In the 1830s, a new age began in the European colonies: the period of indenture, or debt bondage. Thousands of Indians left the shores of their home country in what was called kala pani, literally black waters, to work on plantations in Mauritius, Jamaica, Fiji, Guyana, Surinam, and Trinidad, to name a few.

In 1903, a young woman called Sujaria sailed from Calcutta on an indenture ship called The Clyde, joining thousands of other Indian “coolies” to work on sugar plantations in British Guiana (Guyana) on the South American coast. She was four months pregnant when she left, and her son was born during the course of her journey. Sujaria never left Guyana, and her family lived there for decades after.

Over 100 years later, Sujaria’s great-granddaughter, Gaiutra Bahadur, traces the life of her ancestor and, in the process, excavates the stories of the other indentured women of Guyana in her book, Coolie Woman. Bahadur talks about her process of discovery and the expected, and unexpected, stories she found on the way.

Could you tell me a little bit about how the idea of the book came about?
I started working on the book five years ago, but I had been interested in the subject way before that. When I was in my early 20s, I first heard about my great-grandmother from my father. I was simply asking him about our connection to India; she’s our closest link. I come from a history of indenture—all my ancestors were indentured, like most Indians in Guyana—but she’s the one who left, at the latest, in 1903. He said to me that she was a pregnant woman travelling alone. That of course was really interesting to me, because it seemed to completely challenge the stereotypes that we had—that I had, certainly—because I always thought that it was a family migration, the indentured labour migration to the West Indies.

How was it that you never heard about this till your 20s? Didn’t anyone else ever discuss it?
No, they didn’t really talk about it. They didn’t talk about it in front of me, definitely. I didn’t know anything about her; it wasn’t like my dad sat around talking about her or remembering her. But my aunt knew quite a bit about it. Once I got around to interviewing her, she knew way more than I thought anyone would know about her life.

But going back to your question, that’s how I first became interested in her story. I didn’t start working on it for another ten years or so. I decided there was a book to do when I saw that this very intriguing story of hers was actually very typical, and her story wasn’t exceptional so much as emblematic. And that a lot of the women who migrated were travelling without husbands like she was, a vast majority of them were. That’s when I decided that there was a book to do.

So how did you start, considering there was so much research that needed to be done, and a lot of sources were either not easily available or not available at all?
Well, I started with her, with her immigration pass. Before I even knew I was working on a book, I was just interested in finding out more about her. In Guyana, all of the ship records are kept. So for each ship, the immigration passes of all the passengers aboard were kept. I found hers, and it told me her caste background, her age, incredibly intimate things like she had a burn mark on her left foot. And that she was pregnant, four months, which was written in pencil at the top of the immigration pass.

So I started with her, and I broadened it out by looking at the records: the colonial office records for the year that she left, 1903. I was just so blessed throughout this whole process; I feel very lucky. What I mean by that is that in 1903, there was a back-and-forth between officials in London and India and Guyana about how hard it was to recruit women. I just happened to come across it, since I was looking for more detail on her in the records in 1903. I feel like the entire process was blessed by this kind of serendipity.

In Guyana, for instance, there is no justification for a history like this being lost or suppressed because this is our history. This was the first significant movement of Indians abroad. But I think some of it has to do with the fact that the indentured didn’t leave behind many written traces of themselves. 

Do you ever feel like this is a forgotten slice of history, or not as discussed in textbooks as one might expect?
It’s a difficult question. I think the answer changes depending on the context of where you are. In Guyana, for instance, there is no justification for a history like this being lost or suppressed because this is our history. This was the first significant movement of Indians abroad. But I think some of it has to do with the fact that the indentured didn’t leave behind many written traces of themselves. So there wasn’t as much of a paper trail, at least in terms of personal testimonies. There is a huge official paper trail—a lot of which I used in the book—but there are only two indenture memoirs that exist, and they’re both by men: one out of Surinam and one from Fiji. That partly explains it: you don’t have the story in the words of the people who lived this history.

But why do you think there’s such a lack of preserved narratives from the period, not even in the form of letters or personal journals?
Well, it has to do with who the migrants were. They were mainly not coming from privileged places or positions in society. Many of them were illiterate, so they couldn’t write in English or other languages. But there actually are written traces of them. There were munshis, letter-writers, in the various colonies. An illiterate person could go to the letter-writer and dictate a message for their family members in India. In certain colonies, when these letters went astray, they ended up in some back office of some obscure department. I just found out, actually, that there is a cache of letters like this in Fiji, including letters by women. It’s the sort of thing you have to hunt for.

