colonial thinking

My apologies for the slight delay in the Unintended Reader post this week … it’s been a busy time, but the thinking has still been happening, if in a slightly more piecemeal fashion.

I’ve returned to some documents I accessed at the Dutch National Archives just last month….

Documents of the Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij, which purchased and ran a few plantations in the late nineteenth century (notably Mariënburg, but also, for a short while, de Resolutie, where one of my ancestors worked), include the reports and notices for a relatively short-lived employment immigration venture, a share-based company that sought to import Chinese “coolies” to Suriname to work the cane fields.

From the “Prospectus eener op te rigten Surinaamsche Immigratie-Maatschappij,” a proposal for a shareholder-based “Surinamese Immigration Society” (Dutch original, followed by translation):

“Ieder weet, dat de slavernij in de kolonie Suriname sedert twee jaren is afgeschaft, en dat de negers thans op werkcontracten, gelijk zij door de wet verpligt zijn, tegen loon op de plantages arbeiden; maar ieder weet niet, welke van dat stelsel de uitkomsten zijn; soms leest men in de dagbladen dat de emancipatie de schoonste vruchten heeft gedragen en dat de kolonie in vollen bloei is; dan weder, dat de productie schrikbaren vermindert en de kolonie snel achteruitgaat. De waarheid is, dat zóóver de emancipatie niet is mislukt, dat desertie der negers, ja moord en doodslag, ‘t welk sommigen als gevolg van dien maatregel voorspiegelden, niet hebben plaats gevonden en zelfs de negers meerendeels aan het werk zijn gebleven, hetgeen overtreft wat men bij zulke onbeschaafde lieden na het bekomen der vrijheid verwachten kon; maar het is even waar dat hun werk is ongeregeld, onvoldoende, niet toereiken voor eene normale productie; dat zij zwaardere werk, de suikercultuur, langzamerhand verlaten (en deze is en moet toch de hoofdcultuur der kolonie zijn) om zich bij voorkeur te verhuren op de planterijen van bijproducten.”

“Everyone knows that slavery in the colony of Suriname was abolished two years ago, and that the Negroes now on work under contract for paid wages, as they are bound by law; but one does not know what the outcome of that system is; sometimes one reads in the newspapers that emancipation has borne the finest fruits and the colony is in full bloom; then again, that production has decreased at a shocking rate and the colony is rapidly deteriorating. The truth is that to the extent that emancipation has not failed, that the desertion of the blacks, and yes, even murder, which some foresaw as the outcome of this process, have not taken place and that the Negroes have, for the most part, even remained at work, which surpasses what one might have expected from such uncivilized people after the acquisition of liberty; but it is equally true that their work is irregular, inadequate, and insufficient to sustain normal production; that they are gradually abandoning heavy work and the sugar industry (and this is – and should be – the main culture of the colony) in order to hire themselves out to work with the by-products.”

Clearly, according to the directors of this organization, something needed to be done. After all, the whole purpose of the colony was to produce sugar, and the labour on sugar cane plantations was hard labour, much harder than that of coffee or cotton plantations.

The hand-written annual report, delivered at the Society’s 27 December 1867 meeting, indicates that the organization was having some problems meeting the requisite gender-based quota system. The government had imposed a requirement that women had to make up ¼ of each shipload of labourers. But this was difficult; Chinese women, they discovered, were not particularly predisposed to leaving their country, with the result that this regulation “has seriously constrained the society’s operations from the beginning, and resulted in significant disadvantages.”

In other words, they were losing money.

Not that they were against such a ruling, the directors hastened to add; they were aware that successful colonization “naturally required a certain proportion of women.”

Not a problem, the Suriname Immigration Society said, and they proposed a practical solution to the government:

“Op deze gronden, en ook vooral daarom, dat in Suriname thans de vrouwelijke bevolking veel grooter dan de mannelijke is, en dat het sluiten van huwelijken tusschen Chinezen en negerinnen geen bezwaar schijnt te ontmoeten hebben wij aan de Regering de intrekking van deze imperative bepaling voorgesteld en zulks ook verkregen.”

“On these grounds, and in particular, because, the female population in Suriname is now much larger than the male, and that the conducting of marriages between Chinese [men] and Negresses does not appear to have met with any objections we have proposed to the government the repeal of this provision, and have also obtained it. “

The sheer callousness of colonial business thinking never ceases to surprise me.

