NEW DELHI, India — The sign for a “Coolie Shelter” beside the New Delhi train station took me by surprise, although I know better than to take immediate offense at seemingly familiar things in an unfamiliar context. (Swastikas, of course, come to mind.)
In my experience, “coolie” was a derogatory term — but Wikipedia explains further.
A coolie (alternatively spelled cooli, cooly, quli, koelie, and other such variations), during the 19th and early 20th century, was a term for a locally sourced unskilled laborer hired by a company, mainly from the Indian subcontinent or South China. Today, it is used varyingly as a legal inoffensive word (for example, in India for helpers carrying luggage in railway stations) and also used as a racial slur in Africa for certain people from Asia, particularly in South Africa.
The term refers to the Asian trade in cheap labor and indentured servitude that originated in the 16th century and became widespread in the 19th century, as societal pressures moved toward making outright slavery illegal. Yet manual laborers remained in high demand in the cotton and sugar industries, as well as for working in mines and on railroad construction.
They came first from China and later from India to work for the world powers of the time, scattered throughout the Caribbean, South America, the South Pacific, Africa, Southeast Asia and the United States on the Transcontinental Railroad — all too often in unimaginably harsh conditions, and usually with little recourse for the laborers shipped so far from home.
In the New Delhi rail station, however, a coolie was what I would’ve called a porter, a valet or a skycap — a luggage handler. At that, I breathed a sigh of relief.