AskDefine | Define coolie

Dictionary Definition

coolie n : an offensive name for an unskilled Asian laborer [syn: cooly]

User Contributed Dictionary



From Hindustani क़ुली / (qulī), which means "hired laborer" or "slave" < köle. Other forms occur in Bengali kuli and Tamil kuli, "daily hire." The Chinese word 苦力, Pinyin: kǔlì, was originally a transcription of the Hindi, and literally means "bitterly hard (use of) strength".



  1. An unskilled Asian worker, usually of Chinese or Indian descent; a labourer; a porter. Coolies were frequently transported to other countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries as indentured labourers.
  2. In Trinidad, West Indies, Guyana, and parts of Africa slang for a person of Indian descent. Nowadays often considered derogatory.



  • 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.

Extensive Definition

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. The word coolie can be traced back to the Hindi word qūlī (क़ूली), which means "(day-)labourer", and perhaps ultimately to Kulī, an aboriginal tribe in Gujarat or to the Tamil word kuli கூலி ("wages") (Encyclopædia Britannica). Another form closely related to the Hindi qūlī is the Bengali kuli.
The Chinese word (Pinyin: kǔlì) literally means "bitterly hard (use of) strength." The most commonly used cultural Chinese term is (Pinyin: gu1 li2).


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.
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.
By the mid to late 19 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.


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. But the highly intensive colonial labour on sugar cane or cotton plantations, in mines or railways, required cheap manpower.
Experiments were carried with Malagasy, Japanese, Breton or Congolese laborers. Ultimately the "ideal coolies" were the Indians, shipped to many Indian Ocean islands, East and South Africa, Fiji, Guyana, Martinique, Trinidad, Jamaica, to name only some of the lands where taylorization was applied as a means of increasing productivity worldwide.
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. Hugh Tinker called the coolie trade "a new form of slavery".

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.
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/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 Mumbai although the latter was closed rather quickly when abuses were made public in India.
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.
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.
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. Labourers would be transported aboard packed vessels to be sent to their destinations, and many would die on the way there due to malnutrition, disease, or other mistreatment. Mutinies were also known to occur during transportation
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.
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.
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 infamously 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 1836 and 1917, at least "238,000 Indians were introduced into British Guiana, 145,000 into Trinidad, 21,500 into Jamaica, 39,000 into Guadeloupe, 34,000 into Surinam, 1,550 into St. Lucia, 1,820 into St. Vincent, 2,570 into Grenada. In 1859, there were 6,748 Indians in Martinique." 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.
Gandhi also fought for them, and the coolie trade was abolished in the 1920s. Recently, poet and semiologist Khal Torabully has evolved a humanistic framework springing from coolitude.

In Media


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 side-kick 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 a 1983 Indian film about a coolie Amitabh Bachchan who works on a railway station. His lover's father is man who murdered a girl's father 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 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.


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 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, over powering 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.


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. Yet the 1930s négritude movement, focussing 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 , 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 byMarcel Cabon, Loys Masson andMalcolm 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.

Modern use

  • In Indonesian, kuli is now a term to describe especially the construction workers.
  • In Thai, kuli (กุลี) still retains its original meaning as manual labourers.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In the Persian language, a similar term, which is , means "gypsy."
  • 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 .
  • In 2002, Abercrombie & Fitch pulled a line of tee shirts from stores across the United States after complaints that they depicted racist caricatures of Asian Americans. A typical criticism of the said "These are the kind of images we saw in California newspapers a century ago" and "It smacks of Charlie Chan and the coolie stereotype".
  • In Trinidad and Tobago the word is used as a slur by the entire population including those of Indian ancestry but is sometimes said self-referentially by some of the Indo-Caribbean population. In 2006, for example, Senator Surendranath Capildeo proudly admitted to being a "coolie to the bone".
  • Its used as short for a slang Spanish and Italian term, "culo", spelled "coolie" referring to the buttocks.
  • In America, among the car/truck enthusiast subculture, it is a term used to identify the extra installation of vehicle marker lights (usually colored) in the grill, along and under the body, and under the rear of the vehicle. Coolies are the "cool lights" installed just for fun, individuality, or identification purposes.

See also

Reference notes


  • 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
coolie in German: Kuli (Tagelöhner)
coolie in Estonian: Kuli
coolie in Esperanto: Kulio
coolie in French: Coolie
coolie in Indonesian: Kuli
coolie in Dutch: Koelie
coolie in Japanese: 苦力
coolie in Polish: Kulis
coolie in Contenese: 咕喱

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Aquarius, Ganymede, Hebe, bearer, bheesty, busboy, caddie, cargo handler, carrier, carrier pigeon, carter, common carrier, conveyer, cupbearer, drayman, express, expressman, freighter, gun bearer, hauler, homing pigeon, letter carrier, litter-bearer, porter, redcap, shield-bearer, skycap, stevedore, stretcher-bearer, the Water Bearer, transporter, truck driver, trucker, wagoner, water boy, water carrier
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