COOLIE, or Cooly (from Koli or Kuli, an aboriginal race of western India; or perhaps from Tamil kuli, hire, i.e. one hired), a term generally applied to Asiatic labourers belonging to the unskilled class as opposed to the artisan, and employed in a special sense to designate those natives of India and China who leave their country under contracts of service to work as labourers abroad. After the abolition of slavery much difficulty was found in obtaining cheap labour for tropical plantations. The emancipated black was unwilling to engage in field labour, while the white man was physically incapable of so doing. Recourse was had to the overpeopled empires of China and India, as the most likely sources from which to obtain that supply of workers upon which the very existence of some colonies, notably in the West Indies, depended.
The first public recognition of the coolie traffic was in 1844, when the British colony of Guiana made provision for the encouragement of Chinese immigration. About the same time both Peru and Cuba began to look to China as likely to furnish an efficient substitute for the negro bondsman. Agents armed with consular commissions from Peru appeared in Chinese ports, where they collected and sent away shiploads of coolies. Each one was bound to serve the Peruvian planter to whom he might be assigned for seven or eight years, at fixed wages, generally about 17s. a month food, clothes and lodging being provided. From 1847 to 1854 coolie emigration went on briskly without attracting much notice, but it gradually came to light that circumstances of great cruelty attended the trade. The transport ships were badly equipped and overcrowded, and many coolies died before the end of the voyage. On arrival in Cuba or Peru the survivors were sold by auction in the open market to the highest bidders, who held them virtually as slaves for seven years instead of for life. Particularly terrible was the lot of those who, contrary to their agreements, had been sent to labour in the foul guano pits of the Chincha islands, where they were forced to toil in gangs, each under the charge of an overseer armed with a cowhide lash. In 1860 it was calculated that of the four thousand coolies who had been fraudulently consigned to the guano pits of Peru not one had survived. The greater number of them had committed suicide. In 1854 the British governor of Hong-Kong issued a proclamation forbidding British subjects or vessels to engage in the transport of coolies to the Chinchas. Technically this was ultra vires on his part, but his policy was confirmed by the Chinese Passengers' Act 1855, which put an end to the more abominable phase of the traffic. After that no British ship was allowed to sail on more than a week's voyage with more than twenty coolies on board, unless her master had complied with certain very stringent regulations.
The consequence of this was that the business of shipping coolies for Peru was transferred to the Portuguese settlement of Macao. There the Peruvian and Cuban "labour-agents" established depôts, which they unblushingly called "barracoons," the very term used in the West African slave trade. In these places coolies were "received," or in plain words, imprisoned and kept under close guard until a sufficient number were collected for export. Some of these were decoyed by fraudulent promises of profitable employment. Others were kidnapped by piratical junks hired to scour the neighbouring coasts. Many were bought from leaders of turbulent native factions, only too glad to sell the prisoners they captured whilst waging their internecine wars. The procurador or registrar-general of Macao went through the form of certifying the contracts; but his inspection was practically useless. After the war of 1856-1857 this masked slave trade pushed its agencies into Whampoa and Canton. In April 1859, however, the whole mercantile community of the latter port rose up in indignation against it, and transmitted such strong representations to the British embassy in China, that steps were taken to mitigate the evil. New regulations were from time to time passed by the Portuguese authorities for the purpose of minimizing the horrors of the Macao trade. They seem, however, to have been systematically evaded, and to have been practically inoperative. At Canton and Hong-Kong the coolie trade was put under various regulations, which in the latter port worked well only when the profits of "head-money" were ruined. In March 1866 the representatives of the governments of France, England and China drew up a convention for the regulation of the Canton trade, which had an unfortunate effect. It left head-money, the source of most of the abuses, comparatively untouched. It enacted that every coolie must at the end of a five years' engagement have his return passage-money paid to him. The West Indian colonies at once objected to this. They wanted permanent not temporary settlers. They could not afford to burden the coolie's expensive contract with return passage-money, so they declined to accept emigrants on these terms. Thus a legalized coolie trade between the West Indies and China was extinguished. Thereafter the coolie supply for British colonies was drawn exclusively from India, until 1904, when an exception was made in the case of the Transvaal. Under a convention drawn up in that year between the United Kingdom and China over fifty thousand indentured Chinese labourers were engaged on three years' contracts to work in the Witwatersrand gold mines (see Transvaal). To the Malay states and other parts of eastern Asia there is an extensive yearly migration of Chinese coolies. This migration, however, is not under contract. From Amoy alone some seventy-five thousand coolies yearly migrate to Singapore and the Straits Settlements, whence they are drafted for labour purposes in every direction.
It is scarcely possible to say when the Indian coolie trade began. Before the end of the 18th century Tamil labourers from southern India were wont to emigrate to the Straits Settlements, and they also flocked to Tenasserim from the other side of the Bay of Bengal after the conquest had produced a demand for labour. The first regularly recorded attempt at organizing coolie emigration from India took place in 1834, when forty coolies were exported to Mauritius; but it was not until 1836 that the Indian government decided to put the trade under official regulations. In 1837 an emigration law was passed for all the territories of the East India Company, providing that a permit must be obtained from government for every shipment of coolies, that all contracts should terminate in five years, that a return passage should be guaranteed, that the terms of his contract should be carefully explained to each coolie, and that the emigrant ship should only carry one coolie for every ton and a half of burden. Then as now the Indian government watched the deportation of labour from their dominions with jealous and anxious care, and when in 1838 it was found that upwards of twenty-five thousand natives had, up to that year, gone from all parts of India to Mauritius, the government became somewhat alarmed at the dimensions which the traffic was assuming. Brougham and the anti-slavery party denounced the trade as a revival of slavery, and the Bengal government suspended it in order to investigate its alleged abuses. The nature of these may be guessed when it is said that the inquiry condemned the fraudulent methods of recruiting then in vogue, and the brutal treatment which coolies often received from ship captains and masters. In 1842 steps were taken formally to reopen the coolie trade with Mauritius, and in 1844 emigration to the West Indies was sanctioned by the Indian government. In 1847 Ceylon was separated from India, and her labour supply was cut off; but this accident was soon remedied, the Ceylon government adopting protective regulations for the coolies.
