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What Kind of New World Would This Be?

An excerpt from Coolie Woman, Gaiutra Bahadur’s new book about hidden histories of indentured labor migration

Gaiutra Bahadur was seven years old when she and her family left their village in Guyana to make a new home in New Jersey. The year was 1981. Their departure is memorialized in a snapshot of the family taken outside the house her grandfather had built: “In the photo, everyone looks annoyed. My mother, in bellbottoms, holding my baby sister, appears to pout. My father, in sideburns, his arm hanging over my mother’s shoulder, looks cross. His eyebrows are knit. Mine are, too,” she writes.


It was only when Bahadur was 22 that she began to learn more of how her family had arrived in that village from India in the early twentieth century. In 1903, a pregnant woman traveling alone climbed aboard a British vessel setting off from India to what is now known as Guyana. She was one of more than a million Indians taken to work as indentured laborers on British sugar plantations globally between 1838 and 1917. Her name was Sujaria, or so she noted in the ship’s records, and she was Bahadur’s great-grandmother.

In her new book Coolie Woman, out on November 15 from the University of Chicago Press, Bahadur pursues the story of her great-grandmother’s indentured servitude in Guyana and recovers the lost voices and buried histories of other indentured women, whose passages were both transgressive acts of reinvention and unsuspecting exile. Gaiutra Bahadur will be celebrating the publication of Coolie Woman with SAWCC and the AAWW on Saturday, November 16. See here for event details. Below is an excerpt from the book.

For the indentured immigrants who landed there, Guiana would be a new world. But it had long been identified, more broadly, with the New World. In the European imagination, this was where the risk and reward of the swashbuckling unknown were located. This, indeed, was where Sir Walter Raleigh had gone in search of El Dorado, the mythic city of gold. Three centuries before my great-grandmother reached this shore, Elizabeth I’s own court explorer had peered at it from a ship and wondered what fate—and what riches—it might hold. To the Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese and British colonizers who staked and swapped claims there over the next 200 years, the entire northeastern fringe of South America, stretching from the Atlantic to what is now Venezuela, was known as Guiana—after the Guayano Indians who lived along the Orinoco River, but eventually acquiring the meaning “wild coast.” To colonial eyes, it was a terra incognita, a mystery complete, waiting to be mapped, peopled—and taken.

Demerara was the shorthand the British used for the part of Guiana that they took, early in the nineteenth century, from the Dutch, who had turned the low-lying coastal strip into prime plantation ground through an elaborate system of drainage canals, dams and dykes. In the end, it wasn’t gold that enriched Raleigh’s countrymen. It was sugar, the main harvest of that drained land, rich with the alluvium of rivers beginning deep in the colony’s interior. Long after Raleigh, Demerara continued to have the aura of the ends of the earth where adventurers went to make their fortunes. A parlor song popular in Victorian England captured the feeling. The chorus went: “So here we sit like birds in the wilderness/ Birds in the wilderness!/ Down in Demerara.” That name still survives on the packaging for brown sugar the world over. Most of it doesn’t actually come from Demerara anymore, but in 1903, when my great-grandmother landed there, the plantations studding its marshy coast still had a monopoly on the name.

Not only was the colony still supplying the world with Demerara sugar, it was supplying more sugar than any other territory in the British West Indies. British Guiana was one of the top ten producers of cane sugar globally, but the world was increasingly buying cheaper, subsidized beet sugar from France and Germany. The cane that once was planter’s gold was in crisis. Its selling price had plummeted by half in the two decades before Sujaria arrived.

And yet, in order to produce it, the British continued to people Guiana. Just as they had after the abolition of slavery, planters pleaded they would be ruined and the nation’s pride wrecked if they did not get what they wanted: a continual supply of new indentured laborers from India. Guiana had been the first colony in the West Indies to receive coolies, and it received far more in total than any other colony in the region. These were the workers who bore the brunt of the cane sugar depression. As revenues fell, the only way for planters to maintain profits was to lower costs; they did this by squeezing more work, for less pay, out of the indentured. The laborers already in the colony—ex-indentured and their children as well as slave descendants—had more leverage to insist on higher wages and better working conditions. They were less exploitable because officially free. The cry, therefore, was to import ever more “bound coolies,” as the indentured were known in Demerara: “Give me my heart’s desire in coolies, and I will make you a million hogsheads1 of sugar …,” a planter once told the visiting novelist Anthony Trollope.

