Coolies in Indian Literature: Understanding Colonial History and Modern Slavery

9th e-Lecture by PhD Research Scholar, Aratrika Ganguly on Coolies in Indian Literature: Understanding Colonial History and Modern Slavery.

Ganguly started the lecture with the root of ending the dominant slavery and exchange it with a similar process for economic and political gain. Even with help of great people like Abraham Lincoln, who played a great role in abolishing slavery. Unfortunately, the abolishment of slavery came with a new shape where the name changed but the process is still in existence. People had to migrate and look for a better life, poor people engaged in contract work with wealthy landowners. This kind of contract came out with much exploitation that left many people under the shadow of slavery. 

Looking at the context of coolies, they are regarded as unskilled laborers, who  go through difficult working conditions under extreme exploitation. Between 1834-1920, the British introduced a system in which Indians were taken to plantations on various islands. This form of contract allowed coolies to work for 5 to 7 years in which laborers can extend the contract if they wish. It brought with it all the terms of work in an agreement which comprises accommodation, feeding, hospital, etc. Those coolies most of whom mainly came from the Indo-genetic plains, Tamil Nadu, and other places to the south of the country, found it difficult to understand the agreement and were exploited more by the middlemen. A worrisome way of exploitation of coolies was by agents who recruited laborers. They were deceived by cruel agents who made a promise to the coolies that opportunities and a better life were awaiting them abroad. Those coolies faced tremendous social and economic calamities, causing them to be at higher risk of acting as slaves. The coolies were cheated and faced shortages of food, accommodation, hospital, etc. Some even got injured, died, or are lost in the form of working under such a contract.

As Indians were deceived by false promises of a better life abroad by these agents, they were willing to go abroad in the hope of a better life. British, businessmen, middlemen, and European merchants took advantage and began employing coolies as a cheap source of labor. They used coolies even by sending them from one country to another not only to gain control of the laborers but that also create conditions of racism and hatred. The coolies suffered from the lack of love for being foreign laborers and not belonging to the region. The Indian laborers worked hard in sugar plantation areas, tea plantation areas, coal mine areas, etc. in the African continent particularly South Africa. Even within India, the British forced an internal migration and some laborers escaped from the tea plantation due to the harsh conditions, but if they were caught by any British officer, they were beaten to death. Those laborers that are referred to as coolies are among the real worriers who suffered in the hands of British masters.

Ganguly explained how the Indian Hero Mahatma Gandhi rescued many Indian coolies abroad. While he was in South Africa, Gandhi faced racism, and as a response, Gandhi led massive nonviolent protests against the oppressive treatment of the Coolies in South Africa where he fought against this British Injustice. Many abandoned Indian laborers in South Africa engaged in heavy jobs without good working conditions. Such laborers faced discrimination. Gandhi’s protest did not save Indians in South Africa alone, but also fought for those in South Asia and many Indians in other Diaspora.

The condition of coolies within India were not affected by what Gandhi did outside India. Many coolies were assaulted through internal migration. They are given small space, they lived in a dilapidated environment, without sanitation, without hygiene, sometimes facing sickness due to the nature of their unsecured environment. They were given a minimum amount of food, they suffered and hunger became a serious challenge to their well – being. Ganguly concluded with the reflection of how the coronavirus pandemic became a serious threat to many laborers in India. Many unskilled and migrant workers lost their jobs and found it difficult to adjust to the current harsh economic condition. The coolies context in Indian literature served as a narration of how slavery was modified with high capitalism exploitation.

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