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The “Coolies” of Guyana, South America

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First Published: 6th of October, 2018

Last updated: July 5, 2022 at 13:09 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 of 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” given to slaves of African descent by both American and British slave drivers.

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’
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


Baggage Carrier or Low-Wage Laborer

The above cover of a Hindi Film is perhaps evidence that the word “coolie” was used to describe a baggage carrier perhaps fetching the luggage of rich foreigners who come to the country for a small fee.

Some accounts 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.

It was reported that the Indian government reportedly 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 reference term “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 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. Generally speaking, East Indian Guyanese are consistently reported to be diligent and dedicated workers when they migrate overseas.

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.

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A Non-Conventional Arrival Day Message – by Dr. Josh Kanhai

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Dr. Josh Kanhai, left, speaks with a fellow Guyanese on horseback.

First Published: 6th of May, 2021 by Patrick Carpen

Last updated: July 1, 2022 at 1:46 am

The conventional Arrival Day message seeks to glorify the East Indians’ arrival in Guyana and to celebrate the achievements and contributions of the East Indians in and towards Guyana. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But under the peaceful waters of cultural pride rages a deadly current of racism that few like to acknowledge. It is this unseen aspect of racial pride – the disunity created by unity – that Dr. Josh Kanhai seeks to address in his non-conventional Arrival Day Message.

We the People

This isn’t going to be the conventional speech for Indian Arrival Day. We are all equal at the end of the day. Cut my skin and you’ll see blood: the very same blood you have without a doubt.
We the people are of this nation without hesitation, we were birthed on a soil claimed to be Guyana, a soil they once called “El Dorado”. We beg to differ, I am El Dorado and you are as equal of an El Dorado as you can be.

They the people have grown, they have evolved on principles not of Darwin but on principles of race, heat, and hate. And they try to filter it down to us. They try to deviously deviate us from the narrow way of culture, tranquility, and peace which leads to progress. We will not blame them. However, we have to accept that this was something within the magnitude of a generational curse. Are you cursed my Guyanese brothers and sister?

Are you cursed with racism? Are you cursed with that need to just hate and unfortunately, horrifically hate an entire culture and label them within a class system. Are you going to figure out that I, that We, are not your enemy! Nobody is your enemy. No man is an island, and if he be an island, may he not be a volcano and erupt in his own ego.

We the people are going to move together for the better. We the people will continue to build on a foundation left by all of our fore parents and those before them. We the people have had enough of the time machine that only goes backward on one nugget of rhetoric. This is one nation, with #OnePeople working towards One Destiny.

By order of the #keepmovingforwardorg.

-Dr. Josh Kanhai
5th May, 2021.

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My Arrival Day Sentiments are Bitter/Sweet – by Romona Chanderballi

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First Published: 6th of May, 2021

Last updated: July 5, 2022 at 16:00 pm

As mentioned in our previous article, Indian Arrival Day, the attitudes of the descendants of colonized East Indians of British Guiana towards their colonial past are wide and varied. Some are thankful for the voyage that brought them a new life and new opportunities while others detest the compromising and sometimes harsh conditions to which their foreparents were subjected during their voyage to the new world.

In this story, a young girl reflects on her ancestry, colonial history, and her life now in modern-day Guyana. As you will see, her feelings about British Colonialism are also mixed. On one hand, she is thankful about some things, but on the other, she is infuriated about others.

by Ramona Chanderballi

Arrival Day usually gives me a mixed set of emotions. I’ve studied too much history in high school and read too much to not understand some of the ironies of this day. I’m eternally grateful for the fact that my fore parents made that journey across the Atlantic – whether by choice or not. I’m much better off for it and for their endurance and sacrifices.

I’m both infuriated and heartbroken at what they’ve had to endure on both the journey and the life after. I’m still learning of what the women went through because that was a time when women’s voices were never heard or recorded. I’m not sure I know how I feel that I cannot trace my roots to India even though we’ve held on as much as we could to this day.

I understand as much Hindi as I do Spanish. English and creole are my native tongue now. My wardrobe is an eternal mix of western clothes for everyday life and an explosion of colorful lehengas and saris and shalwars and kurtis and jhumkis and bangles and bindis. As I grew older, I started to realize that traditional Indian skincare works better for my skin and hair- turmeric face packs and neem products and coconut oil. It’s the biggest irony of my life – I tried to live a western life for generations only for my skin to remind me that I’m still very much who my ancestors are.

