recasting indian women in colonial guyana:
gender, labor and caste in the lives of indentured and free laborersi
by m. seenarine
August 26th, 1996
Indentured emigration (1838-1917) had different effects on the population in guyana, based on an individual’s gender, religion, class, caste, race, location and age. This paper explores how these effects were different with relevance to indian women. While the shortage of indian females during the early indenture period might have resulted in an improved status for some indian women in guyana, it also led to various forms of control and servitude. During the later indenture period, indian women were ‘re-casted’ through the blending of indian religions and cultures, and the rebuilding of the indian male family structure, both of which served to divide women and reinforce male control of females’ labor, sexuality, reproduction and mobility.
Women’s remain bonded laborers within the indian family after they completed their period of indenture and indentureship was abolished. As indian families relocated away from the plantations to villages and towns, indian men’s control over the labor of females and children contributed to the development of indian prosperity. And at the same time, the domination of men served as a way to limit indian women’s access to property and other economic resources. However, colonial and male authority and oppression were continually being opposed by women as part of individual and collective resistance.
Historical materials relating to ‘indian’ii women under colonialism in guyanaiii is extremely rare and inadequate.iv This problem is complicated by the fact that until recently, scholarship on the caribbean have focused on a predominantly male model of a plural societyv divided by race; gender is considered as a related to race. There are several limitations in this approach including rigid concepts of race and gender, and assumptions of ‘cultural persistence’vi and similarity within ethnic categories. It is true that guyanese society is divided by race. Nevertheless, gender and cultural categories need to be viewed not only as part of race, but also in relation to issues of power and dominance in the region.
The central argument pursued in this paper is that south asian indentured emigration had diverse effects on the population in guyana based on issues of gender, culture, class, caste, race, location and age. This paper explores how some of these processes occurred with relevance to women during the indenture period (1838-1917). Indenture means a contract, and indentured indians signed a contract before they left india which bound them to accept certain conditions. During their period of indenture, female laborers were not free.
This paper disputes the myth that the shortage of indian women on colonial plantations during the early period of indenture resulted in an improved status and mobility for the majority of south asian women, relative to that in india. This myth ignores women’s subjection to control under various forms of male domination and oppression during the early period, including violence and abuse. Further, I hope to demonstrate that the process of male control intensified during the later indenture period. In both periods, the triple burdens of wage work, childcare, and housework were excessive for most women who had to work harder to fashion a new life for themselves and their families in colonial guyana.
This paper explores some of the gendered outcomes of being a south asian migrant laborer in guyana by examining the contributing factors that made women’s experiences different, in particular what occurred in relation to labor, culture and caste. Gender refer to the culturally defined modes of behavior deemed appropriate to the sexes. The paper is loosely organized according to the history of indentureship, and divided into four broad areas that contributed to making women’s experiences different: (1) social and economic factors, (2) culture, (3) family aspects; and (4) women’s resistance to various structures of power, authority and control.
To provide some background, the first section starts with a brief note regarding colonization and slavery in guyana, followed by a short discussion on the methods and concepts used in the paper, and an outline of the paper’s limitations. A breakdown of caste, class and gender distribution of south asians in guyana comes next, followed by a brief summary of the position and status of women in colonial and present day india. This background provides a context for discussion of issues within the main body of the paper.
Starting with a discussion on recruitment of indian women to labor colonies, the causes of indentured indian emigration to asia, africa, and the caribbean are then explored. A short description of the caste and class status of female indentured emigrants follow, along with an exploration of their experiences at the emigration depot and during their voyage to the caribbean. This is presented as a way of delving into a major factor of difference among the indentured population, the shortage of indian women compared to indian men, and its consequences. Throughout the indenture period, the population of east indian females was less than half the population of indian men in the colony.
The women who emigrated were not passive or ‘docile coolies.’ Some were actively resisting various forms of domination through emigration, and most engaged in resistance on the estates. Murders and transfers of many indian women on the estates was a sign of their resistance to oppression by south asian men, families and cultures in the colony. Women also resisted exploitation as cheap laborers, and being treated as sexual objects, by european men. A claim is made that women’s sexual exploitation was a contributing factor to indian resistance movements on the plantations throughout the indenture period. As a result, during the later period of indenture, the importation of indian females into the colony was viewed mainly in terms of them having a stabilizing effect on the predominantly male labor force.
Continuing along with social and economic factors, the exploitation of indian women’s labor by colonial planters and indian men is explored next. The main argument presented is that women’s labor continued to be capitalized after they completed their period of indenture, and even after indentured labor was abolished. As indian families relocated away from the plantations to villages and towns, indian men’s control over the labor of females and children contributed to the development of south asian prosperity. And at the same time, the domination of men served as a way to limit east indian women’s ownership of property and other economic resources.
In the second section of the paper, culture and caste among indian immigrants during the early and later periods of indenture are explored. The debate over women’s role in indian class formation in the previous section is taken up here by an exploration into the blending, or homogenization, of indian religions and cultures in guiana. The main point of this analysis is to discover how these cultural processes were gendered and oppressive to women, especially lower caste women who formed the majority of female emigrants.
In the third section of the paper, women’s role within the indian family structure during the later period of indenture is explored, including the indian family under colonialism and marriage. In the fourth section of the paper, women’s resistance within the indian family structure is discussed. The main argument made here is that throughout the period of indentureship, indian women fought to maintain their relative degree of autonomy. The paper concludes with a brief note on women’s resistance against indentureship and colonialism.
Historical background of colonization and slavery
Guyana, with a territory of 83,000 square miles, is the only english-speaking country in south america. The three counties of demerara, berbice and essequibo, have a total population of under one million people, divided into six major ethnic categories: amerindian, european, african, creole (mixed), chinese, and indian. The two dominant ethnic groups, african and indian, combine to form almost ninety percent of the total population, with indians having a slight numerical majority.
The region’s early colonial history was marked by conflicts between several european powers - spanish, dutch, french and british. An early trading post was established on the essequibo coast in 1616, and sugar cultivation was introduced to the colony in 1658. Early european colonists found the indigenous amerindian population hostile and unsuitable as plantation laborers.vii To meet their labor requirements, planters became part of the trade of enslaved african peoples in the americas.viii The establishment of the berbice colony in 1621, by the dutch west india company, saw the first group of africans who were captured and traded in africa, then imported and enslaved on plantations in guyana.
By 1803, there were over 40,000 africans who were enslaved and ‘free’ in the colony. The living conditions on the plantations were harsh; as a result, resistance and rebellion were frequent. Caribbean feminist researcher, Janet Momsen, points out that that the majority of enslaved women (including pregnant women) worked in the fields under harsh conditions and were subject to the same physical punishment as men.ix In addition to class oppression and racism, women were also subjected to both african and white male oppression. As part of estate punishment, women were stripped naked, whiped, placed into solitary confinement or had their hands and feet locked to stocks, forced to wear a collar, and sexually abused by white planters; there were several reports of white overseers kicking pregnant african women in the womb.x
African women resisted colonial racism and enslavement by several means, including faking illness, refusing to work, verbally abusing owners and administrators, destroying crops, using poison and ‘obeah’ (witchcraft), suicide, limiting their fertility, leaving the estate or running away, and by active rebellion. All forms of resistance had a price, and female rebels who were caught were executed.xi Nevertheless, most african women resisted their captors every day of their lives. Women participated in a huge rebellion in guiana in 1763, led by Cuffy, which succeeded in controlling the greater part of the berbice colony for eleven months, and was only suppressed with the aid of troop reinforcements brought from holland.xii
In 1814, when the territory was finally ceded to britain, female insurgency continued. In fact, resistance by enslaved, free and rebel african women and men was a major contributing factor to the abolition of slavery, and colonialism, in the caribbean. For example, guyanese historian Walter Rodney (1981) points out that women were major participants in resistance movements in the capital, georgetown, from 1891 to 1905 (:205-8).
With emancipation of slavery in 1835, planters (not enslaved peoples) were compensated and compelled to free their african laborers. The british ruling elite sought to block the movement of africans away from the plantations and limit their access to resources in order to force them to depend on the plantation for work and survival. However, there was popular resistance and reluctance of formerly enslaved people to continue their relationship with europeans as laborers. The majority of africans moved away from the plantations. Many african women moved into towns where they were employed as domestic servants. Colonists were once again face with the problem of finding labor for their plantations, as africans were unwilling to work at the prevailing ‘slave’ wages. In their struggle against the african peasantry,xiii and to meet their labor needs, the british tapped into their empire to create a cheaper, international, bonded labor market, comprised of poor laborers.
As a result, bonded laborers were imported: portuguese from maderia and azores (31,628 between 1835 and 1862), from china (14,000 between 1853 and 1912) and india (238,960 between 1838 and 1917) to the guyana. From 1838 to 1928, a total of 340,792 indentured laborers were brought to the guiana. The life of indentured laborers on the plantations differed very little from that of the enslaved people, with the important difference that they were free to leave after their contract expired.
Both enslaved and indentured women contributed to the development of european industrial capitalism through their labor. Yet, their common experiences under the estate system did not lead to sustained class or gender awareness, nor to the liberation of women. There are reasons why this is so. For example, Momsen writes that labor on colonial plantations “bestowed on Caribbean women a degree of social and economic independence which, in the post-emancipation period, colonial and neo-colonial agencies such as the church and education system sought to destroy” (ibid.:1-2). The paper explores how some of these agencies served to limit indian women’s independence in particular.
In his study of colonial records, south asian historian, Ranajit Guha, wrote that peasant insurrections are perceived as “being purely spontaneous and unpremeditated affairs.”xiv He continues, “in bourgeois-nationalist historiography it is an elite consciousness which is read into all peasant movements as their motive force” (ibid.:38). Guha informs us that the poor or subaltern class were resisting colonial domination from its very inception. Their strategies of resistance ranged from formation of committees to seek redress, to outright rebellion against british rule. Nevertheless, it was the middle and upper classes who were credited for these countless acts of resistance, which resulted in the national independence movements for large regions in south asia.
Keeping Guha’s observations in mind, all colonial and national records cited here must be questioned as to the bias and motivations of the ‘historian.’ The colonial motivations include record keeping by white men primarily for (1) administrative use by other white men in the colonial government, (2) to justify colonialism through the demonization of the colonial subject(s) in relation to their ‘civilized masters,’ and (3) to reform the abuses of colonialism in order to maintain its practice. National records serve similar purposes.
In spite of limitations, imperial records are some of the few sources available which provides us with a sense, (even a false one), of the history of ‘the de-historicized.’ This paper makes use of the written accounts of european military bureaucrats cited by present day historians, in an effort to re-construct the history of east indian women in guyana. In addition, an attempt is made to critique and de-construct various colonial and national viewpoints included here, around issues of gender, caste, labor, and morality.
Categories such as race, culture, caste and gender, are historically and conditionally contingent. They are are not fixed, but part of a historical process in a particular context. Invariably, these categories operate in conjunction with or respond to issues of power, access and the control of cultural, social, economic, and environmental resources. At the same time, constructions of race and gender are always contested and challenged. This paper explores some of these obvious and not so obvious processes, by centering on the experiences of indian indentured female laborers. It goes beyond the plural versus assimilation debate to explore how common consent is established and maintained within ethnic categories and across constructions of gender.
Due to the vast scope of issues raised here and the limited data available, some generalizations are used in this paper with the understanding that there were a diversity of experiences among indian women during indentureship in guiana, and that these tentative assumptions will have operated differently along this range of experience. Even though concepts explored here are useful, given the wide range of experiences, they have to be tested with specific studies which focus on how male control, social regulation and cultural production processes operate in specific circumstances as well as in the lives of specific individuals.
Although there is an obligation to explore the specific nature of experiences and exploitation of east south asian women under indenture, I hope to demonstrate that they were not passive recipients, but were constantly resisting multiple forms of oppression in both colonial india and guiana. The decision by some to leave india was in of itself a form of resistance. However, information regarding their resistance within the indian family and community, and against indentureship and colonialism is most lacking. This essay is severely limited in this sense. Another serious restriction is that while this article focus on the role of women within mainstream hindu culture, there is a lack of data and analysis regarding women’s experiences as part of south indian, hindu out-caste, muslim and christian cultures.
The paper has grown out of my interests, as an activist and academic, to understand the historical processes which led to the domination and subordination of women in south asia and the caribbean. It relies upon south asian women’s experiences as a main data source, and will serve to inform women on issues affecting them. Although a member of the dominant male oppressor group, I locate myself within the critical subjectivities of class, caste and (to a much less extent) gender oppression and resistance. The representations of some women’s struggles here by a lower caste/class, guyanese-american, male researcher is necessarily biased and incomplete; still, it is hoped that the text serves as a challenge to both author and reader to continue this discourse in all of its complexities and contradictions.
This process of reclaiming female histories and subjectivities is critical to post-colonial theory and practice. An improvement in status and survival of women and natural environments (and indeed of life itself) after twenty-plus centuries of male-domination, increasingly demands awareness and practice of feminist consciousness; a ‘grounding with our sisters.’ Even though issues discussed here occurred over one hundred and fifty years ago, they are timely and relevant to women and men in the caribbean and diaspora. They also have relevance to developing a wider understanding of the complex inter-relationships between gender, labor and caste exploitation and oppression. I have tried to maintain a balance between academic discourse and accessibility to readers outside of the academy; there are several repetitions in the hope of providing more clarity.
Caste, class and gender distribution
Population of east indians in guiana
Guyana was the first sugar colony to receive indian indentured laborers in the caribbean; in all, more than 416,000 indians arrived in the region between 1838 and 1917.xv Except for two interruptions, 1838-1845 and 1848-1851, guyana received indentured immigrants every year (from 1864 to 1891, approximately 4,000 annually) and more than half of all the indian indentured workers to the caribbean, 240,00.xvi The highest annual landings of south asians in guiana was during the 1870s, with the highest ever being 8,334 in 1875-76.xvii
During the indentureship period, indian laborers were divided into two categories, indentured and ‘free’ or unindentured workers. By 1880, the unindentured indian resident population was already larger than the indentured indian population in guyana and comprised about 75 percent of the total indian population in 1905 (Rodney 1981:34). The 1911 census revealed east indians as the largest ethnic group, surpassing africans, and the 1921 census indicated that they were 42 percent of the total population in the colony.xviii
The indians who arrived in the caribbean were not a uniform group. On the contrary, they represented different regional areas and a diversity of south asian cultural traditions, customs, religious practices, languages, art forms, and foods. Early lists of indentured laborers were compiled in a haphazard manner, and the descriptions given of age, caste and religion are often unreliable.xix Still, certain patterns are clear as to who were being recruited for the colonial labor plantations in the caribbean. Such estimates can be neither firm nor precise, but they are a great deal firmer and more precise than the vague generalizations that have been made by others.
