Exploring the history and experiences of mixed heritage persons and inter-racial relationships across the world

Coolies – Racism, Tradition Or Culture?

July 4th, 2011

On 4 August 1972, the then President of Uganda, Idi Amin, gave Uganda’s 80,000 Indians 90 days to leave the country. Idi Amin used the Indophobic social climate of Uganda to justify his actions, which were secretly applauded throughout Eastern and Southern Africa. Indians, it was claimed were hoarding wealth and goods to the detriment of indigenous Africans.

Tamil coolie setting out tea plants.

Tamil coolie setting out tea plants.

Amin’s actions were just part of a series of anti-Indian sentiment that existed and continues to exist not only in many ex-British colonies but in other colonies such as Suriname where imperial Britain felt compelled to supply indentured labour after it coerced other colonising nations to abolish slavery. From about 1834 and using licenced agents mainly through Mauritius, labourers were imported from the poorer regions of India and then exported with the promise of some pay-out usually involving a plot of land or money at the end of their 5 to 7 years contract. Up to 1932, an estimated 28 million Indians left India to work indentured labourers.

Labourers were not the only manpower needed in the British Empire, there was also a need for educated people in the lower ranks of the imperial civil service, banking and other commercial operations not readily available in other Britain’s colonies. The Indians came to inherit the lower middle classes in many of these countries which may have, encouraged by the imperialist racism, led them to perceive themselves as coming from a more advanced and ‘civilised’ society than those of the newly adopted country. Many Indians who remained after their service contracts used their trading traditions, their small contract pay-outs and contacts back in the homeland to set themselves up in business which funded further immigration swelling their ranks and education in more lucrative trades such as medicine and law. The Indians have been very successful in this strategy coming to virtually monopolise many business sectors, up to 90% in the East African economies.

The Indian experience is mirrored by the Chinese diaspora that was also swelled by the indentured labour market. Fuelled by poverty, the Chinese labourers, mostly from the Guangdong province, found themselves dispersed mainly throughout the rest of Asia but also in substantial numbers in the Pacific Islands, Australasia and the Americas. Sinophobia raised its head early in the USA where the cheap labour was being used to lay railroad tracks and the prejudice grew in other countries such Australia, United States, Canada, and New Zealand even as late as the mid-20th century. Even in today in places such as Tahiti, the Chinese community finds itself the brunt of racial rhetoric.

Like the Indians, the Chinese have been quite successful in dominating the commercial sector in many countries, for example, despite making up only 1% of the Philippines population, they control some 40% of the private commercial sector

 Typical Chinese Coolie.

Typical Chinese Coolie before and for some time after the American occupation

It is quite telling that the innocent term ‘Coolie’, a historical term for manual labourers or slaves from Asia, became a racial slur with the rising racial discrimination against Indians and the Chinese. The discrimination faced by these communities reinforced their cultural and religious traditions especially regarding family and marriage that meant they continue to exist as a separate and identifiable, usually minority, communities within many countries though in some, particularly in the Caribbean and South America such as Trinidad, Suriname and Guyana, Indians make up a sizeable percentage of the population. Their relative good wealth, their customs and their perceived ‘advanced, more civilised’ attitude contributes to a stereotyping of racial superiority which does lead to strained racial relationships with the indigenous and other immigrant communities in their adopted countries.

Nowadays, the inward isolation of these two communities leads to accusations of racial favouritism which excludes other groups from entering and participating in commercial sectors. This, on the surface, appears to be a good case for assimilation of immigrant populations and there is no doubt that many Western countries are favouring this route as opposed to multiculturalism previously championed and now falling out of favour in Britain.

Is assimilation really the answer to such racial dilemmas? Both communities have also enriched our lives for example with their food which would not have happened had they been assimilated. Is it the traditional systems, such the Indian caste system, of these communities that determine their relative isolation from the rest of the populace and not necessarily racist attitudes? Even under multiculturalism many of those traditions are being slowly eradicated particularly in Western societies as third and fourth generation offspring embrace the societies they live in.

What are your thoughts?