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Postcards from Empire

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Gaiutra Bahadur: Between 1838 and 1917 Indian women came to the Caribbean as “coolies,” indentured laborers used by the British to replace emancipated slaves on plantations throughout the empire. The traffic in indentured labor was one third the size of the British slave trade, with more than a million Indians shipped to roughly a dozen colonies worldwide. Despite its scale, the history of indenture—neglected as a postscript to the abolition of slavery—has been largely lost to collective memory. Especially unknown are the viewpoints of the indentured themselves, how they experienced a system that economically and sexually exploited them, and that inflicted untold misery upon them and their descendants.

Only two memoirs about indenture exist; both were authored by men. A majority of the quarter of a million women transported by the British as “coolies” were widows and other outcasts traveling without husbands by their sides; they were dispossessed, marginalized, and anonymous. Few were literate (in English or in any Indian language) and they left behind no letters, diaries, memoirs, or other written testimonies. Rather than speaking for themselves in the historical record, they were spoken for—coolie women are described by countless government officials and the authors of fanciful narratives, almost all of them white men. An extensive paper trail—colonial travelogues, captains’ logs, ship surgeons’ diaries, and confidential Colonial Office dossiers on errant overseers—provides evidence of the women’s physical lives, but does not—indeed cannot—reveal much about what they thought or felt.

The interior lives of these women went undocumented, but their bodies did not—the written archives are filled with descriptions of both their physical allure and the physical trauma they suffered. But what distinguishes the colonial photographs of indentured women as a historical source is that, unlike descriptions found in a traveler’s tale or an immigration agent’s report, we see them, and they—seemingly—look back at us. These images don’t simply document, they enact a struggle—between the imaginations of colonial-era photographers and the real lives of the women behind the portraits. In doing so, they suggest a radically different perspective on imperial history. More here.

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