Caste origins of south asian indentured laborers in guiana
From 1872, when a ranking of emigrants was included in colonial annual reports, the low caste groups was the single largest group of emigrants from calcutta. In 1883, one colonial administrator, Grierson, stated that one-third of the emigrants were ‘of decidedly low social position’ (Tinker:56). It’s worth pointing out here that the phrase ‘of decidedly low social position’ is a disguised reference to the four-fold hindu caste system. Specifically, to the position of ‘untouchables’ or dalits who were historically discriminated as outcastes of hindu society, and placed at the very bottom of the caste system.
The term dalit, which includes untouchable, tribal and lower caste hindu groups, simply means oppressed.xx Dalit is used here to refer to a large percentage of indentured laborers recruited in colonial india, female and male, who were considered ‘polluted.’ These emigrants were economically, culturally, and socially oppressed within ‘mainstream’ indian society, whether hindu or muslim, for centuries. Some dalit activists include women as dalits, pointing out that women are considered ‘polluted,’ and are equally oppressed within south asian societies. While I agree with this definition, for the purposes of this study, women are considered as a separate category from dalits.
As an example of the number of dalits being exploited as bonded laborers during early indentureship, Wood notes that from 1870 to 1885, 41.5 percent of emigrants were from the low castes. Similarly, a dispatch from the government of india in 1877, noted that the source of recruitment was “chiefly the laborers, dependent for their support upon the cultivating classes.”xxi This last statement is an allusion to dalit bonded laborers, who were indebted to intermediate and upper caste hindu land owners and money lenders in colonial and pre-colonial india. Dalits who migrated to the caribbean include individuals from groups such as pariahs and pallars from south india; doms, dosadhs, lohars (blacksmiths) and chamars (tanners) from uttar pradesh and north india; and nooniahs, santals, and kahars from bihar. In the caribbean, they are refered to as chamars or ‘low caste.’ In the first two decades of indentured labor emigration, tribal people, dhangars or “hill coolies,” from the chota nagpur area of bengal, bihar and orissa comprised a significant proportion of those emigrating. During the 1840s and 1850s, two-fifths to one-half of the emigrants were dhangars, people with a distinct culture (Tinker:49). Bonded laborers were recruited from other ‘tribal’ and semi-aboriginal groups in south and north india.
With the drying up of recruiting among tribal and semi-aboriginal groups, the poor, landless and lower castes who were already available in the ports of embarkation - calcutta, madrasxxii and bombayxxiii - were then recruited (ibid:51). Competition from french, dutch and other colonists pushed british recruiting operations further into the ‘interior’ of colonial india. Poor, landless dalits from rural areas of uttar pradesh, bihar and bengal began to be recruited as indentured laborers in large numbers. Actually, south asians from all religions and castes were recruited throughout the indenture period.
In spite of cultural differences, the bonded laborers who emigrated from south asia were similar in some ways as well. They were overwhelmingly from the lower castes, male, poor, uneducated, rural and drawn from culturally diverse areas of the subcontinent.xxiv Recognition of their cultural diversity is important, because it meant that, at first, they did not share a common knowledge, language, history, culture or philosophy. Despite similarities as bonded emigrant laborers, the group as a whole was very diverse.
Anthropologist R. T. Smithxxv made an analysis of colonial records of immigrants landed in guyana between 1865 and 1917 and found that 31.1 percent were low caste; 30.1 percent were agricultural castes; 16.4 percent were muslims and christians; 13.6 percent were high castes; and 8.7 percent were artisans. It is significant to note here that the percentage of dalits may be much higher as many emigrants discarded lower caste origins for intermediate and higher caste ones for various reasons. For one, they wanted to escape continued caste oppression and start a new life in guyana as ‘non-polluted’ hindus. In reference to regional origin, Smith estimated that between 1845 and 1862, 23 percent were from south india and 77 percent from north india (ibid.).
There is limited information regarding the age of emigrants, however, it may be surmised that a large number of indentured laborers were children, teens and young adults, many of whom may have been bonded child laborers in india.xxvi On one ship, the Salsette, over one-sixth of the emigrants on board were classified as children, and many who survived the journey were without parents.xxvii To cite a related example, one colonial administrator in Mauritius noted that girls of nine, ten, and twelve had landed as married women in 1876 (Tinker:203).
Prior occupations of indentured laborers
A review of the literature reveals that south asian emigrants had many different occupations in colonial india. The following is a selected list of occupational categories, loosely broken down according to three caste divisions (with the south asian term listed when known). The first group include non-hindu, dalit employment categories like palanquin-bearer, drum beater (chamar), landless laborer (pallan), sweeper, washer (dhobi), beggar, hawker, shoemaker (chamar), tanner (chamar or chakkiliyam), porter (coolie), and house servant (dasi).
The second group consist of low and intermediate hindu caste occupations such as cultivator (kurmi), cowherd (ahir); weaver, barber, shopkeeper, money lender (chettyar), policemen, potter, and cook. The third group is made up of upper caste vocations like priest, scribe, schoolmaster, and peon. Female emigrants were previously employed in various occupations in all three of the above caste categories. ‘Women’ specific occupations included dalit categories such as artisan, entertainer, dancer and temple prostitute (devadasi) (ibid:51-2).
Gender distribution among east indian laborers
There is lack of information regarding the age, class, caste, and numerical distribution of female emigrants in the carribean. Colonial investigators, Mac Neill and Lal, calculated in 1915 that one-third of the indentured women who emigrated to the caribbean were married women who accompanied their husbands. The remainder were mostly widows, and women who were separated or abandoned.xxviii This implies that two-thirds of the women migrated alone. Caribbean feminist historian, Rhoda Reddock writes, “the majority of indian women came to the caribbean not as wives or daughters but as individual women” (1985:81).
The large numbers of females emigrating alone refer to fact that women consciously chose to emigrate. This suggests that women from all castes were actively resisting gender and caste oppression in colonial india through emigration. It also serves to dispel the myth that all indian women who emigrated did so as passive and docile females under the protection of husbands and families (ibid.). While it is important to recognize women’s resistance in this form, instances of abuse and exploitation during recruitment also indicate that many females were compelled to emigrate, regardless of their choice.
The disproportion of indian females to indian males in guyana was higher among indentured indians on the estates than among free indians. The total female to male ratio went from 11 indian women for every 100 indian men in 1851, to 40 women for every 100 men in 1914. Data for the following Table I, was gathered from a variety of scant sources. Like most of the statistics reproduced in this book, these figures are subject to correction. Yet, they provide some idea of the imbalance of south asian women to south asian men existing throughout the indenture period.
Table I: Indian Population in British Guiana (1851-1914)xxix
Female:Male Female:Male Female:Male Ratio Birth Death
Year Male Female Ratio Total Ratio on Estates Among Free Indians Rate Rate
1881 23:1000 32:1000
1890 41:100 54:100
1900 44:100 62:100
1908-12 26:1000 30:1000
1914 53,083 34,799 40:100
Women’s status in colonial and present day india: gender, caste and class
In her analysis of the structural framework of women’s subordination in india, Uma Chakravarti writes, "caste hierarchy and gender hierarchy are the organizing principles of the brahmanical social order and are closely interconnected.”xxx This means that in mainstream hindu society, the status of most women, regardless of caste, was similar to that of dalits. The author argues that the establishment of private property (versus communal ownership of land), and the need to have caste purity, required the subordination of indian women and strict control over their sexuality and mobility.
Principles of caste and gender ranking evolved over a period of time and involved mechanisms of control like the ideology of pativrata (wifely fidelity); complicity of upper caste women; brahmanical law and custom to control deviant women; and the state itself. As a result, female power became defined as mother of sons, and relocated to reside in power born out of wifely fidelity and chastity, not standing on her own feet. Due to the fact that women internalized these paternal (and maternal) cultural models of womanhood in the form of hindu mythology, this virtually erased the need for subjugation as it was much easier for women to comply with such a structure (ibid.:582).
Other south asian feminists explore the oppression of women in relation to the state, hindu ideology, family and kinship, caste and culture, land and poverty, and labor.xxxi These studies show how gender, class and caste ideologies influence, among other things, the sexual division of labor in which male roles and labor are considered as productive work and so valued, while female responsibilities and labor are undervalued as unproductive work. These ideologies also lead to male control over female labor power, reproduction, sexuality, and mobility as fathers, husbands and male kin. This domination limits women’s control over property and other economic resources, which gets translated into male control of political, religious, social and cultural institutions.
South asian feminists also document the serious negative outcomes which results from the devaluation of females within cultures defined by these caste and gender ideologies. These include female infanticide, child marriage, domestic violence, assaults, rape, dowry deaths, widow immolation, and abandonment.xxxii Another severe repercussion of these ideologies is that access to and control over land, economic and other resources becomes severely limited to women, especially dalit women.xxxiii
Apart from these forms of oppression, in both present day and colonial india, poor village women will have already experienced many years of hardship and work by the time they are married and move to another village, generally at a young age. Tasks like childcare; weeding and cleaning the fields; collecting firewood and cow dung; cleaning and sweeping of their home; fetching water; and helping to grind the course grains for the daily meal, are mostly placed upon the shoulders of young girls. In addition, they are more likely to suffer from malnourishment and less likely to receive prompt medical attention than boys.xxxiv
Dalit women comprise a major segment of agricultural workers in present day south asia (and during the colonial period), however, their work is invisible because it occurs in the unorganized sector of the economy. This means they do not get social security, leave, medical support, pensions, etc.xxxv Rural and urban dalit women are not paid the minimum wage, and generally find work in times of labor scarcity.xxxvi
Rural women of poor households work for longer hours than their male counterparts, when domestic work, other home-based work and labor outside the home is counted.xxxvii Many women work with infant children in the fields because there are rarely any facilities for childcare in the villages. Although women work for long hours and add to their family income, they are not perceived as workers by other women, themselves, or men; as a result, they are devalued, and rewarded and gratified less.xxxviii
This point here is not only to explore the position and status of indian women in colonial india and present day india, but to also indicate some of the factors which may have motivated or ‘pushed’ south asian women to emigrate to foreign labor colonies. Given the limited alternatives for both high caste hindu widows and dalit women alike, many of these women elected to escape a life of destitution and/or prostitution through emigration. Reddock writes, “women did make a conscious decision to seek a new life elsewhere... they came as workers and not dependents” (:79).
Recruitment of indentured indian women laborers in colonial india
Slavery and bonded labor systems
Domestic slavery, bonded labor and other forms of feudal service existed for millennia in india.xxxix Laboring families were drawn from outcastes of hindu society to perform field labor considered polluting to the upper and intermediate castes, like ploughing the fields. In the labor-intensive paddy-growing regions, dalit groups like the kamias in bihar and uttar pradesh., the halis in gujarat, the adimas of kerala, and the pannaiyals of tamil nadu, were principal laborers.xl South asian historian Dharma Kumar argued that a variety of different ‘servile’ groups provided labor to mirasidars (private landowners) in early nineteenth-century south india.xli
Men, women and children from south india were also sold as part of the eighteenth century slave trade by european colonial powers.xlii With the british abolition of slavery in 1835, the export of indian labor overseas (from 1830 to 1920) was viewed by planters and colonial administrators as a way of maintaining and expanding labor intensive plantation economies in sri lanka, malaysia, mauritius, fiji, natal (south africa), kenya, uganda, and the caribbean.xliii However, as pointed out by early abolitionists, the attitude of planters toward the welfare of indentured workers remained the same as during slavery.xliv Like africans before them, indentured indians were viewed by the planter class, as one trinidadian historian argued, “as an inferior human species who would accept conditions of life that other races would reject.”xlv
Colonial administrators were continuously pressured by abolition and nationalist groups to reform and abolish the indenture system, especially with regards to the status of women emigrant laborers. The first prohibition against the indian indenture system was in 1839, due to pressure from british anti-slavery groups. A major objection raised was the poor status of women due to their small numbers in guiana (Reddock 1985:79). Nevertheless, administrators continued to support planters’ interests over those of indentured female laborers. Historian Tinker writes, “the (colonial) government of india made little attempt to place the welfare of indians above the demands of planters. The only issue on which they tried to ensure reform was that of increasing the proportion of women, especially married women, among the emigrants; and this was not pressed forcibly” (:80).
During the prohibition in 1840, the british secretary of state, Russell, stated “I should be unwilling to adopt any measure to favor the transfer of laborers from British India to Guiana... I am not prepared to encounter the responsibility of a measure which may lead to a dreadful loss of life on the one hand, or, on the other, to a new system of slavery.”xlvi As enlightened as this official viewpoint appears, it’s worth pointing out here that Russell did not totally oppose any form of an indentured labor system; he was only opposed to the system in its present form.
This is really a reformist way of saying to planters, ‘if you can reduce deaths during the voyage and overly harsh treatment on the estates, then we’ll support bonded labor.’ This attitude was typical of colonial officials during this period, in which slavery still existed in the usa. In 1844, the ban on indenture was lifted by the government of india on the condition that 12.5 percent of the emigrants be female (Reddock 1985:80). The ‘women problem’ was an important issue in the second prohibition of indentureship (1848 to 1851), and in abolition of the system at the end of the first world war.
Reasons for south asian female indentured labor migration
Emigration of indentured laborers from south asia to the caribbean relied on a combination of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. Families were reluctant to leave their janmabhumi (motherland) and traditional kinship ties, and south asian men did not want to take their wives and daughters to unknown lands. Most women were unwilling to emigrate unless accompanied by their husbands or close relatives, and there were few unattached women because of the south asian custom of child betrothal and marriage at puberty.xlvii Physical and sexual assaults, loss of female honor, bonded servitude and other perceived threats, further discouraged females from emigrating. Consequently, colonial emigration agents had great difficulty in recruiting south asian women and families to work on foreign colonial estates. Nevertheless, recruiters exported tens of thousands of women and girls to the caribbean. Most of them came as individuals and worked for ten years on the sugar plantations.
