1902 Encyclopedia > Coolie


COOLIE, or COOLY, a word applied to designate an Asiatic labourer not belonging to the skilled or artisan class. Its derivation is far from certain. Dr Engelbert Kämpfer, in his History of Japan (London, 1727), describes as "coolies" the dock labourers, or, as they are called in England, "lumpers," who unloaded the Dutch merchant ships at Nagasaki. At Canton to this day a labourer in any European factory is known as a "collie;" and though some have thought that the word may be of Chinese origin, as a matter of fact it is through European that the natives of the Celestial Empire first became acquainted with the term. Of late the word is almost exclusively used to designate those natives of India and China who leave their native country under contracts of service to work as field-hands or labourers in foreign plantations and elsewhere.

The organization, partly official and partly voluntary, by means of which these Eastern labourers are collected, engaged, and conveyed to their respective destinations, has within recent times developed itself into a regular trade. The French, Portuguese, and Spanish nations prosecute this trade to a certain extent, and one or two South American republics also take part in it ;but the great bulk of the traffic is now undoubtedly British.

Coolie emigration is the direct offspring of the discontinuance of slavery. When slave labour was no longer available, the colonists who had used it were placed in an awkward dilemma. White men were physically incapable of field work on tropical plantations, and free negroes could not be induced to engage in it. In these circumstances there were but alternatives open to the planters. Either they must abandon their estates, or they must import labour from other countries than those which had been drained and devastated by the slave trade. There were many considerations that pointed to India and China as the fields most likely to yield that supply of workers on getting which the very existence of the West Indies depended. Those great Asiatic empires were over-peopled; their rigid forms of civilization, which had rooted them to the soil, were gradually loosed by the impact of European commerce ; and their European commerce ; and their reluctance to leave their native shores was removed by tempting offers made to them.

Chinese Coolies.—The first public recognition of the traffic was in 1844, when the British colony of Guiana made provision for the encouragement of Chinese emigration. About the same time the Peruvian planters, who since their separation from the mother country had restricted slavery within the narrowest limits, also looked to China as being likely to furnish an efficient substitute for the negro bondsman. Agents armed with consular commissions from a Peru began to appear in Chinese ports, where they collected and sent away ship-loads 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 17. a month,—food, clothes, and lodging being provided. Cuba, profiting by the example of Peru, also engaged in the traffic. In 1847, therefore, two ships went from Amoy to Havana, one with 350, the other with 629 coolies on board. From 1847 to 1856 the trade went on briskly without attracting much notice. Gradually, however, ugly reports as to the treatment the coolies received, both on their voyage to and after their arrival in Peru and Cuba, began to come to Europe and Asia. Still more painful rumours were set afloat regarding the thievish devises used to induce Chinese emigrants to leave their native land. It was said they were kidnapped, or tempted to engage under false pretences. It was declared that the transport ships were badly equipped and overcrowded, and that on their voyages they reproduced all the horrors of the "middle passage" in the old African slave trade. Those who were safely landed in Cuba or Peru were sold by auction in the open market to the highest bidders, who thus purchased them, holding them virtually as slaves for seven years instead of for life. Brutal as was the treatment to which these poor wretches were exposed on the plantations, it was merciful compared with that which fell to the lot of those who, contrary to their agreement, had been sent to labour in the foul guano pits of the Chincha Islands. Here they were forced to toil in gangs, each under an overseer, armed with a cowhide lash 5 feet long and 1 _ inches thick. It was claimed as a merit that up to four o’clock each afternoon this weapon "was not much used." After that hour, however, the weaker coolies had their flagging energies stimulated by cuts of the whip, and remonstrance and entreaty were "punished by a flogging little short of murder," This horrible treatment speedily aroused attention; and a memorial was presented to the British Government by shipmasters engaged in the Chincha Islands guano trade. Even he United States skippers declared they "never saw or heard of slavery approaching that of the middle island of the Chinchas in misery." In 1860 it was calculated that of the 4000 coolies who since the traffic began had been fraudulently consigned to the guano pits of Peru, not one had survived. Some had poisoned themselves with opium; others deliberately contrived that they should be buried alive under falling masses of guano; many jumped off the cliffs and drowned themselves in the sea. When these atrocities came to light 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 in the following year Parliament confirmed his humane policy by passing the Chinese Passengers Act (18 and 19 Vict. c. 104), 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 depots, which they unblushingly called "barracoons," they 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 their internecine wars. The procurador or registrar-general of Macao went through the form of certifying the contracts ; but his inspection was therefore practically useless. After the war of 1856–57 this masked slave trade pushed its agencies into Wampoa 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. In 1868 the governor of Macao attempted to put in humane regulations, but without success, as was proved by the trial of a Chinaman, Kwok-a-Sing, on the 29th of March 1871 before Chief-Justice Smale of Hong-Kong. The prisoner had been an emigrant on board the Frenchship "Nouvelle Pénélope," which sailed in October 1871 from Macao with 300 coolies. They mutinied on the voyage, and killed the master and seven of the crew. Kwok-a-Sing was acquitted when tried for being an accessory to this crime. In the course of his trial, however, it was proved that though some of the mutineers were hardened criminals who had shipped as coolies merely for the purpose of raising a mutiny and plundering the ship, upwards of one-third of the emigrants on board had been kidnapped and were feloniously held in bondage. Commenting on this case, British consul said the benevolent regulations of the Macao Government looked well on paper, but in practice they were capable of being evaded to an extent that made the coolie traffic "simply a slave trade, and a disgrace to an y Christian Government that permits its perpetration within its jurisdiction." 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 Government 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 temporarily settlers. They could not afford to burden the coolie’s expensive contract with return passage-money, so they declined to accept emigrants on the terms. Thus a legalized coolie trade between the West Indies and China was extinguished.