Emigration of coolies under contract to labour outside India is now regulated by the Emigration Act of 1883 and the rules issued under its provisions, the only exceptions being in respect of emigrants to Ceylon and the Straits Settlements and adjoining states, or those engaged by the British government for employment in east and central Africa. By section 8 of this act natives of India are permitted to emigrate under labour contracts only to such countries as have satisfied the government of India that sufficient provision is made for the protection of the emigrants. A country which is duly empowered under the act to receive emigrants may appoint an agent, residing in India, who is responsible for the due observance of the provisions of the law. These agents are under the general supervision of the protector of emigrants. As emigrants have to be recruited at great distances from the port of embarkation, recruiters are appointed by the agents and licensed by the protector. The conduct of these subordinates is minutely regulated. Every precaution is taken to let the emigrant know the exact terms on which he is hired, and to ensure good treatment in the interval between registration and embarkation. Coolies are shipped for the most part from Calcutta and Madras, but of recent years large numbers bound for Mombasa and the Seychelles left from Bombay and Karachi. Both the coolies themselves and the depôt are medically inspected. Only those physically fit are allowed to embark. The vessels for their conveyance are licensed and inspected by the local government. The terms on which emigrants are recruited are settled beforehand by convention with the colonies concerned, and are embodied in ordinances passed by the local legislatures. They vary in detail, but their main provisions relate to the rights and obligations of the emigrants, including the grant of a return passage on the expiry of a specified period, usually ten years. The British colonies to which coolies were exported in the decade 1891-1901 were British Guiana, Trinidad, St Lucia, Jamaica, Mauritius, the Seychelles Islands, Fiji, East Africa and Natal; the only non-British country was Dutch Guiana. Emigration to the French colonies, including Réunion has been forbidden by the government of India since 1886, but there still remain in those colonies some of the former emigrants, and the questions of their treatment and repatriation have frequently formed the subject of representations to the French authorities.
The British colonies
The number of Indian coolies resident in the various British colonies in 1900 was 625,000, of which the largest numbers were 265,000 in Mauritius and 125,000 in British Guiana. There were still 13,800 in Réunion. The regulations governing coolie labour in British Guiana may be taken as typical for the British colonies generally. They are contained in the Labour Ordinance of 1873, which was amended by the ordinances of 1875, 1876, 1886 and 1887. Under these ordinances an immigration agent-general is appointed, to whom medical officers and recruiting agents are responsible, and the emigrants are allotted by him to the separate estates. They regulate the hours of work, the rate of wages, and the general treatment of the coolies, the nature of house and hospital accommodation, the terms of re-enlistment and the conditions of marriage amongst the coolies themselves. The coolies returning from the British colonies to India in 1901 possessed average savings of £19.
British East and South Africa
During the construction of the Uganda railway large numbers of coolies were recruited in the Punjab and exported from Karachi to Mombasa. During the decade 1891-1901 the number of these emigrants was 33,000; but on the completion of the line the emigration practically stopped, while in 1901-1902 there were over 6000 emigrants who returned to India. Some, however, settled in East Africa. Coolies are also exported for government employment in Nyasaland. In Natal the Indian population had by 1904 reached over 100,000 and slightly outnumbered the whites. Many of the coolies had become permanent residents in the colony (see Natal).
Assam, Ceylon and Burma
According to the census of 1901 there were 775,844 foreigners in Assam, of whom no fewer than 645,000 or 83% were brought into the province as garden coolies. The recruiting of these coolies is regulated by Act VI. of 1901, which provides that a labour agreement may be entered into for four years, and includes a penal clause, under which a coolie deserting or refusing to work may be punished with imprisonment. The coolies can also give an agreement under Act XIII. of 1859, by which they are only liable to civil action for breach of contract. The latter are called non-act coolies. This system of immigration has made tea-planting the most important industry in Assam, and has greatly increased the prosperity of the province. Migration to Ceylon and Burma takes place chiefly from the Madras ports, and is of a seasonal and temporary character. The tea estates and pearl fisheries of Ceylon, and the town work and harvesting in Burma attract large numbers of Tamil labourers. The respective numbers embarking in 1901 were 117,000 for Ceylon, 84,000 for Burma and 27,000 for the Straits Settlements. In Ceylon there is no system of recruitment like that for the Assam tea-gardens. The coolies come in gangs, each under its own headman, with whom the planter deals exclusively, leaving him to make his own arrangements with the individual coolies. The coolies are mostly carried in small sailing vessels from the ports of Madura and Tanjore, and the number who permanently settle in Ceylon is not very great.
See E. Jenkins, The Coolie; his Rights and Wrongs (1871); J. L. A. Hope, In Quest of Coolies (1872); and C. B. Grose, The Labour Ordinances (Georgetown, 1890).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)