Photo 2015-02-09, 2 25 45 PM

Baba and Mai statue, Paramaribo. Erected to commemorate the British Indian labourers who emigrated to Suriname between 1873 and 1916.

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

Was emigration a “colonial escape hatch” for women, as Emmer posits in his various articles on the topic? Or was it something else? Emmer’s conclusions, based on broad data sets and quantitative analysis, sound promising. And, to tell the truth, I’d love to see my great great grandmother’s decision to sign on to a five-year contract as an act of agency; that is, as a form of empowerment through which she positively determined the course of her own future. Migration, in this sense, could be a conscious strategy for change.

The problem with this, of course, is that the picture is much more complicated. Emmer, in a 1985 article, dismisses what he appears to view as the overly subjective nature of oral history. The words of indenturees (is this a term?) seems to hold much less weight than the statistical data he examines. And yet, it’s in the stories of individuals that we can get at some of the nuance of the indenture experience. Emmer’s data sets are invaluable in revealing large patterns, but they can’t get below the surface; they can’t reveal the nitty gritty of lived experience. And they certainly can’t get at what interests me most: what happened in the century that followed, and what remains for those of us who have inherited these histories.

But what am I to do with the tiny scraps of information that detail my great great grandmother’s experience? Do any of these details have meaning at all? Certainly, when I look at them, they feel distant. Random, almost. They make no sense, and I can’t even see how I am connected in any way to this story. I know she’s my great great grandmother, but her life – her journey – is so far removed that I can’t seem to make sense of it. Are we related at all? And what does ‘related’ mean? Does she belong to me? Do I belong to her? What is the nature of our relationship? Of what does our encounter, in the digital archives of the Nationaal Archief, consist?

Perhaps, it’s because our encounter is digital. Maybe that’s what makes it so hard to locate her. Because the 1874 records are too fragile to handle, I can’t ‘touch’ her the way that I would other historical subjects, whose stories are written on paper that I can hold in my hands. There’s a tactility to working in archives that’s missing here, in this virtual space. I realize, as I look at the even computer-generated letters on my 29-inch monitor, that over the years I have come to rely not only on “hard evidence” but also on the modes of production. It’s not just the text that matters. The handwriting tells stories. The paper itself – its texture, its size, its shape, its colour – tells stories. And so, too, do the ink, the wax seals, the ribbons, the labels. Even the folds in the paper can offer insights. I have come to rely on my tactile encounters with documents. This, I see now, is how I make the stories of those who lived before me real.

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 10.38.04 AM.png

The immigration record for my great great grandmother, who arrived from Calcutta on the Kate Kellock in January 1874. image source: http://proxy.handle.net/10648/7244d61e-c061-102d-a5b5-0050569c51dd


In Lausanne, during research for what became my second book, I found myself intrigued by the different wax seals and the way that these seals interacted with the letters I was reading (one correspondent’s seal became the header for my research blog). I considered, too, questions of class and economics as I compared expansive letters with sprawling handwriting spreading over countless pages to letters only a single page long, with tiny, cramped handwriting covering every bit of the paper. I felt the paper, considering the different weights, heaviness. I visited museums and walked the same streets the correspondents walked. All of this extra-textual material gave me insight into identity and bodily experience in eighteenth-century Europe.


Researching in Lausanne. The archival material I was working with was housed in the Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne, just a few minutes’ walk from the glorious shores of Lake Geneva.

My more recent work has been no different. The records of the Dutch Royal Treasury, housed at the Nationaal Archief in The Hague, detail the compensation packages for slave owners as a result of abolition (slave owners received 300 guilders per slave). Produced in the mid-nineteenth century, they offer a completely different experience. The paper is no longer linen-rich, but rather, pulpy and thin, and the corners crumble disconcertingly with every page that you turn, leaving hints of history on the pristine white tables of the reading room. The handwriting, too, is very different, spidery as it moves across smooth paper.


The first big file of compensation records. Algemeen Rekenkamer, Inv. nr. CB224, National Archief, The Hague.