In fact, a friend of mine—a novelist in the US—is working on a novel about indenture, focusing on the lives of women, and it’s called ‘The Letter-writer’. The fact that indentured women didn’t leave behind their own accounts is a problem and a challenge but for me, I saw it as an opportunity. I saw a chance to sort of make their silence a subject—almost like a character in the book to embody the silence—to try to politically evoke it and ask what this silence tells us about their position, and what might it even mean strategically. Is it possible that they might have wanted to keep their secrets and not reveal all of the circumstances behind their leaving?

A major part of your book is about the violence against women: on the ships that carried them to colonies and at the colonies themselves, since the gender ratio was badly skewed and there simply weren’t enough women. Yet in a way these women also seem to be empowered—though it’s hard to use that word—since they were able to make decisions that they would not have been able to make back in India.
The women were working on plantations and it’s not like any other setting. It’s one in which the planter has total control over the lives and the bodies of all the workers on the plantation. It is difficult to talk about empowerment in a setting like that. Nonetheless, what’s so interesting about this story is its complexity. They were bonded labourers but at the same time, they were able to exercise a certain amount of leverage because there were so few women on the plantation; there was a shortage of women. A savvy woman could be calculating to an extent and take her pick of partners, to an extent. I always feel like I need to qualify this, because if you have an overseer interested in you, do you really have the option to say no in that circumstance? Probably not.

Right, because it comes down to women also having to make these decisions for their own survival.
Yes, it comes down to survival and hard choices. It’s taking a look at what your options are, hard and uncomfortable choices. But the violence was a backlash: it was a reaction to Indian women stepping out of bounds, which is the way their partners might have seen it. The violence was an attempt to put them back in their place.

You had compared it to the men drawing parallels on what women should be like from the Ramayana, which was very popular then. But do you also think that it’s because they were so used, traditionally in India, to women being the subjugated sex? It was difficult for them to accept women in any role apart from that.
I think the indentured men were used to having a certain amount of power because they come from a patriarchal society. But it was very, very important to me that I not paint them as monsters, and to look at the position that they were in: in a system that subjected them to violence as well. They were whipped, beaten, it was a system that in a way dismembered them. It severed them from their country, their sense of place, their sense of self, and disarranged everything that they had known before, including the power that they were used to having as men in a patriarchal society.

They were imprisoned in large numbers for just violating labour laws, and the labour laws themselves were often ridiculously unjust. For instance, if you left without a pass, you could be and were often criminally prosecuted and convicted and imprisoned. In the face of all this—in the face of a system that subjected them to physical violence and emasculated them—you have to take all of that context and try to understand what might have been motivating their actions towards their own women, and try and understand the deep pain that they were in. It wasn’t just about the jealousy or the honour of their women; it was the total control of the plantation over their lives.

About a quarter of indentured immigrants did return to India. You know, I think return was really something that most people most looked forward to, and wanted to achieve. But for the vast majority, it became a return journey that they couldn’t make for various reasons.

You’d mentioned in the book that once many of the coolies finished their indenture and could return home, they still chose to re-migrate after they come back to India. Why did this happen?
About a quarter of indentured immigrants did return to India. You know, I think return was really something that most people most looked forward to, and wanted to achieve. But for the vast majority, it became a return journey that they couldn’t make for various reasons. If they were outcasts when they left India—and many of them were, which is why they left to go to colonies—their actively leaving India literally made them ‘out of caste’, so returning was incredibly difficult.

For the few who did return, many of them had a really hard time. They weren’t accepted back by their families and their villages, and many of them ended up living in squatter settlements along the river, sort of waiting for ships to take them back to Guyana or Trinidad or wherever.

For them, there was no triumphant return to India. If we use the Ramayana as a model—and I do use it as a text for their lives­—in the Ramayana, there is a triumphant return. Ram returns to Ayodhya and is embraced, etc., but this was a triumph that was denied to the indentured in large part. So they remigrated to various colonies.

So it was no longer a question of going back home, since home wasn’t what it was when they left.
I think a lot of the ones who did return were the elderly. They were returning to India to die, basically. India was no longer a place where they could live, but a place where they could die.

When it comes to language, the ships carried people from various parts of India. Wouldn’t there have been some sort of language barrier on the ships, and on the plantations? How did their language evolve?
Most of them came from the Bhojpuri-speaking regions of western Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. There were also migrants from Madras, but those were the two main groups and Bhojpuri was dominant. The issues of communication came up on the plantation between master and servant, and that’s how the Creole that’s spoken in Guyana evolved from the plantation pidgin, the language the overseers adopted when trying to communicate with their workers. So it was English, but a very simple form of English.

Bhojpuri is still widely spoken in parts of Fiji and Mauritius. Do any Indian languages linger in Guyana?
No, people don’t speak Bhojpuri. It’s not a living language in Guyana. I know it is in other places and Surinam has preserved what they call Hindustani. But in Guyana, you will only hear Hindi in some music at rum-shops or where people watch Bollywood movies, so they have some Hindi based on that. Also the very basic words do survive—words that describe things that we do like eat and pray and love—those words have survived. But it really is very fragmentary.

