on women, bodies, violence, economics, and escape – part 3

(note: this is part 3 of a 4-part series of posts on the experiences of women indentured labourers. You can find part 1 and part 2 here)


The ruins of Marienburg plantation, Suriname. February 2015.

In my last post, I tried to lay out the benefits of indenture for women labourers from India, looking specifically at sexual freedom, economic growth, and social mobility. But there was also a cost to indenture. At a general level, emigration required all labourers to leave behind family support networks and, upon arrival, to navigate and negotiate sometimes challenging new social structures (Emmer 199, 111). Language, religion, culture, diet, race, behaviour… nothing could be taken for granted on the plantations. Women faced challenges specific to their gender.

While the scarcity of women did enable women more choice in sexual partners, it also brought physical violence – often born out of thwarted patriarchal expectations – to the fore. Even Emmer, while generally positive about the indenture experience, nevertheless concedes that there were problems. Recruiters “[stole] jewelry and money” (Emmer undated, n.p.), for example. Women were also subject to “rape and illegal detention” at the hands of recruiters (Emmer undated, n.p.) and later, as they embarked on their journeys, to sexual violence aboard ships (Laurence 99).

It’s worth recalling here that when the Kate Kellock, the ship that brought my great great grandmother to Suriname, docked at Ascension Island, the ship’s doctor was removed from the ship and sent back to the UK following what was described in a Dutch newspaper of the time as an “insurgency.” While we can’t know the full details behind the doctor’s removal, it is significant that he was removed, given that such ships were supposed to have a doctor on board. Was this a case of sexual assault like that on board the Hesperides in 1883 as detailed by Laurence (which featured crew members “interfering” with women passengers, numerous physical assaults of male passengers as well as the surgeon, and the criminal conviction of four seamen)? This we can’t know unless we have more information. What we do know, however, is that sexual assault was, in Laurence’s words, “a fairly common complaint” (99) aboard ships.

Domestic violence was also common on plantations (Bhagwanbali, Laurence, Look Lai). Men fought over women. Men abused and even murdered women out of jealousy and suspicion. In Bhagwanbali’s words:

Another social problem caused by the shortage [women] was the husband’s fear that his wife would ‘seduced’ by another man. Because of this tension, and a certain amount of jealousy, women were often accused of unfaithfulness. This sometimes led to horrific attacks on women. Mutilation and sometimes murder were the result. Usually the husband used an axe. Most injuries were to the head or limbs were chopped off. (112).

As Laurence confirms:

an estate wife in the later nineteenth century was an important symbol of status and of masculinity, extremely important to the husband’s self esteem as ell as to his standing in his own society. [A wife’s] departure for another man was a source of fundamental shame, a major blow to the husband’s pride, indicative of failure both to keep his wife in appropriate subjection according to the ancestral culture and to sustain his own self-respect. In these circumstances murder, and sometimes attempted suicide, was a means of expressing anger which seemed legitimate in a context in which no other alternative appeared (241-2).

Bhagwanbali reports the case of a woman named Jessoda, indentured at the Rust en Werk plantation, who was doused with petroleum and set on fire by her partner, who suspected her of adultery. Jessoda died one day after the attack.


Marienburg Plantation, Suriname. February 2015.

Indeed, the rates of domestic violence – what Look Lai euphemistically describes as “crimes of passion” (144) – were so high that “immigration ordinances had to legislate for the physical protection of women from spouse violence, as well as against the practice of seduction of immigrants’ wives” (Look Lai 144). As an aside, it’s worth noting that in Britain, the first domestic violence act only came into effect almost a century later, in 1976, while marital rape was criminalized only in 1991 (for a legislative timeline, click here). Further, while some women entered into potentially favourable conjugal relationships with planters, thus increasing their social and economic capital on the plantation, it’s not at all clear if those relationships were consensual. Look Lai refers obliquely to “Management exploitation of Indian women” (142), not in relation to how this affected women, but as a source of tension among men on the plantation. Other spouses, meanwhile, prostituted their wives for economic gain (Bhagwanbali 113).

The testimony of one former indentured labourer, Bechu, who appeared before the West Indian Royal Commission of 1897, is revealing in terms of the gendered and classed sexual politics of plantation life. Bechu “specifically spoke about the sexual immorality that was an integral part of the plantation environment, and of the difficulties some laborers faced in finding suitable and reliable wives, when women were being ‘kept’ with such frequency by authority figures on the estate” (qtd. in Look Lai, 142).

