on women, bodies, violence, economics, and escape – Part 1


Rusting equipment at what remains of Marienburg, Suriname’s largest sugar plantation. February 2015.

The more I read about indenture, the more I get stuck on the same question: What was life like for women who travelled to Suriname as indentured labourers, and particularly for those who came on their own?

I am, of course, neither the first nor the only one to ask this question. There’s been considerable debate about whether or not women’s lives improved as a result of indenture, or whether the system just further perpetuated – and even exacerbated – the social inequalities they already faced at home.

Because this all very quickly got out of hand (leading to the prospect of a single blog post of about 3500 words in length), I’ve separated the story into four posts. This one, the introduction, will lay out the broad parameters. In a second post, I’ll outline the benefits that women labourers enjoyed as a result of indenture. In the third, I’ll point to the downsides of the indenture experience. In the fourth, finally, I’ll try to explore the legacy of this as it concerns my own family histories and understandings.

So, was indenture beneficial for women? Or was it just more of the same?

There’s support for both sides of this equation, and ultimately, I suspect that, in the end, much comes down to chance: some women – by virtue of their age, their physical attributes, their general health, the plantation they ended up in, their backgrounds, the people in their local communities, their support systems, their domestic relationships, and more – had good experiences. Others, by contrast, did not. In this sense, I don’t know if it’s possible to draw a broad conclusion.

That said, we can take the following observation by Gloria Wekker as our starting point:

It is a matter of considerable debate whether the women who came to Suriname made a good choice, whether they obtained a better life, equal rights with men and more freedom to make decisions about their own lives. Generally, it is accepted that the uneven sex ratio made the position of women, which traditionally in India had been subordinate, stronger, even if that was only the case for a limited period. (185)


Marienburg, February 2015.

So let’s take a closer look.

The Dutch abolished slavery in 1863. A ten-year transition period followed. But what was to happen after that? The planters knew they needed workers. And they couldn’t count on ex-slaves staying. So the Dutch followed the example set by other former slave-owning territories: they looked for contract labour. They started at an unofficial level, but this proved unsuccessful. The first official attempt was successful – at least at the outset – in bringing labourers from China, but this, too, was abandoned. Most Chinese workers went home after their initial contracts ended and those who stayed did not take to agricultural work.

The Dutch then turned to a process that had already proven successful in British colonies in the West Indies: the importing of indentured labourers from India. After several years of negotiations, a treaty was ratified by the Dutch parliament in 1872 (Hoefte 30-1), and the first 399 labourers arrived aboard the Lalla Rookh in June 1873. Between 1873 and 1916, when the last ships arrived, 34 395 contract labourers had travelled to Suriname (Bhagwanbali, 21). Subsequent indenture contracts brought workers from Java and today, “more than half of the people of Suriname are descendants of British Indian and Javanese contract laborers” (Hoefte, 3).


Monument to indentured Javanese workers at Marienburg. February 2015.

In principle, such contracts were voluntary. However, as Hoefte observes, the situation was much more complex:

The emigrants were ‘pushed’ by miserable conditions in India [which included, according to Hoefte, ‘land hunger, unemployment, indebtedness, and bad harvests’ (36)] and ‘pulled’ by the opportunities in places they had probably never heard of. The fact that so many people traveled halfway around the world to improve their lot can be largely attributed to two factors. The first is that many bonded emigrants probably thought they were leaving their homeland for a limited period of time and thus would soon return. The other factor is that the description of the life of an indentured laborer in a sugar colony was often far from realistic …. The deceptive picture painted by the recruiters was one of the main problems of the indentured immigration program …. High officials in British India noted that the great majority of desertions were probably due to illegal recruitment … and that the increased difficulty in obtaining laborers was a direct incentive to a greater number of irregularities. (Hoefte, 34-5).

The original agreement between Britain and The Netherlands decreed that there should be a 40/60 gender split (Emmer, undated); in other words, they had to contract 40 women for every 60 men. But this was never an easy proposition. Recruiters in India found it difficult to recruit women (Emmer undated; Tinker), and colonial authorities suggested that those women who did want to leave must have been sexually suspect: “prostitutes … infected with venereal diseases” (Emmer undated, n.p.) or in the words of Count van Hogendorp, “widows who have gone astray” (qtd. in Emmer undated, n.p; see also Laurence 126-7). In fact, widows, “whose lives had become almost unbearable after the deaths of their husbands” were the most likely women to sign indenture contracts (Hoefte 38). As Laurence explains, the cultural restrictions placed on Hindu widows – and their relative youth, given the common practice of child marriage – may have made emigration an enticing prospect (42).

But widows, abandoned wives, victims of family strife, and prostitutes were not seen as ideal candidates for indenture. Such women would not contribute positively to the indenture effort; rather, they would distract the men from their work (Emmer undated, n.p.). In Suriname, meanwhile, planters were not necessarily keen on women labourers (Bhagwanbali 140). They wanted nothing but strong, healthy men to work on their plantations. Women, children, and the eldery were seen as liabilities.

In any event, men significantly outnumbered women throughout the indenture period. In 1926, just over half a century after the first ship of indentured labourers arrived in Suriname and fully ten years after the regime had ended, there were only 400 Indian women for every 1000 men (Wekker, 185).

This imbalance, as we shall see in upcoming posts, is critical to understanding both the benefits and downsides of women’s indenture experiences.


Marienburg. February 2015.


Marienburg, February 2015.


References (for the whole series of posts):

Bahadur, Gaiutra. Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Bersselaar, Dimitri van et al. De komst van contract-arbeiders uit Azië: Hindoestanen et Javanen in Suriname. Leiden: Minderheden Studies, Rijksuniversiteit Leiden, 1991.

Emmer, Pieter C. “The Great Escape: The Migration of Female Indentured Servants from British India to Suriname (Dutch Guiana), 1873-1916,” Unpublished paper (looks like). Available in KIT-LV collection. M1998B1552

Emmer, Pieter C. “Was Migration Beneficial?” in Jan Lucassen and Leo Lucassen, eds. Migration, Migration History, History: Old Paradigms and New Perspectives. Berlin: Peter Lang, 1999. 111-130.

Laurence, K.O. A Question of Labour: Indentured Immigration into Trinidad and British Guiana, 1875-1917. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

Look Lai, Walton. Indentured Labour, Caribbean Sugar: Chinese and Indian Migrants to the British West Indies, 1838-1918. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

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

Wekker, Gloria. “Of Mimic Men and Unruly Women: Family, Sexuality and Gender in Twentieth-Century Suriname.” In Rosemarijn Hoefte and Peter Meeld, eds. Twentieth-Century Suriname: Continuities and Discontinuities in a New World Society. Leiden: KITLV Press, 2001. 174-97

Photos: Sonja Boon

© Sonja Boon (sboon @ mun.ca),  2016


2 thoughts on “on women, bodies, violence, economics, and escape – Part 1

  1. Pingback: on women, bodies, violence, economics and escape – part 2 – Saltwater Stories

  2. Pingback: on women, bodies, violence, economics, and escape – part 3 – Saltwater Stories

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