Indentured in their blood

Dakshiani Palicha | Updated on January 04, 2019 Published on January 04, 2019

An alien hearth: A postcard image of early Indian immigrant women in Guadeloupe   -  THE HINDU

An anthology that refuses to let memories of the jahajis — men and women from India who laboured in faraway colonies — fade away

The book opens with an image of an 1894 dated “colonial emigration form” for the ship Hereford. It is attested by a surgeon-superintendent of Fiji, stating that he has employed the worker named to undertake a voyage to Fiji, and work for the government there for an agreed time period. This is one of the few pieces of official records that acknowledge, though not directly, a forgotten chapter of history — the indenture system — whose legacy, however, lingers till date.

And it is this erasure that the book, We Mark Your Memory: Writing from the Descendants of Indenture — published in April 2018 by the Commonwealth Writers Foundation and the School of Advanced Study, University of London — seeks to counter.

The book is an anthology of 28 stories, essays, and free-verse — all of them by Indian-Caribbean people, whose lineage can be traced to both former British colonies through indenture.

“Indenture was a system where people agreed, and, we can add to that description, were coerced into providing an amount of labour in an overseas (British) colony. The period that we’re referring to is from 1838 to 1917,” says Maria Del Pilar Kaladeen, one of the editors of the anthology. She is also a descendant of indentured labourers who migrated to Guyana from India.

The abolition of slavery, which halted the availability of African workers in labour-intensive industries such as sugar and cotton plantations, led to the birth of the indenture system as a means to import manpower from other colonies.

The targets were South and Southeast Asia, primarily India — one of the more populated colonies. Records show that an estimated two million Indians were indentured, with most of them leaving from the ports of Calcutta and Madras. Their destination was mainly the Caribbean islands of Guyana, Trinidad or Jamaica. Some were sent to Africa or South America, when needed.

From the past: An Indian ‘coolie’ woman in Trinidad   -  WIKICOMMONS


They were commonly known as coolies, but they liked to refer to themselves as jahajis — brothers/sisters who arrived together on a jahaj or ship. In the anthology, many of the writers hark back to this word, trying to dig deeper to find out what exactly it meant to their predecessors. What they mostly encountered were records of hardship.

Take, for instance, the chapter The Rebel, by Kevin Jared Hosein, which is centred on a tragedy that occurs in a sugar plantation, with the workers unable to gain control over their own situation for fear of the consequences. Or in Mother Wounds, by Gitan Djeli, where the writer traces her matrilineage and uncovers the hardships faced by the women in her family — left to fend for themselves in an alien land, married and bearing children in their teenage years, and toiling at home and in the fields day in and day out.

Unforgettable: Giani Zail Singh, the then president of India, lights a lamp at the Coolie Ghat in Port Louis in October 1984, to mark the 150th anniversary of Indian immigrants in Mauritius   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES



Scattered among the stories of pain are a handful of success stories, too. Prithviraj R Dullay, in ‘My Father The Teacher’, says it was only after his father moved to Port Shepstone in South Africa as an indentured worker that he had the opportunity to complete his education, earn enough to buy land, and pave the way for his children to have access to the best opportunities in life.

Trinidad-born Mike Bisson’s grandparents were plantation workers who had migrated from Punjab in the early 1900s, and chose to stay on beyond their indenture contract, which typically was for three to five years. “My grandfather Bishniya opted out of the system. Many others didn’t have that option. Trinidad at the time had an influx of Indian workers. So my grandfather opened a corner shop there,” he says.

When Bisson was a toddler, the family moved to the UK. It’s a decision that he’s clearly not happy about. “My dad had his own empire of racehorses and betting shops in Trinidad. When we moved here [to the UK], we lived in London for a few years. It wasn’t the same. But we managed to get through it,” he says. Today, Bisson, a retired lawyer, lives with his family in Manchester, England. He is chairman of the annual Caribbean Carnival here.

Nearly all the contributors in We Mark Your Memory had their families stay behind in the Caribbean after the end of the indenture agreement, and years later many of them moved to different parts of the world, adding another suffix to their already hyphenated identity. Canada, the US, France, Latin America and, of course, Britain today have significant populations of Indian-Caribbean people. Notable British Indian-Caribbeans include the late Nobel Laureate author VS Naipaul, writer Lakshmi Persaud, psychiatrist, writer and broadcaster Raj Persaud, and historian and academic Clem Seecharan.

Rohan Kanhai , celebrated Guyanese cricketer, is a descendant of Indian indentured labourers in British Guiana   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Cricket is another link that India and the Caribbean share, in common with several other nations in the British Commonwealth. One of Guyana’s celebrated cricketers in the 1960s, Rohan Kanhai is a descendent of Indian indentured labourers in British Guiana.

The anthology is, no doubt, a vital addition to the corpus on the Indian-Caribbean experience. In the past, many authors and academics from the Indian-Caribbean diaspora, particularly in Britain, have written on it. Seecharan, for instance, is well known in the community as a writer of the Indian-Guyanese experience. Samuel Selvon is the author of The Lonely Londoners, which is about Trinidadian immigrants in post-World War II London. Of Indian-Guyanese descent, David Dabydeen, a professor at University of Warwick and one of the editors of We Mark Your Memory, not only teaches the subject but has also penned fiction and non-fiction works on indenture.

Yet, it is intriguing why the subject does not attract much wider attention than it does at present. For instance, the indenture system — which defines the identity of the Indian-Caribbean people — finds little or no mention at all in textbooks either in the UK, the Caribbean islands, or even India.

“The knowledge of the history of indentureship in Britain is absolutely minimal. We know much more about slavery of black Americans than we know about the Indian workers who went across in 1838 to work on the sugar plantations,” says Dabydeen, who is also a former Guyanese ambassador to UNESCO. “Indentureship fizzled away as the years went by. There was no hoo-ha about it, no razzmatazz, or celebration, like in emancipation (of slavery).”

Kaladeen has a different take on the absence of adequate discourse. “There have been two pieces of forgetting involved. The first is by the British, who want to remember the abolition of slavery. In doing so they erase the acts of resistance by the enslaved, and they take ownership of this moment,” she says. “But they also seek to erase anything that’s come after it. And enter stage-right, the system of indenture. When I say ‘them’ I also perversely mean me, because I’m British,” she adds.

David Dabydeen, Indian-Guyanese professor, rues the lack of indenture scholarship in Britain   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

It’s also undeniable that many in the Indian-Caribbean diaspora are reluctant to revisit the struggles of those that made the journey. Bisson is one of them. “I don’t want to look to the past, I just want to move forward… Slavery and indenture, in my opinion, are masks behind which people are hiding and defining themselves. I don’t want to do that,” he says.

The “dual amnesia” has led to the obscuring of almost 100 years of history, rues Kaladeen. In most of the stories in We Mark Your Memory, the writers mention that sharing these tales is a way of making that history known, or simply trying to better understand their ancestors, perhaps feel closer to someone they lost or never had the chance to meet.

For Lainy Malkani, British Indian-Guyanese journalist and author, writing on indenture was born out of a personal reason. “My mum passed away six years ago, and I was going through those feelings of ‘Who were you?’, ‘What was your history?’. If only I had asked more questions at the time,” she says. Digging into her mother’s life, she found many stories worth telling, and that led to her semi-fiction titled ‘Sugar, Sugar’.

“Many of us realised that we have to get out there and explain what our history is, and how it has become part of the narrative of British history... You are the sum total of what’s gone on before you. There’s a really famous quote by (novelist) A Sivanandan: ‘We are here because you were there’. Sums it up for me,” Malkani says.

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Published on January 04, 2019
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