Social mobility, too, was double edged. While some women (and some men) benefitted from entering into conjugal relationships with partners of a higher caste, such relationships could be illusory. Formal Hindu marriage was forbidden in Suriname (until 1940!), and thus these relationships remained common-law. Further, such relationships could easily fracture upon return to India. Look Lai reports on two cases: in the first, a woman denied her relationship with her lower caste husband after arriving back home, and in another, a man abandoned his lower caste wife and children at a train station (126). Tinker, meanwhile, cites D.W.D. Comins, who observes: “One of their reasons for not returning to India is that they would be despised and mobbed in their native villages, or have to spend much money for re-admission to their caste” (209). Thus, while caste may have been undone (or at the very least, unsettled) in the context of West Indian plantation society, it was still actively in play for those who decided to return.


Marienburg Plantation, Suriname. February 2015.

The positive economic picture was also not all that it seemed. At a general level, Emmer (1999) observes that pre-determined contracts meant that workers could not negotiate the value of their labour; they just had to sign on the dotted line (111). But the situation was more challenging still. As Look Lai observes, while sugar plantations “depended on indentured labor… it was around the fortunes and vicissitudes of sugar that the fate of the Indian migrants revolved” (108). This meant that while labourers may have been paid well when the sugar market was strong, they were paid less well – and treated less favourably – when the market fared poorly.

By the time Indian labourers set foot on Surinamese shores, the Dutch West Indian sugar market was starting to suffer. De Resolutie, the plantation where my great great grandmother was indentured, was developed as a model, modern plantation in 1865, and was meant to become the “largest sugar plantation in Suriname” (Hoefte, 16). Just 21 years later, in 1886, it was sold, its housing, labourers, and state-of-the-art equipment sent on to the Marienburg plantation.

Nor were workers necessarily paid what they were promised. It was often much lower (and one eyewitness, whose story is included in Dimitri van Bersselaar et al.’s De komst van contract-arbeiders uit Azië: Hindoestanen et Javanen in Suriname, reports that some workers were paid only with food to eat), and according to Rosemarijn Hoefte, almost 28% of a two parent family’s income went purely to supporting food and clothing (qtd. in van Bersselaar et al.). Indeed, while Look Lai’s research reveals that Indian labourers returning from British West Indian colonies generally told positive stories of indenture, van Bersselaar et al. offer a different picture: when new labourers arrived on Surinamese shores, they heard from returning labourers that work was hard and life in India much better (van Bersselaar et al., 19).

Mortality rates among the first labourers to arrive in Suriname were high. Between 1873 and 1874, 17% of contracted labourers died, including 33% at the De Zoelen plantation alone (Tinker, 113; 259) leading to a short suspension in the indenture program. Further, while the agreement between the Dutch and the British stipulated that all workers were to be paid the same amount, Dutch planters balked, and established a two tier wage system whereby ‘weaker’ employees – women and the elderly – were paid less. Economic riches, then, reported by half a century of immigrants returning from West Indian contracts, were not necessarily possible for women labourers.

So, too, might we question Look Lai’s second indicator: the right to return. While Indian labourers had the right to free return, we might also consider the case of Javanese labourers, many of whom stayed in Suriname after waiting in vain for a ship that would return them to Java (Kopijn and Mingoen 14). Did Indian indentured labourers stay in Suriname by choice, or was that choice made for them? This question must also be considered through the lens of gender: Emmer observes that Indian women in domestic relationships with Indian men (either prior to indenture or during the course of the contract) likely had little say about whether they wanted to stay in Suriname or return: “Both legal and common law husbands could urge their wives to forego many of the options open to them in Suriname” (Emmer undated, n.p.).

So, in the end, was indenture a good option for Indian women? Did the apparent social, conjugal, and economic benefits outweigh the violence and economic inequality? Pieter Emmer, argues that it did, writing: “indentured emigration can be viewed as an – perhaps desperate – escape from hunger and starvation …. [and] can also be regarded as a vehicle of female emancipation.” (unpublished, n.p.). For Emmer, indenture – at least for women – should be seen as a “colonial escape hatch.”

I am less convinced. That said, I’d start by suggesting that at a general level, it’s really hard to say. Some women undoubtedly benefitted from the system, and were able to effectively parlay their bodies (as sexual favours) into social and economic security. Others, meanwhile, suffered greatly, and some paid with their lives. In either instance, however, indentured life would have been difficult for women, and navigating social relations in a complex plantation eco-system where most of the conventional rules of social engagement had been turned upside down, must have been an immense challenge.

In the next, and final, post of this series, I’ll turn inward, consider the inter-generational legacy of these histories.


Driving into Marienburg Plantation, Suriname. 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.

Mingoen, Hariëtte and Yvette Kopijn, Stille Passanten: Levensverhalen van Javaans-Surinaamse ouderen in Nederland. Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2008.

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.

Image credits: Sonja Boon

© Sonja Boon (sboon @ mun.ca),  2016



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