So it was that, despite hard times for cane sugar, The Clyde arrived in British Guiana on 4 November 1903. I can’t say if Sujaria was on deck or if it was light enough for her to see the flat coast of her new world, with its monotonous line of black mangrove, broken occasionally by cabbage palms or a plantation smokestack. The ship pulled in beside a floating lightship at the mouth of the Demerara River, its waters muddy with silt carried from the interior, a territory almost as undeveloped and lightly populated as when Raleigh explored.

Despite the colony’s reputation in Britain as a “white man’s grave” of malarial swamps, yellow fever and hard drink, the capital was a graceful, modern city. Georgetown’s boulevards were broad—and down their middles ran grassy medians or freshwater canals with Victoria Regia lilies. Everywhere there were luxuriant trees providing shade and beauty: the samaan with its umbrella of foliage; the Flambouyant, with its scarlet bloom; and a peculiar palm with its leaves splayed flat like a lady’s fan. Fruit trees enfolded elegant wooden houses with verandahs for taking the air and jalousies for letting it flow. The architecture had fanciful flourishes: cupolas or towers rising from roofs, fretwork crawling like vines from verandah posts. The city boasted botanical gardens, a philharmonic hall and a gothic cathedral that is still among the world’s tallest wooden buildings. Along the Demerara River ran a bustling commercial road with electric tram service. Nearby, dock workers loaded casks of sugar, rum and molasses and unloaded endless ice from America for coping with the heat. Schooners continuously returned from the interior with Raleigh’s fortune-seeking heirs; during the 1890s, these miners began exporting more than 100,000 ounces of gold every year, somewhat vindicating his vision of El Dorado. It was in the briskness of all this shipping in and shipping out that The Clyde landed its human cargo.

It dispatched them, escorted by immigration agents, into a diverse city of 50,000 people. A tenth of Georgetown’s population was British, but the rest were mainly the black, Chinese, Portuguese and mixed-race descendants of plantation workers imported over several centuries. Few of the city’s residents belonged to the group most recently imported. Although Indians made up 40 percent of the colony’s population, more than any other ethnicity, the vast majority lived in the far countryside—on or near plantations. With the exception of domestic servants, a handful of interpreters, a few policemen and a single doctor, Indians in the capital were mostly “jobbers” who hustled for work daily. They carried loads at the railway station or harbor as porters, “coolies” in the original sense of the word.

The authorities saw the jobbers as public nuisances. Some, half-starved, rifled through rubbish for food. Others, with no way to defecate but publicly, were made objects of cruel fun by street children. Many slept and—in a few cases—died on the streets. Some of the day laborers had chosen to leave the countryside after serving out their indentures. But a significant number, finding the tasks or the treatment on plantations too harsh, had deserted and drifted to Georgetown. Planters insisted that the city council find and return them, and the council passed an ordinance requiring porters to be licensed. The crackdown applied only to Indians. To get a license, they had to pay a fee few could afford and present “free papers”—an official certificate, requiring a separate fee, proving that an immigrant was no longer indentured. The jobbers became the frequent target of harassment and nighttime raids by police demanding documents.

Discriminated against, and in dire need, this tiny community found an unlikely champion: an overseer from a far-flung sugar estate. While on home leave in Scotland, Alex Alexander had heard someone from the Salvation Army preach, and he had an awakening of conscience. Alexander came to believe that his mission in life was to help the shipload’s worth of Indians barely scraping by on the streets of Georgetown. He quit the plantation, changed his name to Ghurib Das (“servant of the poor”) and adopted Indian dress and customs. “Coolie Alexander,” as the planters called him, ate no meat, went barefoot and wore a turban along with a scarlet Salvation Army jacket. In 1897, Alexander opened a home and soup kitchen where Indians could get cheap lodgings and three inexpensive meals a day.