Want to see more photos of Mariënburg? The Surinaams Museum has posted a number here, here, here, here, and here)



Nationaal Archief, Nederlands Handel-Maatschappij, 1824-1964, Archiefinventaris 2.20.01, Inv. Nr. 12887.


© Sonja Boon sboon @




Something happened aboard the Kate Kellock in late 1873. But what?

I started my explorations with a short news article in the 15 February 1874 edition of the Algemeen Handelsblad ( about a disturbance aboard the Kate Kellock in late 1873. Now, a few months later, I’ve found myself down a rabbit hole of my own making….

There are at least four accounts of unrest aboard the Kate Kellock in December 1873. One from the ship’s Master, George H. A. Bevan, as written in the Ship’s Log currently housed in the UK National Archives. One from Edmund Fremantle, a Royal Navy officer called upon to convene an inquiry, as published in his memoirs. One from Dr. Bepin Behari Dutt, the Surgeon Superintendent aboard the ship, as articulated in documents held in the National Archives of India and cited by Anil Persaud. And one included in the Dutch colonial archives, as referenced by Rajinder Bhagwanbali.

Four accounts. Some overlap. But still, several distinct stories:

The Surgeon Superintendent incited the emigrants to mutiny by “telling them that [the Master] had no power or command over them” (Bevan)

The emigrants believed that “their throats would be cut and that they would be thrown overboard” once they arrived in Suriname (Fremantle; also in Bevan)

The Third Officer, one John Evans, seduced two women emigrants (“Bnef van de gouverneur van Suriname aan de minister van koloniën,” Dutch National Archives, referenced in Bhagwanbali)

Crew members “were pelting [emigrants] with bones” on Christmas Eve (“Conduct of Dr. Bepin Behari Dutt, Surgeon Superintendent of the ship “Kate Kellock,” bound with emigrants from Calcutta to Surinam,” National Archives of India, quoted in Persaud)

The Surgeon Superintendent misappropriated ship stores, causing drunkenness among crew and emigrants (Bevan).

But which story is true?
Will we ever know?
Do ‘the facts’ actually matter?

Or is this range of stories more interesting for what it might reveal about the complexity of colonial encounters in the intimate spaces of emigrant ships?

In the end, the Surgeon Superintendent, Bepin Behari Dutt, an Edinburgh-trained doctor born in Calcutta, was expelled from the ship and sent back to the UK, and from that point on, all Surgeon Superintendents travelling on emigrant ships were to be European.

Today, over 140 years later, only the avalanche of paperwork – now housed in archives in three different countries – remains.


Works Cited

Bevan, George H.A. “Official Log Book #1” Catalogue Reference: BT 99/1016
National Archives, UK.

Bhagwanbali, Rajinder. “Contracten voor Suriname: Arbeidsmigratie vanuit Brits Indië onder het indentured-labour stelsel, 1873-1916,” PhD thesis. Katholieke Universiteit Nijmegen, 1996.

Fremantle, Edmund. The Navy As I Have Known It, 1849-1899. London: Cassell & Co., 1904.

Klerk, C.J.M de. De Immigratie der Hindostanen in Suriname by C.J.M de Klerk, Amsterdam: Urbi et ORbi, 1953.

Persaud, Anil. “The problem of origin: the politics of indigeneity in post- 1830′ British Guiana.” PhD thesis. Jawaharlal Nehru University, 2007.



© Sonja Boon, 2016
sboon @


birth on board

birth on board

It was Christmas on Tuesday.

Well, not really, but it felt like it because of an email I received: 85 pages of scanned materials from the UK National Archives, all relating to the 1873-4 voyage of the Kate Kellock, a journey of 11 months from Liverpool to Calcutta to Suriname to New York and then back to Liverpool. I’ve already been working with the Dutch colonial immigration records relating to this voyage, tracing the stories of those who sailed on this ship on their way to take up indenture contracts in Suriname (see, for example, here, here, here, and here). I’ve read through the records of the Kate Kellock housed here in St. John’s, at the Maritime History Archive. I’ve also tracked the Kate Kellock in newspaper records in The Netherlands and Australia.

But this is different. This is the ship that two of my ancestors sailed on. And these records – the Log Book and Crew Agreement – can give me insight into the nature of the journey itself. This is my chance to see what happened on board; to consider the ecology of the ship.

