The Beyond is, first of all, for the coolie who settles, a confused poetics, pregnant with silence looks, unsaid words. (Coolitude, 17)
Coolitude, a theoretical term coined by poet and scholar Khal Torabully, emerges as a cultural and aesthetic paradigm of indentured Indian identities (see Representation). Coolitude establishes a framework for theorizing both a cultural identity as well as a poetics that underscores the absence of the indentured Indian identity in the dominant Caribbean one. Coolitude encapsulates the trans-oceanic ancestry of indentured Indians, spanning the Caribbean Sea, Indian and Pacific Oceans, and presents an anti-essentialist identity formation through the ancestral legacy of indentureship.
Slavery was abolished in the British colonies of the Caribbean in 1834; in the French colonies in 1848; and in the Dutch colonies in 1863. The abolition of slavery prompted a dilemma for European colonizers: plantation economies built on the labor of African slavery now needed a new source of labor. The system of Indian indentureship would serve as this new trans-oceanic system of labor, spanning the globe from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean.
The number of indentured Indians has been historically disputed, with an estimated 500,000 indentured Indians sent to the Caribbean. More recent estimates of indentureship including South Africa, Fiji and regions beyond the Caribbean estimate a total of 2.2 million Indians historically subject to the system of indentureship.
Indian indentureship ushered in what historian Hugh Tinker called “a new system of slavery.” Although indentureship was a different system from slavery, indentureship was a system of bonded labor characterized by violence and abuse. Indentured Indians suffered extremely high mortality rates. Gendered violence against women among indentured Indians was a particularly prominent issue that marked this period on the plantation, as women were subject to both the sexual violence of the plantation system as well as brutal violence – and often murder – by their intimate partners (see Third World and Third World Women).
Indians were recruited en masse from present-day Uttar Pradesh (formerly known as the North Western Provinces and Oudh until 1901 when it was renamed the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh; post-independence, the province became Uttar Pradesh) (see Maps in Colonialism). Indians were coerced and mislead into contracts of indentureship, whereby they were transported from India to various colonies throughout European empires for a contractual period lasting generally five to seven years, after which they were eligible for receiving land or a return passage to India; the majority of Indians never returned.
Although the historiography of indentured Indians generally prioritizes Trinidad and Guyana as primary sites of historical analysis due to the greater number of indentured Indians during the period of indentureship from 1845-1917, Indians were transported to the British, French and Dutch colonies of the Caribbean, including Jamaica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, St. Kitts, Surinam, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Reunion, Fiji, Australia, Uganda, Kenya, and South Africa (see Edouard Glissant).
Despite its significance as one of the largest-scale bonded labor migrations in history, this critical chapter of Indian history is conspicuously absent from South Asian history textbooks.
Coolitude: theorizing “cross-cultural vagabondage”
Following both negritude and creolite, Coolitude emphasizes an inherent hybridity that redefines a relationship to India in the setting of the indentured “adoptive homelands” (194) (see Aimé Césaire). Torabully writes that “cross cultural vagabondage (cultural vagrancy) is at its heart” (194). This emphasis on the linguistic play of vagabond/vagrancy continues to mark those within the legacy of indenture as bodies that do not simply continue to invoke a static sense of “Indianness,” but rather, orient their identities and poetics through an ever-changing relationality of what it means to be “Indian.”
In an interview with Torabully, he states: “When I left him, Cesaire told me, ‘you will do for India what I did for Africa’” (147). Torabully, however, departs from the referent of India, noting that the term was meant not to “do something for India, but for the people of the West Indies, and elsewhere, indeed, for the ‘Indians’ born or living abroad” (148). Coolitude thus offers a critical scholarly and poetic contribution to histories of bonded labor, through the marked absence of the Indian indentureship within dominant cultural theories of both the Caribbean, as well as the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Coolitude perhaps even offers a critical historical and cultural contribution to Indian historiography, which has continued to marginalize the stories of indentured labor beyond the involvement of Gandhi in South Africa.
“It is impossible to understand the essence of coolitude without charting the coolies’ voyage across the seas. That decisive experience, that coolie odyssey, left an indelible stanp on the landscape of coolitude.” –Torabully, “The Coolies’ Odyssey,” The Unesco Courier, Paris, October 1996.
“Coolitude proposes to fill the gaps left by this theory of creolization… Regrettably, this theory’s transcultural emphasis remains ignored by Anglophone and French postcolonial theorizing” (4-5). Torabully gestures to this important omission of Indian indentureship from theories of creolization, which have historically not accounted for the Indian diaspora in the Caribbean.
