The Burdens of Cooliedom

People always assume because I’m from India that my interest in the Caribbean must lie exclusively in the Indian components of the Caribbean. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I’ve been so little interested in matters pertaining to the Indian diaspora that it wasn’t until last month (after 25 years of being here), when I had to write a review essay of Gaiutra Bahadur’s superb Coolie Woman: An Odyssey of Indenture that I really started delving into the history of Indian indentured labour in the Caribbean.

And having done so I’m finding it difficult to avert my gaze. Like myself not many Indians seem familiar with this classic example of subaltern history that is slowly coming to light once again with books like Bahadur’s. Scholars have studied and written on the subject for many years but it takes a book like Coolie Woman to bring the troublesome subject of indenture to the forefront of what I think of as the popular sphere.


Between 1838 and 1917 around half a million Indians were brought to the Caribbean to serve as indentured laborers on three to five year contracts, replacing the loss of free labor after plantation slavery was abolished in the 19th century. Around 238,000 of these laborers were brought to British Guiana to perform the back-breaking work of cultivating sugarcane. For a description of the kind of people who made the journey let’s turn to Rahul Bhattacharya, the writer I mentioned in my last post, from his novel The Sly Company of People Who Care:

MEANWHILE ship upon ship of coolies from India kept coming – and kept coming steadily for almost another eighty years, by which time they outnumbered the Africans in Guyana. It is a forgotten journey; few, even in India, are now aware of it. The history was too minor compared to slavery and the Middle Passage, its damage not so epic. The ships sailed from Calcutta, and a few from Madras. The immigrants were drawn mainly from the peasant population in the Gangetic plains of the United Provinces–modern-day Uttar Pradesh and Bihar–and a minority from the presidencies of Bengal and Madras. They were mostly young and middle-aged, mostly male (which led to the sensation of ‘wife murders’ arising from jealousy), mostly Hindu, and mostly taken from the agricultural castes, lower castes and outcastes. The largest caste groups were the chamars, the lowly leather workers, and the ahirs, the cowherds. What was common to them was the fate they were escaping: the famines and revolts, the poverty and destitution of British India. Making their way, that is, from the mess of one end of empire to another.

Lured by local recruiting agents and their tales about the land of gold, they set out to cross the seas. Crossing the sea: kalapani: this was the great Hindu taboo. It came with a loss of caste, of one’s place in the social order – but also, for the wretched, a liberation. When victuals among the castes spilled and mixed on the stormy waters, when each person was treated by the white man with equal indignity, the curse of being judged by birth was lifted. From here on they could be anything.

In her book Mobilizing India Tejaswini Niranjana  (citing Hugh Tinker) points out that the anti-indenture movement in the early part of the 20th century was Mahatma Gandhi’s first major political intervention in India during which he gave anti-indenture speeches all over the country. Anita Desai records how, ‘It was a shock to Gandhi to find that in South Africa he was considered a “coolie”—in India the word is reserved for a manual laborer, specifically one who carries loads on his head or back. In South Africa the majority of Indians was composed of Tamil, Telugu, and Bihari laborers who had come to Natal on an agreement to serve for five years on the railways, plantations, and coal mines. They were known collectively as “coolies,” and Gandhi was known as a “coolie barrister.”’ It was also the first such campaign fought entirely in India rather than metropolitan Britain. By 1915 it had become a central issue in Indian politics. As Bahadur notes:

The policy made indenture a cause for the nationalists, who saw it as an insult to their dignity and self-respect, an attempt to make Indians permanent coolies in the eyes of the world..indenture offended the pride of Indians by “brand[ing] their whole race in the eyes of the British colonial empire with the stigma of helotry. But this shame over reputations as slaves paled in comparison to their anger over the sullied reputations of their women.

In the review essay I mentioned at the top of this post I dive in-depth into the politics of the struggle over the status and conduct of indentured Indian women, about how Indian nationalists were incensed by the “harlots of empire” even more than the danger of being branded the helots of empire. I had to look up what helot meant actually–an interesting word meaning serfs or slaves–with a history dating back to Spartan times and referring to a subjugated population group from Laconia and Messenia who became state-owned serfs whose job it was to cultivate land to feed and clothe the Spartans. Their status was in-between that of freed people and slaves.

For purposes of this post I want to stick to the other problem that worried Indian nationalists–that of being regarded as “permanent coolies” in the eyes of the world. It was one I found rearing its ugly head unexpectedly and perhaps by mistake when I first posted the link to Bahadur’s Coolie Woman on Facebook. “‘Indian woman’ not ‘Coolie woman’” a well-meaning African-Jamaican friend responded, a bald declaration that crept under my skin and niggled at it. After an inconclusive back and forth during which she firmly maintained that the word “Coolie” was too disrespectful a term to use while I rankled at her presumption in blithely determining the vocabulary a young descendant of indenture was permitted to employ, I snapped something to the effect that the word ‘coolie’ is a living word in India today and is by no means a synonym for its 2 billion strong population.

