First Published: 6th of October, 2018Last updated: April 28, 2023 at 18:38 pm
If you lived for any amount of time in Guyana, South America, 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!
After the abolition of slavery, East Indians were hired to work as indentured laborers on the plantations of Guyana. They were noted to be the most durable plantation workers of all other races or nationalities, and were most able to endure the hard physical labor, heat, and harsh working conditions of the sugar plantations
Common knowledge suggests that the expression “coolie” was used to brand East Indians indentured laborers by British plantation owners. Although the linguistic etymology of the word is unclear, it apparently means a person of East Indian descent who does unskilled labor. In the context of Guyana, this word, which was perhaps originally used to describe a type of laborer, was transformed into a colloquial and somewhat derogatory nomenclature for an entire race or ethnic group of people in Guyana, the Caribbean, and perhaps other parts of the world as well.
The term “coolie” as applied to East Indian Guyanese carries a mildly to moderately offensive connotation. It is almost on par with the derogatory word “nigger” which was given to slaves of African descent by both American and British slave owners.
The Hill Coolies
The following excerpt is taken from a Research Paper published by the University of Leeds, UK, which states that the term, “coolie” was used by British Plantation owners to refer to low-income indentured laborers after the abolition of slavery.
Abolitionists in Britain protested indignantly about abuses being perpetrated against ignorant and helpless Indian ‘hill coolies.’ The term ‘hill coolies’ has become synonymous with indenture. In the early nineteenth century it was applied, with little ethnographic precision, to various ‘tribal’Source
groups from the uplands of what is now Jharkhand in eastern India. These groups made up a significant portion of the earliest indentured migrants and were presented as the most backward and vulnerable of all the inhabitants of India by those who sought to oppose their exploitation in the overseas labour market. Yet who the so-called ‘hill coolies’ actually were, how they related to the rest of the mobile Indian labour market, and why they were deemed suitable
candidates for indenture remained vaguely and imprecisely articulated in most abolitionist accounts.
Baggage Carrier or Low-Wage Laborer
Some evidence suggest that the word “coolie” has its root in India where the word was once used to describe baggage carriers who were paid a low wage at market places, train stations, and various ports in India. Possibly, when Europeans travelled to India, they thought all unskilled, low-wage workers were called coolies and adapted the word to brand all imported indentured laborers from India.
Reportedly, the Indian government banned the use of the word “coolie” in India because of its derogatory nature, and luggage carriers in India are now called “helpers.”
Possibly Originated from “Kuli”
The word “coolie” which was used to describe low-wage laborers, especially baggage cariers, in India, possibly originated from the word “kuli” which is found in the Tamil, Urdu, and Begali languages where it means, “daily hire” or “short term hire.” In Urdu, it may also mean slave.
The “Coolies” of Guyana, South America
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 sometimes speak to and of East Indians using the colloquial expression “coolie” with hardly anyone taking offence to it.
East Indians who were contracted, lured, or coerced from India to work as indentured servants on the sugar plantations of Guyana reportedly came from very poor environments with little opportunities for upward social and economic mobility. The infamous East Indian Caste system had reportedly cast them into the mold of poverty in India. On the other hand, the offspring of those who came to work in Guyana were given ample opportunities to upgrade themselves financially and educationally. The idea that Guyana was an upgrade to India in this context, however, is debatable and highly contested, and perhaps can be settled by comparing the present conditions of life of the people of those geographic regions in India from where the East Indian indentured laborers were taken.
As a result of the British Education system, a large fraction of East Indian Guyanese scaled the ladder of success to become teachers, doctors, businessmen, bankers, engineers, lawyers, politicians, etc. Further, living 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 partly because English became the official language of Guyana and was taught in school.
Depending on the setting and context, the term “coolie” as a racial slur may carry a sting of offensiveness, but it is not considered as offensive as the term “nigger” which was used to brand African slaves.
I came across this word when I worked in Hong Kong. It was used to refer to labourers. Hong Kong was of course a british colony and the term may have been adopted by the british administration.