Indian Coolies.—With reference to the Indian coolie trade it is scarcely possible to say when it began. Before the end of last century Tamil labourers from Southern India were wont to emigrate to the Straits settlements, and they also flicked to Tenasserim from the other side of the Bay of Bengal after the conquest had produced a demand for labour. Ceylon also obtained workers from Southern Indian, and the extent of the emigration may be estimated by the fact that, taking a period of ten years ending 1869, about 65,000 emigrants, of whom 50,000 were adult males, landed annually in the island, and some 48,000 returned each year to their homes. In Penang it is calculated that 25,000 souls out of a population of 150,000 are Indian coolies. It is in domestic and agricultural service that they are employed in the Straits settlements, and more recently large numbers of coolies have been induced to work in the tea-gardens of Assam. On the other hand, in Burmah, they work as dock labourers and porters. In Mauritius, again, the first regularly recorded attempt at organizing coolie emigration from India took place in 1834, when forty coolie were imported. Between 1834 and 1837 about 7000 labourers must have been shipped from Calcutta, and about 100 from Bombay, to Mauritius, but it was not till 1836 that the colonial Government determined to put the trade under official regulations. In 1837 an emigration law was passed for Calcutta, but it also applied to all territories of the East India Company, providing that a "permit" must be got from the Government for every shipment of coolies, that all contracts should terminate in five years, that a return passage should be guaranteed, and that the terms of his contract should be carefully explained to each coolie. As regards the emigrant ships they were allowed to carry one coolie for every ton and a half of burthen—a rule now extended to one coolie for every two tons burthen. Then as now the Indian Government watched the deportation of labour from their dominions with jealous and anxious care, when in 1838 it was found that upwards of 25,000 natives had, up to that year, gone from all parts of India to Mauritius, the Government became a little alarmed at the dimensions the traffic was assuming. Brougham and the old anti-slavery party denounced the trade as a revival of slavery, and the Presidency 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 them in vogue, and the brutal treatment coolies often received from ship captains and masters. It was not till 1842 that steps were taken to formally reopen the coolies trade between Mauritius and India. A regulating Act was passed, the most important provisos of which were the appointment of authorized emigration agents at Indian ports, and a prohibition against contracts being signed till the collie had been forty-eight hours on shore in the colony for which he was bound. At first then was for one year, and the wages were five rupees a month, food, clothing, and medical attendance being found. Return passages were also guaranteed. In 1844 coolie emigration to the West Indies was sanctioned by the Indian Government. Jamaica, Trinidad, and Demerara were permitted to import coolies under the Mauritius rules, slightly modified,—one of the most important difference being that 12 per cent. of the emigrants to the West Indies were to be women. None of the colonial, however codes, however, seem to have carried out this modification. In 1847 Ceylon suffered by the political accident of having a separate Government. Her supply of labour was cut off, as the Indian Government prohibited all emigration save to the West Indies and Maurtius. The unfair prohibition was withdrawn, on the Ceylon Government adopting certain protective regulations in favour of the emigrants, and ever since the coolie trade with the island has gone on pretty smoothly. In 1851 In Indian Government agreed to relieve Mauritius of the obligation to provide return save fro the destitute and the sick. In 1853 Lord Dalhousie’s Government extended the term qualifying the West Indian coolie for return from five to ten years’ service. In 1857 the colonial Governments proposed to commute the coolie’s claim for a return passage, by giving him its value in land ; but Lord Canning’s Government viewed the suggestion with great jealousy, saying there must be some guarantee that in arranging the commutation the coolie was not swindled. In 1859 voluntary commutation was agreed to by Indian authorities. Since then many changes have then place, but, generally speaking, the Indian coolie trade is now regulated by two Acts—those of 1864 and 1869, of which the main provisions are as follows:—

