on women, bodies, violence, economics and escape – part 2


Brits-Indische immigranten aan boord van een schip op de Surinamerivier bij Paramaribo, dat hen terug brengt naar Brits-Indië. Image credit: Collectie Stichting Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Tropenmuseum/Royal Tropical Institute, Amsterdam, Objectnummer 60012353.

(note: this is part 2 of a 4-part series of posts on the experiences of women indentured labourers. You can find part 1 here)

So what were the benefits of emigration to British Indian women labourers? What would have made the experience of indenture a positive one, or at the very least, more positive than staying in India?

Researchers generally agree that the gender imbalance could be beneficial for women, and there is evidence that some women were able to parlay this imbalance to their personal advantage. Wekker observes that some Indian women had “multiple simultaneous relationships with Hindustani men” (186), demonstrating an “unruliness” that would be foreign to their communities back home in India (however, she also notes that such unruliness would inevitably be contained by increasing regulations and settlement). Other women, according to Bhagwanbali, moved between partners, casting one aside as a better situation arose (see also Laurence 239). Others, still, entered into relationships with planters (Look Lai). All of this suggests that women enjoyed a degree of sexual freedom that would have been unknown in their home communities, and that they were able to leverage this to their advantage. It’s worth noting here an intriguing annotation that I came across during my preliminary research trip in February 2015: Matai Chatarpali arrived in Suriname in April 1898 with her husband aboard the English ship “Avon.” By 1904, she “wants to know nothing more about her husband. Prtipal 312/Aa has taken another man and is pregnant by him” (Nationaal Archief Suriname, Scheepslijst Avon, Agent Generaal Immigratie Department 1853-1946, #1181; also accessible online via the Nationaal Archief of The Netherlands).

So, too, could women benefit from the breakdown of the caste system, which underpinned family and community systems in India. As the immigration records show, labourers came from many different castes, including the privileged Brahmins. During my own preliminary research, I couldn’t keep up with the different castes listed on the immigration record for the Medea, which arrived in 1873 (Nationaal Archief Suriname, Agent Generaal Immimgratie Departement 1853-1946, Naamlijsten 66A & 66B). While I recognized some listed castes – such as Brahmin and Thakoor – others, like Dhobee, Koree, Kobarin, Kulwar, Rajpootin, Pathau (and many, many more), were completely foreign.


“Smoking coolie-women in the depot,” attributed to Hendrik Dooyer, 1906-1913. Newly-arrived contract workers were temporarily housed in the so-called “coolie depot” before they were sent to the plantations. Image Credit: Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Object number: NG-1994-65-5-14-1. http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.489605


The undoing of this complex, and in Look Lai’s words, “delicate,” system, allowed for a much higher degree of social mobility than would have been possible in their home communities, and certainly some women would have used this to their advantage. Other women, among them my great great grandmother, entered into longer term interracial relationships with European and Chinese men upon completion of their indenture periods, an option that, according to a few scholars, was rare among British Indian immigrants. Immigration records also reveal that some Hindu women crossed faith boundaries, developing domestic relationships with Muslim immigrants.

Indenture to a faraway land may have been appealing for women who existed outside of normative family groupings. Pieter Emmer, whose perspective on women’s indenture is generally positive, observes:

Indian women enjoyed a great deal more personal freedom in [in Suriname] than they did in India. This is true in particular for those women, who had been widowed and for those, who wanted to escape their pre-arranged marriage. Suriname, for them, more than for any other category of Indian migrants, opened the door to a new, independent future without the many sanctions Indian society had in stock for women who had stepped out of line. (n.p.).

So, too, should we consider what Look Lai identifies as “two main indicators of immigrants’ progress in the colonies” (116): the money they brought home with them, and the proportion of immigrants who stayed in their new homes and took on more contracts. By these two measures, the situation was rosy: the early waves of indentured labourers returning to India (from British West Indies) brought not only money but also reported relatively positive stories about their experiences: most had been paid regularly and fairly and had good working conditions (Look Lai). It is also worth pointing out in this regard that indentured women likely benefitted from the simple fact of “receiving their own wages” (Laurence 239).

These positive economic experiences stand in stark contrast to the observations found in the 1883 Report on the Colonial Emigration from the Bengal Presidency which pointed to the extreme poverty and poor health of those seeking to sign on to indenture contracts:

“Although the scarcity in the Western Provinces and Oudh had not yet reached the more acute stage of famine, it was sufficiently sever to urge crowds of half starved adults and emanciated [sic] children to the different recruiting centres with the result that the Calcutta depots eventually became asylums for a large number of people in a more or less anaemic and unhealthy condition” (qtd. in Emmer undated, n.p.)

Stories of economic well being and success would have formed the basis for recruitment, serving as incentives for bringing subsequent generations of labourers – many of whom were likely fleeing famine conditions in their local communities – to the new world. So, too, would returning labourers likely have told stories about life in the new world, and about friends and fellow people who chose to stay and make their lives in this new place. Thus far, my exploration of the records for Suriname suggest that while many married women returned to India with their families, a sizeable number of women stayed and, if the colonial records are any indication, thrived, growing families through generations. This decision to stay would appear to be significant, given that contracts included free right of return.


“In het koeliedépôt.” possibly by Gomez Burke. Image credit: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Object Number: NG-1994-65-4-8-2.http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.488446

All of this together – sexual freedom, social mobility, and economic security – makes it seem as though Indian women would have been foolish not to jump at the opportunity.

But all was not as rosy as this picture suggests. And in the next instalment, I’ll explore some of the downsides of the indenture experience.


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

© Sonja Boon (sboon @ mun.ca),  2016



One thought on “on women, bodies, violence, economics and escape – part 2

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

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