This article by s.e. s Smith appeared in care2.com.
Gaiutra Bahadur wanted to learn more about her family history. What she found wasn’t just a narrative of her ancestors, but a fascinating story of colonial history, and an insight into the past that many people don’t know about.
Her findings are discussed in her book, Coolie Woman, which plunges into the history of Indian women who undertook an oceanic crossing to work in the New World, and chronicles the lives of the women in her own family who took on that very trip in search of better lives for themselves, finding something somewhat different when they arrived. It makes for a chilling and fascinating read, and a reminder of how much of our history has been suppressed; in this case, the book reflects a willful desire to ignore the use of indentured laborers for considerable profit on cane plantations and other agricultural endeavors in regions like The Bahamas and Guyana, but also a desire to suppress women’s history, too.
With the abolition of slavery in British colonies towards the end of the 19th century, plantation owners were faced with a serious labor problem: They didn’t want to pay workers full wages, as this would cut into their bottom line, yet they could no longer use slaves.
Their solution was to recruit indentured servants, known as “indentures,” many of whom came from India and had no resources in their own country, turning to servitude in desperation. Indentures were promised a new future in British colonies, but when they arrived, they found themselves locked into backbreaking, miserable labor and the reality that they would never quite be able to work off their debts.
Bahadur’s great-grandmother made the crossing to Guyana in 1903, pregnant and alone. What happened next is a fascinating history of how women navigated the landscape of the colonies as indentures or, as they were known in a vicious slang term, “coolies.” Bahadur took an unflinching look at the history of her family, but also of the larger picture for indentured Indian women; one particularly interesting aspect of the book is her exploration of their sexuality, and how some used their sexuality as a tool, creating tensions between women, men and those in power. She chronicles gendered violence, the fraught relations between indentures and overseers, and the ways in which indentures rose up against their masters.
“I tried to include as much as I possibly could to give a life some dignity. To rescue particular women from the dustbins of history. I know it sounds really grand when I say it like that, but I did feel a moral and ethical obligation to write the story with as much detail as I could,” she said in an interview with Guernica. Her comment explains both the lush narrative of the text, which is meticulously researched and detailed, but also immensely personal, and the moral imperative she felt to tell the stories of women who had been erased from history, even when it was difficult.
Many indentures could not read or write, forcing Bahadur to tell their story by filling in the lines between records kept by those in a position of dominance. This made it difficult for her to find the answers to some of the questions she explored, including one of the most fundamental: Who was her great-grandfather?
This history of Indo-Caribbean culture makes for a fascinating and important read. Bahadur, along with many women of color, is reclaiming her history and telling the world — and if the critical reception (she was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize) is any indicator, the world is ready to listen.