I’m convinced my Facebook friend didn’t mean to conflate the terms ‘Indian’ and ‘coolie’–and surely if we don’t want to be branded by the word we should demolish the conditions that continue to give it currency in the 21st century, not abroad now but at home–but I realise that the C-word as Bahadur calls it in her book, has a Caribbean history reflected in the discomfort my friend showed when she tried to erase it. In places like Jamaica there were arguments in the local press about what ‘Coolie’ meant and to whom it could be applied  which you can see reflected in the letters to the editor of the Jamaica Gleaner appended above and below.


Laxmi and Ajai Mansingh, colleagues from India who worked at the University of the West Indies, produced a book on the 150th anniversary of the arrival of indentured Indians in Jamaica in which they note:

In Jamaica, the term ‘coolie’ was legally banned in the 1950s because it was used in a derogatory sense for an ethnic minority. This process began when the founder-President of the East India Progressive Society (EJPS), Dr. J. L. Varma, was popularly (but not abusively) referred to as ‘coolie doctor’. The EJPS then moved the government to ban the use of the term.

Now my Facebook friend’s squeamishness at the use of the term ‘Coolie’ becomes clearer. But although laudable I wonder whether banning words or proscribing them ever achieves the desired outcome. Should we be trying to sanitize history or recording it in all its ugliness for the benefit of future generations? Can we ever liberate the word ‘Coolie’ from the unbearable weight of its history if its contemporary namesakes continue to work under the backbreaking conditions they do? These are hard questions for hard times.

This article was first posted on my EPW blog (Economic and Political Weekly, India)

The day the cowdung hit the fan…

Indian Railway Coolie. The term ‘coolie’ is as overloaded and weighed down as the porters it denotes in India!
Indian Railway Coolie. The term ‘coolie’ is as overloaded and weighed down as the porters it denotes in India!


Well, I had been saving this subject up for a moment when I could find enough time to spend on it but I’ve been pre-empted by events in the media landscape in Jamaica. Ever since Ragashanti, popular talk show host on Newstalk 93 (formerly Radio Mona, located on the campus of the University of the West Indies), invited callers on February 4 to express opinions on the topic of the week, Indians or Coolies (Raga’s topics cover a wide range from things like the subject this week which is, “Is it ok to deh with somebody who did deh with one of your friends or relatives before?” or Do wives have it better than Mateys or vice versa?), I’ve been itching to write a blog called “Cows ARE sacred” but have been simply too busy. Over the weekend the news broke that the local broadcasting commission had recommended the shutdown of Newstalk 93 based on the racist slurs made by callers expressing their views on the subject.

On the day in question I was shocked at the stream of callers freely expressing the most derogatory opinions about Indians. I think Raga himself was taken aback at the absurdity of some of the comments (the most frequent complaint voiced by almost every caller was the intolerable “smell” apparently attached to Indians whom most of them referred to as Coolies or to be precise ‘di coolie dem’). He had deliberately chosen the subject as the topic of the week because as he put it, “There are a lot of stereotypes about Indians in Jamaica” and he wanted to elicit the views of his callers on the subject with a view to having a discussion on air that would have served to interrogate and challenge these stereotypes.

Alas long before he could do that the cowdung hit the fan. The views expressed on his show were so racist, such a slavish recitation of precisely the kinds of things the European colonizers said about “natives” in various parts of the world, so exactly a repetition of the things slavemasters said about the slaves that it was impossible for any Indian or any conscientious person not to feel disturbed and upset by what caller after caller was saying. Indians/Coolies were described as smelly, dirty or ‘nasty’, dishonest, oversexed and simultaneously physical weaklings. Several callers identified the fact that Indians eat with their hands as being ‘nasty’ and problematic to the extent where I am now abnormally self-conscious about a perfectly normal mode of eating food not merely in India but in many parts of the African continent. The word “coolie” was also being bandied about with alarming abandon and while it’s a word I myself use quite freely, it IS– like the word “nigger”–quite loaded when deployed by someone who doesn’t share the particular ethnic category being referred to. I cringed at the thought of Indian children trying to make sense of all this.

So I decided I had to intervene on behalf of my coolie brethren and sistren. Yes folks ‘coolie’ is a word that is freely used in Jamaica unlike Trinidad and Tobago where it’s actually illegal to use it. Over here as far as i know it is not used as a term of abuse. Still I knew that if Raga continued along these lines he would definitely get into trouble and since I value his show and him very much I sent him a message to call me so that we could have a discussion on air about the subject in question. By then he had already received a call from an outraged lawyer who said that he was so appalled by the broadcast that even though he wasn’t an Indian himself he was willing to take action against the show and the station on behalf of any Indians who might be offended like himself.

