery and deceit were common and outright kidnapping occurred as well.[10]

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 to 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 last was closed rather quickly when abuses were made public in India.[citation needed]

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.[11]

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.[12]

Indentured labourers from Indochina were recruited primarily by France and sent to other French colonies.

The coolie trade was criticised for unfairness to workers, and for being de facto slavery.[citation needed] Labourers would be transported aboard packed vessels to be sent to their destinations, and many would die enroute due to malnutrition, disease, or other mistreatment. Mutinies were also known to occur during transportation.[12] 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.[12]

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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] 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.


Indian female "Coolie woolwashers" in 19th century South Africa.

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. A similar settlement also took place in Malaysia.

In India and South Africa, Mahatma Gandhi led a campaign against such indentured servitude. Many of the servants who had gone to Africa remained there permanently, effectively becoming immigrants.

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 the Americas

Chinese immigration to the United States was almost entirely voluntary, but working and social conditions were still harsh:

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."[13]

File:Chinese railroad workers in snow.jpg

Chinese immigrant workers building the Transcontinental Railroad.

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.[14]

File:Newly arrived coolies in Trinidad.jpg

Newly arrived Indian coolies in Trinidad.

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 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 1838 and 1917, at least "238,909 Indians were introduced into British Guiana, 143,939 into Trinidad, 42,326 into Guadeloupe, 37,027 into Jamaica, 34,304 into Suriname, 25,209 into Martinique, 8,472 into French Guiana, 4,354 into Saint Lucia, 3,206 into Grenada, 2,472 into Saint Vincent, 337 into Saint Kitts, 326 into Saint Croix, and 315 into Nevis. Belize also received Indians, but they did not come under the indentureship scheme, some where exiled [Sepoy] soldiers and families. In 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).

Champions of the coolies

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.

Modern use

  • In the 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai, when his men 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.
  • In Malay, "kuli" is term for slave.
  • In Thai, kuli (กุลี) still retains its original meaning as manual labourers, but is considered to be offensive.[citation needed]
  • 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.[15]
  • In Ethiopia, Cooli is a term that refers to those who carry heavy loads for someone. The word is not used as a slur however. The term used to describe Arab day-laborers who migrated to Ethiopia for labor work.[citation needed]
  • 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 is used as a slur amongst Surinamese to designate Hindoestanen.[16]
  • Among oversea Vietnamese, coolie ("cu li" in Vietnamese) now means a person who works a part-time job. It's most used as a slang by oversea Vietnamese college students.[citation needed]
  • In many English-speaking countries, the conical Asian hat worn by many Asians to protect themselves from the sun is called a "coolie hat".
  • The term "coolie" appears in the Eddy Howard song, "The Rickety Rickshaw Man". (It was the rickshaw that was rickety; the subject of the song was portrayed as a "ladies' man".)

In media



Coolie DVD cover.

In Stephen Chow's 2004 action-comedy Kung Fu Hustle, former Shaolin monk Xing Yu plays a character named Coolie, who does hard labor in a multi-floored apartment-block village called "Pig Sty Alley". However, when a petty thief (Stephen Chow) and his sidekick pose as members of the infamous "Axe Gang" and accidentally bring upon the wrath of actual members, Coolie is the first of three retired martial artists who come to the village's aid. He is a master of the 12 Kicks of the Tam School (十二路潭腿), a leg-oriented boxing style. He is later beheaded by assassins hired by the Axe Gang to kill the village's landlords.

Coolie is an 1983 Indian film about a coolie, 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 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. [4]

The film Romper Stomper 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 runs makes frequent attacks at gangs of working class Vietnamese Australians.


The phrase was used repeatedly in the 1993-1994 Fox weird west series The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.–set in the 1890s–in reference to Chinese workers.

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 Template:Convert/lb 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.

The coolie later befriends Hung and they escape to the Shaolin Monastery to hide from Qing Dynasty forces and to learn Shaolin Kung Fu.[17]


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.[citation needed] 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,[citation needed] 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.

See also



  1. Most current dictionaries do not record any offensive meaning ("an unskilled laborer or porter usually in or from the Far East hired for low or subsistence wages" Merriam-Webster) or make a distinction between an offensive meaning in referring to "a person from the Indian subcontinent or of Indian descent" and an at least originally inoffensive, old-fashioned meaning, for example "dated an unskilled native labourer in India, China, and some other Asian countries" (Compact Oxford English Dictionary). However, some dictionaries indicate that the word may be considered offensive in all contexts today. For example, Longman's 1995 edition had "old-fashioned an unskilled worker who is paid very low wages, especially in parts of Asia", but the current version adds "taboo old-fashioned a very offensive word ... Do not use this word".
  2. Kämpfer, Engelbert (1727). The History ofk,o Japan.
  3. Encyclopædia Britannica, Dictionary, Arts, Sciences, and General Literature (9th, American Reprint ed.). Maxwell Sommerville (Philadelphia). 1891. pp. 296. Volume VI.
  4. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.
  5. Ask oxford
  6. Oxford English Dictionary 2008.
  7. Specifically, Trinidad Sentinel 6 August 1857. Also, Original Correspondence of the British Colonial Office in London (C.O. 884/4, Hamilton Report into the Carnival Riots, p. 18).
  8. McClellan, Robert. "Heathen Chinee: A Study of American Attitudes Toward China, 1890–1905". Columbus: Ohio State University Press. 1971. pp. 272
  9. 9.0 9.1 [1] Los Angeles Times April 19, 2002.
  10. [2] Journal of Asian American Studies 2004
  11. Ibid.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Macao, Illustrations of China and Its People, John Thomson 1837-1921, (London,1873-1874)
  13. University of Arkansas
  14. [3] The Chinese in California, 1850-1879
  15. Humanitarian Movement Against Child Oppression & Others Living in Exploitation
  16. Straattaal Straatwoordenboek: Definitie
  17. The Kung Fu Master movie review

Further reading

  • Williams, Eric. 1962. History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago. Andre Deutsch, London.
  • Yule, Henry and Burnell, A. C. (1886): Hobson-Jobson The Anglo-Indian Dictionary. Reprint: Ware, Hertfordshire. Wordsworth Editions Limited. 1996.
  • Le grand dictionnaire Ricci de la langue chinoise, (2001), Vol. III, p. 833.
  • Khal Torabully and Marina Carter, Coolitude: An Anthology of the Indian Labour Diaspora Anthem Press, London, 2002 ISBN 1-84331-003-1

External links


de:Kuli (Tagelöhner) et:Kuli es:Culí eo:Kulio fr:Coolie id:Kuli it:Coolie my:ကူလီ nl:Koelie ja:苦力 pl:Kulis pt:Coolie ru:Рабочие-кули sv:Kuli zh-yue:咕喱 zh:苦力

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