Today I remember my maternal great-grandparents, Kousilla and Parker Narine Singh, and Bhairo, because those are the last generation of my family that I know of. Their parents were the ones who made the journey across the Atlantic, but we don’t have any way of knowing their recorded names on the shipping manifest.

From left to right: Padmawattie Chanderballi (née Singh), Kousilla, Champa Tiwari (née Singh), and Parvati Loaknauth (née Singh) from Zeelandia Village in Wakenaam, Essequibo River. This photo was taken in Windsor Forest in the late 60s/early 70s.

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Phagwah Celebrations in Guyana (Holi)

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First Published: 28th of March, 2021 by Patrick Carpen.

Last updated: March 29, 2021 at 1:32 am

In Guyana, South America, Phagwah is known as the festival of colors. The celebration of Phagwah in Guyana is a national holiday which is celebrated by Guyanese of all races, classes, and religions. During the morning, buckets of water are used to drench one another, while in the afternoon, colored powders are dabbed and sprinkled on friends, and colored water is sprayed using a “water gun.”

The word “Phagwah” is an expression unique to the South American countries of Guyana and Suriname. Phagwah is actually the name given in these two countries to “Day 2” of of a sixteenday “Holi” celebrations in East Indian Hindu Tradition. The Festival of Holi begins with the burning of Holika which signifies the burning to death of an evil demon, Holika, in Hinduism.

While the Hindu community in Guyana perhaps celebrates the entire sixteen day Holi Festival, the majority of Guyanese of all races and classes only celebrate Day 2 of the Holi Festival which is uniquely named “Phagwah” in Guyana and is also a national holiday. In Guyana, the national holiday of Phagwah sees the closure of schools and businesses. On occasions where Phagwah falls on a weekend day such as Saturday or Sunday, the following Monday is given as a day off for schools and businesses.

While the celebration of Phagwah has its roots in the Hindu Religion of East Indian culture, in Guyana, the holiday takes on national significance instead of a religious or racial significance. Guyanese of all races, classes, and religions partake in the “Phagwah games” which include splashing with water in the mornings and staining with colored water and powders in the afternoon. The activity is seen as a unifying celebration that binds Guyanese of all races and religions into one happy, friendly, and united people.

Today, I pray the colours of love, peace, and happiness fill our hearts and our lives as we celebrate the ancient Hindu ‘festival of colours’ – Holi. This blend of beautiful colours represents the richness of our cultural diversity and the promise of a brighter tomorrow.

arya ali – first laday of guyana – 28th of march, 2021

As I Reflect – An Arrival Day Story – by Mr. Frank Satnarine

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First Published: 5th May, 2020

Last updated: July 3, 2022 at 1:08 am

My great great grandparents were the first batch of Coolies who came from India and settled in Guyana in 1838. My great great grandfather came willingly, aged 21: young and strong and looking for adventure. He came with 2 brothers. One brother died on the way and was buried at sea.

My great great grandmother was kidnapped, aged 15. She had gone to the shop, saw a crowd, went to investigate and ended up in a holding area. As night fell, from where she was held, she saw her father. He was looking for her, but he could not see her. That was the last time she saw him and India. The boat departed the same night and she left without saying goodbye.

During the 3-month journey, in order to save herself from being abused, she aligned herself with my great great grandfather and their union would last for 50 years. None of their descendants ever returned to India.

Their granddaughter was my grandmother. I grew up with her, and she told me everything I needed to know about life in India, the dreaded journey at sea and life in the colony when her grandparents arrived.

She told me also that without the help, support, and encouragement of the ex slaves, none of the Coolies would have survived. They needed food, medicine, and clothing, and this was provided in part by the British, but a greater part was provided by the ex-slaves. Some of the men also took for themselves young wives from the ex-slaves since the proportion of men were greater than women who came.

As I reflect today, 182 years later, I must be grateful for those who braved the oceans seeking a new life and those who were already here ( the ex slaves), thanking them for my very existence.

I have no photos, no names, just their stories. I have no one in India with whom I can connect. Guyana is my land, my people and my home.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Team Guyana, South America or the general Guyanese population. Do you have a Guyanese story to tell? Email us at:

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Indian Arrival Day – May 5th

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This article was first published on the 5th of May, 2020 by Patrick Carpen.

Last updated: May 5, 2021 at 17:01 pm

In Guyana, South America, the 5th of May each year is set aside as a national holiday to celebrate the Arrival of East Indians from the subcontinent of India to Guyana.