Push factors for emigration include the need of south asian women (and men) to obtain relief from a situation which they no longer find tolerable (Tinker:118). People were compelled to leave their area of residence for various reasons, including the following six: (1) environmental: floods, famine, drought and crop failures; (2) economic: the lost of land rights and resulting landlessness among tribals and dalits, the pauperization of small peasants, debt and poverty; (3) social factors: high population density, overcrowding, and casteism; (4) psychological: fear, shame, and guilt; (5) gendered effects: domestic violence, abuse, rape, divorce, and rigid widow customs among the upper castes; and (6) political: the 1857 mutiny and turmoil throughout north india.
These push factors, as well as others, no doubt did lead some women to consciously choose to emigrate as single women, widows, and to a lesser extent, as members of families. Upper caste widows and dalit females comprised a significant proportion of the majority of females migrating alone, and therefore the majority of women. Their determination to emigrate was itself a sign of the independent nature of these women; the decision to migrate alone was a sign of their strength and courage (Reddock 1985:81).
Nevertheless, an excessive concern on ‘push’ factors divert attention from the question of labor recruitment and its coercive elements. For instance, the pressure of middlemen and brokers whose methods ranged from sheer deception and debt-bondage, to ‘coolie-catching’ and rape of ‘potential’ female recruits.xlviii These violent processes, which created and shaped a bonded labor market in india and guiana, should be viewed as important ‘pull’ factors in relation to the ‘push’ factors cited above. Emigration of females was not so much an indicator of resistance and willingness to undertake overseas labor as it was a sign of vulnerability or being marginal. As south asian historians, Bates and Carter argues, “indentured recruitment did not liberate migrants from exploitative relationships - it merely replaced one mode of appropriation with another” (ibid.:242).
By way of illustration, to augment the shortage of indian women and to act as support and encouragement for other indian women, a small number of paid sex-workers from calcutta, madras, and other cities were recruited (:213). These women continued to be sexually exploited in the caribbean. It needs to be stated at this point that the british military authorities in india ran a system of licensed prostitution for both indian and european soldiers. This system included registration and compulsory medical examination of indian women, and a sliding tariff according to rank. The 1868 contagious diseases act regularized these provisions for this government-sponsored, sex exploitation scheme of primarily dalit females’ bodies.xlix
The violence of the indenture system had several outcomes. One was caste and ethnic division of the labor market, as the overseas export of laborers began with the recruitment of vulnerable and marginalized ‘tribals’ from chota nagpur. Later, emigration agents recruited from among poor peasant and landless groups in bihar, eastern uttar pradesh, and the chauvery valley. As south asian historian Gyan Prakash writes, “class formation fostered and, in turn, grew out of ethnicization... (and) was also profoundly gendered” (1992:31). This meant that class formation in caribbean colonies started in india, in the recruitment process itself which resulted in the poor and dalits forming the vast majority of laborers who emigrated. As bonded servants, they entered almost at the bottom of colonial society; divided into layers of power and status based on race, class, skin color, religion, and language.
In terms of gendered class formation in the labor colonies, the colonial practice of seeking ‘able-bodied’ workers resulted in the over-representation of men as women were not considered ‘able-bodied’ (ibid.: 31-32). Additionally, the near-exclusion of upper castes women from agricultural work in india suggests that the majority of female agricultural laborers who emigrated were dalit. Gendered effects of emigration also include sexual and other forms of violent abuse of female laborers in recruitment, transportation and residence on the plantations.
These ethnic and gendered factors led to the formation of a basically male, laboring class in guyana. Despite this, the emigration of individuals from more privileged, upper and intermediate-caste hindu groups, along with colonial policies and labor management, influenced the formation of class, and resulted in class, caste and ethnic separation in the colony. Caste and cultural details, which had gendered effects, will be explored later.
Pressures to use and recruit south asian women
In the earliest period of bonded labor emigration, some planters were eager to get laborers of either sex to work on their plantations. As an example, tribal women were valued on the assumption that they would, in the words of one colonial recruiter, be “of the greatest use upon the plantations, being capable of performing any kind of work.”l Still, a majority of men were recruited as most planters were unwilling to cover the extra cost of importing an equal amount of women as men.
The most important pressure on both colonial administrators and planters to recruit indian women as indentured laborers was the sex-ratio disparity on the estates (which also existed during slavery). This issue became an important political argument for south asian nationalist leaders and western anti-slavery groups. Colonial administrators and planters were compelled to address this issue, and their failure to do so became a crucial point in the abolition of indentureship in 1917.
To cite an instance, a dispatch to the colonies in 1855 emphasized the intention of the british government to stop Indian emigration unless a ‘due proportion’ of women was recruited’ (Tinker:89). The threat to planters indicate the extent to which officials in the british colonial government viewed indian women as critical to their indentured labor scheme. This concern was due to publicity surrounding abuse of indian women in the colonies, including many cases of murder; which was blamed on the insufficiency of females, not on the violence of males.
Another pressure fro the recruitment of females was that, as the number of indentured laborers increased in the colonies, the importation of indian women became viewed as a way of encouraging indian men to sign up for progressively longer periods of bonded labor (first one year, then three, then five, and later ten years). Indian women were also seen as a way of keeping experienced male workers in the colonies and available for work on the estates, even after their indenture period had expired. This eliminated planters’ cost for return passages to india. Women were held, moreover, as part of a desire by both capital and state, to generate a self-reproducing source of labor in the colonies. These goals prompted the colonial indian government to stipulate that a certain number of emigrants be female (Reddock 1985:79-87).
As emigration progressed, the specific quotas for indian women varied. In 1857 the ratio was 35 women to 100 men; in 1860, 50 to 100; and from 1868-1917, 40 to 100 (Mangru 1987a:211). Nevertheless, recruiting indian women was a persistent dilemma for emigration agents at the ports of calcutta and madras. As Reddock notes, “recruitment took place in a situation of an already existing unequal sex ratio” (:80). The quota produced sharp criticisms from some colonists who thought it prohibitive and would necessitate the enlistment of a "low and immoral" class of women detrimental to the scheme of settlement they envisioned (Mangru 1987a:212).
The government and planters wanted the ‘right type of woman’ who would make good wives and stabilize the indentured labor population. They were interested in woman as workers, but more in terms of the labor market they wanted to create in the colony. For instance, a planter in Trinidad wrote a letter in 1851 to the colonial office in england stating, “if a cargo entirely of women could be sent over, I have little doubt that the greater number of the Coolies would remain here permanently” (ibid.:82). Women recruited thus became ‘supplementary’ workers who were paid less to do ‘women’s work.’ To further promote this policy, and instead of relying on quotas, the planters passed a resolution in 1877 calling for the importation of indian widows, free of indenture. However, this measure was never adopted by the indian government owing to political pressure (Mangru 1987a:224-5).
Abuse of females in the recruiting system in india
It was more difficult to recruit women from north india to go overseas than from south india, as more females left from madras and bombay that from calcutta (Tinker:89). The main areas of recruitment were the markets, railway stations, festivals, bazaars and temples. In north india, the hindu holy city of matura was a main area for the recruitment of females. It is possibly that many of the women recruited from this location were devadasi, or dalit females dedicated to brahmin temples as dancers/prostitutes (ibid.:123).
The district magistrate of malabar reported that women and girls were frequently used to induce other females to emigrate or as a decoy to lure men to the depot (ibid.:128-9). Colonial agents paid extra for women recruits and forced detention and kidnapping practices were regularly used to obtain female laborers. Rural families were often promised by recruiters that their daughters of marriageable age “will have excellent offers from their well-to-do countrymen” in the foreign colonies (Mangru 1987a:67).
An indian newspaper, the Pioneer of India, described in 1871 the attempted kidnapping of Ratunya, a young woman who was accosted by a government recruiter, offered employment and forcibly detained in Allahabad. Ratunya and ten other women were only released through the intervention of two missionaries (Tinker:126-127). Six months later, Mussamut Amirtee and her eight year old son were offered employment and forcibly detained in Mirzapur, as were Subhagia Koerin and Munbasia Koerin.li Detention for several days in a recruiter’s house normally resulted in loss of caste, female virtue and friendship for many women. And, as the Royal Gazette noted in 1865, this led to living a life of “ridicule, contempt, disdain and family renunciation” (ibid:105), thereby compelling many women to resist by seeking anonymity through emigration.
Colonial reforms of the recruiting system
Increasing reports of missing wives and daughters influenced indian provincial governments to apply different measures to prevent the illegal practices of recruiters. After a married woman from Azamgarh was seduced and taken to Jaunpur for registration in 1879, some local magistrates began to refuse registration of women for emigration who were resident in other districts, and insisted on local police inquiry even for women resident in the district. It is important to summarize here that even though women were being abused by the system, single women’s statements were not accepted as adequate regarding the circumstances of their recruitment.
Local inquiries made recruitment even more difficult and cost became a major reason for the reluctance of planters to import women and children. This was particularly so during the later stages of emigration when the recruiters in india were demanding three to five english pounds for each man, and almost double that for each woman, six english pounds, 13 shillings.lii In an effort to facilitate emigration and appease colonial planters, the government of india declared in 1879 that a police inquiry into the background of female emigrants was not compulsory in every case.
Nonetheless, efforts were made to place more stringent controls on the type of women being recruited. Single women who were obviously pregnant, known prostitutes, or ‘coarse, low-caste females’ were disqualified (Reddock 1985:80). It is crucial to consider that the last two groups of women referred to here were primarily dalit females. Regardless of the ban on dalit females, due to the shortage of female recruits in general, these controls could not always be maintained by colonial recruiters (ibid.). The emigration agent of madras, Doorly, protested against nationalists’ pressure and bureaucratic measures for enlisting a ‘better type’ of woman. As indenture came to an end in 1917, he argued basically for continued dalit female migration, stating
genuine field laborers such as the planters require can be obtained only from the lowest castes... In my view the class of women recruited during the recent years is not an undesirable class for the men who accompany them and who are drawn from the same social stratum as themselves (ibid.:82.)
Despite various measures to recruit women laborers, mostly individual males emigrated, and this had repercussions in caribbean colonies, as well as on women and families in india. One colonial administrator, major Pitcher, writes, “I found... wives who knew that their husbands had emigrated but (in some cases 18 years) had vainly waited for news, and knew not whether the emigrant was alive or died.”liii This account seem to reflect the position of most wives and families of migrant indentured laborers in south asia, abandoned by husbands, fathers and sons, with little or no compensation.
Indian women at the depot and en-route to caribbean plantations
Prospective migrating laborers were subjected to prolonged confinement and a medical examination for venereal and other diseases at the demerara depot in calcutta. However, in order to prevent the scaring away of potential female recruits, women received a superficial examination by nurses, with the result that many were passed fit when they actually had venereal and other diseases (Tinker:138). Cholera, typhoid, and dysentery were a constant feature of depot and shipboard existence.
Local police inquiries into the abuses of female conscription meant longer waiting periods in the depot and higher maintenance costs, which made investment in female laborers less profitable and less in demand among planters. It also led to a prevalence of “depot marriages” or sagay to avoid police investigations of single women emigrating (:140). Historian Ramnarine found that 421 marriages took place on board ships in 1892, among the 4,000 adults who traveled to guiana during the year.liv
This means that close to a quarter of all adults who traveled together to guiana in 1892 got married during the voyage. In other cases, women, who were from one group in which they may have known people or formed attachments during their wait at the depot, would be forcibly separated and arbitrarily moved to another to augment emigration quotas on another ship. In addition,
The social and economic status of female recruits
A large number of female recruits were abandoned wives or widows. Colonial administrators like Lyall, Pitcher and Grierson, stated “many of the women enter the depot in a garment of filthy rags,” and others arrived “in a state bordering on nudity” (Tinker:130). The incidents of abuse in recruitment against females were among a much larger number of incidents that went unreported. These serve to show that many female indentured emigrants faced severe oppressions in india by virtue of their gender, class, and caste status.
As another example, the colonial protector of emigrants stated in 1879, that indian women who regularly boarded emigrant vessels comprised principally of “young widow and married and single women who have already gone astray, and are therefore not only most anxious to avoid their homes and conceal their antecedents, but were also at the same time the least likely to be received back into families” (Mangru 1987a:213). Colonial agents ‘recognized’ the low position of ‘women in trouble’ and child widows in india, and presented the argument that “women might benefit more than men by emigration.”lv
It’s worth pointing out here that this ‘progressive’ rhetoric masks the following: (1) the stereotyping of all female indentured laborers as immoral; (2) a denial of colonial responsibility in abusing indian females during the recruitment process; and (3) a justification for targeting the most exploited of south asian women, those who have few options besides paid sex work, to be recruited as bonded laborers.
The voyage across the seas - kalapani
One emigration agent whose job it was to look after the welfare of indentured indians, Crosby, noted that the lack of separate female bathrooms on ships made women vulnerable to sexual assaults from both indian men and the ship’s male crew.lvi In addition, holding single women in a separate, isolated area of the ship proved convenient for their abuse. In fact, the entire ‘coolie ship’ was an unsafe place for single females, as well as married women, as they were frequent targets of sexual attacks. In one incident, the surgeon and third mate on board the Ailsa in 1876 was accused of assaulting three indian women (Tinker:150-151).
Due to the threat of violence in simply trying to take a bath, indian women found it difficult to stay healthy and clean during the long journey of ‘the middle passage.’ Crosby cited a report of the surgeon of the vessel Himalaya which deplored the condition of women, with "their hair is so dirty and matted, that it induces them to be constantly scratching." Crosby suggest this was due to the women’s lack of combs and mirrors.lvii
It is critical to note that Crosby failed to make the connection between women’s poor hygiene and safety in using the bathroom. In addition to a lack of grooming items, women might have chosen to remain unclean instead of risk the chance of being raped while cleaning. This may have also been a part of women’s strategy to deter rape by trying to appear ‘unattractive.’ These issues of safety and cleanliness may have led to further cases of diseases and deaths of females on ships.