Archival work, for me, is all about a visceral engagement with the documents; it is about touch and smell as much as it is about sight or sound or even, about thought. But here, in the digital archive, data is completely decontextualized, stripped of all the things that might give it meaning.

And so, I have struggled in this space, more than in any archival space I have worked. I have struggled to find meaning. But more importantly still, I have struggled to find connections, to make this story my own. It doesn’t seem possible that an individual life story can be reduced to a series of letters and numbers in a sans serif font on a computer screen. How can I find a life in any of this?

Even after all of my reading (and there’s more churning away, under the surface of this blog), my great great grandmother remains almost completely hidden. As far as I know, the colonial immigration registry is the only documentary evidence of her existence; she left no writings of her own and there are no photos. And so all I have left of her is some biostatistical data – her name, sex, age, height, birthplace, and skin colour – and annotations about her reproductive and conjugal history. To put it bluntly, this isn’t much from which to build a story. There is very little room to explore questions of identity, subjectivity, belonging. There’s not much, here, that can tell me about questions of agency and empowerment.

And perhaps, agency and empowerment are the wrong ways to go about it. Jane Parpart, who speaks from her experience in researching women and development argues persuasively that the conflation of empowerment with voice, agency, and choice misses the point, and further, that this undeniably Western feminist perspective can undermine alternative understandings of agency, the agency of silence, for example. “How do we understand women’s agency and empowerment in an increasingly dangerous and often sexist world,” she asks, “particularly given the widening gap between poor and rich, the rise in civilian casualties in conflict and post-conflict societies and the world-wide increase in crime, gender-based violence and health risks?” (17). Parpart’s observations are based on her research into contemporary conflict and post-conflict situations, but it’s worth considering how they might transpose onto post-Emancipation plantation societies. After all, if my reading has demonstrated anything, it is this: that indentured women, while benefitting in some measure from their scarcity, also suffered profoundly within the strictures of patriarchal social mores and expectations, and some paid with their lives. How, from this perspective, can I even begin to understand how questions of agency, voice, and empowerment played themselves out in this context? After all, as Parpart observes, in some instances survival is itself an indication of empowerment.

And so, as I consider my great great grandmother’s records, I need to accept that perhaps I want something that would have been impossible to realize. Perhaps agency isn’t about choice. Perhaps voice, as I want to understand it, isn’t an option. Perhaps empowerment is not even on the table. Perhaps survival is, itself, already a positive strategy.

But how can I even get at any of this with the small bits of evidence that remain? What stories can I ever hope to recover?

As Marlene Kadar has observed of the concentration camp lists, tattoos, and songs that document the “Devouring” of the Romany people, when there are no other stories at hand, such documents can – and must – stand in for a life. As she explains, “Romany survivors have not recorded their experiences of the Holocaust in the usual fashion – that is to say, in the more conventional autobiographical genres: the memoir, the testimony, or the autobiography. Thus we are lucky to find their stories in traces or fragments of autobiographical telling and retelling and, indeed, these traces must stand in for autobiographical genres if we are to recover the history of the Devouring” (223).

I have started to look in the cracks, in the spaces between. I’ve begun looking past the numbers, through her skin colour, between her pregnancies. I’ve read her story against that of others, reading her in light of other records, through photographs of the “coolie depot” and against the oral histories that remain. I’ve considered her story in relation to family narratives and I’ve placed this single document that marks her life within the broader context of secondary research about nineteenth-century British Indian emigration to the West Indies.

Slowly, I’ve begun creating a whole new list of questions.

