Labour History

The Coolie Labour Crisis in Colonial Queensland

Labour History (2017), 113, (1), 53–78.


The question of “coolie labour” was of great importance in colonial Australia. Like the debates and conflicts over Chinese immigration and Pacific Islander labour, the outcome helped shape dominant national strategies around labour, immigration and nationalism, summed up in the idea of a White Australia. Unlike the issue of Chinese immigration, the issue of importing indentured Indian “coolie” labour drove major capitalist interests into a prolonged and bitter conflict with each other. Sugar planters in Queensland demanded the government facilitate the large-scale recruitment of indentured labourers from British India, and liberal obstruction of this led the planters and their allies to campaign for separation from Queensland. This article describes this conflict, the divisions and rival perspectives within the ruling class that shaped it and the reasons that almost the entire southern establishment, Conservative as well as Liberal, galvanised against the planters. It outlines the role played by British anti-slavery thought, and the belief that such a plantation colony in the north would develop a radically different social and political structure, one that was a threat to the free-labour economy.

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*The author would like to thankLabour History’stwo anonymous referees for challenging aspects of his article and helping improve it. Google Scholar

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Author details

Griffiths, Phil