Many women and children grew sick and died in the depot and en-route to the colonies from cholera, typhoid, dysentery, measles, and venereal diseases. There was heavy mortality on ships during the long three to four months of travel to the caribbean. To illustrate, on the Salsette, which sailed from calcutta in 1858, close to a third (120 out of 324 indians) died while en-route to trinidad.lviii Women, children (infants especially), and the old (i.e., the most vulnerable), were the overwhelming majority of those who died while crossing the sea.
The deaths of south asians on the Salsette voyage
The captain of the Salsette, Swinton, noted that infants “were dying for want of milk” and that orphaned children died shortly after the death of mothers, “from want.” (ibid:5-6). Children’s survival during the voyage at sea was directly linked to the health and survival of their mothers; as the captain noted, “they appear to die in families” (:9). Being an orphan frequently meant abandonment and death. Female children especially were not properly taken care of by surviving fathers, and one father supposedly murdered his five year old daughter (ibid.).
The captain’s wife, Mrs. Swinton, who took care of the sick during the dreadful voyage, wrote about a ‘lack of morality’ among the women and men on board. She noted how “the parents of girls will sell their children for a few rupees” (:15). Her account suggests that the practice of pedophila and sexual exploitation of female children was prevalent on board these vessels. Under such circumstances, and given their limited options, this may explain why numerous mothers chosed to abandon infant or young daughters and why several females refused to eat “against all persuasion” (:5-10).
On this voyage, one woman attempted to jump overboard, and another young woman fell down a hatch, injured her spine and later died. Many of the women who grew sick were ashamed and afraid to inform the male doctors of their illness, until shortly before they died (:13-14). Women were particularly fearful and vulnerable on this long voyage to an unknown destination, in among a group of passengers and crew consisting mostly of men. Mrs. Swinton wrote of the general confusion, “out of the 324 Coolies who came on board, I do not believe five, at most, either knew where they are going, or what is to be their occupation” (:12). This statement, if true, suggests that almost all the indians were tricked into migrating. Depression over entrapment into such a fate was compounded by the sense of lost and bearing as they drew further away from their homeland. These and other psychological and physical factors contributed to ill health.
The emigrants were not accustomed to the foods and medicines used on board, and their own foods and medicinal herbs were not provided. Mrs. Swinton noted that many women needed preserved milk and often craved chicken from her. She stated, “and, I believe, had they been given such things, many lives would have been saved” (:13) Many children and adults died of simple causes, like dysentery caused by unclean and spoiled foods, and drinking water drawn from the polluted hoogly river. The lack of warm clothes to survive the damp nights and cold parts of the journey; and lack of space and simple medical facilities on board, also led to illness and death.
Given the high mortality rate, there was some concern for the welfare of ‘the coolies’ during the voyage across the seas. Yet, this colonial anxiety was in terms of the economic loss mortality represented to colonial agents, especially the owners of shipping companies who were paid for the number of laborers landed alive, not transported (:4;15). Females who survived the horrors of recruitment and life in the emigration depots of calcutta and madras, and the journey at sea, arrived into a situation in which indian women were highly sought after by indian men and their european masters on account of the shortage of european and indian women in the caribbean.
Maharani - a case study
Kumar Noor Mahabir, in The Still Cry: Personal Accounts of East Indians in Trinidad and Tobago During Indentureship (1845-1917),lix recounts the experiences of a young indentured indian widow, Maharani, during the later stage of indentureship. Maharani describes her reasons for leaving her family in india, her recruitment as an indentured emigrant laborer, and her journey to the caribbean as follows :
I married. Me husband dead. Me breda an dem take it. Milk boiling; dem go want de milk to eat an ah cat coming to drink an ah hit im an-de milk fall down. I say dem go beat me because I getting too much lix, I say dem go beat me. Well I run. I no tell nobody I leaving only me modder-in-law. Ole modder-in-law. Me husband breda an dem eating an I left de house. E have a one-foot fellar an e sit down well and I gone to drink water an e tell me to come. Well I gone, e tell me not to jharay jatta (waste time). E cyar me an dey gi me food an ting to eat. People putting barti kara (bound or indenture). Only I gone I see plenty people dey. E say "cheenee chala, cheenee chalay (sift sugar), going tappu (Island). Tappu may sara bara anna (make 25 cents).
I cayn know depot name, Calcutta may jahaj ank hoi par (me come in to ship). Everybody dey jahaj barti bhail (ship recruiting place) cyar e an put e jahaj (ship). When e coming ship everybody gone inside an dem people watching an telling me not to go, not to go. Everybody watching in window like me an all watching. All ah dem people an all watching. Jahaj dey far, dem saying, "not to go," dey shaking hand so, "not to go." E done gone, everybody dey inside dey. Everybody. Nobody cayn come out from dey again, like saamundar moolook may k arra Ganga, Jamuna (like an island in the middle of the river Ganga, Jamuna) e parr (going)." Five gyul come without nobody. A go, kaa nam (why name) Mohannia, a go kaa nam Mahadayia, a go kaa nam Lakhaia, an I forget. We come Chinap (Trinidad). Me no vomit but plenty a dem vomit. Because me no eating all kinda ting I no vomit. In Jahaj dey gi we rice, dahl. Me no eating fish an meat an ting. Maharaj kajat (high caste), I no eating all kind a ting (:79-81).
Indentured indian women’s labor migration to colonial guiana: 1838 - 1917
Indian women's work on the colonial plantations
Life on the estate
Information on women’s status during slavery and the early indenture period in the caribbean is much less available than data from the last twenty years of indenture.lx Reports from this later period reflect changes which had already been made after various commissions were appointed. One cannot generalize from the records of this period to fill gaps in the earlier period as women’s experiences changed over time.
Plantation employment in general meant work on sugar estates. During the usual ten year period of indentureship, the majority of women worked in the fields under harsh conditions and were subject to the same punishment as men. An indentured laborer could not leave her assigned employer. She could not demand higher wages or live off the plantation. She could not refuse the work assigned to her. There was ruthless enforcement of harsh discipline and, if a laborer infringed her contract even trivially, she could be prosecuted as a criminal and sentenced to jail (Reddock 1985:85).
By 1854, the indenture system was firmly established in the caribbean. Aspects of the indentured contract were modified from time to time, but the basic elements remain unchanged until 1917, that is, a long contract with one employer, maintained by sanctions of criminal law. The degree of work on the estates varied with the seasons. During the productive season, work lasted up to 15 hours a day, and women, children and men were all involved. Children over ten years of age were considered adults and their labor was utilize as such by the planter class (83).
There were high rates of sickness and death on the estates due to poor sanitation, contaminated drinking water, overcrowding, unsuitable diet, disease like hookworm, epidemics, and so on. Interestingly, the birth rate among indentured women was significantly less compared to that of free women off the plantations. Low birth rate suggests, in addition to suffering from poor health, some women were deliberately regulating their bodies as a form of resistance on the estates. As another sign of female resistance, throughout indenture, some women choose to leave their ‘depot husbands’ for men who had lived longer in the colony and could offer them a better standard of living (ibid.).
Indentured laborers were housed in barrack ranges formerly occupied by enslaved africans on the estates. Some indians in guyana refer to this experience with negative connotations. As a digression, this could be related to the fact that people of african origin were regarded by upper caste south asians as dalits in colonial indialxi and guiana. Caste hindus, in an attempt to deny their ‘polluted’ status of living among dalits and non-hindus, generally deny the close associations between indentureship and slavery (and between indians and africans). It is common for individuals from both ethnic categories deny common experiences of exploitation under british (and ethnic) rule. These individuals, for various reasons, refuse to be compared either with freed ‘slaves’ or with bounded ‘coolies.’ Such attitudes create and maintain divisions among the guyanese working class (women and men).
Women’s work and unequal wages on the plantations
Statistics indicate that in 1861, african and indian women comprised close to half of the guianese workforce, 46 percent. At this time, free and indentured women comprised the majority of agricultural laborers, almost 70 percent, and 18 percent of domestic servants.lxii Women’s participation in the workforce was slightly reduced to 43 percent by the end of indenture, in 1921. However, their work in agriculture was dramatically reduced, as they now comprised less than 40 percent of agriculture workers, while their employment as domestics increased to 37 percent (ibid.).
During their ten years of contract labor on the sugar estate, women and children were exploited as agricultural workers by the colonial planter class as well as by indian men. In 1872 a daily minimum wage was fixed for indian indentured laborers, 25 cents for males over sixteen years, and 18 cents for females over twelve years. Women customarily were not paid the minimum wage and earned between 48 cents and 60 cents a week (Rodney 1981:41). In addition to wages, indian women were provided with a few items of work clothes and dresses. Interestingly, the sari or indian dress was not popular among women in guyana.
One report indicated that women laborers normally earned about one-half to two-thirds of the wages of male laborers.lxiii As Reddock (1985) writes, “wage differentials in most instances served their traditional purpose of making the indian woman dependent on men in spite of the fact that they were full time workers” (:83). In 1893, surgeon-major Comins found that on some estates, planters carried forward ‘an ever accumulating debt’ for rations supplied to women during pregnancy. This resulted in them earning no wages for months or years (ibid.).
It is crucial to consider that below poverty wages which women and children earned was hardly enough for their survival. Similar to women during slavery, a vast majority of indentured women’s plantation work had to supplemented with subsistence agriculture by to meet basic needs of food, clothes and shelter. After their indenture period was over, the vast majority of women continued to work on sugar plantations (and rice fields).lxiv
Discrimination against female indentured laborers, furthermore, existed in the gendered nature of work itself as planters defined certain agricultural tasks as ‘women’s work,’ and assigned women to weeding gangs and other low-paying jobs. The ideology of women’s work as ‘unproductive labor’ facilitated their exploitation as low cost laborers, at half the expense of male laborers. Women were given less pay even when they performed the same field tasks as men. Subsequently, few (if any) indian woman held higher positions on the estate, e.g., job of driver, in charge of labor gangs.
Three ex-indentured, east indian women in trinidad described their work experience on the estates during the later indenture period as follows:
In the cultivation, you will find women dominated the gangs. They were out early in the fields performing hazardous duties like dropping lime and phosphate of ammonia, planting foods on the estates, that is vegetable crops and ground provisions, heading [sic] manures, cutlassing, weeding, cutting cane, loading them on carts and most of the time carrying the cane on their heads.lxv
Women and girls as sexual objects: gender and race in the colony
Master, servant and slave: exploitation of the female body in the caribbean
As women’s labor became defined in relation to social and cultural definitions of sexual difference, their bodies were at the same time interpreted in connection with male desire and sexuality. Similar to enslaved african females, sexual exploitation of south asian women's and girls’ bodies in caribbean colonies was prevalent. This had consequences for colonized males as well. While it is clear that indian men were responsible for the exploitation of indian females in several ways, it is also true that indian men were a part of the exploited group. Additionally, south asian men found themselves in direct and unequal competition with european men to gain the favor of new arrivals of south asian female laborers. This placed them in a contradictory position in regards to indian women, other indian men and european men.
Indian male laborers on caribbean colonial plantations were part of the overlapping discourses of race and sex which began under slavery, and on which african american feminist bell hooks notes, “rape as both right and rite of the white male dominating group was a cultural norm.”lxvi During indentureship, indian men were made aware of their domination and powerlessness as over and over again the indian women they would have had the right to possess, control, assert power over, dominate, and have sexual relations - were sexually possessed and controlled by the dominating victorious white male group. This symbolic impotence of south asian men, was accompanied by a loss of honor of indian women. The scarcity of south asian women, and competition among indian men, further contributed to the reinforcement of men’s domination over women, and frequently led to violent assaults on indian women.
The bodies of all women in the colony were controlled in different ways, in the interest of dividing and preserving the identities of various ethnic collectvities. For instance, european women were not allowed to have sex with men of other groups as a way of safeguarding the dominant identity of the white group; european men had no similar constraint. A comparable situation existed for higher caste south asian women. Similarily, muslim men did not condone their women marrying out of the faith, although no such obstructions exist for men since islam is transmitted though the male line.
Many indian men adopted the european male’s racist attitude towards african and amerindian women in the colony. They were interested in these women as sexual partners, not as wives. To cite an instance, governor Longden wrote in 1876 about the "repugnance or at least indifference which indian asian men had shown to creole (african guyanese and/or mixed) women" (Mangru 1987a:216). As a justification, Mangru and others point out that indian men risked loss of caste and social chastisement from fellow immigrants by marrying women of another race and culture (:216-7). Although this viewpoint hints at south asians’ racism, it essentially ignores this and related issues around sexual exploitation.
Moreover, this explanation discounts the sexual exploitation of african and amerindian females by indian (and african) men; women who served as employees, laborers, and domestic servants, or as prostitutes and/or mistress for these men. The children of these multi-racial unions were generally degraded and stigmatized. For example, a child of an indian and african was called a doogla (bastard) and was considered as an outcaste or dalit within mainstream indian society in the colony.
Internal colonialization: caste and gender oppression in guiana
In a sense, the bodies of east indian females were penetrated and colonized by european and indian males, and their position was one of multiple oppressions of gender, ethnicity, caste and class.lxvii The experiences of women were quite different from those of an indian male, whose labor and mind were enslaved by the europeans.lxviii By the end of the indenture period, a process of class divisions and internal colonization was already becoming formalized among the south asian population, in respect to indian women and dalits.
This gendered process started in the early days of indenture. A case in point, some lower caste women and girls were married and/or forced into unions, by their fathers, with several men, especially those from more privileged class and caste backgrounds. As caribbean writer, Lloyd Braithwaite, notes, “the decision as to whether a girl should ‘trade caste for class’ was frequently a difficult problem to decide.”lxix
These lucrative arrangements led to physical and psychological abuses of women and girls, and had negative influence on lower caste men as well. Generally, poor dalit men felt liable to have their wife taken away by a superior indian in terms of caste and class (Tinker:202). Dalit men were made to feel deeply insecure as regards to indian women’s sexuality, reproduction and labor. This gendered caste oppression also had detrimental effects on the families, religious expressions, cultures, and languages of dalits in guiana (more on this later).
The shortage of women did lead to a weakening and modification of caste consciousness by facilitating inter-caste marriages. However, those indians who were the most economically successful have been the very ones who were able to marry within their caste/class. Additionally, it was not always the case that dalit females were accepted by upper caste men. If they were, these women had to hide their dalit origins. Furthermore, upper caste south asian men marrying a woman from a lower caste in the colony had to face more severe caste restrictions upon returning to india.