A Little Background Information

The first people to have arrived in Guyana were the Amerindians who came from Asia via the Berring Straight in search of food. This ice passage later melted. After the Amerindians came the Europeans in search of the Golden City of Eldorado. The Europeans never found El Dorado. However, they set up sugar plantations in Guyana.

To fulfill the labor needs of the plantation, the despicable practice of slavery, particularly the enslavement of Africans, was accelerated. Slaves were brought from Africa to labor on the plantations. But when slavery was abolished in 1838, the need for cheap labor caused the Europeans to set their sights on India.

The East Indian Indentureship System

As mentioned above, when slavery was abolished, the plantation owners in Guyana needed laborers to fill the void. They created a system of indentureship. This saw the arrival of the first batch of East Indians in 1838. India provided a steady supply of laborers who were able to stand up to the hard labor of the plantations, particularly manual cane harvesting. These unskilled laborers were often colloquially referred to as “coolies.”

The East Indians were transported via ships from 1838 to 1917 in a voyage that lasted three months. After failed experiments with Portuguese and Chinese indentured laborers, the East Indians, of all races, proved most able to tackle the hard labor of the sugar plantations in searing heat. They were also willing to work cheap. In exchange, they were facilitated with houses to live in and also paid a low salary. At the end of the five years period, they had the choice of either renewing their contract or return to India. Most chose to stay in Guyana.

The stories of indentureship vary significantly and are often contradictory. Some East Indians express great satisfaction, relating that indentureship in British Guiana rescued them from a life of drudgery and stagnation in India while others tell stories of a harsh life meted out to them in early British Guiana.

It is my personal opinion that indentureship was a good thing. It brought new opportunities and provided a better life for those who migrated from India. Many East Indians took advantage of the opportunities in Guyana to advance their education, create businesses, and migrate to the United States and other first world countries.

What is your opinion of indentureship and the British system of government in Guyana? Tell us in the comments section below. Or, feel free to email your stories to:, or message us via our Facebook Page.

“Saijan” is Actually the World Renowned Superfood, Moringa

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First Published: 2nd of May, 2020 by Patrick Carpen.

Last updated: July 4, 2022 at 23:00 pm

“Saijan bhajee” as it is commonly called by the locals in Guyana, is in fact the moringa leaves. Moringa, the subject of a US scientific study around the year 2010, has been classified as a superfood and is used to fight malnutrition as well as for its medicinal value in various parts of the world. The recently developed moringa industry – which sells moringa based products, is a billion dollar industry.

The Saijan Tree – Unimaginable Riches in the Midst of Poverty

In post-colonial Guyana, the majority of the Guyanese population were financially poor. As a result, they learned to “eat cheap.” For many families, fishing and farming helped to supplement income from jobs.

The moringa tree was commonly known by Guyanese as the Saijan tree – an adaptation from Hindi language and culture. The leaves of this tree are often cooked and incorporated into meals in the East Indian culture. The practice was perhaps subsequently adopted by (or was perhaps also native to) other ethnic groups of Guyana.

Growing easily as wild bush in the hot tropics of Guyana, the Saijan leaves were easily acquired at a cheap price or, in many cases, free of charge. Many Guyanese have a Saijan tree growing in their yard. The leaves of the tree are called “Saijan Bhajee” and interestingly was widely considered “poor people’s food” by the local people who didn’t actually know the riches which lie hidden in those leaves.

Little did Guyanese know that they were in fact eating something that all the money in the world can’t buy. You’ve probably heard the saying that “the best things in life are free.” The Moringa (saijan) tree is a good example of that. In fact, recent scientific research around the world has dubbed the Moringa tree as the “miracle tree” or the “tree of life.”

The Scientific Unraveling

In 2010, Lisa Curtis, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa, hadn’t been feeling well for several months. She suspected that her diet had something to do with it. The villagers introduced her to moringa leaves (saijan). Within a few days, her energy levels began to soar.

Lisa Curtis was so amazed by the results of eating moringa leaves that she subsequently launched a scientific investigation into the moringa leaves. The results were astounding and the moringa leaves were soon classified as a “superfood.” Lisa Curtis subsequently founded the billion dollar superfood supplements company, “Kuli Kuli,” which produces nutritional supplements derived from the moringa tree.

Nutritional and Medicinal Value of Moringa Leaves (Saijan Bhajee)

Calcium – Moringa leaves are rich in calcium. In fact, it contains twice the calcium of milk.

Vitamin C – Moringa leaves have seven times more vitamin C than oranges.

Potassium – Moringa leaves contain 15 times more potassium than bananas.

