DR GABRIELLE JAMELA HOSEIN
WRITING this on Indian Arrival Day, perhaps I can take a moment to connect past and present.
From 1845 until 1917, Indian women came to the then colony as indentured workers, many fleeing desperate economic and social conditions from conflicts or famines, others escaping family brutality, widowhood or unwanted unions, still others tricked or kidnapped by recruiters, and some adventurously seeking an improved life.
What is significant is how many came to depots, boarded ships, landed on estates or navigated their new lives as single women in an extremely exploitative and thoroughly violent system in which their bodies, labour and sexuality were all interlocked with this oceanic trade, its male domination and its local profits.
They were often confined to plantations for the duration of their contract; labour camps that birthed further trauma in our societies. They endured incarceration, abuse, forced unions and rape, indeed their sexual and domestic subservience to men was a key reason for their recruitment, with those who challenged through exercise of their sexual agency often labelled immoral, loose and prostitutes. Theirs is a story of much wretchedness and dispossession amidst survival.
I draw on this history because the arrival of Indian women introduced an experience of tens of thousands that contributes to a powerful legacy for multiracial and transnational feminist politics today. It’s a legacy I draw on to think about the migration and exploitation, for example, of Venezuelan girls and women, which so often mimics the risk, fear and uncertainty experienced by jahajins on the first ship. In fact, indenture compels such connection between then and now.
What stands out over these 176 years is an overlapping experience of hardship, indebtedness and bondage among women from different nations, of different ethnicities, crossing different waters at different points in time, but with so much echoing between them that should inform our contemporary solidarities.
In her 2017 article, “‘Bound Coolies’ and Other Indentured Workers in the Caribbean: Implications for debates about human trafficking and modern slavery,” Guyanese feminist scholar Kamala Kempadoo makes the argument for “parallel histories” of indentured Indian women and, for example, Venezuelan women kidnapped, tricked, bound by debt or compelled to seek an income to support their families as the story of their passage to Trinidad.
She writes, “Contemporary migrant labour systems…continue to manifest problems similar to those encountered by indentured workers in Caribbean history: recruitment under false pretences, repayment through labour for an overseas passage, low wages, agreements that tie them to one employer, and poor working and living conditions at the new site of employment.”
As well, sexual labour was and remains “an explicit part of the reasons for the recruitment and overseas employment of women,” which is managed by “unscrupulous middle-persons, recruiters, transporters and employers.” Finally, she describes how “the role of the state in creating the conditions for trafficking resonates with the regulation of indenture by colonial governments.”
Thinking of all this, I wanted to write about the anniversary of indentured women’s arrival in terms of what it means for how we connect our histories to those of newly migrating women, particularly those arriving as bonded labour or for sexual exploitation. I wanted to reflect on cynically profiteering systems long governed by transnational and multiracial networks of men with access to money, mobility, coercive power and property as well as the compliance of state officials in overseeing women’s misery and controlling the contexts within which they labour to survive and seek refuge.
We don’t usually speak of indenture in terms of comparative moments of indebted labour, and how economic destitution, gendered realities and racialised sexual stereotypes underscore women’s entanglement, but now is as significant an opportunity as any.
It’s these moments that I work through what it means to be an Indian woman in the Caribbean, how we can draw on our past to guide us in the present, how we can see ourselves in others, and how our arrival can contribute another occasion for forging connection.
Jahajin feminisms can reach back to indentureship in just these ways, by highlighting women’s repeated crossings of dangerous waters, affirming present struggles for “migrant rights, labour rights, sex workers’ rights and economic justice,” and invoking long-held desires for “equality and safety for all.”
Diary of a mothering worker