One investigator of the time, Comins, found in 1893: “Thousands of men have been for years past living with women who are not the same caste with the result that their children would in India be looked on as outcastes” (Reddock 1985:86). Comins related one case of abandonment in which “an immigrant (living with)... a woman of another caste brought her back from the colony (british guiana) and as far as the Howrah railway station (calcutta) where he told her and his child to sit while he got tickets, and heartlessly deserted her” (Tinker: 174-5).
Sex-disparity and the sale of indian females during the early indenture period
With the scarcity of south asian women in the caribbean colonies, child marriages became the norm and girl children were exploited by some parents who extracted the "best price obtainable" for their young daughters’ hand in marriage. Kingsley wrote of the indians in trinidad, “the girls are practically sold by their fathers while yet children” (ibid:203). Mrs. Swinton also noted this practice on the plantations she visited (:14).
In September 1869, the Royal Gazette reported the prevalence of a system whereby parents sold their young daughters to men old enough to be their fathers or grandfathers. One father, Bindharrry disposed of his three daughters at "excellent prices" and returned to India with more than 1,000 english pounds besides a quantity of jewelry (Mangru 1987a:226). This increase in the ‘marketability’ of the indian girl child did not really lead to an improvement in the position of females. In many cases it led to increased forms of sexual and economic exploitation. For, as noted earlier, “child marriage from as early as ten years became the rule” (Reddock 1985:85).
The early practice of bride price and its consequences
Tinker wrote of the prevalence of bride price in most all the indentured colonies (:203). He noted that a small number of men returned to the colony with two or three wives, and sold or transferred them to other men shortly after arriving (ibid.). The lack of registering marriages among east indians meant that an indian girl sold into marriage did not have the security of legal status and could be re-sold subsequently to another purchaser prepared to offer a more attractive ‘bride price.’ The trade in east indian girls, the high cost of bride price, and the absence of love and affection in marriages, tended to result in separations, and sometimes murder.
To cite an instance, in 1886, Goirapa was married "coolie fashion" to Yadakana but did not yet live with her. He then murdered her to prevent a re-sale planned by her family (Mangru 1987a:226). As another example, the Royal Gazette in 1854 reported that Tellock, "a miserable looking object" who brought a young girl from her parents and murdered her because she allegedly refused to live with him (ibid.).
In another instance, the sheriff of demerara, Henry Kirke, noted in 1887 the story of Seecharan, a comparatively wealthy indian of 50, who married an 11 year old girl, Etwarea, and in return agreed to give her parents a cow and calf, $50 in cash and to make a will leaving his substantial property to his wife and expected children. Initially the marriage seemed successful but on reaching sixteen, she allegedly "began to lend a willing ear to the blandishments of several young men." Brooding over his wife's suspected infidelity, Seecharan stayed away from work, sharpened his cutlass and completely severed Etwarea'a right arm. She died two days later and Seecharan was convicted and subsequently hanged.lxx
Sexual abuse of female children
As in the case of enslaved females on the estates during slavery, male overseers were highly desirous of the bodies of young south asian females. Girls who refused european sexual advances were oftentimes punished in other ways. Perhaps, in recognizing this fact, parents were more willing to comply with the masters’ lust for their daughters and avoid punishment for themselves and family members. This complicity with abuse of female children is evident in the practice referred to as ‘bear am bettie, bear am,’ In this custom, fathers took young daughters as ‘virgins’ to the houses of european overseers and managers, and waited outside while the girls were raped and sexually abused, for a fee.lxxi
The sale and exploitation of east indian girls during early periods of indenture was carried to extremes in some cases. According to Haynes Smith in 1887, indian parents would "laboriously enlarge the private parts of a young girl child by mechanical means until she is ready for the aged purchaser."lxxii Sensational as this isolated plantocratic account may be, it serves to remind us of the kinds of physical and sexual abuse many young girls were forced to endure during the indenture period.
Were east indian women more ‘free’ in the caribbean?
The scarcity of south asian women and high ratio of single women to married women during early periods of indenture no doubt changed the nature of the subordination of indian women to indian men. In addition, the prevalence of female exploitation meant that families willingly, or were compelled to, compromise their positions regarding chastity. Polyandry was practiced in some cases during the early immigration period. This tendency unsettled the traditional submissive role of south asian women as more women began to adopt roles which gave them greater freedom in the immigrant community.
In 1870, governor Scott commented on the independent nature of some domestic relations among the indentured population:
It is not uncommon for a woman of this class to leave the man with whom she has cohabited for another, and then for a third, perhaps for a fourth, and sometimes to return to the one of those she had previously deserted; and this she does in most cases with impunity (Mangru 1987a:227).
What is apparent from Scott’s comment is that many indian women, for the first time in their lives, got a chance to exercise a degree of control over their social and sexual lives which they never had before (Reddock 1985:84).
Nonetheless, female independence was always challenged by indian men through violence. The independence of south asian women was viewed as a source of shame by many indian men. The collusion between the interests of indian men, the state and capital; the many incidents of violence against women; the lack of registration of marriages, etc., were part of an attempt to possess and control indian women’s sexuality in a situation which denied them few other sources of power. In this manner, women were compelled to give up their relative freedom, and kept in this position (ibid.).
These factors also serve to place indian women firmly under the control of men with the reconstruction of indian patriarchal family structure. Purdah, or the seclusion of women in south asian cultures, was common in guiana as female honor was highly prized. Certain aspects of purdah were still observed by indian women in some middle and upper class families throughout the indentureship period.lxxiii Nevertheless, a struggle took place as women did not readily and effortlessly comply with the collusion of male and state interests. The use of transfers; cases of domestic violence; incidents of indian resistance; laws against ‘harboring an immigrant’s wife’ and court cases resulting from breaches against these laws, are all evidence of this struggle (Reddock ibid.).
The prevalence of domestic violence and the exploitative aspects of polyandry in the form of child abuse, paid sex work, rape, physical abuse and so on, need to get factored into arguments made for women’s ‘freedom’ during this period. To cite an instance, some men accepted payment from ‘lodgers’ in their rooms, which came with an indian woman who was required to cook and be sexually available to indian male customers (Tinker:204). These kinds of sexual arrangements frequently led to quarrels, violence and murders of indian men and women.
Another argument against the so called “freedom” of indian women on the estates is that although only a small percentage of south asian women who emigrated were sex workers, indian women on the estates were regarded as immoral, and as such, “all were liable to become victims in a system which regarded them so casually” (ibid:205). This image of the ‘loose’ indian female allowed both european and south asian males to violate females’ bodies with impunity to community and legal sanctions against infringement of ‘virtuous’ women.
East indian females’ improved status, if any, during the early indenture period in guyana was short lived. One reason was that, as more south asian women became available for marriages to south asian men, their value as a sexual object to men and as an economic commodity to families, decreased. Another, is that the control of indian men over indian women became more established in the colony.
European men’s sexual exploitation of indian females and indian resistance movements on the estates
A visitor to trinidad noted the case of a european estate manager who had seven indian women, “being with child, all by him.”lxxiv The royal commission of 1871 in guiana, whose members were sympathetic to planters, stated: “It is not uncommon for overseers, and even managers, to form temporary connections with Coolie women, and in every case with the worst possible consequences to the good order and harmony of the estate.” It is meaningful to notice here that the exploitation of indian women is viewed here mainly in terms of its effects upon production, and not really on the women or families involved. Tinker commented “this subject is carefully ignored in almost all contemporary documents, but sometimes events dragged the question into the open” (ibid.).
Seduction and violent sexual assaults of south asian women and girls by european managers and overseers led to militant resistance among the indian laborers several times. In one case, the sexual relations between the deputy manager at plantation Non Pareil and an indian woman, Jamni, was the principal cause of the indian resistance there in October 1896. In their resistance, five indians were shot dead by the police, including the woman's husband Jungli, and 59 others seriously wounded. Significantly, little or no disciplinary action was taken against the police or deputy manager (Ramnarine 1987:125).
As another example of resistance on this issue, Bechu, a bengali man who arrived in plantation Enmore in 1894 and who was one of the first indian activists in guyana, wrote his first letter to the press and included substantial allegations of the “immoral” exploitation of indian females by overseers (Rodney 1981:155-6). In fact the stereotype of the passive coolie worker is shattered when on considers that between 1874 and 1895, 65,084 indentured immigrants, women and men, were convicted of breaches of the labor contract (ibid.).
Women’s resistance within the family: murder of indian women on colonial plantations
Throughout indenture, south asian females were highly valued and jealously guarded by indian men. At the same time, many women during this period were constantly resisting oppressive structures within south asian culture and the indian family, and domination by south asian men. The alarming incidences of murder of indian women in caribbean colonies is one sign of this resistance. Among the women killed in guyana were Anundai, Baumee, Goirapa and Saukalia, for allegedly deserting their husbands (Mangru 1987a:211-230).
These horrendous acts of violence agains south asian women were due to several factors including the colonial domination of south asian men, women’s resistance to indian male domination, to the actions of particular men as well as to male violence in general, and finally, to the fixed sexual categories and values determined within indian cultures. The frequent murders prompted intense criticisms in India, and since it provoked questioning of the entire immigration system, the colonial powers instituted various measures to deal with these killings.
Immigration agent-general reports of guyana showed 23 murders of Indian women by their husbands in the period 1859-1864, 11 between 1865-1870, 13 between 1873-1875, 36 between 1884-1895, and 17 between 1901-1907 (ibid:217). There were also 35 cases of cutting and wounding of indian wives with the hoe and cutlass between 1886-1890. Reverend Robert Duff in, British Guiana (1886) drew attention to the frequency and cruel barbarity of these acts of violence against indian women (ibid.).
Colonial policies to prevent the murders of indian women and girls
In December 1863, death by hanging was officially proclaimed for this crime. In addition, ordinance 4 of 1864, article 125, instructed estate managers to notify the district magistrate promptly when a wife deserted her husband for another man. The officer was correspondingly empowered to remove either the husband or the wife to a distant plantation, subject to the governor's approval (ibid.:219-20).
It’s worth pointing out here that these striking policies reflect the prevailing racist and sexist attitudes of colonial officials, and represent a continuation of slave-like conditions for south asian women. These measures were aimed, in part, at protecting the ‘chastity of indian women’ in response to nationalists’ pressure in india. However, instead of focusing on violence against women in general, these gendered regulations concentrated on limiting the sexuality of indian women; the victims thereby became defined as ‘the problem.’ As a consequence, female sexuality was a serious concern for colonial officials and became subject to forceful laws of the state.
Such restrictive policies limited a woman’s choice of a partner, which now became dependent on colonial approval. This curbed, for instance, indian women’s freedom to live with other (perhaps less abusive) men. Further, these laws represented a double standard by failing to address equally the issue of indian male sexuality, and for excluding the sexuality of european males altogether. This combination of gendered laws and domestic violence led to “the curtailment of the social and economic autonomy which numerous women had sought to achieve in the new society” (Reddock 1985:79).
The royal commission of 1871 attributed the killing of indian females to the "constitutional jealousy of Orientals exaggerated... by the great inequalities of the sexes" and expressed little faith in transfers (Mangru 1987a:221; my emphasis). It is significant to point out that this quote by the commission is revealing in several ways: (1) as a rare official admission of the oppression of women, (2) as a slight of hand recognition of the domination and oppression of indian females by indian males, and (3) for ignoring european male exploitation of indian females as a contributing factor to male jealousy.
Commission members, whose sympathies lay with the planters, advocated flogging as a punishment for men, instead of transfers. The commission recommended for women, the "disgrace" of having their heads completely shaved (ibid.). It’s worth pointing out here that a strict christian disposition towards the extramarital affairs of women was sought to be reproduced in the colony, similar to europe and america. Despite criticism of transfers, colonial secretary Kimberley's response in 1882 was terse: "I cannot sanction either flogging or shaving" (:222) Kimberley’s reaction was perhaps a recognition among the british upper class that such actions would present more fuel for abolitionists. Consequently, colonial authorities were compelled to utilize transfers with increasing frequency; Table II below shows this trend.
Table II: Transfer of Indians from Plantationslxxv
Year Number of Transfers
1863-1868 17 out of threats
1869-1870 88 out of threats
1881-1890 34% "wife cases"
1889-1905 29% "wife cases"
Women’s resistance and transfers: legislating female sexuality
There were several problems with transfers of indian men and women to different estates, as Crosby indicated in his complaint to the royal commission, "I have been much distressed to be obliged to separate people who have been living together ten or twelve years, and have had children" (ibid.). Ironically, Crosby continued to use transfers and separate families. Although Crosby tried to improve the condition of the indian laborers under his charge, he remain committed to supporting the very system which provided the grounds for these brutal acts of violence against indian women. As a social reformer, he only wanted to amend the abuses in the indenture system, not dismantle it. As such, he remained part of the british power structure and profited from its trade in coolies.
Crosby was convinced in 1875 that the shortage of women was “the great exciting cause of the lamentable quarrels and wife murders” (:217). It is noteworthy that this latter comment, (echoed by Scott, Longden and other colonial administrators), is typical of a ‘blame the victim’ attitude. This perspective served several purposes: (1) to absolve colonial officials and their policies from all culpability in these deaths, by (2) attributing the cause to the behavior of ‘uncivil’ indian men and ‘immoral’ indian women.
In a further denial of accountability, Scott and other colonial agents were quick to point out that wife murders in india did not differ significantly from guyanese statistics (:218). This is like saying, ‘murder of women is an indian cultural phenomenon, and colonial administrators could do little about it.’ This position was contradictory due to the fact that ‘improving’ the status of indian women was used as a justification for colonial rule in india.
Murders of south asian women on estates in colonial guyana was a complicated issue linked to issues around women’s sexual freedom and resistance, east indian male domination and oppression of women, sexual exploitation by indian and european men, colonial policie of marriage, transfers, and so on. One guyanese male, Mohamed Baksh, noted in Argosy (30 June 1906), "I know many of the atrocities for which East Indians are convicted, sent to prison and hanged would be prevented were the law but to recognize the validity of marriages according to the law and custom of East Indians." Some of the issues related to marriage will be discussed later.
