Indentured labor in the Caribbean marked the beginning of disease, dependencies, prejudices, and ills that continue to plague Indo-Caribbean communities
June 2, 2016
Each year on May 5 Guyana celebrates “Indian Arrival Day,” commemorating the arrival of Indian indentured laborers to the Caribbean. On May 5, 1838, the S.S. Hesperus and the S.S. Whitby arrived along the shores of Berbice and Demerara in Guyana. Together they carried 396 Indians, referred to as “coolies,” from Chota Nagpur, then Bihar, 300 miles from Kolkata. Since slavery had recently ended and African-descended people had been emancipated in the British colonies in 1833, the British were in need of cheap labor. They looked to India, the jewel in the Empire’s crown—a jewel that became a sugar crystal.
The first Indian arrivals to the Caribbean were part of the Gladstone experiment: a continuation of forced migration from the Indian subcontinent to see if Indians would be an adequate and strong enough replacement for Africans and African-descended slaves. The British had already been practicing indenture in the Indian Ocean in their colonies in Réunion and Mauritius. Each coolie was bound by a renewable contract to serve on the British sugar plantations for a period of five years. Lured away from their homes by the promise of riches, their passage across the sea at the hands of the British was brutal, followed by the degrading dehumanization that occurred on the plantations. Even though they were “paid” a wage, it was seldom enough to buy any kind of freedom from the plantation economy, except for rum that dulled the pain of its hellish conditions.
National governments across the Caribbean also celebrate the beginning of Britain’s reinvention of slavery—an observance that spills over into Indo-Caribbean diasporic spaces. Trinidadians mark “Indian Arrival Day” on May 30 to commemorate the landing of the Fath Al Razack in 1845 that brought the first 227 coolies to the Gulf of Paria. The meaning of Fath Al Razak (Fatel Razack) is “Victory to Allah the Sustainer.” I pray this prayer too. Presumably the idea behind acknowledging this day is to pay tribute to Indians in the Caribbean—to say, yes, the Caribbean is an ethnically diverse place and our Indian heritages are colorful and important. Our presence in the Caribbean is indelibly marked in the food, language, music, and literary world of the Antilles.
My family came to the Western hemisphere as laborers in need of sustenance. But while my family’s migration story might sound like it began with agency, this narrative devolves into one of dispossession and terror, with the lingering effects of colonization haunting us today. This familial haunting, this legacy leads me to ask myself and my community, why should we celebrate the beginnings of our oppression in the Caribbean while we still feel the effects of violent colonization?
The first ancestor of mine to arrive in the Western hemisphere was indentured in 1885 and labored for more than ten years. He crossed the pagal samundar, the maddening kala pani, “black water,” into the Caribbean Sea and landed in Guyana. My ancestors remained and built their lives in Georgetown, Lusignan, New Amsterdam, and Crabwood Creek. In lieu of return fare to an India that would not take them back, they accepted land grants from the British government—land stolen from indigenous people—and hacked settlements in the periphery of the Amazon rainforest.
I recorded my Aji (paternal grandmother) telling me the story of how her own father’s father was tricked into crossing the kalapani, the black sea, to Guyana and how this pain birthed us. I quote her in Newtown Literary:
“Beta, India mein dis side ke people, de English, de white man from dis side say, ‘Leh abi go Guyana.’ or ‘Abi go Trinidad, or anywhere da side. You know, a-you get job an’ a-you go de good. An one-two year aftah a-you go come back.’”
“So de fool dem people an’ bring ‘em come. How de catch ‘em? De been tell dem that abi go nuddah country an’ a-you go get plenty job, a-you go get ‘nuff money from cut cane, a-you go live happy. An’ India mein dem been a-punish. Wuk tiday you get food tiday, an’ you know tomorrow dem starve. So dem been a-haunted ti come away. An’ when dem bring ‘em dem na get house, dem na get nutin’, dem a-cut cane. Dem a-punish bad. But wha you go do? When me family been come dis country dem been very poor. All India-man been poor. None na been rich.”
We have touched the flame of Empire and have been scarred. Looking at us, what can anyone tell of the ills of having our bodies exploited for Empire’s gain? How does the body hold psychic devastation? Global economics at the time created an illusion of choice: some people were forced into migration because of starvation; some were kidnapped and shipped to the colonies; some Indians agreed to take the journey without actually understanding what it meant; some went willingly looking to make money.
