The term "coolie" refers to unskilled laborers from Asia in the 1800s to early 1900s who were sent to the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Peru, North Africa, Sri Lanka and the West Indies. more...
The term usually referred to Chinese, Indian, Japanese and Korean laborers and was often used in a derogatory way.
Origin and general usage
The word may derive from the Chinese word è‹¦åŠ› kÇ” lÃ¬ which literally means "bitterly hard (use of) strength". However, Webster's New World Dictionary of the English Language traces it back to the Hindi qÅ«lÄ«, which means "hired laborer." Other forms occur in the Bengali, kuli and the Tamil, kuli, "daily hire." The following statement explains why coolie labor was imported for colonial enterprises: "In tropical countries where white labor is impossible, there arose with the abolition of slavery a need for cheap labor capable of doing the heavy tasks of plantations, factories, and shipping."
In India, "coolie" refers to porters who work at railway stations. In Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and other parts of the Caribbean, as well as Sri Lanka and South Africa, the word is considered an offensive racial slur on par with "nigger."
In the British Empire, a "coolie" was an indentured labourer with conditions resembling slavery. The system had been inaugurated in 1842 and involved the use of licensed agents. Slavery itself had been banished from the British Empire in 1834. The need to replace the slaves generated the use of laborers who were only slightly better off than the slaves had been. In India and South Africa, Mahatma Gandhi led a campaign against such indentured servitude. Many "coolies" who entered Africa stayed there permanently, effectively becoming immigrants.
The permanent settlement of formerly indentured Indians created problems in Africa, in particular. The Natal province of the Union of South Africa and Kenya amassed clusters of such immigrants. In the Transvaal, after the conclusion of the Boer War, the deficiency of native labor in the Rand mines led to the enactment of an ordinance in February, 1904, providing for the importation of Chinese laborers. The Boer element in the Transvaal was bitterly opposed to the ordinance as tending to introduce a new factor into the already serious racial problem of South Africa. The issue was largely responsible for the Liberal triumph in the United Kingdom general election, 1906, by which time over 50,000 Asiatic laborers had been imported. The decision to put an end to the system affected firstly Natal and Mauritius in 1910 and other places afterwards in 1917.
Chinese coolies contributed to the building of the Transcontinental Railroad in the United States, as well as the Canadian Pacific Railway in Western Canada, but many of the Chinese laborers were not welcome to stay after its completion. California's Anti-Coolie Act of 1862 and Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 also contributed to the oppression of Chinese laborers in the United States. Coolies also labored in the sugarcane fields of Cuba well after the 1884 abolition of slavery in that country. Before the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Havana had Latin America's largest Chinatown. In South America, Coolies labored in Peru's coastal economy (guano, sugar, cotton) from the early-1850s to the mid-1870s; about 100,000 came as indentured workers. They had an infamous participation in the War of the Pacific as they looted and burned down the haciendas outlying Lima where they worked right after Lima fell to the invading Chilean army in January 1880.
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