The politics of east indian female oppression
To their credit, Bechu as well as many other south asian men at the time, were strongly opposed to the sexual abuse of south asian women and girls by european men. Interestingly, these same indian men were less vocal on issues related to the sexual exploitation of indian females by indian males, granted that these issues were often taboo, more hidden and less racially charged. Still, it is not surprising as, throughout the period of indentureship and colonialism, the domination and control of women by men was still prevalent among indians in caribbean societies.
Wife murders, rape and sexual abuse of indian girls and women were common occurrences on estates, in indian nuclear and extended families, among south asian kinship groups and village communities. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of indian men to ignore these issues and point their fingers at the ‘morality’ and ‘infidelity’ of indian women, rather than blame themselves for these acts of violence. Ironically, perhaps the most effective public issue used in the campaign against indentureship and colonial rule in india, was the appeal made by male south asian nationalists against ‘the slavery of indian men and the prostitution of indian women.’
It is important to point out that this common complaint of abuses was coached in gendered terms. For indentured men, the principal issue was that of their labor being exploited under harsh working conditions. In contrast, indentured women (whose labor were being exploited under similar conditions) were not defined as workers, but essentially, as moral beings. It was their virtue and decency that were being exploited and so there was an implied ‘need’ to control their sexuality.
Men like Dwarkanath Tagore, M. K. Gandhi, C. F. Andrews, pandit Malaviya, S. Sastri, B. N. Basu, and D. E. Wacha, lxxvi attacked the indenture system on behalf of the perceived threat to indian women’s ‘virtue and morality’ in other colonies to which indians had emigrated (which were far away from south asian, male systems of control). The nationalist campaign made use of this problem to galvanize women’s support for their cause in india. The issue was raised through women’s organizations associated with the male dominated movement. Meetings were held throughout india, mainly among middle and upper class/caste women, who passed various resolution for abolition of the system (Reddock 1985:86).
There were many impassioned speeches made on behalf of indian women’s status in caribbean plantations. In 1917, owing to huge public objection against indentureship in india, the system was abolished. So great was the public agitation that even the proposal for a system of assisted emigration had to be shelved (ibid.). Notwithstanding these efforts, nationalists’ concern for the welfare of indian women in the caribbean declined sharply after the abolition of indenture, inasmuch as the issue no longer had political value in india.
Indians’ relocation to villages and towns and the status of women
The colonial idealization of free east indian women’s work
From about 1870, east indian villages began to form around the estates. Planters regularly granted small plots of land to ex-indentured workers as a way of maintaining access to their labor. By the end of the century, free south asians had formed ethnically exclusive villages all over the coastal region, clustered around various estates. After their period of indentureship, many east indian women continued working on the estates, in addition to working in rice fields and family gardens. These women extended their working day into the night in order to help their families survive and improve their social and economic status. Yet, they seldom controlled or owned property.
Throughout indenture, it was in the interest of indian men, colonial bureaucrats and planters to create a stable, self-reproducing labor market in guiana. However, this ‘historic conflation of interests’ depended upon the importation of indian females, and planters were at first reluctant to cover the additional cost of attracting and transporting women into the country (ibid.:79). The planter class, in general, felt that the importation of indian females was an unnecessary burden, but they had to bow to pressure from colonial administrators.
Acting governor Young, who considered the indenture system a ‘blessing’ with its ‘one blot’ being the shortage of women, tried to convince planters to undertake the extra cost of importing more females during his tenure (Tinker:266). In one instance, he commented,
It is a gratifying sight in this Colony to witness the numerous instances of industry and thrift to be found amongst the free Coolie women, and to observe their intelligence in the management of the little property they and their Husbands may have acquired. In many cases their Husbands seem to leave all business details to their Wives, and the Wives seem well worthy of the trust. It is the women in most cases who are to be seen paying in money to the Savings bank, or making lodgments of money for remittance to India (Mangru 1987a:224).
In interpreting this text, one can observe clearly the colonial imaging and representation of indentured women and men. It should be kept in mind that Young is addressing indenture’s critics by trying to show them how ‘better off’ the lives of some free indian women were, according to his accounts. One notices that enthusiasm for this argument leads him to claim that wives are primarily in control of decisions regarding the indian family’s productive, economic, and social resources. Needless to say, Young contradicts himself on this claim several times.
For example, in observing the negative influence of south asian men on the status of south asian women, Young advocated positive action to improve the "moral status of the coolie woman" (ibid.:224). This comment on the low status of women contradicts his earlier position that they were generally in control of the family’s resources. In this case, Young was arguing that only by recognizing the positive traits of character of south asian women and initiating measures to develop them, that “civilization and morality” could be substantially improved among the indian population. Despite this progressive rhetoric, Young and other colonial officials were conveying a particular image of indian women which contributed to a general view of them either as contented bonded laborer, child-mother or exotic seductress.
Young displays his contradictory position again in a letter justifying the importation of indian females to guyana in 1889. He reasoned that, although indian women were not physically capable of strenuous plantation exertion (he knew quite well that they worked equal to men, for less pay), they were industrious; and that by “devoting herself to domestic duties an indian woman could exercise a civilizing and humanizing influence on those around her” (ibid.: 224-5). It is crucial to realize here that this attitude towards women masks a devaluation of their labor and justifies systemic discrimination in employment, wages, services, and representation within the colonial system. This capitalist sexual division of labor which defined women as ‘housewives’ and men as ‘workers’ was connected with the divisive social structure of upper caste, south asian culture which included the seclusion of women. Yet, the vast majority of women, especially dalit women, were not housewives then (or now).
Gendered class divisions: women’s role in the creation of indian prosperity in guiana
There is an increasing rethinking of class formation in historical and sociological writing, such as in the area of class as a gendered formation.lxxvii Although gendered class formation among indians in guyana has not been documented, given the lack of property ownership among indian women, the factual basis for this argument is painfully clear. This process was historically contingent upon a number of individual, communal and societal factors.
As part of a social, legal and historical process of excluding women from control of economic and other resources, it was not until 1904 that separate property rights were conferred to women (Peake. 1993. ibid.:fn 9). As a community process, women became the means where wealth was exchanged and kept within the south asian ethnic group as a whole during and after indenture.lxxviii Class formation also resulted from in the sale of girls, bride price, and so on, as discussed earlier. Women also facilitated the maintenance of individual males’ caste identity, and were responsible for reproducing the group in the colony.
Some aspects of indian women’ status and living conditions did improve off the estates. During the early part of indenture, women were able to exercise some degree of autonomy over their sexuality and mobility. At this time, some women actively pursued a more ‘well-off’ companion to live with, from south asian and other ethnic backgrounds. Women also benefited somewhat as part of a process of class formation among south asians.
For one, they facilitated reproduction and exploitation of family labor to occur among already privilege males. Some women ‘benefited’ from this process of upward economic mobility of indian families, e.g., in being withdrawn from field labor as a sign of higher status. However, this process of class formation and division was not always a comfortable situation for women. To illustrate, Comins found in 1893, that some indian shopkeepers landholders, and so on, had more than one wife (Reddock. 1985:84).
Apart from improved class status for women, indian prosperity became closely related to women's servitude and abuse within the indian family structure. Their bondage within the family was made easy by the gendered ideologies and structures within south asian religions and cultures, and the colonial administration. Within the family, while women actively participated in agricultural tasks, they were economically exploited, and verbally and physically abused by men, based on deep-seated assumptions about women’s inferiority and infantility. Restrictions on women’s labor, mobility and sexuality outside the home and family, were ways of signifying higher caste and social status. Thus women became crucial elements in class division.
The sexual division of labor resulted in indian women and girls having more work and less power over finances within the indian family structure. By the same token, this division of labor, and women's inferiority within the south asian family structure, had several advantages for south asian men such as less responsibilities and more access to family resources as a result of control over women's earnings.
Another example of class as a gendered formation is the fact that, with the end of indenture, indian women experienced a sharp decline in wage employment and independent earnings. Women’s economic position became further dependent on that of males as a result. Even as late as the 1947 voter registration, the last year in which the franchise to vote was limited by property and income qualifications, east indian women comprised only six percent of all indian voters and less than ten percent of all female voters.lxxix Their small percentage among indian voters is indicative of women’s inferior economic status within the indian family.
Indeed, it was on the backs and labor of indian women that indian men obtained labor, economic and other resources and power, and on which indian prosperity was built. Until recently, east indian women benefited little from this process of class division among south asian and other ethnic groups in the colony. To continually applaud the prospertiy of some indians, as is commonplace among both men and women within the community, is to give continued sanction to the exploitation of indian women and children.
Women’s and children’s labor in south asian households varied according to caste, class, location, age, and so on.lxxx However, the oppression of south asian women - regardless of religion, caste and class - was similar in many ways as well. One similarity among women in hindu, muslim, and christian families, was the powerful influence of religion on the family, and on women's economic and social status in turn (more on this later).
The triple burdens of female labor in the colony
In contrast to the positive image Young and others presented of the contended free woman, many poor, under-paid women and children found themselves employed for long hours, doing arduous and often undignified tasks, in order to try and build the subsistence earnings of their family. Further, as the subjugation of indian women by men became reinforced under extended or joint families during the later period of indenture, women’s earnings usually came under control of the dominant patriarch in the family. As a result, women’s power in decision-making over family finances and on issues outside of the household became more limited.
During and after their period of indenture, women had to endure multiple burdens on their time, labor, and resources. The sexual division of labor meant that alongside field labor, they were also the ones in the family with primary responsibility for domestic production and reproduction. This means cooking, fetching water and firewood, cleaning and washing, as well as childcare, and health care of the family, were all primarily the responsibilities of girls and women. Many girls joined the weeding gang at the age of ten and were indentured as soon as the law allowed.
Most poor indian women worked very hard all of their lives on the plantations as paid labor, and as unpaid labor on their husband's land and well as on their own family's land.lxxxi Some women did achieve a measure of independence, however, this came at the price of being overworked. Indentured and free indian women's work and responsibilities were more demanding in many ways than men’s work. It was only during the 1890s that there was increased awareness of the adverse conditions under which indian women worked, including field labor performed in advanced stages of pregnancy (Rodney 1981:157).
Caste and class stratification: east indians’ prosperity in guiana
The vast majority of enslaved and indentured populations in guyana were exploited by the planter class during colonialism. Interestingly, south asian merchants were also involved in recruiting and shipping indentured laborers to the caribbean from bombay, india. As part of existing class divisions in guyana, the vast majority of people from amerindian, african, creole, chinese, portuguese, and indian groups remained poor all their lives. This is not to say that a ‘middle-class’ did not develop within and among these various ethnic groups. However, the achievements of a small number of families should not be viewed as representative of an entire ethnic group.
By the 1950s, along with a slight numerical majority, people of south asian origin surpassed the portuguese group to become the second most dominate group (next to europeans) in the professions, business, and agriculture.lxxxii As previously discussed, the social mobility of indians was due in part to the exploitation of the labor of females and children within the family structure, the sale of girls, bride price, and so on, which occurred throughout indenture. Indian women played a major role in rice cultivation, retail trades, and so on.
The process of south asian class formation began as soon as free, ex-indentured immigrants started moving away from the sugar plantations in significant numbers in the 1870s. During this period, there were comments that some individuals were acquiring wealth. In 1879, the governor noted the upward mobility of "shirtless Coolies," who were becoming land owners, landlords, small proprietors, and storekeepers. South asian historian, J. C. Jha, wrote that the thrift of the indians was well-known; they would live a very simple life, take a frugal meal of dal and rice or roti, save as much as they could and buy ornaments for their women and land to cultivate. Many started their own groceries, particularly indian drivers (1994:103-8).
A trinidad newspaper referring to ‘free’ east indians noted in 1903, “they knew the value of money and land; they were thrifty, unlike the people of African origin.” It’s worth pointing out here that this attitude reveals another colonial excuse for the bonded labor system, that is, through praise of the struggle for survival of free laborers. This struggle was viewed as knowing ‘the value of money and land.’ Given ‘slave’ wages and being taken advantage of as part of the colonial economy, indians had no other alternative but to be ‘thrifty.’
It is also interesting to observe how free indians were compared to free africans, who choose not to woek on the plantations at ‘slave wages.’ The colonial representation of africans as ‘lazy’ and ‘ungrateful’ for refusing the ‘largess’ of european planters, was part of the strategy used to dominate both groups. This included the imaging of bonded laborers as ‘model’ coolies in contrast to rebellious africans. Even though the material conditions for the vast majority of freed africans and indians varied little, this policy of divide and rule created stereotypes among both groups that served to maintain the colonial system fifty years after abolition of indenture.
By 1911, an indian owned a plantation and employed indian indentured laborers in surinam. In guyana, the value of landed property owned by the free indians in 1911-12 was $972,761. Additionally, they owned 13,384 head of cattle, and 3,022 head of sheep and goats. Wherever the indians established themselves, they grew rice and sugar cane (ibid:104). Money lending was another activity that made many indians rich, abeit at the expense of others as interests were as high as ten percent per month. lxxxiii It needs to be stated that there was a wide variation in south asian prosperity during this time. Also, many families from the small, south asian middle and upper class group, were recent upper caste emigrants who came as investors to the colony, after the abolition of indenture.
Most writers tend to ignore caste and gender issues in their analysis of the indian working class during indentureship and colonialism in guyana. However, as Rodney points out, a breakdown of data according to caste indicates a much higher than normal proportion of upper and middle caste brahmins and kshattriyas (chatris) among land buyers before 1900, demonstrating that the land buyers were a privilege minority in more ways than one. He concluded that length of stay, high caste status and the job of driver each separately provided advantages which were transformed into class mobility (Rodney 1981:112).
Rodney’s insight here is critical to the purposes of this paper. His analysis suggests that not only was class formation caste-related, but that there was a re-emergence of caste associated employment within the villages and settlements in guyana. For instance, Jha notes that intermediate and higher caste individuals became landowners and money lenders, while dalits were once again reduced to working as agricultural laborers, domestic servants, gardeners, porters, watchmen, and ‘scavengers’ (1974:11).