How would you compare indenture to slavery? I understand that the indentured were paid and could become ‘free’, but there are still many similarities.
This is an ongoing debate in the historiography of indenture: how do we see it? Was it a new form of slavery, or did it amount to liberation for the people who left? My book is not polemical, so I didn’t take one hard line or the other. What I tried to do is look at individual people, individual women, and I do think the answer to that question is as varied and multiple as there are women and indentured people. It was a system that replaced slavery, and it came in the wake of slavery. In many cases, planters continued to treat indentured servants as they had treated the slaves before them. They lived in the same quarters as the slaves had; in many cases it was called the ‘nigger yard’ even during indenture.

The difference at the end of the day, of course, is that indentured workers were paid, even if they were cheated out of their wages and even if the wages were a pittance. Ultimately, they were able to work their way out of their contracts. They were supposed to be on five-year contracts; those contracts were often extended because some of the practices the planters engaged in led the workers to become indebted to the company or plantation.

Did that happen often: the extension of their contracts?
Yes, that happened frequently. But again, at the end of the day, they were able to be free. This wasn’t a lifelong condition. They wouldn’t pass it on to their children; it wasn’t a condition you could inherit. Those are the primary differences. Indenture was an exploitative system, no doubt, but there were also fragile openings for freedom, especially for women because of the shortage. Openings for exploitation, but also openings for freedom.

What kind of openings?
Because women were in short supply, they had their pick of partners, as I said, to an extent. They tended to pick the men who had been in the colony the longest as they were the most financially secure. Or in some cases, white overseers: they picked them because in some cases, they could buy off a woman’s contract and thereby free her. There were other advantages, things like moving out of the plantation barracks, which were terrible places. Engaging in a relationship with an overseer or planter could get a woman a house of her own. These were the kinds of openings I mean.

Did you ever think your research in Guyana and India would take you as far away as Scotland?
No, I didn’t see that coming at all. In Guyana growing up, you’re taught about the British, right. The assumption is that the plantation managers or overseers are all Englishmen. But that’s not the case. Many of them were Scots, so I didn’t expect at all to end up in Scotland. I didn’t expect to see my own family and village history, or find particular examples in the archives that would be familiar to my parents and grandparents.

If we scrub our words clean, we can’t scrub our history clean.

For example, I came across a folder that was marked ‘Confidential’ and it was all about one particular overseer from Scotland, from the Highlands. His name was George Sutherland. He had been in relationships with five or six different Indian women and had children by them, and the folder was all about this, which was unacceptable. One of the women lived in the village where I was born and grew up, and I was stunned to find my own village mentioned in the archives. I told my parents about it and they were like, ‘George Sutherland Junior! We knew him! We grew up around him. He was a bully!’

That’s pretty amazing.
Yes. For me, it sort of yanked me out of the archives and back into the sphere of family. It was wonderful. Again, the book began because I’d encountered an unexpected thing. The research process was full of unexpected things and surprises.

I saw an interview online where you were asked about using the word ‘coolie’ in the title of your book, since it has a negative connotation similar to ‘nigger’. A comment on that story said that the term is appropriate, since it ‘doesn’t bow to the post-colonial fashion of reducing the past to a discourse in order to drain it of both ethical and historical content’. Would you agree with that?
I wasn’t trying to be politically incorrect. If we scrub our words clean, we can’t scrub our history clean. We can’t sanitise it that way. These workers, the indentured labourers, were coolies. This is the way they were seen, and this is how they were put to use in the empire, on plantations. I’m not rebranding them with that stigma by using the word in my title; I’m acknowledging the stigma.

The main reason for using it was metaphorical, figurative, because a coolie carries baggage. A coolie bears a burden. To me, that perfectly sums up the position of indentured women. They carried burdens. They had to meet the needs of both Indian men and British men on the plantations. They had to carry the weight of expectations: the expectation that they represent the honour of a culture, that they preserve a culture, so that’s why I used it.

You must be doing the entire promotion circuit: literary festivals and other events and so on. What has that been like?
It’s been exhausting. I’ve been travelling for two months talking about the book. But apart from that, I’m not an extrovert so it takes a lot of energy for me to do this. But there actually have been very moving interactions with people who have read the book, and who have wanted to read the book. In Toronto, a young woman brought her father with her to the reading. They were excited about reading the book together. So although it’s been exhausting and it’s pushed me out of my comfort zone, it’s also been very gratifying. I’ve had so many Indo-Caribbeans come up to me, moved that someone has written this story in this way, finally, because they don’t see themselves represented.

Because your history is their history, too, in many ways.
Yes. It’s not just my story. It’s everyone’s story.