Thinking Labour Rights through the ‘Coolie Question’

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  • Thinking Labour Rights through the ‘Coolie Question’

This workshop will explore the contemporary relevance of a tradition of histories of labour rights by
framing them in the context of recent debates about the place of economics in history and the history of
capatalism more broadly. Our aim is to broaden the field of labour rights history by focusing on the global
response to the problems of contract and indentured labour and what became known as the ‘coolie
question’ in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the past the ‘coolie question’ has been
conceptualised in two main ways – as an offshoot of histories of slavery and anti-slavery and in the
context of histories of migration to colonies of the former British and Spanish empires. This symposium
aims to bring interdiciplinary approaches to the ‘coolie question’ into conversation with the new debates
regarding capatalism. Its participants will reflect on the implications of the ‘coolie question’ for new
transnational and global accounts of the history of labour rights in the globalising present.

Historical perspectives play an important role in contemporary debates over labour rights, and labour rights lawyers, policy makers and advocates draw on a wide range of social science disciplines and approaches in order to construct their arguments and policies. This symposium brings together three of the main perspectives used in the
analysis of labour rights today —history, human rights and economics. It sets out to re-think histories of labour rights within the context of economic internationalism. It suggests that there is now a need to broaden and re-think the field of labour rights history and that one way to do this is by focusing on the global response to the problem of coolie trade, what became known as the ‘coolie question,’ in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Around the world, through much of the twentieth century, the ‘coolie question’ was a touchstone for economists, intellectuals, trade unionists,
socialists, liberal free traders and protectionists engaged in experiments in nationbuilding and labour rights. Thinking through the ‘coolie question’ anew provides a useful framework and methodological tool for examining the global intellectual history of labour rights and economic internationalism in a world history context. In this way,
‘Thinking Labour Rights through the Coolie Question’ brings together current trends in social science research on labour rights so as better conceptualise the theoretical and historiographical foundations of contemporary debates.

The period of the ‘coolie trade’ extends from approximately the early 1840s — one consequence of the ending of slavery in the British empire — to the 1920s. The idea behind the coolie trade was a simple one. It sought to extract labour from China, India and the Pacific Islands and transport it to locations across the world, where it
was in short supply, through systems of indenture. However the system that developed was widely condemned as inefficient, exploitative and often as akin to slavery.

All the nations involved in this episode of human migration responded with domestic and transnational debates that produced new definitions of labour rights as human rights. WP Reeves in his preface to Australian economist Persia Campbell’s 1923 publication The Coolie Question, wondered how such ‘sinister experiments, so unattractive at their best, so repulsive at their worst, came to be tried in civilized countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.’ Singaporean historian Wang Singwu claimed in 1970 that there was little difference between Chinese ‘coolies’ and
African ‘slaves’ and much historiography since has explored that proposition.

Focusing on the ‘coolie question’ will instigate related discussion on the history of labour migration. This will allow us to use the symposium to highlight the cultural history of labour migration with a focus on its ongoing historical legacies. In recent times, temporary migrant labour has been at the center of debates over labour rights, with governments of both sending and receiving countries interested in understanding, controlling and improving labour migration. By bringing together scholars from a wide range of institutions and disciplines, this symposium will allow for fresh perspectives
on the historical legacies of slavery, coolie migration and forced migration in the context of new histories of capitalism.

The history of labour migration and coolie migration has been extremely rich and its impact on peoples, places and things profound. Examples include Indian plantation workers in Fiji, Chinese coolie labour in Cuba and the Caribbean; Indian and Chinese coolie labour in Burma and colonial Malaya; Indonesian pearl divers, Afghan cameleers
and Chinese gold miners in Australia; Pacific Islander indentured labourers; and Mexican workers in California’s agriculture and ranching sectors. There are many more examples in addition to these. Labour migration and coolie labour was vital to the national development of many countries, particularly in receiving countries. For example, in the British colonial era, when Malaysia was known as Malaya, the export of tin, sugar, coffee and rubber in the increasingly connected world economy was only made possible by the importation of Chinese and Indian labour.

The workshop will include papers on the following themes: free and unfree labour; labour and empire; economic internationalism and free trade liberalism; the coolie question as a methodological category; slavery and imperial migration schemes; comparative labour history; Asian migration and labour rights and gender and labour
rights. This symposium will raise important comparative and interdisciplinary issues in the study of the ‘coolie question,’ and instigate new conversations in Australia regarding the importance of labour rights in the conceptualisation of a new history of capitalism. The overriding aim of the symposium is to internationalise the history of labour rights and suggest new ways of conceptualising labour rights in the globalising present.

For more information, please contact:
Mrs Nurdan Kulluk-Rennert
Manager, Executive and Workshops
Nurdan.Kulluk-Rennert [at] assa.edu.au
+61 .2 62491788

Event Schedule

Supporting Documents

Contact Information

Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia

    ABN: 59 957 839 703
  • Location: 26 Balmain Crescent, Acton, ACT 2601
  • Postal: GPO Box 1956, Canberra, ACT 2601
  • +61 .2 62491788
  • +61 .2 62474335
  • secretariat@assa.edu.au

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