Forthcoming Book: Coolie Woman—The Odyssey of Indenture

Coolie Woman Cover Bahadur

Gaiutra  Bahadur’s Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture is being released this summer by Hurst Publishers in the UK and this fall by The University of Chicago Press in the US. The book is also slated for publication in India by Hachette (no release date announced). Based on the story of Bahadur’s great grandmother, the book examines courageous women, survival, heroic voyages, and the story of a double diaspora, among other topics.

Description: In 1903, a young woman sailed from India to Guiana as a “coolie”—the British name for indentured laborers who replaced the newly emancipated slaves on sugar plantations all around the world. Pregnant and traveling alone, this woman, like so many of the indentured, disappeared into history. Now, in Coolie Woman, her great-granddaughter Gaiutra Bahadur embarks on a journey into the past to find her. Traversing three continents and trawling through countless colonial archives, Bahadur excavates not only her great-grandmother’s story but also the repressed history of some quarter of a million other coolie women, shining a light on complex lives.

Many were widows, runaways or outcasts who fled mistreatment, even mortal danger, to migrate alone in epic sea voyages—traumatic “middle passages”—only to face a life of hard labor, dismal living conditions, and sexual exploitation. As Bahadur documents, however, it was precisely their sexuality that gave coolie women a degree of leverage. In new worlds where they were the scarcer sex, they had their pick of Indian partners. Their exercise of this power often incited fatal retaliations by the men who were spurned. Meanwhile, intimacy with white overseers sometimes conferred privileges. It also precipitated plantation uprisings, as a struggle between Indian men and their women intersected with one between coolies and their overlords. The women’s shortage gave them sway but also made them victims, caught in a shifting borderland between freedom and slavery.

Examining this and many other facets of these courageous women’s lives, Coolie Woman is a meditation on survival, a gripping story of a double diaspora—from India to the West Indies in one century, and from Guyana to the United States in the next—that is at once a search for roots and an exploration of gender and power, peril and opportunity.

bahadur-author-photo-6Gaiutra Bahadur was born in Guyana and emigrated to the United States as a child, where she studied literature (Yale University) and journalism (Columbia University); she was a 2008 Nieman Fellow at Harvard.  Bahadur is an independent journalist and a book critic who writes frequently about the culture and politics of global migration. Her reporting, criticism and essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, The Nation, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The (London) Observer and Ms., among other publications. A former daily newspaper reporter, she won a 2013 New Jersey Council on the Arts Fellowship and a 2013 award from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, a national feminist arts organization. Both grants were awarded on the merits of Coolie Woman.

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4 thoughts on “Forthcoming Book: Coolie Woman—The Odyssey of Indenture

  1. I have a little concern about this statement…’Many were widows, runaways or outcasts who fled mistreatment, even mortal danger, to migrate alone in epic sea voyages—traumatic “middle passages”—only to face a life of hard labour, dismal living conditions, and sexual exploitation.’
    This is NOT what I discovered in my Doctoral research on Fiji Girmitiyas. This sentence, in my opinion perpetuates the mis-information the colonial agents and writers propagated in the Girmit era in order to justify their inhuman trade in labor-just as they justified the slave trade of African people. My Doctoral thesis (In Exile at Home-a Fiji Indian Story) is presently on the Amazon Kindle book store ( and the accompanying film is on my You Tube channel (
    While I welcome all the new work on Girmit and Girmitiyas (Indenture system and Indians transported under the system to various colonial possessions) I do take exception to any propagation of false propaganda propagated in the Girmit period to justify Girmit. We have the ability to deconstruct the historical material and construct history from the perspective of the victim of this labour trade-the Girmitiyas.

    Dr. Satish Rai

  2. What did you discovered? ’If many weren’t “widows, runaways or outcasts who fled mistreatment, even mortal danger, to migrate alone in epic sea voyages…..,” then who were they? Well to do upper class citizens who were not outcasts or mistreated?

  3. Winston, if you wish to find out who these women were you must do some research on the indenture system. There is a lot of information now available now on this subject and we do not have to rely on the Anglo-version of our own history. I am not into point scoring on a subject that concerns my own ancestry.
    Satish Rai

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