175 Years of Resistance: Gaiutra Bahadur on Indo-Caribbeans, Women Rights, and Resistance

coolio-belloIn “175 Years of Resistance” (5 May 2013) Gaiutra Bahadur writes about Indians in the Caribbean, women rights in the face of violence, and resistance. This beautifully-written piece merits careful reading, but we can only choose a few excerpts; I highly recommend checking out the full text on the Coolie Woman blog.

One hundred seventy-five years ago today, on May 5, 1838, the first group of Indians in the Caribbean landed in British Guiana. There were almost 400, assigned to plantations along the colony’s marshy coast. Since indenture was an experiment in slavery’s wake, feared to be a revival of slavery in all but name, we actually know a great deal about these first “bound coolies,” as indentured Indians were called. [. . .] We know that, during their crossing to a new world, a cholera outbreak aboard The Hesperus claimed the lives of ten emigrants, who died in feverish fits, their tongues blackened, lips desperately dry, bowels contorted. We know that their new world was blood-stained at its beginning with the rape of an eight-year old girl. We even know her name: Nunneedy. Much has been documented about the suffering of this first group: the 25 percent mortality rate; the floggings made worse by rubbing salty pork pickle into the wounds; the toes eaten away by chigoes, sand fleas that burrowed in their flesh.

[. . .] In a way, their stories of exploitation and longing are not a revelation to Indians from the Caribbean or Indians in the Caribbean; their emotional texture is as familiar as our own skin. The sense of persecution, the thwarted desire for India, is as palpable to many of us as it was to those first “coolies.” The theme embedded in their tale that intrigues me more, that strikes me as a richer one for determining our futures, is the theme of resistance. By the end of January 1843, there were no ships for India anywhere in sight, to send them home, as the planters had promised they would be, after their contracts were served. As a result, the indentured struck work. And as a group, the ones on Plantation Anna Regina refused their rations of rice and saltfish. They stopped eating for days. Then, when they could refuse no longer, they insisted on paying for food. Clearly, they feared that accepting rations would leave them in debt and further indentured to the planters. On an affadavit that they hand-delivered to Guiana Governor Henry Light, ten men marked X next to their names, to demand that: “We want to be sent immediately to our country, according to our agreement when we left home.” Their resistance (ultimately successful) set a powerful example of protest – one that took various and sometimes unsettling forms through eight decades of indenture. There are some who argue that the hundreds of men and women who threw themselves into the dark waters, during the crossing from India, were resisting the colonial machinery that sought to estrange them from their country and kin.

[. . .] The women, too, resisted when they could. They participated in strikes against illegally low wages. And they occasionally formed self-protective circles, to fend off the sexual assaults of overseers. The media reports have focused on their pluck, their novelty, but there appears to be precedent for their resistance, in the history of indenture. The written and oral records point to similar strategies by “coolie” women more than a hundred years ago. In an interview in the 1980s, the indentured man Bharath recalled the punishment meted out to a driver (plantation foreman) who made sexual advances against a woman in Trinidad: “he want to do something/ ‘oman nuh like it/ so one day going five ‘oman/ beat e… / chap an ting.”

[. . .] Oral histories with ex-indentured weren’t conducted in Guyana, as they were in Trinidad and Fiji, which is probably why no stories of similar group resistance in colonial Guiana have emerged. I did, however, come across an archival reference to a woman who physically attacked an overseer who tried to rape her in 1914, on Plantation Wales. She inflicted two wounds with a cutlass. Her charge of rape was dismissed, and she was jailed for five years. Nonetheless, she did resist the advance, as did many other indentured women in British Guiana and elsewhere. And that, to me, is the most potent lesson offered by the indentured, in a story of private and political tyrannies – of exploitation by the colonial state and by men of all races that began 175 years ago but still continues, in governments and families inherited by their descendants.

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