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. We know, too, that several died trying to find their way back to India, martyrs to the idea of home. They escaped, thinking they could cut an overland path from South America to South Asia – and walk back to Calcutta, but their corpses were recovered in a swampy wasteland thirty miles from their plantation.
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 affidavit 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. Their suicide was the only protest they could offer against what amounted to kidnap. For others, the very act of emigration was in its way a form of resistance: against the conditions of debt, poverty and oppression (by landlords, by colonial masters, by patriarchial systems) that made remaining in India unbearable. And then there was the resistance by Indians on the plantations in Guiana, the series of strikes and sometimes fatal confrontations with British colonial police beginning in 1869, a cry against the injustices and outrages of overseers, managers and the Immigration Department, against their wages and their women.
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. Recently, after the unspeakably vicious gang rape of a young woman in Delhi, several media organizations featured The Red Brigade, a group of young women in a uniform of red-and-black salwar kamizes who have banded together to defend themselves against harassment by village boys, who publicly shame those boys and physically threaten them with the strength of their numbers. Trained in martial arts, they mirror the tactics of the Gulabi, or ‘Pink’, Gang, the pink-sari-clad women organized by Sampat Phal, married at 12, a housewife by 15, galvanized by the beatings that she witnessed the women around her regularly receiving from their husbands.
Pal has taught women to defend themselves with the ‘lathi,’ a long, wooden staff (incidentally one of the few weapons available to the indentured on plantations, in their confrontations with planters and colonial police). Founded to help rural, lower-caste women stand up against oppressive husbands, fathers and brothers, the Gulabi Gang has since tackled police and government corruption and intervened to solve practical problems, such as securing grain for peasants and pensions for widows. Curiously, both organizations are based in Uttar Pradesh, whence most of the indentured came.
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.” Another immigrant, indentured in Fiji in 1906, recounted what happened to an overseer who told an Indian woman that he wanted her: “She asked him to wait till the next day. This woman, with two other women, devised a plan. When he came the next day, two of the women remained at a distance. When he approached the one he had spoken to the previous day, she asked him to take off all his clothes; when he lifted his shirt to take it off, all three women jumped on him and beat him up and threw him into a drain.” In 1916, a male schoolteacher who ended up indentured in Fiji told the tale of how he attacked an Indian driver who procured women for a European overseer. The ex-schoolteacher described what happened when the overseer came to the driver’s defense, with a gun: “The women of the lines, whom I called mother or sister and who treated me well, took up their hoes. He retreated, pleading to the women not to hit him, moving backwards he landed in a sewer pit. The women then threw shit on him. The overseer ran away.”
Women typically worked together in the same gang, plucking weeds in the cane fields, so they were already organized in a group by the plantation. Examples abound of overseers who took liberties being set upon by the women’s gang. According to the Fijian historian Vijay Naidu, “they would strike him to the ground and thrash him as well as do other more nasty things. In one incidence, they pinned the overseer to the ground and took turns at urinating on him. On another occasion, they made a line and walked over the overseer until his excreta came out.”
One vivid account survives, in the memoir of Walter Gill, overseer to a women’s gang on a Fijian plantation. In Turn North-east at the Tombstone, he describes an encounter with his workers, who were angry at punishments he had recently delivered. They looked, he wrote, “hard-eyed and sultry with resentment, yet not unattractive in their many-colored headcloths, tiny bodices and full-length skirts…” While they worked, the skirts were tucked up, like improvised pants, to provide freedom of movement. One afternoon, he found them hard at work with their skirts down, an ominous sign. As Gill put it, in his lurid prose:
“When I got back the women were spread across the field halfway to the far headland, in a long irregular line of coloured movement. The water-carrier dumped her buckets and trotted forward to take my horse. As I handed her the reins, she said softly, ‘Be careful.’ Because the tone lacked urgency, the words somehow failed to awaken my sense of caution.
As I neared the long line of doubled-over women pecking with their hoes around the green shoots of cane, I sensed something queer. There was something unusual, but for the life of me I couldn’t decide what it was. And it was not until I was bent over examining the leaves of a ‘stool,’ about ten yards behind a big Tamil girl I had christened the Queen of Sheba, that suddenly I knew what it was. Every woman had let down her skirt!
The inference was terrifying. I looked up. Now there was no line. It had become a fast-enfolding circle of female fanatics aflame with purpose, and if the ends of the circle were allowed to join, my chances of leaving the field the way I was were nil. Then I saw that each of them had tapped off her hoe-head and was clutching the handle like a broadsword, and I knew then why our confident smirks had not amused the cane inspector. I was to be given the father of a hiding, and as shown only too plainly by the lowered skirts – coolie women wore no undergarments – I was to be subjected to the disgustingly feminine rite responsible for the Rarawai overseer’s resignation.
When I moved it was as fast as I had ever done in my life. To me that circle was a lethal thing; those swaying skirts concealing the unspeakable. Now all I could see was the big Tamil in front of me, who had turned to watch me with eyes black with hate. She saw me coming, raised her hoe-handle, but when I was a few feet from her, her expression changed to fear. She screamed, turned, and ran. When I overtook her, my hands caught her under the shoulder blades and carried her with me in a scrambling run until she speared away to land on her face in a cane sttol. I kept going, with the mob cackling behind me like jackals.
In the end it was the skirts which saved me, and when the women stopped they were in an irregular line, now staring after me like a flock of frightened sheep. It was as if in losing me they had drained themselves and were lost to all sensation; sunk in a post-coital let-down. And spent, they could only stand and wait.”
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.