The word ‘coolie’

'Coolie' conjures up poignancy, tears, defeats, achievements. The word must not be left to die out, buried and forgotten in the past. It must be given a new lease of life.’

Rajkumari Singh (1923-1979)


In the nineteenth century the word ‘coolie’ came to be particularly associated with South Asian and Chinese indentured labourers who travelled to far flung locations around the globe to work in colonial sugar plantations.  The term, then and since, has carried negative social and racial connotations and continues, today, to cause offence in some contexts.

Negative usages of the word ‘coolie’ derive from meanings imposed ‘from above’ (colonial administrators, for example) or from external social or political rivals. ‘Becoming Coolies’ seeks to move beyond these stereotypes and explores the myriad ways the term has taken on more positive meanings from the perspective of the migrants themselves.   Historically, for example, the process of becoming a ‘coolie’ enabled migrants to escape entrenched social oppressions, such as caste, allowing the formation of South Asian communities outside India in which restrictive social taboos ceased to exist.  For others, indenture created economic opportunities as well as privations and indentured migrants and their descendants were able to thrive in their new environments.

Today, the term ‘coolie’ continues to have multi-layered meanings.  While for some, ‘coolie’ undoubtedly reflects the historical conditions of oppression and racism in which it came into being, for others it denotes a positive sense of identity and belonging.

The culture of ‘coolitude’, a term coined by the Mauritian poet Khal Torabully, lays claim the word ‘coolie’ in order to present the forgotten voices of indentured migrants and their descendants in a positive way and fosters a sense of pride in the shared heritage of the South Asian diaspora.

But Coolitude has much wider significance: migration as a result of economic necessity, or political conflict, or social deprivation, or myriad other reasons is key to the human condition.  New arrivals are commonly subjected to discrimination and attempts to dehumanize and categorise them.  Where this succeeds, it shifts our attitudes towards fellow human beings who need support and empathy at a critical juncture in their lives.  Coolitude it is about breaking down the labels used to demonise migrants and explaining, poetically and historically, how and why we are all, more or less, at one time or all the time, ‘coolies.’


Further reading

Marina Carter and Khal Torabully, Coolitude: An Anthology of the Indian Labour Diaspora, London: Anthem Press, 2002.

Gaiutra Bahadur, Coolie Woman The Odyssey of Indenture, London: C.Hurst & Co (Publishers) Ltd., 2013.

Coolitude on the web


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