So on the day in question I actually appeared on Raga’s show–in the guise of an expert on Indian affairs I suppose–and found him very receptive to my suggestion that he be more cautious with the use of terms like ‘coolie’. In fact the next day he apologized profusely for having inadvertently offended anyone and announced that he would discontinue using the C-word, urging callers to do the same. He went on to say that the topic for the week had now been broadened to elicit the views of any ethnic or racial group about any other ethnic or racial group.

Interestingly despite this the majority of the callers who responded in the following days continued to sound off on the subject of Indians and how nasty, dirty and dishonest they were in their opinions. I found myself intrigued by this. Numerically Indo-Jamaicans are about 2% of the population and unlike their counterparts in Trinidad and Guyana most of them remain impoverished and are little or no threat to anyone anywhere, least of all black Jamaicans.

What accounted then for such hostile views towards those of Indian descent? According to an eminent cultural theorist friend of mine it has to do with the history of Indian arrival in Jamaica where indentured labourers or coolies, from both India and China, were brought to the Caribbean in the mid-19th century by the British, to supply cheap, virtually free labour, which had suddenly become unavailable after slavery was abolished. The ex-slaves had entered a period of ‘apprenticeship’, a kind of neo-slavery, that many of them rightly refused to participate in. The newly arrived Indians were therefore seen as ‘scabs’ and perceived to be crossing the picket line as it were by the rest of the working (or non-working!) population.

I remembered a story an Indo-Jamaican friend of mine once told me about her first encounter with racism here. I wished I could remember it in detail; Lucilda Dassardo-Cooper now lives in Cairo so I emailed and asked her to recount it to me again and this was her response:

The story I told was of the first time I realized that the prejudice in Jamaica was irrational. I had always heard the kids taunt us as being weak, which was not quite thrown at me because I had actually beaten the school bully in my basic school, and the class bully in primary school.

Callaloo, a favorite food of Indians and eaten with dhal, rotis, rice and roasted saltfish was supposedly why ‘coolies’ were weaker than ‘negah’ who ate boiled dumplings, green bananas and yams with saltfish boiled and refried with onions and tomatoes.

It must have been my first year at St. Jago, when I was on the bus to school that the incident happened. The bus was overcrowded and we were all crushed together. My nicely and carefully pleated uniform was assaulted on all sides when this pushing happened and I was swept along. I was complaining in general about the pushing and shoving being unnecessary, when this woman jumped on me, telling me that “You are coolie and I am negah so “I don’t have to box shit out of hog’s mouth.”

Maybe some of your Jamaica friends can enlighten you on the expression, but the impact on me was astonishment. Here I was going to high school, a big deal at the time as not too many had high school education, and she was going to work in a factory in Spanish town. Yet she felt that she was somehow superior because of her race. Also that she had chosen to respond to my general complaints not directed in particular at anyone, and most especially not at her as she was also shoved along with the rest of us.

“Boxing shit out of hog’s mouth” is an expression of being so poverty stricken that one is competing with hogs for shit. Go figure!

Then when I was on the beach in Jamaica maybe four years ago there was a little girl who asked me “Are you a coolie?” Instead of responding, I asked her “What are you?” she told me “I am a negah.”

See how complicated, vexed and vexing all of this is? That’s why I didn’t want to write about any of this till I had plenty of time to write something considered and illuminating rather than a knee-jerk sort of response. So there you are, my take on all this is that in the haste to censor if not prosecute Raga and Newstalk 93 the important work of combating the stereotypes Indo-Jamaicans are faced with has fallen by the wayside. That to me is the pity of it all. Complicating much of this is the confusion people make between Indo-Jamaicans, the descendants of those who came here as indentured labourers and Indian nationals, creatures of quite another make-up. The latter are notoriously obsessed with skin-colour themselves and wont to look down on people of African descent. Their racism, clannishness and refusal to mix with the natives of the countries they migrate to contributes quite a bit to the ill will towards Indians in general. I come from this latter group myself so I know what I’m talking about; and with regard to Indians from India I would say its not a bad thing for them to be confronted with the same kind of racism they mete out to others. Indeed their attitude towards Jamaicans of Indian descent is extremely problematic but that has to be the subject of another blog.

One can only be grateful to Raga for having brought the subject of Jamaican stereotypes of Indians to light in this way. Neither he nor his station should be penalized for doing this. The question is what are we going to do about the stereotypes?

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