questions about mothers

It was a student’s simple question that got me thinking further. We were looking at some late nineteenth-century indentured labourers’ immigration records.

“Why,” she asked, “does this woman have only one child?”

We looked more closely at the record. The woman in question – my great-great grandmother – was 25. The child she travelled with was just 2. Surely, my student thought, she would have had more children.

It was a valid question. And it bore looking into. What was going on here? Did she leave other children behind when she set sail? Did she have other children who may have died? Did she only have the one child? Where was the child’s father?

Hugh Tinker, writing in A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas, 1830-1920, observes that many of the women who travelled as indentured labourers were “abandoned wives or widows” (130), seeking income security after the deaths of their husbands. Was this the case here? Had she previously been married? Another intriguing possibility: was this her child at all, or did she claim him as her own in order to assure a safer passage? After all, as Tinker also observes, indentured women were at risk of assault on board ships. Could the archival record – in this case, the immigration registers – elucidate any of these questions?

I’ve spent the last few weeks picking away at the documents that record the arrival of some 450 labourers on the Kate Kellock, my focus shaped by my student’s first question. What did family structures look like, among the indentured labourers who set sail for Paramaribo in the late nineteenth century? And what might they tell me about maternal age? I decided to look at women, and, more specifically, at those who are identified in the record as mothers.

The record itself is frustratingly unclear. Sometimes cross-references make sense. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes ages are included. Sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes I can make sense of the first and last names. Sometimes I’m convinced that actually they’ve been switched around. Some of this is most certainly the nature of the colonial encounter. Mimi Sheller, in Citizenship from Below: Erotic Agency and Caribbean Freedom, observes that most indentured labourers didn’t speak English. It’s even less likely that they spoke Dutch. Of what, then, did the encounter between labourer and agent consist? How did labourers know what questions they were being asked? How did they know how to respond? Did agents actually ask questions, or did they just transcribe information as they received it from the British ship registers, adding extra information about the health of passengers upon arrival?

It’s also eminently possible that some labourers may have made up stories in order to assure their own security. Could some have feigned marriage in order to create kinship ties? Did some acknowledge children that weren’t their own? Certainly, the discrepancies in the records suggest that this is something that could be explored in more detail.

But what about my student’s original question? Why did a woman of 25 travel with only one very young child of two?

What I have discovered so far – and I’m now about halfway through – is that while many mothers were clearly younger than 22 when they had their children, it wasn’t necessarily unusual for a woman of 25 to be travelling with only a 2 year old child. Based on pure averages – that is, subtracting the age of every mother’s eldest child from maternal age and then averaging that across all mothers – my great-great grandmother was right within the norms.

That said, the evidence is contradictory. Some mothers were in their 40s on arrival.  But their eldest children – at least the eldest of those with whom they travelled – were often teenagers, thus placing these women in their thirties at the time they gave birth to them. It’s therefore likely that these women had older children who may have stayed in India, children who may, indeed, have had their own families by the time their mothers set sail for the Americas. By the same token, there is also one oddity at the youngest end of the scale: one mother, listed as 22, was accompanied by a child listed as 11. Was this is a mistake in transcription, or did she indeed have her child at age 11? Given that the next youngest mothers (i.e. this one) were apparently thirteen and fourteen at the time they gave birth to the eldest child who travelled with them, it’s perhaps possible, but transcription error seems the most likely option. Perhaps they were siblings. Perhaps the mother was older than twenty-two. But these stories are gone, and only supposition remains.

In any case, taking out the outliers – those women who appear to have given birth to their oldest children over the age of thirty and the single mother who apparently gave birth at eleven – leaves me with an average maternal age of just over 20. If we factor that average age in relation to the women who were into their late thirties and forties on arrival in Suriname, then it’s likely that they left adult children with families of their own behind: in some instances, women who arrived in Suriname with teenagers may, according to this calculation, have had adult children between the ages of 18 and 30.

But where does that leave my great-great-grandmother, whose record we started with? At 23, according to the records, when she gave birth to her son, she was certainly a slightly older mother, given the norms. But she wasn’t too terribly far outside the norm; there were other mothers in similar situations. What I can’t tell is whether she may have had other children before this time. Some of the mothers, younger than her according to the records, travelled with older children. What I do know is that she had at least two further children following her arrival in Suriname,   a second son born in 1875 died a year after his birth. A third son was born two years later, in 1877.

If there’s one bit of clarity to emerge from my perusal of the records thus far – and my work is not yet complete – it’s that mortality rates were high. Almost every mother who travelled from Calcutta to Paramaribo on the Kate Kellock experienced the death of a child, either on the journey or after her arrival. Several mothers died within the first months or year of their arrival, leaving children orphaned in a new land. Perhaps this isn’t surprising. It’s likely, given the famines that plagued the northern Indian of Bihar (where many of the labourers came from) during this period, that those who chose to sign up for five-year-contracts were not necessarily in good health on departure. It’s equally likely that the journey itself – several months in too close quarters on a rocking ship – didn’t help. Nor would the work and living conditions on the Surinamese plantations have likely been conducive to good health and wellbeing, no matter what their contracts might have promised. Certainly, the documented resistance activities that Rosemarijn Hoefte discusses in In Place of Slavery: A Social History of British Indian and Javanese Laborers in Suriname suggest that not all was well on post-emancipation plantations. So, too, does the fact that many of those who sailed on the Kate Kellock returned to India after their contracts ended.

And so, you see, as I come up for air, there’s a lot going on. It was a simple question that spurred my quest. I don’t have a clear-cut answer, but I am closer, and in the process, I’ve asked myself many more questions.


Hoefte, Rosemarijn, In Place of Slavery: A Social History of British Indian and Javanese Laborers in Suriname. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998.

Sheller, Mimi, Citizenship from Below: Erotic Agency and Caribbean FreedomDurham: Duke University Press, 2012.

Tinker, Hugh, A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas, 1830-1920Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Header Image: screen capture from: (edited for colour)

© Sonja Boon, 2015


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