conical hats and bone money

I love researching, I am always learning something new. You never know where a trail of data will lead. As an example, for my next novel, Strong Omens, I came up against an interesting question. What did they call those cone-shaped hats in 19th century China? Some internet research led me to find that the Mandarin phrase basically means ‘cone-hat’ straight forward and to the point. But, I also learned that the Chinese at the time called them ‘coolie-hats’ a phrase that startled me as ‘coolie’ in modern terms means something very derogatory.

Further research found that while the origins of the terms coolie were in doubt, one theory held that it was a Tamil phrase meaning ‘paid worker’. It appears that the British Empire, wanting nothing to do with the vile slave trade, came up with a scheme whereby they could trick large numbers of South Asian workers with promises of riches later, if they would sign up to work for very little now. Basically they were indentured servants that were given their freedom and a ‘bonus’ when their contracts expired. Better than slavery right? Wrong! The workers found that they could not afford to get back to their homelands on the little they had made despite the terrible living conditions and dangerous work they did, so they were forced to keep working. These workers called their pitiful wages ‘bone money’ as they would save what they could so that their bones could be sent home after their deaths to be buried. Given the horrific conditions that they worked under, for many this was way before their contracts expired. So yes, the British may have ‘abolished slavery’, and the Americans followed them some sixty years after, but both Empires infrastructure and railroads were built by these ‘paid workers’, slaves in all but name.

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