His coolie shelter was in the same neighborhood as the immigration depot, which sat squat and boxy as a warehouse in the lonely border ground where the Atlantic met the Demerara River, and both met land. On their short walk from the wharves to this depot, where they were processed and assigned to plantations, the immigrants disembarking from The Clyde probably passed Alexander’s shelter. Did these most recent recruits to Guianese plantation society encounter those despised as its rejects? Were there women at the shelter? Did they notice Sujaria walk by, carrying her threeweek old baby? Did she notice them? Who felt more pity for whom? Whether they crossed paths, and how they reacted if they did, can’t be known. Like so much else that’s important, it can only be imagined.

Over the next few weeks, The Clyde appeared in fine print in the pages of the colony’s Daily Chronicle. The details presented were bare and mercantile: The ship had brought 300 bales of gunnysacks from India and a box of cigars. When it left four days later, it took 15,958 bags of linseed to the English port of Falmouth. Of the immigrants aboard, all that survives is a census, a mean tally of births and deaths, and a ship’s manifest of everyone who had made it to Guiana.

Slightly more had been made of the arrival of the first immigrant ship of the season, The Erne, two weeks earlier. The Daily Chronicle reported on its “exceptionally healthy-looking lot” of indentured laborers, including the striking presence of “a giant among the coolies: a great, big, stalwart fellow standing six feet three on his natural heels.” But their correspondent dedicated most of his copy to what he called, in the white-gloved idiom of the parlor room, the fairer sex. “The women, moreover, were pretty and youthful,” he wrote. “Coolie women are in demand here, as … a large number of vacancies for coolie wives exist; but the difficulty about the shipment is that all the ladies seem to be very much engaged already to their fellow passengers of the male ‘persuasion’. There were very many more men than women on board.”

It was like that in the colony, too, and it wasn’t getting any better with the arrival of new recruits. The ship that followed The Clyde to Guiana arrived with a note from the emigration agent in Calcutta. “The collection of emigrants for this vessel,” he wrote, “has been attended with exceptional difficulty, owing to the phenomenal scarcity of women.” It had been a bad year for recruiting women in India. The British government was so hard up that it even tried its hand at matchmaking. Two months before Sujaria’s arrival, the managers of plantations across Guiana had received a memo from the colony’s immigration agent-general, A.H. Alexander. It was a plea to spread the word among their coolies that the government would help if they wanted to import brides from their villages. But only six laborers across the entire colony applied, and three were rejected because they already had wives.

The moon was full the first night Sujaria spent in Georgetown. The next afternoon, the Demerara Agricultural Show opened at the Promenade Gardens, with a performance by the Band of the British Guiana Militia. On display was the colony’s harvested wealth: varieties of sugar cane, coffee, rice, plantains. If the newspaper advertisements were accurate, there were electric lights, refreshments and al fresco suppers, all for the price of one shilling. But that genteel world would not be my great-grandmother’s. In her world, one shilling was the value of a human life. It was the amount the government docked from the pay of ship surgeons whenever a coolie died during the crossing. One shilling was also the wage contractually promised to indentured men for a day’s work, though planters habitually broke the promise through a sleight of hand, measuring a day’s work not in hours but in tasks—“daily” tasks that could rarely be done in just one day. Women were promised less, twothirds a shilling for a day’s work.

This was to be Sujaria’s world. Like the larger world, it did not treat women equally, and it often did not treat immigrants, whatever their gender, justly. But it was also a world where women were the scarcer sex. There were sixty-four women per 100 men on Guiana’s plantations. For the indentured, the problem was more acute, with forty-one women per 100 men.2 To a woman alone, with a newborn to support, what must this world have looked like? What possibilities—and what terror—did it hold? Did Sujaria sense that the shortage of women could have dark implications? How did she weigh her options for survival? Was there hope of freedom, or power, and what would be the source? Exactly what kind of a new world would this be?

