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'Coolie Woman' Rescues Indentured Women From Anonymity

"Immigrant number 96153. That's how my great-grandmother was cataloged, that was the number on her immigration pass." says Gaiutra Bahadur, author of the new book Coolie Woman.

Bahadur set out to uncover her family's roots by following a paper trail of colonial archives and ship records that traced her great-grandmother's journey from a small village in India to the cane fields of Guyana.

Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833. To replace slave labor on plantations in Guyana and other parts of the Caribbean, workers were brought from India as indentured servants. Bahadur's great-grandmother Sujaria was one of those workers; When she left India, she was pregnant, unmarried and alone.

Conditions on the vessels carrying the workers were often harsh with mortality rates that mirrored that of slave ships

"I found out that her story was extraordinary but it wasn't exceptional in that most of the women who went to West Indies as indentured laborers were like her, they were by themselves" says Bahadur. "What motivated me to write this story was to sort of rescue them from anonymity if I could. To give them names."

Gaiutra Bahadur spoke with NPR's Michel Martin about her new book Coolie Woman.


Interview Highlights

On Naming the Book

Kuli [Coolie] comes from the Tamil word which means wages. It was the bureaucratic term the British used to describe indentured laborers. But it became a highly charged slur. So naming the book Coolie Woman was controversial. I did it because to me, the women who migrated as indentured laborers carried enormous burdens. In India—in the subcontinent—a 'coolie' is someone who carries baggage and these women sort of carry the baggage of colonialism; the expectations of white men, the expectations of Indian men. Here they have to sort of preserve family, preserve culture.

On What Indentured Women's Lives Were Like

These were sort of the most desperate women who were recruited to go, women who left probably because they had no choice. And suddenly they land in new worlds where they do have a degree of choice, because they're in short supply. There was a shortage of women and this empowered them to a certain extent, because they could have their choice of partner essentially and then didn't have to stay with that partner is someone who was better came along—they could leave. But, at the end of the day they were workers on a plantation.

On What Became of Sujaria

She met a couple on the ship from India to Guyana—a married couple—and the woman was apparently unable to have children. So my great-grandmother was in a relationship with this man and had his baby—a girl. She'd given birth to my grandfather on the ship over. So there was a child swap. My great- grandmother was transferred to another plantation and she took the baby girl with her and left my grandfather behind to be raised by this couple— I suspect the man preferred a son. My great-grandmother moved to another end of the colony—another plantation—and had a new relationship with someone there who she married and had a child with and had a business with...She recreated family. That's the endpoint of her story. She left people behind, a husband perhaps, children perhaps, siblings. In Guyana, she was able to begin again and have a new family.

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Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're switching gears now. In recent years, we've been filling in the blanks on slavery in this country and the Caribbean. We've been doing this with new scholarly works, but also, more recently, in television shows and even popular movies. People are learning more about how the so-called peculiar institution worked and what it was like for the people who lived through it. But we know far less about what followed slavery in many places.

And that is the system of indentured servants. Hundreds of thousands of people were transferred across oceans to work on plantations under contract in conditions that were, in many cases, very similar to slavery. Now Gaiutra Bahadur is telling the story of one of those workers. It's her great-grandmother. In "Coolie Woman," she traced her story from a small village in India to the cane fields of Guyana. And Gaiutra Bahadur is with us now to tell us more of this remarkable story. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

GAIUTRA BAHADUR: Oh, it's so great to be here. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: First of all, what's a coolie?

BAHADUR: Right. So coolie comes from a Tamil word which means wages. And it was the bureaucratic term the British used to describe indentured laborers. But I should say...

MARTIN: It became a racial term in a way.

BAHADUR: It became a highly charged slur...

MARTIN: You know, we've heard that word used as a slur, both...

BAHADUR: Right. Right.

MARTIN: ...You know, in Africa, South Africa, other places. We've heard that word used as a slur, and also in this country, too, right?

BAHADUR: It's very charged. So naming the book "Coolie Woman" was controversial. I did it because to me, the women who migrated as indentured laborers carried enormous burdens. And so in India, in the subcontinent, a coolie is someone who carries baggage. And these women sort of carried the baggage of colonialism, I feel, you know, the expectations of white men, the expectations of Indian men. Here, they have to sort of preserve family, preserve culture.

MARTIN: How did you figure out that you had a personal connection to this story?

BAHADUR: Well, I first heard about my great-grandmother about 15 years ago from my father. We were on a trip back to Guyana, which is where I was born. So on this trip home, I asked about our connection to India. And my father said, our closest link was Sujaria, who left India when she was pregnant four months and traveling entirely by herself. And so I was intrigued and just sort of tried to find out as much as I could about her over the years. Five years ago, I started doing more extensive research and realized that her story was extraordinary. But it wasn't exceptional in that most of the women who went to the West Indies as indentured laborers were like her. They were traveling by themselves.

MARTIN: How many people are we talking about here? How many people do you believe - or does your research show, first of all, made that journey, and how many of them were women?

