Asian indentured servitude in Atlantic History: finally some recognition


Last week, I received an email from someone working for Oxford University Press asking if I would be interested in contributing to Oxford Bibliographies, an innovative online research tool, on “Asian indentured servitude” in Atlantic history. Each Oxford Bibliographies article provides a skeleton for research that guides readers through the most essential sources on a given topic.

I was moved by this invitation not so much that I was chosen but rather that the Asian indentured experience in Atlantic history has finally “made it” to a top publishing press.

For the interested, Atlantic history was developed in the 1980s to connect the history of the Atlantic Ocean, namely Europe, the Americas, and Africa during the nineteenth and twentieth century. The rationale for Atlantic history has been that the above regions can be studied as one system through common exchanges and interconnections rather than separate entities.

In spite of criticism such as imperial history under another name, Atlantic history has made an enormous impact on how the events (imperialism, colonialism, slavery, etc) in the early modern period have been studied.

However that may be, a cursory reading of Atlantic history has revealed marginalisation of the Asian indentured experience, Chinese included, which seems to be on the periphery, relegated and restricted to footnotes. Such a marginalisation of this history in Atlantic studies is rather unfortunate.

To contextualise, an estimated 500,000 Indians were brought to the Caribbean following slave emancipation in 1838. Over 350,000 of them settled in the Caribbean while 175,000 went back home when their contracts expired. Another 50,000 to 60,000 returned to the Caribbean for the second time. In all, about 750,000 crossed the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. An estimated 50,000 died on the Kala Pani (sea voyage) while about 75,000 died on the plantations.

Today, Indians are the slim majority population in Guyana, Trinidad and Suriname. They comprise about 20 per cent of the English-speaking Caribbean.

One would think that the marginalisation of this aspect of Atlantic history would be unsettling to the developers and ambassadors of this field and file of study, not to mention the direct descendants who are clamouring for a political space in a predominately Euro-Afro southern Caribbean.

Why the Indian indentured experience has been marginalised in Atlantic history is a matter of speculation. What has happened is that writers have been too focused on revising and rewriting this history that they have become insular, and in particular where the southern Caribbean is concerned, Afro-centric.

Whatever might have been the reason for the marginalisation of the Indian indentured experience, there appears now a unique opportunity for writers from all ethnic backgrounds to take up the challenge and contribute.

In some ways, this has already started but not necessarily in a desired direction. Gaiutra Bahadur’s book >>>Coolie woman<<< comes effortlessly to mind. I understand that an Indian female presenter at the Jubilee conference (June 2016) in New York cited this book regularly.

Unfortunately, the presenter is acutely unaware of the weaknesses in the book. I reviewed this book in one of the dailies and information leaked to me suggested that when Bahadur read my reviews, she broke down. Of course, this was not my motive and intention. I was simply following basic academic standards of reviewing books, although my reviews might have been too harsh.

There are, however, several bright pages in the chapters of Indian indentured history currently. One of them is the work of Devi Hardeen, an Indian female Guyanese raised in England. Hardeen argues for a space of the “Brown Atlantic” in Atlantic history.

For over two years, she communicated with me seeking my advice in helping her to develop this Brown Atlantic concept for her dissertation. Her position is that Indians in the Caribbean should be treated equally like all other ethnic groups in Atlantic history. I still think that Hardeen is on to something big but unfortunately she has fell off the academic radar. Some of her work on the Brown Atlantic is available on the internet.

My main purpose of composing this piece is to bring awareness of a new development in Atlantic history as well as sending a message to the Ministry of Cohesion. Of all the initiatives of coalition regime, I support this one: The drive to unite Guyana’s ethnic divide. However, the idea of social cohesion is forward-looking but the approach is fraught with ambiguities.

The Ministry is crippled and cabined by incapacities and incapabilities coupled with what appears to be a one-woman show. I will ask Oxford University Press to send a copy of the article to the lap of those who control the levers of power in the Ministry of Social Cohesion. It is my way of contributing as well as bringing a voice to the voiceless. ([email protected]).