The condition of being a ‘coolie’ found its greatest and most enduring expression in the movement that led to India’s independence and the spiritual-political leader most closely associated with it. If we want to trace the impact and meaning of being a ‘coolie’, look no further than the political evolution of a buttoned-up young lawyer, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
It’s hard to believe now, but Gandhi’s political life (so closely intertwined with his spiritual practice and philosophy) was not something at which he arrived fully-formed: like all major political actors, his political life was a constantly evolving self-education and response to external events, challenging who he was.
Gandhi’s biographer, Joseph Lelyveld, notes how the word ‘coolie’ shaped Gandhi’s world as soon as he left Britain and arrived in the English colony of South Africa. Gandhi was a ‘coolie’ as soon as he stepped into South Africa, first as a “coolie lawyer” and then leading Indian struggles against racial oppression.
From his first months in South Africa, the young Mohandas Gandhi was acutely sensitive to the casual racism that dripped and oozed from the epithet “coolie”. Never could he get over the shock of seeing the word used as a synonym for “Indian” in official documents or courtroom proceedings; making that translation in reverse – defining himself on behalf of the whole community as an Indian rather than as a Hindu, Gujarati, or Bania – was his first nationalist impulse. Years later he could be freshly affronted by the memory of having been called a “coolie lawyer”. Yet it took him more than fifteen years to learn that the word “kaffir” had similar connotations for the people he occasionally recognized (sic) as the original owners of the land, the “natives”, as he otherwise called them, or Africans, or blacks.
‘Coolie’ would never lose its pejorative sting in South Africa, and it was still common racist currency in the years that I was growing up. In 1894 Gandhi formed the Natal Indian Congress in South Africa to fight discrimination against Indian traders. Subsequently, various other Indian congresses would be formed across South Africa, and eventually, as the leadership radicalised, the Indian congresses became a significant political force in the fight against oppression.
The years Gandhi spent in South Africa (1893-1914) were the laboratory for his political evolution, thereby giving the impression that he stepped fully-formed into Indian politics. His political practice of satyagraha started in South Africa as a response to racial segregation, particularly the lived reality of Indians being designated ‘coolies’.
Passive resistance would also be used by Chinese South Africans who joined Gandhi’s campaigns, as well as by successive black and Indian South African political leaders, even if they disagreed with some of Gandhi’s political stances. This is particularly clear with Gandhi’s long evolution with regards to political cooperation with black South Africans – a stance contradicted by the position that Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi took in their common cause with black South African rights, as well as the position taken by Gandhi’s son Manilal. In 1927 Nehru called for political cooperation between black and Indian South Africans. This was a consistent message out of India, and in 1941 Indira Nehru (later to be Gandhi) delivered a personal message in Durban, South Africa’s eastern port city, with a large Indian population.
“Indians and Africans must act together,” she said. “Common oppression must be met with the united and organized power of all the exploited people.” That night, according to one reminiscence, Gandhi’s son Manilal endorsed “a united front of all non-Europeans” for the first time in his life.
It would not only be Gandhi’s son Manilal who would consistently be part of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, but Manilal’s descendants as well. (Parts of Gandhi’s family stayed in South Africa and continued to play a significant role in the anti-apartheid fight in South Africa, including Manilal’s daughter and Gandhi’s granddaughter Ela who served as a parliamentarian in Nelson Mandela’s cabinet.)
Satyagraha was started in South Africa by Gandhi as a way to challenge oppressive laws, particularly targeting Indian people. His passive resistance campaigns also drew in Chinese political leaders in South Africa.
“The Transvaal Chinese Association formed the core of political activity in the Transvaal during the early part of the 1900s. Its members took part in the passive resistance campaigns with the Indian resisters during the ‘five years between 1906 and 1911 (which) marked the most turbulent times in the history of the community.’ Led by Mahatma Gandhi during his sojourn in South Africa, the ‘free’ Transvaal Chinese together with the local Indian community committed themselves to opposing the new ‘fingerprint’ Asiatic registration law of the Transvaal. Many willingly went to jail, forfeiting their means of livelihood and risking deportation to give effect to this opposition.”
In one piece of correspondence, Gandhi writes that, “It is clear the Indian is the most proper word for both the classes. No Indian is a coolie by birth.”
It is only now, two years after reading Lelyveld’s book and while writing this piece, that the significance of Mahatma Gandhi’s quote above strikes me. The quote is the first – and really, the only – time that I have ever seen somebody who was called a “coolie” and lived in the time when it had international currency, talk back to the word.
Being a ‘coolie’ was the defining experience for the British subject who turned into one of its greatest independence leaders. Gandhi’s changing political ideas and practices virtually all took place in working against the grain of being called a ‘coolie’, as well as living as one every day of his life.
Satyagraha started in South Africa as Gandhi, and the rest of the Indian community, pushed back against what it meant to be a ‘coolie’ as a lived experience. Then, as that gained momentum, suit-and-tie Mohandas Gandhi, “coolie lawyer”, returned to India, to the likely origin of that word, where he led one of the biggest, most iconic liberation struggles in modern history.
Joseph Lelyveld, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle with India, New York: Vintage Books, 2012.
South African History Archive, The Natal Indian Congress (NIC) Collection, 1971-1990
A Matter of Honour: Being Chinese in South Africa – Yoon Jung Park, Jacana
 Lelyveld, p. 53
 South African History Archive, The Natal Indian Congress (NIC) Collection, 1971-1990.
 Dr Monty Naicker, elected to the leadership of the South African Indian Congress in 1945, was one of its most radical and iconic leaders.
 Manilal was Gandhi’s second son, and he lived in South Africa, seemingly making these comments in South Africa, where he continued to resist racially oppressive laws, and getting arrested. Manilal’s daughter, Ela Gandhi, still lives in South Africa and was elected as an MP in the first post-apartheid parliament. For background on Manilal, see: http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/manilal-gandhi.
 Lelyveld, pp74-5. The relationship between India and South Africa was not only about the personalities of its leaders: India would impose stringent sanctions against apartheid South Africa long before other countries and would remain a staunch and vocal supporter of the anti-apartheid movement throughout.
 Park, p.26
 Lelyveld, p.8
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Karen Williams works in media and human rights across Africa and Asia. She was part of the democratic gay rights movement that fought against apartheid in South Africa. She has worked in conflict areas and civil wars across the world and has written extensively on the position of women as victims and perpetrators in the west African and northern Ugandan civil wars.
Indian Ocean Slavery is a series of articles by Karen Williams on the slave trade across the Indian Ocean and its historical and current effects on global populations. Commissioned for our Academic Space, this series sheds light on a little-known but extremely significant period of international history.