Book review: ‘Coolie Woman’


March 8 was declared International Women’s Day by the Socialist International in 1910. On this day, we can gain inspiration for the battles ahead through a look at the dramatic entrance of working women into history.

Socialists traditionally discuss the magnificent strike of 20,000 shirtwaist workers in New York City that was kicked off in 1909 by the daring decision of 23-year-old Clara Lemlich to defy the conservative and very male trade-union leadership and to declare that immigrant women would go on strike against sweatshop conditions. We also refer to the 1917 International Women’s Day march of women in Petrograd calling for “Bread and Peace!” Some 50,000 factory workers responded to that call, beginning the February Revolution that overthrew the Tsar.

We sometimes forget, however, just how many other stories of working women are yet to be told. This International Women’s Day, we can marvel at a less well-known story, culled from ship manifests, reports written by British labor recruiters and ships surgeons, from village folklore and family history, and from plantation books and police files. It is a new story for me, told in a new way, by Gaiutra Bahadur, about her great grandmother and thousands just like her, in “Coolie Woman:  The Odyssey of Indenture” (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

“Coolie,” a pejorative term that the British first took from the Tamil word for “wages,” was the word that the imperialists used to refer to low-wage, unskilled laborers from Asia that they recruited with varying levels of coercion to work colonial plantations or carry out other “menial” labor in their far-flung territories around the globe.

Bahadur’s great grandmother Sujaria, a high-caste woman from the village of Bhurahupur in the part of northern India called Bihar, boarded a ship called The Clyde in 1903 as an indentured contract worker and sailed to British Guiana, on the northern coast of South America. After the abolition of slavery, the British turned to a new kind of labor regime to keep the colonial profits rolling in. Indentured workers, who could theoretically work off their obligation and be released from their contract, definitely had it better than slaves, and abolitionist public feeling was appeased. Nonetheless, over one-fifth of indentured workers were brought up on criminal charges for not working hard enough or had their contracts lengthened arbitrarily; many died from the brutal conditions on the job.

The genius of Bahadur’s book lies in her decision to explore the special meaning of indentured servitude for Indian women and the way that women’s oppression, as lived in both British colonies, came together to provide a cheap labor force. The author naturally wondered why a Brahmin woman—most high-caste indentured servants turned out to be female rather than male—from a rural village would end up as a near-slave two oceans away.

There were famines and the disruptions of peasant life due to colonial policy, of course. Bahadur learned, however, that many of the women who ended up as indentured laborers were child brides fleeing punitive in-laws or widows deprived of their inheritance. Others were fleeing abusive men. Some, like Bahadur’s great grandmother, were pregnant and had no husband to list on a birth certificate.

Ironically, the lure of indentured servitude for vulnerable Indian women was perceived as so powerful that provincial Indian authorities kept trying to enact laws intended to keep married women from deserting their homes for the colonies.  British labor recruiters, on the other hand were eager to address the shortage of women in the colonies, where men greatly outnumbered women and where the absence of sufficient unpaid female labor in domestic settings led to difficulties for the planters. They fought such laws.

Bahadur combs the records to find hints of the motivations of particular women who ended up in Guyana, and snippets of many women’s lives come together in her text to paint a picture of a contradictory whole, in which some approached indentured servitude as victims and some as agents of their own partial liberation.

The conditions of the journey to South America were equally complex. Women were the victims of coerced sex with ships doctors and sailors and often sought protectors among the Indian male laborers onboard. But sometimes those fleeing bad marriages made new lasting ones on board ship before arriving at the plantations. Once at work, these same women were vulnerable to the planters and overseers, to colonial policy-induced racial tensions with the former African slave population, to a separate and lower wage scale, and to the realities of life in a place where there were 41 indentured women to every 100 indentured men. Plantation managers often simply “assigned” arriving women to the households of male workers, and women were often shared by a group of men.

But Bahadur’s investigations turned up an interesting twist.  She quotes a Guyanese archdeacon who was disturbed that women were so scarce in the colony that “they feel their power. They are also sure they can exchange one lord and master for another with the greatest ease.” Sadly, this freedom, too, could bring terrible pain because indentured male servants often directed their anger toward the women who had left them.

Bahadur devotes a chapter to the fury with which violence could be enacted upon these women who freely left old unions to pursue new ones. And, not surprisingly, rebellions by sugar-plantation workers were sparked by planters’ abuse of indentured women as often as they were by low wages and other poor working conditions.

By the time, a reader reaches the end of “Coolie Woman,” she has been privileged to explore the inner workings of British imperialism, the social impact of colonial polices on two continents, and the poignant yet powerful stories of numerous turn-of the century working women who, consciously or unconsciously, tried to fight their way out of the restrictions of capitalist patriarchy. All feminists and socialists should be sharing it with fellow activists.

Photo: An indentured worker of East Indian origin in Trinidad.

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