The "C" Word
They made us hold the name coolie
like a cutlass it bit us coming to Guyana
– From ‘Coolie’ by Rajiv Mohabir
Growing up, I can remember, the word "coolie" being thrown around casually when referring to Indo Caribbean’s.
I had never considered what the word really meant or where it had come from. It was always used loosely around me, usually following jokes and laughs, leaving me with little reason to question. It wasn’t until my first year of college, a classmate told me it was derogatory. That night, I googled for hours and learned the actual meaning and history behind the word. I was extremely surprised. I felt a sort of shame for not knowing my history. I didn't realize the harsh reality of where the word came from, yet I used it.
“Coolie” is widely believed to stem from the Tamil word kuli, meaning wages or hire. It was first used by Portuguese captains and merchants working along the coast in India. The British later picked up on it and used it to describe the men that worked for them. When the era of indenture began, "coolie" took on a different meaning. It referred to someone who was paid to do menial work.
In fact, if you google the definition of coolie, the word is defined as “an unskilled native laborer in India, China, and some other Asian countries.”
Following the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean in the 1830s, the British began looking for alternative workers to carry out the work on sugar cane plantations. Over the course of eight decades, they transported more than a million “coolies” to islands such as Trinidad, Jamaica, British Guiana and Suriname. Most were deceived by recruiters in India who played on the vulnerable state of those looking to escape poverty or any other unpleasantries.
The title “coolie” was given to journeyers regardless of their prior occupation or caste. The word stung as it was a constant reminder of the lowliness and hierarchy faced by labourers in their new land. Even as time went on, those who descended from “coolies” also inherited the title.
By the late 1890s, the word took on different forms in the Caribbean vocabulary. It described someone exotic, someone different in essence— someone essentially foreign. It also remained an ethnic slur to remind Indians of their origins and challenges.
Despite this history, the word has been reclaimed as something people identify with in a positive manner. It’s likely that the movement began in the 1900s, as new generations of “coolies” were born native to the lands their great grand-parens immigrated to.
Nowadays, I run into memes or comedy pages on Instagram that use the word “coolie” when referring to the Indo-Caribbean community. This gives a sense of how far the language has progressed. We’ve broken the old stigmas and can now connect to our community by way of one word. In 2020, being coolie is something people can be proud of.
While at one point in time the word may have projected hurt, but it now feels like a reminder of a history that isn’t to be looked down upon. Educating ourselves and holding an understanding is one of the best tools we have. This constant need to learn more has helped me navigate how the word has been passed down and when I can feel comfortable using it. I still find myself trying to avoid it at times, but I understand why and how we have reclaimed the word to given it strength. I have no shame in my history.
Guyanese poet Rajkumari Singh said: the word must not be left to die out, buried and forgotten in the past. It must be given a new lease on life.
And that’s exactly what we’ve done.