The ‘Coolie Hire Service’ in Cape Town

In 1846 there existed in Cape Town a so-called ‘Coolie Hire Service’.There is a strong likelihood that letters addressed within the vicinity of Cape Town between the period 1846-1855 were conveyed by means of private carriers. This service was entirely private and totally divorced from the operations of the official post office and it’s activities. It was, however, subject to regulations imposed by the Cape Town municipality. The word ‘Coolie’ is used here pure historical accuracy. This politically incorrect and offensive term to-day was commonly used to describe carriers of Indian origin.

The carriers were self-employed and operated on fixed tariffs. They carried letters and parcels within the immediate vicinity of Cape town. It is surprising that the postal authorities permitted this service which was in direct competition with their monopoly. The tariffs were based both on weight as well as distance. In the 1846 Cape of Good Hope Almanac there is a table describing these tariffs. The tariffs varied for a packet carried by one ‘Coolie’ up to a distance of half a mile of 2 d to 1s 6 d for the same but for a distance between three and a half to four miles. It is apparent from these rates that this was mostly a service aiming at delivering small packets that letters. In the footnote of the same table it further states ‘No single Coolie shall refuse to carry any parcel or package not exceeding 75 pounds weight, nor be compelled to carry more. Nor shall two Coolies refuse to carry any parcel or package not exceeding two hunderd pounds weight, nor be compelled to carry more..’ One has to marvel at the extent of the bureaucracy and for trying to legistlate even the most minor of every day business activities.

These private letters normally only bear the name of the addressee and sometimes adirective such as “Urgent”, “Immediate”, “In eie hande” (into the hands) and the like. While many letters of the briefstock era bear similar marks, it is not difficult to distingusih between the two.

These letters are an interesting side-line to the Postal history of the Cape of Good Hope.

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