I’ve only barely had a chance to look at them (buried as I am in grading and meetings), but here’s one tidbit that I discovered…


From reading the colonial immigration records, I had already been struck by the number of births aboard the ship. I’d wondered about what it was like to travel while heavily pregnant, and then, to labour and deliver on a ship, far from home; indeed, in many instances, far from land. I had wondered what this might have been like: Who attended these births? Where did they take place? Was the ship’s doctor involved? Were other women indenturees present? What kinds of rituals accompanied such deliveries? And how might those involved have imagined the newborn’s connection to place and space, given that they were likely very far from land? I’d also considered a question put to me by a graduate student at a recent colloquium – how would time itself have been experienced and imagined aboard the ship?

The Agreement and Account of Crew required the Ship’s Master to enter the following information into the Birth Record: Date of Birth, Name of Child, Sex, Christian and Surname of Father, Name and Maiden Surname of Mother, and Profession or Occupation of Father. These categories are themselves interesting in terms of what they reveal about British understandings of family and respectability at the time, but these aren’t yet the focus of my thoughts…rather, right now I’m interested in the babies themselves.

Seven babies were born during the 11 month voyage of the Kate Kellock, six girls and one boy. Of these, six – all girls – were born to British Indian indenturees between October 1873 and January 1874. Two died very soon after birth: one was premature and the other is listed as dying of starvation.

But what of that final baby – a boy – the one born to someone other than an indenturee? Who gave birth to this child? And what happened to him?

This final child, name “None Yet Given,” was the son of the ship’s master, George H. A. Bevan, delivered by his wife on February 7, 1874.


I knew that wives sometimes travelled with their husbands; after all the 1878 wreck report for the Kate Kellock makes specific mention of the Master – Charles Ricker – and his wife, both of whom were praying below deck as things went awry. It also mentions the Master’s child. But none of the other records of the Kate Kellock that I have accessed make any mention of women other than the “emigrants” or “coolies.” Would Bevan’s wife have been mentioned at all if she hadn’t given birth?

More to explore… I just need to get the grading and meetings out of the way…


© Sonja Boon (sboon @,  2016


Playing in the Archives

I spent much of Friday in the archives, one of my favourite places to hang out. And really, who wouldn’t want to hang out at the archives: it’s quiet, there’s lots of old, yellowed paper, and your “interviewees” are unfailingly polite and don’t talk back. Add onto that interested and helpful staff members and giddy fellow archive dwellers, and it’s pretty much an ideal place to be.

And so, early on Friday morning, after dropping off kid #2 at school and picking up a hold at the library, I wandered over to the archival collection that is closest to my office: the Maritime History Archive. The MHA is buried in the bottom floor of the Henrietta Harvey Building and finding it involves walking into a veritable warren of offices and hallways. The basement location worried me at first, but it needn’t have. It’s perhaps more accurately a ground floor, for the room boasts large windows and lots of natural light.

I’d prepared online for my visit, so I knew exactly what I wanted to explore: some of the records of C.W. Kellock & Co., the large ship-brokering company that also owned the Kate Kellock, and the Kate Kellock’s crew agreements and log books (as an aside: the MHA has kilometers of this stuff – and I’m not joking – read this, from the MHA’s own website: “The Maritime History Archive holds approximately 75 percent of the surviving crew lists … and official log books of British registered vessels for the periods 1857-1942 … and 1951-1976”)

This is material that I’m not nearly as used to working with; my previous research has focused much more on what might be termed ‘intimate’ correspondence (although I’m not fully happy with that term, either). Basically, I’ve spent my days reading letters between individuals. I haven’t worked with sales contracts or to any large extent, with crew agreements and ships’ logs. And so the first few hours were really about acquainting myself with a new terrain, new stories, new language, new ideas. It was also about finding my researcher self in this space, and figuring out which stories I was reading resonated, and why, and also, which stories didn’t, and why not.

You’d think that after twenty-plus years of working in archives, things would come naturally by now, but this isn’t the case. You and your materials need to get to know one another, to tame one another, as the fox says in St. Exupéry’s Le petit prince. It’s a process of learning languages (not as simple as French or English, but rather, listening for the idiosyncrasies in language, how stories are told, what words are used, and what words are not present at all), listening to voices, figuring out where to find the stories that matter most. There are false starts, wrong turns. You order the wrong materials, ask the wrong questions, make incorrect assumptions. But slowly, you find your way in.

In any case, here are a few of the interesting things I learned on Friday. Right now they don’t have a lot of meaning; they’re just tidbits, teasers. And maybe they’ll never amount to anything. But they were important enough to hang onto and we’ll see where they go from here.