Indian arrival into the Caribbean marked the beginnings of my family’s origin story, but it was also the beginning of serious disease, dependencies, prejudices, and ills that plague us still today. I present a list of ills—a postcolonial fallout—that I see as a legacy of indenture, erased by the celebration of Indian Arrival Day. Together, these ills informed my decision this year to not celebrate this holiday.
Written about at length by Gaiutra Bahadur in her ground-breaking book Coolie Woman: the Odyssey of Indenture, the fact that women are often hacked to death in Guyana today is not surprising. According to Bahadur, this violence is also a colonial legacy. When the British began importing people into the Caribbean, the proportion of women to men was imbalanced. With fewer women there was greater competition among men for their affections. This included plantation owners and magistrates who preyed on the vulnerability of Indian women in their colonies. Indian men retaliated against women’s “infidelity” with machetes—that tool of indenture.
But this violence is enduring. In 2009, Jahajee Sisters worked with Sakhi for South Asian Women (two Queens-based organizations) to create a safe space for survivors of domestic violence. They conducted poetry workshops and published Bolo Behen! Speak Sister!, a collection of poems by Indo-Caribbean women protesting the violence of a male-dominated society, now in a second diaspora.
A quick Google search will turn up innumerable accounts and reports of present day domestic violence in Guyanese homes. A recent article in the Guyana Chronicle tells of Ravindra “Birdie” Badhu’s murder of Indrawattie “Sharda” Somwar of 77 Village, Corentyne Berbice on March 8, 2016—International Women’s Day. Using a machete he hacked her to death.
To me, chronically ill with diabetes—me get sugah—the greatest irony is that my ancestors were contracted to cultivate sugar on another people’s indigenous land for the British and their Empire, and what we are left with is diabetes—a disease that disproportionately affects South Asians and other people of color, making it so we cannot eat sugar, or that sugar imbalance will eventually kill us. Diabetes has claimed limbs on both sides of my family. It is so commonplace that when I told my friend that I was diagnosed at 32 he wasn’t shocked by the fact, but rather replied, “Already?”
According to a recent study compiled by the NYU School of Medicine, people of South Asian descent are seven times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than any other group. I see this as fallout from a colonized diet, of having aata (a more complete grained flour) replaced with refined white flour. My ancestors were slaves to the sugar industry and dehumanized; in me they call out, reminding me of the ills that they suffered.
Anti-black racism in East Indian spaces is rampant. I understand this as a colonial haunting. When the British brought Indians to work the plantations, it was as scab labor. Slavery was recently abolished and the British would rather pay Indians fractions of what they would pay Afro-Guyanese, shaping the relationship between the freed people and the newly imported labor. Members of my own family like to say things like “we were never slaves” when the truth is we absolutely were; we have more cultural commonalities and values with Afro-Guyanese than we do with anyone from the Indian subcontinent. India is not “home”—it is only a mythological homeland.
In her essay “The Indo-Caribbean Experience: Now and Then” Elizabeth Jaikaran writes about this parallel racism between ethnic Indian and African descended people that plagues Guyanese spaces. This racism, she writes, was a way for the British to keep two major ethnic groups divided, so that they would not unite against their common oppressor:
“Do not speak to the Indians,” said the British to the Africans. “They are vile and carry diseases.”
“Do not speak to the Africans,” said the British to the Indians. “They are vile and carry diseases.”
It’s not a family event without rum. Friends and family will chuckle in agreement. They laugh knowing we dance on a demon’s mouth. Rum claims lives through addiction and has its roots in the plantation economy: it allowed workers some psychic relief from the trauma of labor, all the while re-investing the money earned by the laborer in the same system that kept them poor. Toil, drink. Punish bad bad, suck rum steady.
Dreams of escaping this hellish loop of a colonial past and a neocolonial present endure today in the music coming from Indo-Caribbean performers. In his hit “Rum is Meh Lovah” singer songwriter Ravi B sings about deadly dispossession:
Rum kill me muddah, rum kill me faddah
rum kill me whole family;
rum kill me bruddah, rum kill me sistah
now it want to come an’ kill me
but ah don’ really care wha people say
It would be joyous if it weren’t so personally harrowing. I have an uncle who died from complications from alcohol, and other family members of all generations who suffer/have suffered from alcoholism in silence.
