If you lived for some time in Guyana, you might have heard the expression “coolie man,” “coolie boy,” “coolie woman,” “coolie people” etc in local dialect.
In Guyana, the expression “coolie” is used colloquially to refer to someone of East Indian ancestry.
But what is the etymology of this word? And what exactly does it mean?
In American culture, a “cool” person is someone whom others admire and who has a great personality. But the word “coolie” in Guyana, interestingly, has nothing to do with being cool!
I should note here that people of East Indian descent in Guyana regularly refer to themselves and each others as “coolie” without any offence intended or construed.
People of other races also speak to and of East Indians using the reference term “coolie” with hardly anyone taking offence in it.
I was made to understand that the expression “coolie” was probably given to East Indians indentured laborers by plantation owners. It supposedly means a person of East Indian descent who does unskilled labor.
As you probably know, East Indians were hired to work as indentured laborers on the plantations after the abolition of slavery. The were noted to be the most durable plantation workers of all other races or nationalities, and were able to endure the “heat and hardship.”
Nevertheless, the term “coolie” as applied to East Indian Guyanese carries a mild to moderate offensive connotation. It is perhaps on par with the derogatory word “nigger” given to slaves of African descent by both American and British plantation owners.
East Indians who came from India to work as cane cutters on the sugar plantations of Guyana supposedly came from very poor environment with little opportunities or upward social mobility. The Indian Caste system “caste” them into the mold of poverty in India. Those who came to work in Guyana were given ample opportunities to upgrade themselves financially and educationally.
As a result of the British Education, a large fraction of East Indian Guyanese scaled the ladder of success to become teachers, doctors, businessmen, bankers, engineers, lawyers etc.
Being in Guyana provided a much greater opportunity to migrate to First World countries such as the United States, Canada and even the motherland England. This is because English became the official language of Guyana and was taught in school. East Indian Guyanese were noted as being diligent and dedicated workers when they migrated overseas.
Related: The term “coolie” as a racial slur bears a brunt of offensiveness. And the term “nigger” when used to refer to Africans has been a derogatory term. But some words change their meaning from time to time. And the word “nigger” has been taking on a whole new meaning recently.