Even though upper and intermediate caste hindus experienced a drop in status and social mobility working as indentured laborers on the estates, nevertheless, their prestige relative to the dalits, was not significantly reduced (ibid.). One anthropologist, Morton Klass, noted of his fieldwork in trinidad during the late 1950s, “the primary determinant of status among rural Hindus is caste membership. Education, occupation, and wealth are also important, but they all tend to cluster along with high-caste membership... in the rural village, leadership, wealth and high-caste membership go hand in hand.”lxxxiv As occupation was the main basis for social status, this resulted in a re-building of a caste/occupational hierarchy among the free east indian population.
As a further example of caste-related class formation, an older indian woman recently told me a story of the existence of a group of dalits from the bangi caste in guyana in the 1970s whose caste-associated occupation was cleaning out other people’s latrines or out-houses. She said that property owners in towns, due to lack of space to construct another toilet, would hire the services of this group of men, (who specialized in this occupation), to dig a hole and empty the contents of the filled toilet into it, thereby extending the life of out-houses.
In their study of trinidad, the Niehoffs (1974) found “a considerable number of successful Indians on the Island are Brahmans and it is probable that the respectful regard they enjoy among Hindus had been helpful to them” (:91). These two researchers also noted a close connection between class and caste. supporting the argument for re-construction of upper caste dominance among south asians in caribbean colonies. Interestingly, the Niehoffs do not go beyond the suggestion that caste-related, class division in trinidad was due to ‘respectful regard’ among hindus of higher caste groups. The subjugation on dalits and women implied in brahmanic domination, is curiously ignored. Another link between class and caste, the cultural aspects of power and domination, are explored next.
Homogenization of south asian religions and cultures that were oppressive to women
Culture, power and domination
The religious, cultural, and ideological values surrounding social relations are as real as power relations themselves, which include the culture of domination and the domination of the cultural realm. In this sense, the culture of domination includes economic, social, ideological, and other processes that patterns relationships, labor, identity, and so on. Some of these economic and ideological issues were discussed in the previous section. The domination of the cultural realm relates to practices and forms of their normalization and contestation (Prakash 1992:36). This part of the paper explores both the ideological processes and practices in the normalization or homogenization, of south asian religions and cultures in guyana, and their contestation. It is only a preliminary inquiry into, as Marisol de la Cadena writes, “(how) popular notions of ethnicity form part of the historical process of ethnic identity formation and change.”lxxxv
In regards to previous writings on this subject, the Niehoffs’ study (1960) attempted to demonstrate that ‘indian’ cultural practices was rapidly changing in trinidad and that caste was no longer an important aspect. The two authors maintained, “inter-caste marriage is common, the commensal and touch taboos have been mostly abandoned, ritual supports have little significance any longer, and occupation as defined by caste is almost defunct” (:186).These statements, no doubt, have some truth; however, they are based on a too rigid definition of caste and cultural practices as derived from the indian sub-continent.
Concerning the indian family structure, Rhoda Reddock similarly argues, , “on a whole most of the five main factors governing Hindu marriage - endogamy, exogamy, prohibited kin, virgin marriage and hypergamy were broken down virtually irreparably” (:86). This author correctly points out that the shortage of indian women during the early indenture period in the caribbean meant that there was essential changes in south asian cultural practices. Nevertheless, this perspective do not fully acknowedge ideological processes, that is, the re-construction of south asian cultures which took place during the later indenture period. Further, these authors do not understand the deeply embedded nature of south asian cultures, including the caste system. Many of cultural norms and customs continue to be acknowledged, even among dalits, muslims and christians.
This section of the paper argues that fundamental elements of south asian culture, including caste, culture, and marriage, did (and still) exist in guyana, abeit in a changed form. These were re-constituted during the later indenture period, encouraged by the state, religious and political groups and accompanied by a re-creation of the traditional indian family structure. This perspective takes into account the complex relationships that exists between these south asian cultures and the ongoing exploitation of caste and gender, the rise of new elites, and the emergence of party and racist politics in the twentieth century.
Religion, caste and culture during early and later indentureship
In the early days of indenture, the indians had few leaders or local organizations like the village council or gram panchayat in india. There existed a very diverse form of hinduism, including vaishnavites, shaivites, and madrases; and leadership patterns followed this same eclectic form. Most emigrants retained a sense of case origins from india, and as they moved off the estates, caste communities were sometimes recreated in villages.
Among the first and second generation of indentured immigrants, there were religious and community leaders who went from village to village for the expressed purpose of arranging marriages between children of the same religion, branches of hinduism, and caste groups. Additionally, south asian cultural rites like naming ceremonies, tattoos marks on the hands and feet of females (gondana), caste marks on foreheads (teeka),and body piercing, helped to maintain case identities in the third generation and beyond.
Elements of brahmanic casteism and oppression of women existed during the early period of indenture in the caribbean. One colonial administrator, Gamble, noted in trinidad in 1866, “there are some of the brahmin caste among them and it is revolting to see the way a woman, for instance, will drop down, touch the foot of this holy Brahmin, and then kiss the hand that has been in contact with the priests’ foot.”lxxxvi We are not informed of the woman’s caste in this commentary, but it is quite likely that she was a dalit. Interestingly, what is revolting to Gamble is the woman’s reverence of a brahmin, however he may not have realized that, as a woman and possibly a dalit, she may not have had much choice in the matter.lxxxvii
Despite the different patterns of leadership and worship during the early period, Jha writes that by “the second half of the nineteenth century, the higher caste hindus, and among the muslims the maulavis, took up the leadership” of the indian village communities (Jha 1994:104-5). However, the domination of brahmins and maulavis was never complete, and was contested by women, dalits and other groups like the madrases, arya samajis, siewnarinees and so on.
The re-construction of south asian religions and castes under indentureship in guiana
In guyana, only two small hindu temples were observed by a royal commission in the 1860s, but by the 1890s, at least thirty-three temples and twenty-nine mosques were found by Comins (Tinker:210). Quite soon, brahmin families became the hereditary guardians of many of the shrines (ibid.), thereby re-establishing the higher caste ritual status of the upper caste. Brahmin males were therefore able to re-emerged from the indentured experience with all of their previous prestige and status intact and many were able to resume their role as spiritual and intellectual leadership of the majority of hindus. This allowed brahmins to reassert their monopoly on ritualistic functions around childbirth, marriage and death among the majority of south asians in the colony.lxxxviii
By the early 20th century, hindu temples were commonplace in most estates and villages, constructed often with help and encouragement by the otherwise strict and repressive estate management. Caribbean historian, Robert Moore, suggests the management took such steps purposefully to keep the indian labor force socio-culturally isolated from the rest of the colonial population, and therefore more easily manipulated.lxxxix
Interestingly, south asian anthropologist, Chandra Jayawardena, suggests that this proliferation of temple-building activity in guyana indicates the first trends toward religious homogenization.xc Homogenization is taken to mean a process of shaping and blending dissimilar religious and cultural ideas and practices into one dominant form. In guyana, homogenization occurred partly through the domination of spiritual practices by, and according to, north indian, upper caste religious values, norms and traditions (whether hinduism or islam).
The process of cultural blending was a mechanism for power used by privileged groups to culturally dominate others as part of south asian ethnic identity formation. Power was secured through categories of status and ranking which facilitated the ascendance upper caste, north indian groups and cultural practices. The positions of women and dalits were enmeshed in an economy of symbolic and material practices that, in a sense, reproduced their dominated existence in india. This include their subjugation within the domain of indian culture, for example, in religious beliefs and practices, ritual ranking, the oppression of women, and so on. Caste and gender ranking promoted the exploitation of women and dalit labor by both colonial and upper caste cultures of domination; their labor was drafted as free and undervalued, (i.e., underpaid) on and off the estates.
Dutch sociologist, Steven Vertovec, indicates that this domination of the cultural realm may have occurred because caste identities in many cases remained among south asian immigrants and some of their descendants, even though no caste system ever arose to control or influence personal or group interactions.xci The author claims that a process of "brahmanization" occurred, whereby throughout the hindu community a corpus of brahmanic ritual directed toward sanskritic gods, became a characteristic process marking caribbean hinduism.
To illustrate, Vertovec notes the prevalence of readings from the ramayana of Tulsidas, the frequent performance of formal puja (offering made to sanskritic gods), samskaras (rites of passage), kathas (recitals of sacred text), and bhagwats or yagnas (week long ritual reading of sacred texts) (ibid.). Jha further supports this claim when he observes that several features of caribbean hindu practices of puja and hawan are identical to north indian practices.xcii Jha further notes that the most popular hindu festivals were the north indian Divali festival of lights and phagwa spring festival (celebrated even though there is no ‘spring’ as such in the caribbean) (1974: 8).
However, there were significant differences in hindu ritual and worship in guyana from that in india. From a mainstream hindu perspective, the timing of religious rituals, such as weddings, were not as strict as in india; elaborate rituals prescribed by the hindu canon were not usually done; rituals at homes were more common in the caribbean than in many parts of india; most of the rituals were dominated by the priest, rather than having more involvement from devotees; and the ‘polluting’ habit of eating meat was practiced by most hindus of all castes.xciii Moreover, there was a general absence of mother goddess worship, and there were few female deities besides Sita of the ramayana.
After indentureship: the rise of hindu fundamentalism in guiana
For many years, the organizational development of “brahmanized” hinduism in the caribbean was modest, but by the 1920s and 1930s, a rapid acceleration occurred. This expansion occurred in parallel to the development of an indian middle class leadership in the early 1920s, which again suggests a close connection between caste and social class formation and divisions. The development of labor organization among sugar workers during this same period, further links exploitation of dalit and lower class workers by more caste/class privileged organizers.
During this period, advocates of brahmanic hinduism, or “sanatanist,” had several violent clashes with the missionary workers of reformist organizations like the arya samaj (which started as a reform movement against castism and brahmanism in north india in 1875), the kabir panth and the siewnarinee, a south indian reform movement. Consolidating their power in 1927, the brahmins in colonial guyana established a pundits’ council to act as sole authority, along with the sanatan dharma maha sabha, of all hindus in the colony.
Both of these upper caste/class religious organizations gained prominence, achieved important gains during the 1930s and 1940s, and became major political forces during the 1950s and 1960s. These organizations started schools, held meetings in temples, published books, participated in large-scale religious celebrations, and sponsored religious and cultural festivals. Anthropologists R. T. Smith (1962) writes,
This form of Hinduism (promoted by Maha Sabha) has gradually replaced all the lower-caste cults and special practices which used to exist among the immigrants, and it claims the affiliation of practically all the temples in the country. With its sister organization, the Pundits’ Council, it may be said to control orthodox Hinduism (or the nearest Guianese equivalent to it) in British Guiana, and has come to constitute a “church” in the technical sense (:123-4).
The result of these cultural processes and practices were manifold. One was that, given the wide range of religious practices that existed in india and guyana, homogenization had a negative influence on diversity in favor of more singular notions of religious belief and expression. This meant a majority of dalit groups were "pressured" into a process of sanscritization, or adopting higher caste definitions of religion and culture. They also resulted in marginalizing south indian cultures, and the oppression of women, as cultural practices were dominated by men.
To a certain extent, upper caste, north indian domination was aided by colonial divisive policies which contributed to increasing the differences between south asians belonging to hinduism and islam in colonial indian and guyana. This led to a further homogenization of hindu and muslim groups along fluid caste boundaries, but more rigid religious lines, with negative consequences for both groups. Hindu-muslim intermarriages were not encouraged, for instance, with negative consequences for both men and women. A discussion of these issues, however, are beyond the scope of this paper
Dalit cultures in guyana
Given the large numbers of dalit females and males who emigrated from colonial india to guiana, aspects of dalit culture were quite prevalent during the early indenture period. Animal sacrifices at the level of religious life, and the use of meat and alcohol at the level of food culture, were practiced. However, many aspects of dalit culture were forced to go underground, like blood sacrifices which met with colonial and brahmanic disapproval. Further, dalit food, art, dance, music and religious practices got incorporated into more widely accepted forms.
As expressed earlier, caste is not only about religion and culture, but fundamentally about power. As social mobility became articulated through caste groups, dalits were once again discriminated against within the south asian community. Dalit peoples, cultures, ideologies, and practices were suppressed by both the south asian upper castes and colonial ruling groups. The term ‘chamar’ was used as an insult among east indians, and is still in use. During indentureship, dalits have experienced problems in trying to enter orthodox hindu temples, as in india. This may have them to resort to other forms of religious ideologies and practices outside of the conventional hindu fold, e.g., kali worship, christianity and islam. In spite of all this, many continued to be treated as outcastes by members of the hindu upper caste group.
Considered ‘polluting’ to caste hindus, dalits formed residential clusters at the end of villages, similar to india. For example, the Niehoffs reported the existence of a village inhabited exclusively by the dom people, outside of the town of Debe. They also noted that one end of another area, Penal, “the section where most Negroes are found, has a heavy concentration of low-caste Hindus, many of whom raise pigs” (1974:93). It is significant to note here that the close residential location between dalits and africans represents their similar social, cultural, economic and power location in regards to mainstream hindu village society, that is, the margins.
With respect to dance and other art forms, jhumar was one of the few forms of tribal folk song-dances to survive briefly in the caribbean, as other dalit art forms like the nagara got incorporated into more general folk categories and were no longer performed in an ‘authentic’ manner.xciv The classical traditions of north india predominated in music and dance, in the form of tan sangeet music, rajdhar dance, etc., (ibid.) thus maintaining and reinforcing upper caste indian identities which entailed the perpetuation of privilege with the close association of caste with class. These processes were gendered as can be gauged through the early practice of particular forms of folk arts and theater in guyana, in which women sang or played an instrument, but were not allowed to dance (ibid.). And, as many priests became accomplished musicians-singers, upper castes ideology and practices came to dominate these various artistic expressions as well.
As a result of caste and state oppression, a process of sanskritization and westernizationxcv occurred among the dalits. Sanskritization means basically giving up practices and sources of pollution that form an integral part of the dalit lifestyle, for the more respectable practices of the upper castes. It enabled dalits who had acquired wealth or political power to shed their low ritual status and be included among the high castes. However, as M. N. Srinivas points out, these were only positional changes, not structural ones (ibid.:99).