This emphasis on the transoceanic anchors Coolitude theorization and poetics, as the figurative Kala Pani or “black waters” that the indentured cross symbolically severs their ties with India.
“Coolie,” is etymologically traced to the Tamil word, kuli, meaning wages, which referred to unskilled laborers or porters. However, during the period of indentureship, the word was historically deployed as a slur against indentured Indians and Chinese. Torabully reclaims this term as the prefix for Coolitude, following the pejorative negre of negritude.
“Coolie,” despite its loaded genealogy, has been reclaimed through film (Coolie Pink and Green – Patricia Mohammed, 2009), visual art (Coolie Coolie Viens – Andil Gosine), and literature (Coolie Woman – Gaiutra Bahadur, 2013).
Themes of Loss
Themes of loss, ancestral trauma and exile color the volume of Torabully’s Coolitude, as his own poetics relies upon archival narratives: “Mooneswawmy recalled his ten years in Natal with this short account: ‘I served on Mr. Lister’s estate… He would sometimes put a rope around my neck, and send me to the police. He often beat me with a chambuck, tying my hands, and pouring salt water on my back” (90). Stories like these are common throughout the text, underscoring the tribulations of the indentured within a system that was riddled with abuse from plantation overseers.
The history of the indentured is marked by recurring stories of displacement. The narratives in Coolitude center lamentations of indentured Indians, exiles in foreign lands subject to the cruelty of plantation labor, and often separated from their families while struggling to adapt to horrible conditions of the New World.
Notes on Form
Although Torabully describes Coolitude as an “anthology” of the indentured diaspora, the text focuses on narratives excerpted from archival materials, as well as poems and songs from Torabully and other authors. The end of the text includes an interview with Torabully and scholar Marina Carter. Torabully presents these materials alongside the history of indentureship, which centers the hardships of the indentured on the plantation.
Torabully encloses the poems and songs of Coolitude separately from the text, which offers both historical and archival accounts, as well as Torabully’s own literary criticism. Torabully’s writing, in French, is accompanied by the English translation. This literary technique animates Coolitude as a historical form that continues to color the experience of the indentured and those who inherit this legacy.
je suis la bannie l’exclue l’exilee
decide a me perdre dans l’anonymat de l’engagee
entre agent recruteur et agent consulaire
Entre Protectuer d’emigrants et colons tortionnaires
J’avai deja perdu mon chemin dans la seheresse
Du Coeur des cannaies
– Khal Torabully, Chair Corail, Fragments Coolies, p. 53
I am the banished, excluded, exiled
Who decided to lose myself in the anonymity of indenture
Between the recruiter and the consular agent
Between Protector of Emigrants and torturing settlers
I had already lost my way amid droughts
In the heart of the canefields.
Queer Coolie-tude (2019), a film by Michelle Mohabeer, is a “creative essay documentary and queer ethnography which traces the intergenerational lives, histories, identities, familial relations and series of a diverse range of subjects (academics, artists and activists) from the Indo-Caribbean diaspora in Canada.”
Coolitude avoids any essentialism and connection with an idealized Mother India, which is clearly left behind. It discloses the Coolie’s story which has been shipwrecked (‘erased’) in the ocean of Western-made historical discourse… (Coolitude, 15)
Torabully, Khal and Carter, Marina. Coolitude: An Anthology of the Indian Labor Diaspora. Anthem Press, 2002.
- Bahadur, Gaiutra. Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. University of Chicago Press, 2013.
- Hosein, Gabrielle J. and Outar, Lisa. Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought: Genealogies, Thoughts, Enactments. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
- Indenture & Exile: The Indo-Caribbean Experience, edited with an introduction by Frank Birbalsingh. Published in Association with the Ontario Association for Studies in Indo-Caribbean Culture. TSAR, 1989.
- Lal, Brij V. Chalo Jahaji: On a Journey Through Indenture in Fiji. ANU Press, 2012.
- Mohammed, Patricia. Gender Negotiations among Indians in Trinidad 1917–1947. (Institute of Social Studies: The Hague) Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2002.
- Tinker, Hugh. A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas, 1830-1920. London: Oxford University Press, 1974.
- Hassan Ghanny has compiled one of the most comprehensive digital resources on Indian indentured diaspora through the living, editable Google-based project, SAIL OAR (South Asian Indentured Labor – Online Archive of Research and Resources).
- Becoming Coolies: an AHRC-funded research project based at the Universities of Edinburgh and Leeds, which seeks to understand South Asian labor migration in the nineteenth-century and assesses its present-day significance.
Author: Suzanne Persard
Last edited: September 2020