The dream of return

Our own past was, like our idea of India, a dream.

V.S. Naipaul,

Finding the Center

From the beginning, there was a dream of return. In 1838, the year that Indians first arrived in the West Indies, a third of the coolies on Plantation Belle Vue escaped by night. Twenty-two ran. They crossed the broad, silty, shark-filled Demerara by boat and wandered in the woods on the other side, searching for a way back to India. Eventually they were found in a solitary stretch of cane, hungry and exhausted. That year, two escapees from another plantation in Guiana died in the same pursuit. Their corpses were recovered in a swampy wasteland thirty miles away.

Nonetheless, the quest would continue, ill-fated, into the next century. Parties of coolies would occasionally disappear into the wilderness, thinking they could cut an overland path from South America to South Asia. Those disoriented enough to believe they could walk back to India were usually recent immigrants, exploited by unscrupulous old hands such as Lal Singh, who presented himself as guide to successive groups of newcomers in 1884. He told them that after a few days trek in the forest, they would arrive at a mountain. On the other side, he claimed, was a road leading to Calcutta. He promised to escort them for a fee, but abandoned them en route and disappeared with their money. Over the decades, many were similarly misled. As late as 1900, half-starved, nearly naked apparitions were discovered hiding behind tall weeds, trudging through irrigation trenches, camped out under banana trees, looking desperately for home. Most ultimately limped back to their plantations—or were hunted down and brought back. But a few died searching, martyrs to the idea of home.

A family at Plantation Leonara, in the early 1900s, British Guiana. Photo courtesy: Jung Bahdur Collection, Rajkumari Cultural Center, New York
A family at Plantation Leonara, in the early 1900s, British Guiana. Photo courtesy: Jung Bahdur Collection, Rajkumari Cultural Center, New York

But return wasn’t just a story that gave their lives hope. It was a promise, made in writing. The first indenture contracts guaranteed a free return passage to India after five years of work. The terms of that promise would change over the decades, as the colonies wavered between a policy of continually importing temporary laborers and one of settling permanent workers who would in time, even with scarce wombs, literally reproduce themselves. The planters could not decide whether they wanted their coolies to return to India, to be replaced by new bond slaves—or stay on unfettered, to be eventually replaced by their children. By and large, sugar estate owners veered towards whichever option seemed cheaper at the moment. Their commitment fluctuated, depending on the price for cane in global markets; the size of subsidies to rival European beet sugar; the expense of shipping coolies across the oceans; and the higher wages and better working conditions that free, experienced workers demanded.

From the start, the promise seemed capricious. The mistreatment of the first indentured laborers had been widely publicized in England, as concrete proof of slavery’s revival in all but name. There had been floggings, a child raped, a woman seduced by an overseer—and a 25 percent death rate. It was thus crucial that the planters be seen to fulfill the final part of their bargain. The British Colonial Secretary instructed Guiana Governor Henry Light to attend to it himself. In November 1842, two months before the contracts of the coolies were set to expire, Light travelled by steamer to remote Anna Regina Plantation. He assured the Indians there that they would be shipped home if they wanted to be; but if they didn’t seize the chance at that moment, they would forfeit it forever. Light got the response he expected: a single-minded determination to return to India. He gave them six hours to reconsider, but none wavered.

Faced with losing his entire workforce, the plantation manager offered to send them home whenever they wished, should they stay. This tempted three or four, including a woman Light described as “the wife or mistress of one of the chief or influential coolies, [who] had played him false and abandoned him," along with her partner in infidelity. Light speculated that this couple had reason to fear three months in a ship’s belly with her ex. Still, by December, all forty-nine Indians—no matter the intrigues or divisions among them—had agreed to return together.

Coolie Woman—The Odyssey of Indenture: Hachette India, 312 pages, Rs 599
Coolie Woman—The Odyssey of Indenture: Hachette India, 312 pages, Rs 599

The sheriff was prophetic. By the end of January, no ships for India were anywhere in sight, and the coolies struck. Their contracts had expired by then, so they were under no legal obligation to work. Plantation Belle Vue refused to feed them unless they worked. Meanwhile, the legislature warned the planters that they could be prosecuted for breach of contract. Several deputations of coolies, some from the far countryside, called on Governor Light at his house. They pleaded for his intervention. A few from Anna Regina delivered an affidavit to the man who, just two months earlier, had personally assured them of their return to India. Ten men marked X next to their names on the sworn statement, which read: “We want to go back to our own country. Our matties all want to go. They tell us to say so.…We don’t want to wait. We want to be sent immediately to our country, according to our agreement when we left home." As a group, the coolies on Anna Regina refused their rations of rice and saltfish. They stopped eating for days. Then, when they could refuse no longer, they insisted on paying for food. Clearly, they feared that accepting rations would leave them in debt and further indentured to the planters.

Governor Light wrote to London:

The one fixed idea ‘home’ made them wretched at the delay, suspicious of their employer, and for the time unwilling to receive any food. They attribute to me the authority of their own native chiefs: ‘There were ships enough in the river; why did I not take one of them and send them back?’ It is difficult to reason with these simple people, and still more difficult to persuade them they will not be deceived.

He expressed surprise that the planters, despite knowing that most of the workers had been separated from their wives and families, persisted in “the delusion [that] the coolies [wanted] to remain in this country."

That mad hope by planters lasted throughout the period of indenture. By the end of the nineteenth century, a consensus had emerged against sending coolies back. In 1869, colonial governments across the West Indies offered ten acres in exchange for the free trip home. Some offered a choice of money, land or some combination of both to those who gave up the passage to India. Later, incentives to stay were withdrawn and obstacles to going erected. Coolies were required to pay for part of their return—and to stay in the colony at least ten years before they were even eligible to be sent home. By 1898, ex-indentured men in Guiana had to pay for half their tickets home, and women, one-third. The reluctance and shifting strategies of planters notwithstanding, coolies still possessed a right to return, guaranteed by contract. It was a right that, at least in Guiana, never expired.

So it was that 112 years after the first indentured workers to arrive in the West Indies sailed home, their affidavit and hunger strikes securing for them a return four months later than promised, about 250 ex-coolies and their children climbed aboard a ship in the Demerara River, headed for a landscape they either hadn’t seen in four or more decades or had never seen. For the mostly elderly passengers aboard the MV Resurgent, memory had remade India, fading details of its map but also intensifying the color of its contours. Their children, also eligible for a subsidized trip, knew India only from the Hindi films screened at Guiana’s cinemas—kaleidoscopes of song and sunlight. For both cohorts, India was idea more than physical reality. It was 1955. Indenture was long over. But the first, provisional attempt at self-rule by the colonized in Guiana had been torpedoed two years earlier, when Winston Churchill sent in warships to suspend a government elected and led by the descendants of the enslaved and the indentured. India, by contrast, had ousted its colonizer. Borders had been invented, the lines drawn with blood. Conjoined twins had been separated, the scars of surgery still visible. But India was new and alive, and its twin Pakistan was too. Both were independent nations, not yet a decade old. This all shaped the idea that India had become to the repatriates: it represented freedom.

Excerpted with permission from Hachette India. Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture released on Friday.

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