1101-391 Language and Identity.


HISTORY                      By Hadassah Boodhoo                   Nov 19, 2018


Coolie: The Untold Story


The word that is mistaken for a positive meaning.


It was said that it originated when people from East and West Asia seek refuge to get better opportunities in the Caribbean, mainly in Jamaica, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago. The heavy footsteps and looks of hope washed on shore, which took its toll when they finally arrived to their destination. Never in their minds they would go through the hardships of discrimination, and be nicknamed a word that deeply ingrained their brains for generations. A word that is mistaken for a positive meaning to a derogative context. (Honestly I thought it was a positive word…until my mother told me) In the Caribbean context, ‘’Coolie’’ is the word that is mistaken for ‘’Dougla’’ a word used to describe a person who is of African and Indian descent. Coolie on the other hand can be referred to someone who is a full blooded Indian. However, anyone can be called “Coolie” regardless of what race you are.

It was no fucking joke when it came to people using this word to discriminate against others. When East Indians arrived in the islands, they were ready to settle down and be aware of the new opportunities coming to them. Slavery was officially abolished in the 19th century, so the British decided to bring Indians to replace slave labor. Despite being used as cheap labourers with a contract, they were satisfied with some of the benefits that was given to them. Interestingly, they were actually treated better than slaves. They were able to get land, and be paid with wages. They could work for a certain amount of years and when it’s done, they could either go back to their country or stay and own a piece of land.


However, there was a stench of excessive pride and entitlement that filled them. When in reality they’re no better than the enslaved. For centuries slaves were never given the opportunities like the Indians. It’s like choosing one over the other, the Brits knew what they were doing.(They’re not low) It gave up a whiff of discrimination between two races. African vs. Indian. When you look at it that way. You’d think it was nothing too serious, but trust me… it was. And that’s when coolie came about. Well, it was actually created when the Brits decided to call the Indians that word, however, later on the context of it has changed and became a racial slur. Coolie like any other regular derogatory term has its strong and impactful meaning. In the Caribbean, it’s the equivalent of the word nigger, and we all pretty much know the meaning of the word. Moreover, it was classified that this was an act of superiority. When the Indians thought they were the shit, it all stems back when the caste system in India was used. It was all about light skin vs. dark skin. A light skinned Indian would be considered upper class, and depending on their status they could either be merchants, priests, leaders, etc. but dark skinned Indians were considered to be labourers. (No wonder Indian Men do whatever they can to lighten their skin…but I’ve seen worst.) it’s all about how to make someone feel inferior to you. When Blacks were considered ‘’free’’ they use the term coolie as a way to degrade an Indian person. It was a way to get back at them for being too prideful and how they felt  like they are entitled to everything.


“ Eh coolie gyul!” “Wha yuh want bwoi”


During the immigration era in the Caribbean, Women were faced with an issue that made them voiceless. With an unequal ratio between men and women who came to the Caribbean, women dealt with abuse, rape and even murder. Interestingly, it sparked my interest as to how it deeply affected Indian women. Coolie refers to a person who carry loads on their head. When you call a person coolie, it’s another way of calling that person a load carrier—reminding them about their ancestors who went through the hardships of labour and poor treatment. Even my mother told me some of the things she heard about Indian women who were discriminated in her homeland, Trinidad. She said that Indian women were considered to be low in their status. There was at one point that if an Indian woman was to fall in love with a black man, she’s considered a disgrace to the Indian community, but an Indian guy falling in love with a black woman, he is welcomed in both Indian and Black communities.

Over the years, the context of the word changed. It became an everyday used word, In Trinidad, my mom would tell me that people didn’t give into the deep meaning of it. It’s only based on how you use it, that will affect its context. You would use coolie as calling someone Indian. Not everyone takes the word seriously, but they’ll never forget about the history behind it.



Amin, Aisiri. “Beyond the Coolie Identity in the Caribbean.” Little India:    Overseas Indian, NRI, Asian Indian, Indian American, 16 Oct. 2017, littleindia.com/beyond-coolie-identity-caribbean/.


Gandhi, Lakshmi. “A History Of Indentured Labor Gives ‘Coolie’ Its Sting.” NPR, NPR, 25 Nov. 2013,www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/11/25/247166284/a-history-of-indentured-labor-gives-coolie-its-sting.

Bahadur, Gaiutra. “Gaiutra Bahadur: ‘How Could I Write about Women Whose Existence Is Barely Acknowledged?’.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 14 June 2016, www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/14/gaiutra-bahadurindentured-female-labourers-coolie-woman.