“Postcards from Empire” by Gaiutra Bahadur


I was delighted to find this article (posted on Facebook by small axe today), “Postcards from Empire” by Gaiutra Bahadur, author of Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture (see previous posts Gaiutra Bahadur’s “Coolie Woman” Longlisted for the Orwell Prize, Forthcoming Book: Coolie Woman—The Odyssey of Indenture, and Coolie Diaspora: From Indentureship to Transnational Communities). Her are a few excerpts but I highly recommend reading the full article in Dissent (see link below).

In the photograph a young woman poses against a stately painted backdrop, a balcony with elegant fretwork and a sylvan view. She cocks her head demurely to one side, a solitary finger touching her jaw. A rose-patterned garment moulds her figure and covers her head, but her feet are bare. An elaborately braceleted arm closes around her waist, almost defensively. The unnamed woman’s eyes gaze softly back at the viewer, a faint smile playing on her lips.

Victorian-era photographs of Indian women in the West Indies advertized their beauty and their prosperity. Almost always, the women depicted are laden with silver and gold, their bodies showcases for jewelry from “the East.” Like the woman described above, they wear the bells of jhumkas in their earlobes, diadem-like matha pattis along the part in their hair, rings in their noses, and widening gyres of gold florins around their necks. Bangles and metal bands cover every inch of their arms. The trinkets give the women a primitive, tribal quality, but they also suggest opulence and the exotic.

I discovered these photographs on tourist postcards while researching the repressed history of Indo-Caribbean women for Coolie Woman, a book that doubles as a family history. This stunning visual archive, mainly featuring images from Trinidad from the 1870s to the 1890s, included dozens upon dozens of studio portraits of Indian women dressed in flowing ghararas and adorned with ornate jewelry, caught in many moods and postures, their heads covered or bare, expressions coy or brazen, miserable or defiant, smiling or pointedly not.

Often, the postcards carry captions or even hand-written notes suggesting how people may have identified or perceived the portraits at the time. Many were simply titled “Coolie Belle.” One from Trinidad reads: “Dressed Coolie Woman. All Gold.” Another describes its subject as: “A wealthy coolie woman awaiting her husband.” On one postcard, the daughter of an American missionary in British Guiana scribbled to a friend: “This gives a good idea of their costumes. The women wear round flat yellow metal ornaments on the side of the nose, three or four silver bracelets on each arm, and often silver bracelets on each ankle.”

The text accompanying the postcards reflects a preoccupation with how these women looked, especially with their jewelry and the wealth that it suggested. But the irony of the word “coolie”—conventionally used to refer to manual laborers on the Indian subcontinent—being juxtaposed with such riches was clearly lost on the caption writers. In these plantation societies on the verge of becoming tourist paradises, the word had acquired a new meaning—as ethnic slur. Any Indian woman in the West Indies, whatever her status, however she earned a living, was reducible to a “coolie belle.” The phrase, while highlighting her physical charms, also marked her as a permanent foreigner in the Caribbean, forever branded with her origins as an Indian import.

Between 1838 and 1917 Indian women came to the Caribbean as “coolies,” indentured laborers used by the British to replace emancipated slaves on plantations throughout the empire. The traffic in indentured labor was one third the size of the British slave trade, with more than a million Indians shipped to roughly a dozen colonies worldwide. Despite its scale, the history of indenture—neglected as a postscript to the abolition of slavery—has been largely lost to collective memory. Especially unknown are the viewpoints of the indentured themselves, how they experienced a system that economically and sexually exploited them, and that inflicted untold misery upon them and their descendants.

Only two memoirs about indenture exist; both were authored by men. A majority of the quarter of a million women transported by the British as “coolies” were widows and other outcasts traveling without husbands by their sides; they were dispossessed, marginalized, and anonymous. Few were literate (in English or in any Indian language) and they left behind no letters, diaries, memoirs, or other written testimonies. Rather than speaking for themselves in the historical record, they were spoken for—coolie women are described by countless government officials and the authors of fanciful narratives, almost all of them white men. An extensive paper trail—colonial travelogues, captains’ logs, ship surgeons’ diaries, and confidential Colonial Office dossiers on errant overseers—provides evidence of the women’s physical lives, but does not—indeed cannot—reveal much about what they thought or felt.

The interior lives of these women went undocumented, but their bodies did not—the written archives are filled with descriptions of both their physical allure and the physical trauma they suffered. But what distinguishes the colonial photographs of indentured women as a historical source is that, unlike descriptions found in a traveler’s tale or an immigration agent’s report, we see them, and they—seemingly—look back at us. These images don’t simply document, they enact a struggle—between the imaginations of colonial-era photographers and the real lives of the women behind the portraits. In doing so, they suggest a radically different perspective on imperial history.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Indian women were photographed in Jamaica, Trinidad, and British Guiana for a thriving postcard industry built on marketing the Caribbean as a holiday destination for Western tourists. During the colonial period, the Caribbean islands had developed a reputation as hot-houses of hard drink and yellow fever, virtual graveyards for white men. Determined to change this perception, colonial administrators launched a concerted campaign to sell the Caribbean as an “exotic but safe” destination, a message well represented by images of beautiful women who were once among the British empire’s most denigrated laborers. [. . .]

For full article, see http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/postcards-from-empire

2 thoughts on ““Postcards from Empire” by Gaiutra Bahadur

  1. Very interesting and I would say few people are in the know about this. Would read further on this myself, have no previous knowledge about the plight of these people. Thank you.

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