Antioxidants – Moringa leaves are packed with antioxidants – substances which boost the immune system, protect body cells from damage, lower fat in blood, and reduce blood pressure.

Kills Cancer Cells – Lab studies have proven that moringa leaves kills cancer cells and they have been used to treat cancer patients.

Muscle Building – The high protein, calcium, iron, and amino acids content of moringa leaves support muscle building.

And much more.

If this article inspired you to incorporate your favorite “saijan bhajee” recipe into your next meal, then share it to inspire others!


Health Benefits of Moringa Leaves

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Diwali – the Festival of Lights

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Photo by Amanda Richards

First Published on the 26th of October, 2016 by Patrick Carpen.

Last updated: November 6, 2021 at 17:10 pm

Diwali, also called Deepavali, is one of the biggest and most auspicious festivals celebrated by Hindus in Guyana and around the world. The five-day long festival starts with Dhanteras and culminates with Bhai Dooj. Diwali marks the start of the Hindu New Year. The date of Diwali, which is determined by the position of the moon, changes each year, but usually falls somewhere between October and November.

Diwila, also called the “festival of lights,” is celebrated by Guyana’s Hindu population every year in the country of Guyana, South America. Non-Hindus also take part in the celebrations but to a lesser extent. The day is observed as a national holiday for the Guyanese people. The exact date of Diwali is not fixed but the holiday falls late October or early November each year. For example, in the year 2019, the date given for Diwali was the 27th of October, and in 2021 the date for Diwali was 4th of November.

Diwali is called the “Festival of Lights” for good reason. During the evening of the Diwali holiday, diyas are set alight. Diyas are tiny lamps made out of clay and fitted out with a wick. The diya is fueled by oil, and it burns for about 4 to 6 hours before going out. Lighting up steelwool and spinning it to create sparks is also a common practice during Diwali night.

Diwali is a Hindu tradition. During Colonial days, when the British ruled Guyana, the plantation owners contracted East Indians from India to work as laborers on the sugar plantations. Most of these East Indians were Hindus and some were Muslims. Upon arrival in Guyana, many East Indians converted to Christianity through British influence, but others retained their religion and culture even to this day. On a Diwali evening, the boundless quantities of diyas scattered across the whole country light up the fact that the Hindu religion and tradition is very much alive in Guyana.

On the evening of Diwali night, Hindus bring out their diyas and line them up on benches outside of the front yards, along verandah rails, on the fences, along the passageways to the gates and even along the roadways. As soon as darkness falls, the diyas are fired up. The spectacle of diyas on a Diwali night is breathtaking, and many families of all religions and cultures would cruise across the country to view this rare and splendid sight.

The Story Behind Diwali

Photo by Amanda Richards

Diwali has its roots in Hindu teachings. According to Hindu religious texts, Prince Ram and his wife, Seeta, were banished from the kingdom and sent to live in a forest by his stepmother who wanted to secure the throne for her own son, Bharata. While in the forest, the demon god, Ravana, kidnapped Seeta and took her away. With the help of the Hindu god Hanoman, Prince Ram located Seeta and waged a dreadful battle against Ravana. Ravana was killed and Ram and Seeta made their way home. People were so overjoyed at Ram’s victory and return that as he and Seeta walked through the kingdom, they lit the way with so many lamps that the lamps were said to outnumber the stars in the sky. Sweet foods were also shared to all the households.

The Hindu tradition of lighting diyas and sharing sweet foods on the day Diwali is meant to remember the return of Ram and Seeta to the kingdom after being banished for 14 years, but more importantly, it is meant to celebrate the victory of good over evil and light over darkness.

The Diwali Motorcade

The Diwali Motorcade is an annual tradition that takes place on the evening before Diwali in Guyana, South America. In addition to lighting diyas and spinning steelwool, mandirs across Guyana take part in a motorcade activity which is considered a prelude to Diwali.

Small trucks are decorated as chariots and lighted up with fancy lights, and young Hindu women chosen for their exceptional beauty are decorated and attired as Hindu goddesses. They sit on top of the vehicles with their feet folded and one hand held up midway with palm facing outward as the motorcade makes it way to a central location such as a sports complex. The young women are admired for their beauty and outfit as well as their ability to hold themselves in a stationary position, hardly even blinking, until they reach their destination.

Scene from the Diwali Motorcade which is usually held in the night preceeding
Diwali. Photos courtesy of Gordon Smith and Kevin Somwaru. See below for more pictures.

Cultures, Traditions and Religions

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Under this heading I will write stuff related to Guyanese culture, traditions and religions.