If she had turned to the landscape for answers, it might have raised her expectations. The planters had given fanciful names to the sugar estates along the coast, investing them perhaps with their own desires. The train that transported Sujaria to her plantation chugged through Industry, Triumph, Success and Liberty’s Delight.3 I wonder what she made of Bachelor’s Adventure as it came into view? Did anyone tell her that was the name of the village of slave descendants, or translate its meaning for her? What ideas might such a name have given the British overseers, mainly single young men, who had worked there when it was a plantation? Against the usual expectations, Sujaria reached Paradise before she reached Hope along the coastal railway line. And then, finally, she arrived at a plantation with a less whimsical name. Enmore was christened after the parish in England where its first owner had been born, 150 years earlier. The plantation was among the colony’s largest, as well as one of its most stable and successful. When slavery was abolished, estates across Guiana were abandoned or auctioned, claimed by wild bush or new owners. But Enmore survived for more than a century as the property of one family. With Sujaria, as she descended at its railway station, fifteen miles east of the capital, seven decades after slavery’s end, was the couple she had befriended on The Clyde.

By then, Enmore’s owners had become absentee. The plantation was run by the owner’s nephew, George Maximilian Bethune. He had spent three decades working on the family’s Guiana plantations, beginning as overseer but quickly rising to manager. At fifty, Bethune cut a stern, remote figure. A portrait of him in late middle age shows an angular man with a hawk’s nose, an imposing moustache that hid his mouth, close-set eyes and hair precisely parted at the side. Bethune came from a long line of Anglican ministers; his grandson remembers him as a “man of strict Christian principles,” who joined an evangelical group when he retired to England.

As Enmore’s manager, Bethune lived in the plantation’s Great House. A photograph taken outside it in 1876 suggests grandeur in scale and style. Brick pillars with ivy crawling up their sides hold the house aloft, some twenty feet off the ground. Posed in front are a dozen white men defying the tropical weather with full suits—waistcoats, pocket watches, cravats, top hats politely off their heads. One is a manager who preceded Bethune, and another looks like a younger Bethune—although softer around the edges and dashing enough for his grandson to see “quite a touch of Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind.” Mostly, the men are overseers. One—stretched out on a blanket, his face full and fleshy, his eyes alight, his hair wavy and slightly tousled—has some color in his cheeks. Is his pose entitled and cocky, or just at ease? Is he sunburnt? Or is his face red with Liberty’s Delight?

In the photograph, there are wives, but not enough. Puffed out in high-collared, frilly regalia, four women sit. They include the manager’s mother-in-law Sarah, her bronze skin the sign of an earlier era, when black or colored mistresses often “looked after … the comfort of her master generally,” as a Guiana sheriff once put it. At the time, people would have said that Sarah had “the negro taint, the touch of the tarbrush.” They may also have looked askance at her apparent marriage to plantation engineer James Cooke. Starting in the 1850s, steamships had made travel between England and Demerara faster, bringing in more British wives and would-be wives and making their relationship much less accepted. But there James stands, behind Sarah, in the photograph. Huddled in the shadows of the Great House, receding into the background, are two Indian men. A black man stands off to the side, separate. Oddly, a third Indian man stands with the main group. He wears simple clothes and appears to be holding something indistinct and furry, held out in front of him, as if for the camera. Is it a miniature pet dog, that indispensable accessory for fashionable Victorian ladies? Is it a poodle being presented for posterity by its own personal attendant, but blurred by its own wriggling? Even photographs leave questions.

A photograph taken outside the Great House at the Enmore plantation in Giuana, c1876, where Sujaria had worked. Courtesy John Platt
A photograph taken outside the Great House at the Enmore plantation in Giuana, c1876, where Sujaria had worked. Courtesy John Platt

1 A hogshead is a cask capable of holding 100 to 140 gallons.

2 Only 20 percent of the population on plantations was indentured. The rest were immigrants who had served out their time but still lived and worked on the sugar estates.

3 Rendered in Dutch as “Vryheid’s Lust.”

Reprinted with permission from Coolie Woman, by Gaiutra Bahadur, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2014 by Gaiutra Bahadur. All rights reserved.