Coolie hired labourer, or burden carrier in South Asia, China and Southeast Asian countries. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries labourers were indentured from India and China for plantation works in Madagascar, Mauritius, Fiji, West Indies, South Africa, and Southeast Asian countr…ies. These labourers were commonly designated as coolie. In all these countries the term ‘coolie’ is also used to identify the labourers engaged in transportation, earth work, highway building, timber movement and so on. The labourers who built the railway tracks in the era of railway building in India were generally called coolie, and subsequently labourers who used to load and unload goods in railway stations and steamer ghats were also specified as coolie. Curiously, bulk of the labourers who built the first transcontinental railways in the United States of America was again called coolies. Most of these labourers were of course, indentured from China.
It is widely believed that the term coolie has originated from a labouring caste, Koli, in western India. An alternative suggestion goes that the term originates from ‘Kol’, an important branch of the Austric race in Bengal, who were vocationally specialized in digging earth and timber handling. As is known from the East India Company Factory records, the English and other European nations trading in India in the 17th and 18th centuries employed ‘coolie’ on their establishments for inland transportation of goods. With the abolition of slavery in the early 19th century, the coolie labour market became particularly competitive. Then practically all non-farm labours came to be known as coolies. There is reason to believe that coolie as a category of labour is the handiwork of the British colonial empire. The colonial plantations all over the empire were generally worked by coolie labour indentured from India and China. While there were indigenous coolies in Bengal, the supply of this category of labour for the Bengal labour market mainly came from Orissa, Madhyapradesh, Bihar, Chhotanagpur and Jodhpur.