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).
The word entered mainstream US culture as a result of these intensifying global debates over slavery, making its first appearance in Noah Webster’s American Dictionary in 1842. Reports on the Caribbean, including the status of “coolies,” circulated widely in the antebellum United States, with antislavery newspapers hailing Asian workers as a “free” alternative to enslaved labor early on. By the outbreak of the Civil War, however, widespread news of violent abuses and rebellions aboard “coolie” ships and on Caribbean plantations generated a powerfully enduring image that would haunt generations of Asian migrants. Represented as a coerced and submissive labor force by anti- and proslavery forces alike, “coolies” came to embody slavery in the age of emancipation. From Hawai‘i to California to Massachusetts, employers of all sorts demanded “coolies,” while white workers and politicians clamored for their exclusion from a “free” America. Well into the twentieth century, US labor leaders such as Samuel Gompers attacked Asian workers as nothing but hordes of “coolies” undermining “American” manhood and wages.
In response, Asian migrants, their liberal allies, and, more recently, Asian Americanist scholars have tried to refute such racist charges by claiming that Asians in the United States were not “coolies.” “Coolies,” they have insisted, were shipped to the Caribbean, while Asians in the United States were immigrants who came voluntarily (Takaki 1989). Given the ubiquity of the word in virtually every discussion on Chinese migrants (and, subsequently, other Asians), these denials have proven neither historically effective nor critically revelatory. It is far more instructive to argue that no one in the United States or the Caribbean was really a “coolie,” a racialized and racializing figure that denied Asian migrants the liberal subjectivity that “immigrants” presumably possessed (Jung 2006).
If we approach the term as a conglomeration of racial imaginings that materialized worldwide in the era of slave emancipation—as a product of the imaginers rather than the imagined—we can begin to see how pivotal “coolies” were in defining racial and national boundaries and hierarchies in the nineteenth century. Racialized as an enslaved labor force in the emergent age of free labor and free trade, “coolies” ultimately reflected the hopes, fears, and contradictions of emancipation. The ambiguous qualities ascribed to “coolies” served to confuse and collapse seemingly indissoluble divides at the heart of race (black and white), class (enslaved and free), and nation (alien and citizen, domestic and foreign) in US culture. Locating, defining, and outlawing “coolies,” at home and abroad, in turn evolved into an endless and indispensable exercise that resolved and reproduced the contradictory aims—racial exclusion and legal inclusion, enslavement and emancipation, parochial nationalism and unbridled imperialism—of a nation deeply rooted in race, slavery, and empire.
Racial fantasies of “coolies” as docile and apolitical made the reality of the Reconstruction amendments (the abolition of slavery, the enfranchisement of black men) and black labor struggles bearable and seemingly surmountable, particularly to white planters in the US South. The mobilization of white workers against dependent “coolies” symbolically restored the racial meanings of whiteness—namely, political and economic independence—when industrial capital’s expansion threatened to kill the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal for good.
The impulse to drive out “coolies” (and prostitutes) from the United States, in large part a cultural legacy of the antislavery movement, justified the earliest legal restrictions on immigration (the Page Law of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882). The historical process of excluding “coolies” simultaneously racialized “immigrants”—those worthy of entering the “nation of immigrants”—as white and European in US culture; Asians remained “aliens ineligible to citizenship” until the World War II era. And whether in China, Cuba, or, later, the Philippines, the existence of “coolies”—and the moral imperative to prohibit slavery—fueled and rationalized US imperialism, even as US Americans imported and consumed “un-American” products made by “coolies,” such as sugar from Cuba and Hawai‘i.
“Coolie,” then, is a term crucial to understanding the formations of the US nation, state, and empire at a historical moment of great turmoil and promise. Racial imaginings of “coolies” helped remake the United States into a “free,” “white,” and “modern” nation, revealing both its intricate ties to a wider world and its dogged pursuit of an exceptionalist self-image. The violent and mythical legacies of those imaginings have gone a long way toward shaping the United States and the world in the twentieth century and beyond.