As revolts and abolitionist efforts gained traction in the nineteenth century, European powers turned to indentures as potential replacement plantation labor for enslaved peoples in Caribbean and other colonies. Indentures were expected to work and live in similar conditions as formerly enslaved peoples, and with the same restrictions of movement, but given low wages and the promise of either return fare or allotment of land upon completion of their contracts, which generally lasted between three and ten years. Through deceit, force or choice, hundreds of thousands of Indian and Chinese people were brought to the Caribbean between 1838 and 1917, with the largest numbers of Indian workers being transported to then British Guiana (approx. 250,000) and Trinidad and Tobago (approx. 150,000), where their descendants now comprise the largest population demographic. Thousands of indentures were also transported to and remained in Jamaica, Grenada, Suriname, Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Kitts, St. Vincent, St. Lucia and Grenada. Migration inside the region meant that many also migrated to other colonies; Belize was a main destination for former Jamaican indentures, for example. Cuba was the principal destination for Chinese workers (approx. 125,000). Notably, significant numbers of descendants of these workers migrated to the United Kingdom and North America starting in the 1950s.
Scholars, artists, writers, activists and others continue to wrestle with the under-documentation of the history of indentures as well as the legacy of this experience. Studies of indentureship consider how the system worked as a blueprint for contemporary forms of migrant labour (e.g. agricultural and domestic workers schemes), as a structural antecedent for contemporary forms of racialized politics, and in its as expressed in literature and art. Many of these contentions advocate more serious grappling with indentures’ experiences in dominant frameworks theorizing Caribbean culture and history, such as Khal Torabully’s Coolitude, which both embraces and works as a corrective addendum to Glissant’s creolité and Césaire’s négritude. Additionally, scholars and creatives also turn a critical eye to analysis of patriarchy, homophobia, and racism in diasporic indenture communities.
Curatorial Note: Poet Rajiv Mohabir – who translated the only known literary work by an indenture, I Even Regret Night: Holi Songs of Demerara – leads an elaborate “Coolitude Project” that explores the poetics of the Indian labor diaspora. Through a number of digital projects including interviews, essays and writing prompts, Mohabir engages with the cultural production of writers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers who descend from indentured laborers. “I chart the poetics of Coolitude, itself a queer cousin of Césaire’s, Senghor’s, and Damas’s Négritude,” he explains.
Curatorial Note: Visual Arts After Indenture is the first initiative to collect and consider the work of contemporary visual artists whom are descendants of indentured workers, and includes images of work as well as links to artists’ sites. The website also includes information about exhibitions, media and scholarship produced through the project, such as Wendy Nanan at the Art Museum of the Americas—the first one at the institution dedicated to a Caribbean woman—and a companion documentary video available on YouTube.
Curatorial Note: Best known for her groundbreaking feminist scholarship, Patricia Mohammed has also produced several creative works, including this experimental video which tells the story of a young Indo-Trinidadian girl who negotiates various cultural demands from familial and social institutions around her. The video centers questions about creolization, nationalism, and diasporic nostalgia.
Title: “Coolie Woman Rescues Indentured Women From Anonymity”
Creator: NPR Staff
Curatorial Note: In this interview with NPR, Coolie Woman author Gaiutra Bahadur describes her attempt to trace and imagine the history and journey of her indentured great grandmother Sujaria, an indentured worker brought to Guyana in the nineteenth century. The author also explains the meaning and the uses of the word “coolie,” a pejorative name given to indentures that has been reinterpreted by some.
Curatorial Note: This Instagram account is “a project honouring women of Indentured heritage throughout history.” The three hosts present a curated selection of images and texts through the account as well as more extensive supporting information on the webpage listed for the account.
Title: Ameena Gafoor Institute for the Study of Indentureship and Its Legacies
Editors: Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, Tao Leigh Goffe, and Amar Wahab
Steward: Pluto Educational Trust
Curatorial Note: The very recently established Ameena Gafoor Institute is positioning itself as the main hub for all things related to indentureship. Led by poet-scholar David Dabydeen, the institute is supported by funds from the Gafoor family and is named for the founding publisher and editor of The Art Journal, herself a descendant of indentured workers. The institute is also home to the Journal of Indentureship Studies whose first issue will debut in July 2021.
Image Credit: Cutlass, courtesy of Andil Gosine (2011)
Andil Gosine is Professor of Environmental Arts and Justice at York University, Toronto, and author of Nature’s Wild: Love, Sex and Law in the Caribbean (Duke, Fall 2021). His current curatorial projects include Wendy Nanan at the Art Museum of the Americas in Washington DC and everything slackens in a wreck- at the Ford Foundation Gallery in New York.