First: I’m not a fan of ship brokerage records. This one should have been obvious from the outset, but I wasn’t sure what I would find in the brokerage records, and it seemed important enough to figure out how C.W. Kellock & Co. operated. What I did learn was this: the brokerage records also trace ship acquisitions in North America: I saw agreements for ships in Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and even Quebec. I also saw agreements for transatlantic purchases. And I learned that buyers were , at least in the 1850s, classified according to occupation and class: mariner, shipbuilder, farmer, merchant, banker, esequire and gentleman. All of this gave me a bit of insight into nineteenth-century ship sales.

But it also quickly became clear that if I ever had any pretensions to business history, those pretensions were dashed. Fortunately I’ve never had such pretensions. Equally fortunately, I’ve discovered that I’m a huge fan of Crew Agreements and Ships’ Logs.

Second – Grog: Grog meant the same in nineteenth century seafaring parlance as it does to contemporary Australians and New Zealanders. My Aussie and Kiwi friends all refer to alcoholic drinks as grog. They’re the only ones I know who use this term and I was, therefore, taken by surprise when I saw the word written with a flourish on a Crew Agreement. “No grog allowed.”

The Oxford English Dictionary Online came to the rescue. Grog, it confirmed, is “a drink consisting of spirits (originally rum) and water” They further observe that “seven-water grog” (a term that did not appear in the records, in case you were wondering) was “a contemptuous name among sailors for very weak grog.” Interesting to me in OED Online entries are the examples they give to illustrate the words. Consider this: a 1770 edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine lists “groggy” as a word for having imbibed too much alcohol, and attributes this to the West Indies.

You learn something new every day.

Given that my preliminary perusal of the Kate Kellock’s 1872-3 Ship’s Log includes reports of one William Petty who was regularly intoxicated and unable to work, as well as of other seamen who left the ship without permission to sample the tastes and flavours of New Orleans, perhaps this “dry” policy was warranted. [as an aside, I have not entirely forgiven the OED’s staff for their remarkably tone deaf initial response to reader reports about the sexism that permeates several of their entries, but that is a story for another day]

Third, seamen came from all over. This shouldn’t have been a surprise; after all, my perusal of Dutch eighteenth-century slaving ship logs revealed that ship personnel came from across Europe (you can virtually follow one Dutch slave ship on its journey here). And so I wasn’t too terribly surprised to find a Danish ship master and Norwegian, German, and Finnish crew members on the 1875-6 voyage.

What did surprise me, however, was the diversity of crew members on board the Kate Kellock’s 1872-3 voyage. This was, in some respects, a strange trip: one crew member was charged, convicted, and then jailed in Calcutta for “causing hurt” to a fellow seaman while three others – including the cook – died of cholera-like symptoms. Two further crew members were left behind in Calcutta due to illness (it’s unclear if these were the other two who died). While the ship may have been able to function with a few less crew members, the desertion of sixteen crew members sometime during their later stop in New Orleans would have been a much bigger blow.

And so the master, G.H.A. Bevan, had to bring more crew members aboard. And what a crew this ship then boasted: in addition to English seamen, there were seamen from Antigua, Germany, Tobago, Bermuda, Jersey, France, The Netherlands, Scotland, Trinidad, St. Vincent, Barbados, Mauritius, Dominica, Norway, Ireland and three different Canadian provinces: Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. For me, the strangest entry is that of a young man from landlocked Ohio. Where would he have picked up the seafaring skills necessary to take a position on board the Kate Kellock?

Fourth: The Kate Kellock ventured far and wide. While its official destination, in both Agreements that I examined, was Calcutta, the contract allowed for a much broader interpretation. Consider this, from the opening of the 1875-6 Agreement and Account of Crew: “Liverpool to Calcutta + any ports + places in the Indian, Pacific + Atlantic Oceans, China + Eastern Seas, thence to a port for orders + the continent of Europe if required, + back to a final port of discharge in the United Kingdom. Term not to exceed three years.” That covers most of the globe, basically. What might such a journey have been like, especially for the youngest seafarers, for whom this might have been their first voyage?

Fifth: There were tensions between the seamen and the emigrating labourers. Again, this is not new; I already read about this in secondary sources, but it’s interesting to read the accounts of trouble from the perspective of the ship’s master.

