coolie labor

coolie labor, term applied to unskilled laborers from Asia, especially from India and China. With the discontinuance of slavery, the use of Chinese and Indian contract labor in British and French colonies increased. Indenture of Indian coolies was usually for a term of five years, in return for wages, certain benefits, and the cost of passage; the terms were enforceable by penal sanctions. At the expiration of their terms, the laborers were free to reindenture or to seek other employment. They frequently became peasant proprietors, although they were entitled to return passage to India. The practice was discontinued by the British Indian government, which in 1922 prohibited assisting the emigration of unskilled laborers, except to a few countries. Emigration of Chinese coolies began c.1845, although it was nominally prohibited before 1859. Between these dates the conditions were notoriously bad; the victims were shipped mainly to Cuba and Peru, where they died by the thousands. In 1859, Britain arranged with Guangzhou for legal emigration to the British West Indies and elsewhere on five-year contracts. In 1860 an Anglo-Chinese convention sanctioned such emigration to British territory, and the regulations were agreed to by the other powers in similar conventions. The British Chinese Passenger Act of 1885 regulated British ships in the trade and resulted in the traffic's falling mainly into the hands of the Portuguese. In 1904, Great Britain arranged with China the hiring of 50,000 Chinese laborers to work the Transvaal gold mines. In the 19th cent. large numbers of Chinese laborers went to California and Australia. Opposition in Australia to this influx of cheap labor resulted in the passage of the Emigration Restriction Act for the gradual elimination of Asians from Australia, by providing that no one should be permitted to enter the country who failed to write 50 words in any prescribed language. Coolie labor was important in building the first U.S. transcontinental railroad, but this type of immigration into the United States was practically ended by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1888 and by stringent federal laws against contract laborers. In 1904, Canada began to exclude coolie labor by charging a head tax of $500.

See P. C. Campbell, Chinese Coolie Emigration to Countries within the British Empire (1923, repr. 1971).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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