The Coolie

Peer Reviewed


Degraded bodies and forests. Domination, labor and rage. Connections between the past and Sri Lanka today. These are the themes of Valentine Daniel’s powerful epic poem, “The Coolie,” in the May issue of Cultural Anthropology. Using verse to convey truths that prose cannot, Daniel draws out the coolie labor system which powered the tea and rubber plantations of the British Empire, and the fatigue, beatings, disease and rape – of women and land – that went along with it. Over the years, he estimates, 30 million coolies climbed steep hillsides to plant tea, flay rubber trees for their sap, and saw down whole forests of ebony and sandalwood for export. The wasted land of contemporary Sri Lanka – “Gouged here, leveled there, rivers running dry-bedded,” – bears witness.

Daniel describes how Sri Lankans were required to wait on their conquerors, serving them food while their own children went hungry, stoking fireplaces over which hung the heads of wild animals that had cost coolie lives in the taking. Other forms of violence were more overt. Coolie resistance was also complex and reverberating.

In his introduction, Daniel traces his own connection to the subjects and themes of his poem. For the first 20 years of his life, his father worked on a plantation and Daniel spent a large part of his youth there. Then, as a beginning ethnographer he did research among “coolies.” In trying for decades to tell their story, Daniel finally found terza rima, a three-line stanza that uses chain rhyme, and a form first used in Dante’s Divinia Commedia.

Editorial Footnotes

In the past, Cultural Anthropology has published essays on the subject of colonialism. Martha Kaplan's essay referencing Foucault's interpretation of colonialism in European states (1995) and Tania Li's essay on colonial rule in Indonesia (1999) are good sources of reference. Aisha Khan's "Journey to the Center of the Earth: The Caribbean as Master Symbol" is also relevant in the area of colonialism (2001).

Cultural Anthropology has also published essays on the subject of labor and structures of oppression. Carla Freeman's essay "Designing Women: Corporate Discipline and Barbados's Off-Shore Pink-Collar Sector" (1993) as well as Anathakrishnan Aiyer's essay "The Allure of the Transnational: Notes on Some Aspects of the Political Economy of Water in India" (2007), are good sources of reference. Adeline Masquelier's essay "Of Headhunters and Cannibals: Migrancy, Labor, and Consumption in the Mawri Imagination" (2000) is also a good reference.

In addition, Cultural Anthropology has published a range of essays on ethnography writing. Todd Ramon Ochoa's essay "Versions  of the Dead: Kalunga, Cuban-Kongo Materiality, and Ethnography" (2007), Elizabeth Enslin's essay "Beyond Writing: Feminist Practice and the Limitations of Ethnography," (1994) and Dan Rose's essay "Transformations of Disciplines through Their Texts: An Edited Transcription of a Talk to the Seminar on the Diversity of Language and the Structure of Power and an Ensuing Discussion at the University of Pennsylvania" (1986), are a few examples of this theme.

About the Author

E. Valentine Daniel is a professor of anthropology at Columbia University.

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