  1. Why was she travelling alone, a single mother with a very young child? The colonial records reveal considerable concern about the morality of British Indian women emigrants. Was my great great grandmother a widow, the ideal single mother emigrant? Or was she an abandoned wife? Or was she a loose woman, a sex worker, perhaps, living on the margins of society? The problem, of course, is that common understandings of the time suggested that all unattached women were somehow suspect. I don’t know if I’ll ever figure this one out.
  2. How did she end up in a conjugal relationship with a Chinese man, who then formally acknowledged her two children (one born prior to her arrival in Suriname and the other born in Suriname on plantation. A third – also born on the plantation – died soon after birth), who then took his last name? All the studies I’ve read suggest that the British Indian community was quite insular when it came to conjugal relationships, and this is borne out in the colonial records as well. If single women entered into relationships after their arrival in Suriname, these relationships were more than likely with other British Indian labourers. Less likely, but still common enough to be noticed, were relationships between British Indian women and Creole men. But British Indian women and Chinese men? That’s not mentioned anywhere at all. Not a single time. Nowhere. Nada. So what happened? How did this happen? And on what basis?
  3. And building from the previous question: why didn’t she have any more children after her indenture period was over? She would have been 27 at the end of her contract, still within her prime reproductive years. And yet, there’s no record of her having any other children after that point. Other British Indian women had children after their contract periods ended. Some had several. But she didn’t. Why not? Was it just that they didn’t both to register them? This seems unlikely, because they did choose to register their relationship. Was it that the relationship itself wasn’t so much conjugal as convenient? Or had her health been compromised by her previous pregnancies and her plantation labour? This is a distinct possibility, given that she died in 1900, at the young age of 48.
  4. And that question leads to this one: Of what did the household traditions – in this space between India and China on the coast of South America – consist? According to family lore, my great grandfather – the man who arrived in Suriname from India at the age of two – was a gambler, a trait he learned from his Chinese father. The way the story was told, it’s like it was a form of genetic inheritance, even though no genes exchanged hands at all. But further, how did the household run? Was this run as a Hindu household, given that my great great grandmother was listed as Hindu? Or was it run as a Chinese household, given my great great grandfather’s heritage, or was it something else? I don’t know. My great grandfather later married a woman of East Indian heritage, but she wasn’t Hindu. She was Catholic, born in Suriname to a woman who came to the West Indies possibly via Martinique from the French enclave of Pondicherry. Another wrench in the story. How does this fit in?
  5. Then there’s this: Many researchers observe that after their indenture periods, the majority of British Indian labourers accepted small plots of lands and settled themselves as farmers, thus continuing – at a small scale – work similar to that which they’d done on the plantations. So how did my great great grandmother end up in the capital city, in a relationship with an apparently relatively wealthy watchmaker and goldsmith (another legacy he passed on to his adopted son) who also operated a department store? What was her life like in the capital city? What did this move mean for her children?

An advertisement for my great great grandfather’s business activities, as posted in the Nieuwe Surinaamsche Courant in March 1895. Source: delpher.nl

All of these questions mark points of rupture; that is, they are archival hints that diverge from the accepted broad research narratives. And here, in these spaces between the official stories, is most likely where I’ll find her story.

Slowly, my great great grandmother and her indenture experience are taking shape before me. She’s still shadowy, but I’ve got some possibilities to explore, some things to examine.



  1. Emmer, P.C. ‘De werving van kontraktarbeiders in India voor tewerkstelling in Suriname, 1872-1916.” OSO: Tijdschrift voor Surinamistiek. 4.2 (1985): 147-57. Print.
  2. Kadar, Marlene. “The Devouring: Traces of Roma in the Holocaust: No Tattoo, Sterilized Body, Gypsy Girl.” In Tracing the Autobiographical, eds. Marlene Kadar, Linda Warley, Jeanne Perreault, and Susanna Egan. 223-246. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2005.
  3. Parpart, Jane. “Choosing silence: Rethinking voice, agency and women’s empowerment.” In Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. Eds. Róisín Ryan-Flood and Rosalind Gill. 15-29. London and New York: Routledge, 2010.



  1. Nationaal Archief, “Suriname: Contractarbeiders uit India (Hindostanen), Contractnummer: C/37” Hindostaanse Immigranten in Suriname database. http://proxy.handle.net/10648/7244d61e-c061-102d-a5b5-0050569c51dd
  2. Delpher.nl
  3. Sonja Boon

© Sonja Boon (sboon @ mun.ca),  2016





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s