What’s more interesting even than this is getting glimpses into life aboard the ships: I learned, for example, that one man complained – in English – that a crew member had struck his wife. The violence I expected (sadly). The language I didn’t. After all, many emigrants came from remote regions distant from Calcutta and many had backgrounds as agricultural workers in their home districts; given this, I wouldn’t necessarily have expected them to speak English. But this particular man did, and he enlisted the support of the ship’s doctor in his cause.

And further, this particular incident led to the master cautioning his crew “against meddling in any way with the Emigrants, more especially handling them; as this, although possibly in some instances, meant in kindness may be misconstrued, and received as unkindness, made a subject of complaint, and renders [seamen] liable to punishment.” Am I wrong to read a warning in this text? He’s worded it carefully, but he has also made it clear that “meddling” of any sort is wrong. Small comfort, however, to those who found themselves assaulted or otherwise “meddled with” by the ship’s crew. The other tidbit to emerge from this particular incident: the labourers spent a reasonable amount of time on deck during the journeys and were not confined below decks.

Sixth: The ship itself was a death trap of pestilence. Deaths, particularly among the emigrants, occurred during every journey. But the mortality rate was particularly high during the 1872-3 journey from Calcutta to Demerara, so high, in fact, that it occasioned an investigation. Of the 411 passengers on board, 47 died on the journey, of whom 33 were children under the age of ten. Again, this is not new, but it is certainly made much more visceral when reading the archival materials.

The Ship’s Log and Agreement and Account of Crew detail these deaths, which began within a week of the vessel’s departure from Calcutta on 4 August 1872 and averaged about 1 per day over the first forty days of the journey. Almost all those who died suffered from cholera or cholera-like symptoms, including fevers and diarrhea. “[I]t seems very clear,” concluded a report into the high mortality rates on three vessels – including the Kate Kellock – transporting labourers to the West Indies, “that when a sailing vessel crowed with emigrants is sent off in the teeth of the monsoon, the infants and the children die in a horrible manner in the Bay of Bengal” (Colonial Emigration, 19th-20th Century: Proceedings, 1870-1873. Volume 5)

And finally, if it isn’t abundantly clear yet, while I am not a fan of ship brokerage records, I have discovered that I am a fan of ships’ logs and Crew Agreements. Fortunately, there are seven more housed here at the Maritime History Archive, and one more at the National Archives in the UK. There may even be one more beyond that. Together, they can give me a much better picture of life aboard a “coolie ship.”

Lots more things to uncover and to explore. And more visits to the archives. Of course.



“Agreement and Account of Crew,” Kate Kellock, 1876. J.C. Krogh, Master. Maritime History Archive. Memorial University.

“Agreement and Account of Crew,” Kate Kellock, 1873. G.H.A. Bevan, Master. Maritime History Archive. Memorial University.

“grog, n.”. OED Online. March 2016. Oxford University Press. (accessed March 12, 2016).

Kellock Papers, Maritime History Archive, Memorial University

“Official Log Book No. 1,” Kate Kellock, 1873. G.H.A. Bevan, Master. Maritime History Archive. Memorial University.

“Official Log Book No. 4,” Kate Kellock, 1873. G.H.A. Bevan, Master. Maritime History Archive. Memorial University

Sarup, Leela Gujahadur, ed.Colonial Emigration 19th-20th Century: Proceedings 1870-1873. Vol. 5. Kolkata: Aldrich International, 2010.


© Sonja Boon (sboon @,  2016


In the eye of the beholder

Photographs tell stories, not only of the subjects captured in the camera’s lens, but also, of the photographers whose eyes chose the scene. There’s nothing new about this, really. Why then, is it still surprising when different collections of images purporting to tell the same story, offer such different perspectives?

A new post on NPR’s Code Switch explores three different approaches to Japanese internment as seen through the photos of Dorothea Lange (whose photos were seized by the government), Ansel Adams, and Japanese-American internee, Toyo Miyatake, who smuggled in a camera and took secret photos at dawn and at dusk, before becoming the camp’s official photographer.

Each photographer approached the subject of Japanese internment differently, each approach shaped not only by history, background and politics, but also by proximity to the subject at hand.

As I look at these photos, I wonder at the eyes behind the photos of indentured labourers at the “Coelie Depot” or on plantations or just sitting, eating, smiling, laughing, and walking in the capital city of Paramaribo. Who were the photographers? What stories did they see in front of them? How did they choose to tell them through their camera lenses? How might knowing more about them help me to understand the photographs they took?

You can read – and see – more about the internment photos here.




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:


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:

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.
  3. Sonja Boon

© Sonja Boon (sboon @,  2016




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 @,  2016