BAHADUR: More than a million Indians were transported across the globe, not only to Guyana, but also Trinidad, Jamaica, Fiji, Mauritius, and about a third of them were women.

MARTIN: What were you able to find out about why your great-grandmother made that journey?

BAHADUR: Very little in the end about her own particular circumstances. A granddaughter overheard her talking one day. She was chatting, smoking a pipe and talking to some women who had been on the same ship with her. One of my cousins overheard her saying that she was on a pilgrimage when basically, white men in boats came and offered to take her to the next stop on her holy tour. And she ended up suddenly, you know, in Calcutta, on her way to the Caribbean and then in Guyana, working on sugar plantations. So that story - which is the only story I have - suggests kidnap.

MARTIN: One of the things that stands out about your book is just the exhaustive level of detail that you were able to reconstruct, which is noteworthy because many of these people were kind of meant to disappear, right? They were kind of meant to disappear into the shadows. Isn't that kind of part of the story? They weren't really meant to have names. They were given numbers and...

BAHADUR: Immigrant number 96153. That's how my great-grandmother was catalogued. That was the number on her immigration pass. And that's partly what motivated me to write this story is to sort of rescue them from anonymity if I could, to give them names and names that people will remember as much as possible because this group of migrants were, for the most part, not literate, certainly not in English. So they don't leave behind written traces of themselves - letters, diaries, memoirs, etc.

MARTIN: You describe the fact that this was supposed to be voluntary passage. These workers were supposed to, you know, sign contracts to be paid wages and so forth. But then you actually describe some of the conditions on these ships where they were preyed upon.

BAHADUR: And especially the women. The immigrants were kept in the cargo hold, essentially, and the hold was partitioned into three. So in the front of the ship were the men - single men - in the middle, married couples, and in the back, single women. And there was supposed to be partitions separating them so that the women could not - would not be preyed upon. But, you know, these partitions were really sort of a figment of bureaucratic imagination. And the women were in fact open, vulnerable to sexual exportation and all of the other conditions. The mortality rates were fairly high on these ships, in the 1850s and 1860s, equal to the mortality rate on slave ships. Although it did decline in later years.

MARTIN: And then when they got there, what happened? When they actually arrived at those destinations, then what happened? What were their lives?

BAHADUR: These were sort of the most desperate women who were recruited to go, women who left probably because they had no choice. And suddenly, they land in new worlds where they do have a degree of choice because they're in short supply. There was a shortage of women. And this both empowered them to an extent because they could have their choice of partner essentially, and then, didn't have to stay with that partner. If someone who was better came along, they could leave. But at the end of the day, they were workers in - on a plantation.

MARTIN: Did they eventually - for the most part - gain their freedom as promised?

>>BAHADUR. Sure.

MARTIN: Did they in fact get their wages? Did they in fact get their freedom, for the most part?

BAHADUR: Right. So this is the big distinction with slavery - is that they ultimately were free from their contracts. It's not as simple as it sounds, it wasn't just five years. And they were not paid as promised. In many cases, they were cheated out of their wages. So they had to re-indenture because they were indebted to the plantation. I heard of one case in which a man was indentured 48 years. But ultimately, at the end of the day, they were free. This was not a status that they gave to their children. Indenture was not an inheritable...

MARTIN: Condition.

BAHADUR: ...System. Condition.

MARTIN: So it was in fact a labor contract, even if it wasn't always honored.

BAHADUR: Honored mostly in the breach. I mean...

MARTIN: Well, how do you know that?

BAHADUR: An extremely exploitative system.

MARTIN: Well, how do you know? You can assume that - but how do you know that? How do you know that it was honored mainly?

BAHADUR: Because there were uprisings on the plantations because of illegally low wages. And it was also a penal system in that indentured workers could be and were regularly sent to jail if they didn't finish their work or if they left the plantation without a pass. There was a pass system in effect. And the year my great-grandmother landed, about 20 percent of them were convicted and sent to jail for offenses like that.

MARTIN: Tell me about your great-grandmother. How did she end her days? Do you know?

BAHADUR: Well, she met a couple on the ship from India to Guyana - a married couple. And the woman was apparently unable to have children. So my great-grandmother was in a relationship with this man and had his baby - a girl. And, by the way, she had given birth to my grandfather on the ship over. So there was a child swap, strangely, because my great-grandmother was transferred to another plantation and she took the baby girl with her and left my grandfather behind to be raised by this couple. I suspect the man preferred a son. So that's why that happened. But my great-grandmother moved to the other end of the colony, another plantation, and had a new relationship with someone there who she married and had a child with and had a business with. They raised cattle and sold milk. So she became his partner in business. She re-created family. I think that's the endpoint of her story. She left people behind - a husband perhaps, children perhaps, siblings. But in Guyana, she was able to begin again and have a new family.

MARTIN: It's a remarkable story. Gaiutra Bahadur is a journalist and she's author of the new book "Coolie Woman." And she joined us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Gaiutra, thanks so much for speaking with us.

BAHADUR: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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