Resident colonial emigration agents are appointed for the different ports. They appoint sub-agents or remitting parties, who must bear licences from the Protector of Emigrants at Calcutta. It is their business to beat up the country for coolies when there is a demand for them. The intending emigrants, when collected, must be taken by the agents before the resident magistrate of the district, who registers each one. A copy or certificate of registration is given to each coolie, stating particulars as to age, sex, name, caste, and former occupation. Of these documents duplicates are transmitted to the colonial emigration agent. When this formality has been complied with, the coolie is then sent on to the depot and examined there by the colonial agent and surgeons. If physically unfit for the work for which he is wanted, of course he is summarily rejected. Each coolie ship must undergo rigorous sanitary inspection, and carry a surgeon, who reports on all the deaths and cases of sickness that occur during the passage. The contract which the coolie signs with the emigration agent binds him to serve not more than for 7 _ hours a day for five years, as an agricultural labourer, on the estate to which he may be sent by the authorities at the port of debarkation. The wage in money is to be that which from time to time is paid to unindentured labourers in the colony. (In Demerara the Indian coollie earns 1s. 2d. a day,—women about 1s., and children 6d. each). The coolie also is provided with a house, garden and medical attendance—rations and clothing being subject to the special arrangements affecting wages ; while at the end of ten yeas service entitled to a free return passage to India.

As to the treatment of the coolie in the colonies when he arrives, of course there is much dispute. Statistics indicate that it cannot have been very considerate. From 1834 to 1872 Demerara, Trinidad, Jamaica, St Vincent, and Grenada imported 161,539 coolies, of whom 16,938 have returned home, and 48,548 are dead, leaving 96,053 in those colonies. As far as official rules can protect him a great deal is done by the Government. When he lands he is subjected to an examination by the immigration agent-general and an officer of health. Those not fit for agricultural labour are aside, and those that are fit are allotted to different plantations in accordance with the demand made for them. Family life is respected, and children under fifteen years of age must not be parted from their parents. After their five years’ indenture is ended, they are at liberty to re-engage on an independent footing, a bounty of about £11 being given to those who re-contract for another term of similar duration. How these apparently equitable provisions work became a matter of dispute in the case of Demerara and Mauritius ; and serious complaints were made in 1869 with reference to the former colony by Mr G. W. des Vaeux, a stipendiary magistrate, who spent five years in the country. Commissioners were therefore dispatched to inquire into the matter. They suggested certain reforms for the purpose of guarding the indentured labourer against the possibility of ill-treatment, and the powers of the immigration agent-general, or protector of immigrants, were enlarged so as to enable him to inspect estates more regularly, frequently, and efficiently officers of plantations, too, were made civil servants, and relieved from their dependence on the planters for their salaries. The question of re-engagements was also dealt with by the reforming ordinance of 1868 in a provision enacting that the manager of every estate should, at the half-yearly visit of the agent-general, produce him every coolie who had completed his term of service, or would complete it in the course of the next six months. To each coolie in this position a certificate or a provisional certificate of exemption from labour must be handed, and not till then may the manager or any employer negotiate with him for re-indenture.

The case of Mauritius was more serious. It had long been suspected that the colony had been indulging in a course of legislation, the tendency of which, says Mr Geoghegan, the under-secretary to the department of agriculture in the Government at India, was "towards reducing the Indian labourer to a more complete state of dependence upon the planter, and towards driving him into indentures, a free labour market being both directly and indirectly discouraged." In 1871, acting on a petition presented by M. Adolph de Plevitz, a resident in the colony, who loudly denounced this injustice, the governor, Sir Arthur Gordon, appointed a police inquiry commission to investigate the matter ; and thereafter a royal commission was appointed at the requested of the planters, and its report was presented to the Imperial Parliament in 1875. The investigation showed that the treatment experienced by the coolies was extremely unsatisfactory, and that in many respects they were too much in the power of the planters.

With reference to the treatment of the coolie in foreign colonies it is more difficult to obtain the necessary information. In Cuba the Chinese labourers were subjected to such scandalous ill-usage that the Spanish Government was forced to interfere, especially when it was found the Chinese were beginning to take part with the insurgent. In 1871 a royal decree was issued suspending the importation of coolies to the colony, and giving power to the Government to give return passages to all who had finished their contracts and were not willing to re-engage. The decree, however, has been ignored. It is well known that rather than enter into another contract the Chinaman will leave the island. But then the Cubans desire him to remain so that a permanent labouring class may be created.

In many of the French colonies Indian labourers are imported, there being a convention between the Governments of France and India which admits of this being done. There, it is feared, the coolie is the victim of abuses and oppression which, happening as they do in foreign dominions, are not easily redressed. In Cayenne there is reason to believe the mortality amongst the coolies who labour in the gold mines, is abnormally high ; it is said that more than half the Indian imported "cannot be accounted for." In Réunion, Guadaloupe, and Martinique they are said to be systematically over-worked; and according to Mr Geoghegan there seems to be a disposition in Réunion to prevent their having free access to the British consul when they have occasion to claim his protection. (R. WI.)

The article above was written by Robert Wilson, formerly Lecturer on Animal Physiology to the School of Art, Edinbugh; editor of The Human Race.

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