Documented in ship records made public by Gaitura Bahadur from the 1898 voyage of the S.S. Mersey, a ship surgeon caught two men, Mohangoo and Nabi Baksh, having sex. As punishment Mohungu had to holystone the deck from 6 am to 6 pm and then have his penis scalded as a preventative cure for this variety of homosexual intercourse.
The Criminal Law (Offenses) Act of Guyana and Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code inherit their oppressive homophobic language—almost word for word—from Britain, illustrating how this homophobia, touted as one of the worst in the world, originated in white, colonizing minds and religion.
A recent article by Suzanne Persard shows the connections between Jamaican homophobia and colonization. We cannot understand the way that homophobia arises in Caribbean spaces without first considering the suffering of the colonized at the masters’ hands.
Last night I dreamt of my mother. She too lives by the sea, in Florida—far from Chennai, Bihar, Georgetown, or Lusignan. Since her divorce she has become a painter and is drawn to the poetry of the waves. Without her work, she feels as though she would fall into a dark space—a holding space. This anxiety, of constantly needing to work, is part of the mythology that makes my family human. She is drawn to the sea: that original place of trauma—hoping, longing, for the return of wholeness. A return “home” wherever that may be.
We are haunted by the specter of this unfulfilled promise. Would my ancestors have left if they knew what would become of their progeny?
Like my mother, I am drawn to the sea. It can hold complexity and paradox in its blue throat. As a poet, I like to believe it is because I have a deep, abiding connection with history and motion. That my own rooted place in this world is to journey. I like to believe that I inherited not only the damage of being enslaved but also the seafarer’s heart, sturdy and craving motion. I want this motion to be what unmoors me from the damage, to use it as one would fertilizer, something breaking down and inspiring new life.
May 5th 1838
briks ke dole par hamar potiya jhulai
abse ham toke bulawe jahaaj-bhai
Ash applied evenly fertilizes the field.
On those first ships did they know they would seed the earth?
We are wreckage, broken planks, history’s skipping
record—repeating the migrant strain again
and against kalapani ke twist-up face while
the rakshas of erasure licks its lips. What’s born of death—
here we grow wild. In Queens, see clumps of bora
long beans twist feral by fire hydrants.
We sow bits of ourselves in all corners:
flags on bamboo posts, milk poured into the sea.
My daughter will swing on the tree branch,
we will all call you Brother of the Ship.
Why the hell should I celebrate colonization? To celebrate Indian Arrival Day is to celebrate the beginning of our slavery sentences. To celebrate Indian Arrival Day is to celebrate the damage wreaked upon brown bodies by white systems of colonial violence. To celebrate Indian Arrival Day is to celebrate the cause of each ill: diabetes, racism, alcoholism, homophobia, and domestic violence. To celebrate Indian Arrival Day is to celebrate death.
In a conversation I had with Toronto-based artist and sociologist Andil Gosine who works to inscribe this history into his art, he lamented that when we celebrate Indian Arrival Day, “we are implicitly erasing the history and actual experiences of indentures.” He continued:
Indians didn’t arrive: they were merely the cargo of the system of Indentureship, and it is ridiculous that we would celebrate the beginning of bondage … most people have no idea when Indentureship ended in the Caribbean because there has not been fair acknowledgment of that system’s brutality.
He also acknowledged the potential that celebrating a state holiday like this could have in continuing a narrative of dis-unity in the Caribbean. Such divides, he claims, play into “entho-nationalism” as a way of “over-differentiating” Indian- and African-descended communities, a colonial inheritance itself that keeps communities divided.
I will never celebrate this “arrival” as a holiday, a washing clean of British torture. Frantz Fanon writes in The Wretched of the Earth:
Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it.
This past month I remembered my ancestor’s struggles, my parent’s struggles, and my own struggles that result from indentureship. I celebrated the end of indenture and human trafficking on this global scale. I celebrated survival. I celebrated that I am here today writing this essay, writing my poems, that white hands did not erase me. I will not allow my ancestors’ stories—my own stories—to be disfigured by the hands of the state. We have survived colonization, slavery, and dehumanization. But surviving does not equal healing. There is yet a long open swath of sea left to cross.