by Moon-Ho Jung
The word “coolie” is first and foremost a product of European expansion into Asia and the Americas. Of Tamil, Chinese, or other origin, it was popularized by Portuguese sailors and merchants across Asia beginning in the sixteenth century and later adopted by fellow European traders on the high seas and in port cities. By the eighteenth century, “coolie” referred to a laborer of India or China, hired locally or shipped abroad. The word took on a new significance in the nineteenth century, as the beginnings of abolition remade “coolies” into indentured laborers in high demand across the world, particularly in the tropical colonies of the Caribbean. Emerging out of struggles over British emancipation and Cuban slavery in particular, “coolies” and “coolieism”—defined by the late nineteenth century as “the importation of coolies as labourers into foreign countries” (Oxford English Dictionary)—came to denote the systematic shipment and employment of Asian laborers on sugar plantations formerly worked by enslaved Africans (Tinker 1974; Irick 1982; Prashad 2001).
Empire never went away in U.S. history, but it has been making a comeback in recent years. Likening the United States of the twenty-first century to the British empire of the nineteenth century, right-wing scholars and pundits have enthusiastically extolled empire to justify and glorify colonial misdeeds of the past and the present. “In deploying American power, decisionmakers should be less apologetic, less hesitant, less humble,” Max Boot declared in 2002 with no sense of irony. “America should not be afraid to fight ‘the savage wars of peace’ if necessary to enlarge the ‘empire of liberty,’” he concluded. “It has done it before” (352). Indeed, it has. Along with Niall Ferguson and others, Boot’s unabashed embrace of the word empire is refreshing—they saw no need for disavowal or subterfuge—but equating empire with “democracy, capitalism, and freedom” served only to underscore their longing for a bygone era, when white men like Rudyard Kipling and William McKinley could speak openly of empire’s burdens and benefits (Boot 2002, 349;N. Ferguson 2003).