Indian indentured labourers
The term ‘coolie’ is of disputed origins: some believe it derives from an aboriginal tribe in the Gujarat region of India, and others believe it comes from the Tamil word ‘kuli’, meaning ‘payment for occasional menial work’ (Oxford English Dictionary).
The labourers were mostly young, active, able-bodied people used to demanding labour, but they were often ignorant of the places they agreed to go to or the challenges they were going to face.
Before 1840 a large proportion of the labourers were so-called ‘Hill coolies’, aboriginal people from the plains of the Ganges. Later many others signed indentured labour contracts, including Hindus, Brahmins, high castes, agriculturists, artisans, Mussulmans, low castes (untouchables) and Christians.
Over 41,000 Bengali labourers were sent to Mauritius in 1834, but the Indian government banned ‘coolie’ shipments in 1838 because there were reports of repression and abuse.
In 1842 the British Prime Minister Robert Peel directed the Indian government to re-open these lines of emigration under proper safeguards. A Protector of Emigrants was appointed to ensure that the labourers had adequate space, food, water and ventilation on the journey.
Emigration to Jamaica, British Guiana and Trinidad was legalised in 1844. Emigration to Grenada and St Lucia was legalised in 1856 and 1858 respectively.
The last indentured labourers went to the West Indies in 1916. Repatriation continued for many years after the time limit. The last ship carrying returning emigrants left the West Indies for India in 1954.