With westernization, some dalit families converted to christianity and others tried to provide their children with western education. Christians, muslims, dalits and other south asian groups generally claim that casteism does not exist anymore. Many hindus have forgotten to which caste they belong. Caste may even be a matter of little concern for the majority of intermediate caste hindus. Nevertheless, one cannot say that the ideological process and practice of casteism no longer exist. It endures in many areas, such as the following: the oppression of dalit cultures; in the continued close connection between class and caste privileges; in respect for brahmins and maulavis, who are ‘aware’ of their caste; and in the fact that non-brahmins priest are rare (and women rarer still) within mainstream hinduism.
South indian cultures in guyana
Over a fifth of the indentured emigrants to guiana came from south india and aspects of south indian culture were quite popular, especially during the early indenture period. In certain areas of berbice region, madrase culture and parts of tamil society were reproduced.xcvi For example, the land use patterns of rice cultivation were similar to tamil society (ibid.). Temples were established by south indian women and men devoted to shaktism. There were south indian reform groups like the siewnarinees, and more traditional groups who worshipped the supreme mother goddess mariamma in the form of kali.xcvii South indian cultural process and practices in guiana were also influenced by casteism as individuals from upper caste groups also emigrated from south india.
Still, the south indian madrase group had a unique form of expression in which any of kali’s devotees were allowed to participate, regardless of caste or creed (ibid.). This suggests that kali ceremonies may have included many dalits from south and north india. Jha notes that only chamars sacrificed goats to kali (1974:22). During the ceremonies, devotees performed mariemmen nargums (poem stories) accompanied by music in the karnatak style of south india (Singh 1994:226-7).
Another example of south indian cultural practice, the charak-puja or hook-swinging festival of madras, bengal and bombay, was widely observed during the early part of indenture, around 1853, until it was banned (Mangru 1987a:170). Later in the 1880s, the south indian fire walking ceremony became so popular that regulations were issued to curb the processions.xcviii However, as Guyanese dancer and historian, Gora Singh, writes, “(madrase) represents an organic fusion of tribal, folk and classical idioms brought together in praise of Mariemmen, an artistic expression of a people kept out of the general East Indian fold” (ibid.:227; my emphasis).
There exists a void in the history of dalit and south indian cultures in guyana, and there is a need for further study on the status of women in these cultures in guiana. In short, south indian and dalit cultural practices and beliefs were separated from and ranked lower than north indian, hindu brahmanic ideology. Their goddesses and gods were classified as low and outcaste. Their existence as a kali ‘cult’ includes aspects of their domination, but most importantly shows that brahmanic domination was never complete and was always being contested in guiana. Women played a major part in these cultural resistance movements.
There were several christian religious groups among south asians; however, these developments - as those of madrase, south indian or ‘dravidian’ cultures - were counter to the prevailing trend of homogenization along north indian hindu (and muslim) conceptions of religion, during the later indenture period. The similarity among these various religious practices relates to the creation of a national, south asian ethnic identity in guyana. However, they also relate specifically to gender oppression, which occurred in different ways within each form of religious practice and institution.
For example, while south indian women initially taught men in guyana how to perform the kali mai puja, the role of female leadership gradually diminished as male priests, marlo pujaris, and disciples took over all important aspects of the ceremonies.xcix South asian women and girls were denied positions of leadership in temples, mosques and churches, and their participation was limited to that of devotees rather that religious leaders. Integral to the blending of south asian religions and cultures in guyana, as in india, were issues of ethnicity and gender. Another outcome of the process of domination of the cultural sphere was that they facilitated upper caste/class men’s control over indian religious, political, economic, social and community institutions.
This is not to say that there were no positive effects of homogenization processes and practices among the vast majority of east indians. There are numerous (mostly male) accounts on the important issue of “positive” contributions of east indians culture, politicians, capital, and so on, in the caribbean and guyana. Far from attempting to cover these various arguments here, this paper offers a more critical gender, labor and caste perspective on these issues.
Impact of homogenization processes on the status of indian women in the colony
As an essential component of ethnic identity, women were initially regarded as the main preservers of south asian cultural practices, and so they did achieve some status. Yet, it is equally true that both ideological and material aspects of south asian cultures legitimate the subordination of indian females. The separate but related processes of the re-construction of religion and culture, homogenization, and the creation of a national indian identity in the colony, had far reaching outcomes which impacted negatively upon women.
Religious and cultural blending, and domination of th cultural realm, resulted in particular male, upper caste ideas of what the indian family should look like, and re-constituted the role of women within the family structure. This had further negative consequences for women's labor, sexuality, reproduction, and marriage. With the reconstitution of the system of indian male domination of the family, and of upper caste, male ideologies of wifely fidelity, female modesty, dowry, widowhood, and so on, were used to redefine and limit almost all indian women's access to, and control over, time, space and resources within and outside of the family.
During early and later indentureship, east indian women were expected to cover their heads with a scarf (orhni) in the presence of in-laws, elders, during pujas, readings, etc., as a form of seclusion and purdah. Moreover, the relatively better status and position of women in south indian cultures and among the lower castes were now inverted to the more restricting norms of north indian, upper caste cultures. Between the laboring classes, castes, and tribes from among whom a majority of migrants came, bride price and not dowry was the norm (Reddock 1985:85). Divorce and widow re-marriage were allowed and customarily practiced by dalit women.
Further, the lessening of casteism and the limited gains in status made by east indian women during early period of indenture were reversed and redefined according to homogenized religious, cultural and social norms by the end of indenture. For instance, during the later period, Jha commented that the marriage between a high caste girl and a low caste boy (pratiloma) was not approved (1974:12). Castesim existed even in the offspring of mixed-caste marriages; in general, hindus consider a child as belonging to the caste of the parent of the highest caste.
As a result, Jayawardena observed that many indian women were torn between the contrary pull of indian values, and the impossibility of rejecting them completely, while remaining at the same time a member of the indian group.c The author acknowledge the fact that roles for south asian women, and contestation of these roles, were part of an ethnic identity females inherited; yet, these roles occurred within specific social contexts of power and domination, based on gender (class and caste) inequalities. In rebelling against these male defined roles (such as marrying outside the ethnic group), a woman risked the wrath of her entire ethnic community.
It can be argued that during the later indenture period, a small number of conforming hindu, muslim and christian women who had access to upper and middle class/caste privileges, benefited from these particular constructions of religion and culture. Women likely to benefit from access to cultural and political power were those involved with important temples and mosques, and women’s organizations. These include the hindu religious society (of dharam sala), american aryan league, islamic association, ‘susamachar’ young men’s society, methodist east indian mission, anglican east indian mission, and the canadian east indian mission, in addition to other religious and cultural organizations and regional debating societies.
One group of upper class/caste hindu women, including Nalini Singh and Alice B. Singh, ci were active from 1929 to 1947 in the british guiana Dramatic Society (BGDS). This was an offshoot of the british guiana east indian association (BGEIA), which was “the only authorized body to make capable representation in the interest of Indians in the colony.”cii The BGEIA was a major influence on the homogenization process and served to create an indian power structure or hierarchy through the promotion of ‘traditional’ north indian culture, performing artists, political leaders and business elite in its newsletter the Indian Opinion.ciii BGEIA also had a cricket club and indian literary society.
As custodians of north indian cultural art forms, some female singers and dancers gained momentary fame and improved status, and so had profound influence upon south asian cultures in guyana. The list of east indian female artists include Subhagia Devi Persaud, the daughter of a priest and merchant from calcutta who was well versed in the north indian benares style of music (and who died in childbirth at age 36 in 1908); her daughter, pianist-vocalist Nellie Gangadai Persaud; her grand-daughter Gracie Devi, and her daughter-in-law, Champa Devi, dancers who emerged in the 1930s. Pita Pyari, a singer-dancer, emerged in early 1940s (Singh 1994:228-9).
Regardless of the freedoms these women enjoyed, they were also subjected to limitations relating to gender ideology and domination by south asian men. It is significant to note that none of the BGDS women were “politically” active. However, the struggle for control over culture is a political one. Further, the sexual exploitation of indian women artisans and devadasis (temple dancers/prostitutes) in india by upper caste/class indian males was reproduced in the caribbean in the form of sexual exploitation of indian female artists, dancers and singers. The popular image of many south asian female artists went through similar changes during their lifecycle, including that of ‘cutified’ child performer, teen temptress, sexually deviant woman, and redeemed mother (of sons). Sexual exploitation and notoriety of some indian females also served as a basis of division among all south asian women, who became defined according to their sexually activities as “immoral” versus “moral.”
Assimilation of south asian women
Concerning the assimilation of south asians in caribbean societies, Klass observes, “although it is customary for East Indians to deny the importance of caste in their social structure, it is very much present, and the values underlying the Indian caste system may well affect present East Indian attitudes toward assimilation” (1973:296). It is worth pointing out here that Klass not only recognizes the importance of caste in caribbean societies, but the coupling of casteism and racism within dominant south asian cultural and religious ideologies.
Even among the most ‘assimilated’ of urbanized christian families, the domination and subordination of girls and women continued to be reinforced by larger indian cultural norms operating in day-to-day personal interactions, and at the regional and national levels. Even though the material markers of ‘indianness’ like sari (dress), dhoti (pant), chappal (sandal), and burka (veil), faded in the colony, new signs of ethnic ‘otherness’ were created among the indians, including subtle shades of skin color, hair texture and use of language.
While a process of assimilation or ‘creolization’ occurred among indians in guiana in terms of language, dress, food habits, and social customs, nevertheless, there remained an internal status system among east indians based on notions of caste, class, religion and gender. Even in the process of acculturation, asian women remained at the bottom of ethnic and colonial power structures, based on use of ‘western’ language, dress, lifestyle, etc. Women, considered to be the custodians of cultural particularisms by virtue of being less assimilated, were in turn defined as most ‘indian.’ This ‘backwardness’ justified further discrimination in women’s access to ‘the west’ in travel to the towns and city, as a form of purdah.
East indian men regularly controlled indian females’ access to non-indian or western ideas and institutions through limiting their mobility. For example, women’s access to resources like colonial administrations, schools, social services, political organizations, employment in government offices and private businesses, etc., were negotiated through indian men. Access by females and members of the lower class/caste was further limited by upper class/caste indian men who came to dominate these various institutions. In addition, (or as a result of) this discrimination against women, south indians and dalits, resulted in them becoming stigmatized in turn as the most ‘indian’ or ‘backward’ in an ethnic and gender power structure which legitimated their subordinate status, and at the same time, reproduced and reinforced the existing colonial order.civ
The revival of north indian, upper caste religious traditions among south asians, along with the blending of cultures, and issues of inter-ethnic competition for access and control of resources, contributed to the creation of an indian national cultural identity in guiana, india, and elsewhere. Although the conservative brahmanic movement was opposed to the more radical arya samaj group, they both share the same disursive space; a space outlined by a nationalist discourse and reproduced by men and women alike. Changing the terms of this discourse, as women, dalit and south indian cultures attempted to do, exacts a heavy price: alienation from the shared meanings which constitute a language of identity, affiliation and loyalty; and, violence and killing of women (and dalits) who transgressed communal norms.
Many dalit and south asian women and men who had exhibited cultural pride at an earlier stage, discarded their identities and recemeted their alliance with traditional caste elites during the later indenture period. Many dalit and caste hindu women who were initially resisting cultural and male oppression in india and on the estates, retreated into traditional practices off the plantations since they felt vulnerable and exposed. Indeed, throughout the history of guyana, all women became boundary markers between different ethnic and religious collectivities competing for power and access to environmental, economic, political, cultural and other resources.
With the emergence of electoral politics in the 20th century, caste, religion and regional feelings, Jha writes, “were exploited in the same way as india” (1974:15).This process intensified as the colonial period came to an end. The discourse around caste, religion and regional origins became submerged as ethnicity and racial difference assumed increasing importance among south asian collectivities.
In the vacuum left by colonial power, a few upper caste/class indian (and african) men exploited race and cultural issues as part of a process of national, ethnic identity formation in guyana; they were thereby able to obtain power through ethnic and religious support by a vast majority of the population.cv The ideology and practices of african and indian national identity movements in the colony, in conjunction with the creation of a male political and economic elite, in the colonial and post-colonial period had lasting negative influences on race relations in the country. Competition among ethnic elites in the post-colonial context also depend upon the continued oppression and exploitation of a vast majority of women and working class men, and of amerindian peoples and their land.
The education of indian girls: between colonialism and the indian family
During slavery, schools were for white children only as the children of enslaved africans were never given an education. A dutch school was built in Essequibo as early as 1685 for white children. With the abolition of slavery in 1835, christian indoctrination of african children in schools were used as part of a strategy to maintain white minority rule.cvi The ‘negro education act’ was implemented in 1834 as part of this policy.
By 1876, compulsory education laws were introduced and over seventy-five percent of the curriculum was based on the bible.cvii Part of the colonial strategy for maintaining ethnic divisions was the isolation of the indentured and free indians from the rest of colonial society. The children of south asians were exempted from compulsory education laws which applied to all other ethnic groups.
As late as 1904, the swettenham circular specifically exempted indian children from the compulsory education ordinance (1876) during the first ten years of their parents’ residence in the colony, and recommended that no pressure should be placed on south asian parents who wanted to keep their daughters in seclusion. cviii This circular was obviously gendered, but there were also issues of child labor and economic exploitation which were connected to this sexist and racist educational policy of the planter class. It was not until 1933, when the circular was withdrawn, that indian girls were encouraged to attend public schools in significant numbers.
Education for girls was viewed as unnecessary by south asian parents for several reasons, including economic, social, cultural, and religious. From an economic point of view, education of a son was valued over education for daughters because sons usually remain in the paternal home while daughters leave for marriage. Therefore education for daughters was seen as a economic loss since any additional income she may earn as a result of her education will go to the immediate benefit of another family, while sons’ income would supposedly remain within the family.
At a social and family level, the education of girls represented a threat to the power and control of european and south asian men. As such, males colluded to keep indian women uneducated and more dependent on them. From a cultural and economic perspective, one excuse was that girls were more ‘needed’ in the home for domestic production like cooking, cleaning, washing, childcare, etc. Of course, these issues varied according to class, caste, location and so on; however, these generalizations remain true for the most part. Repeated visits to guyana by social reformers and political figures from india finally encouraged and convinced south asian families to allow their daughters to attend school. Still, parents resisted sending girls to school as they grew older for reasons related to marriage, fear of sexual harassment, childcare and so on.
Additionally, the oppression of south asian girls’ and educational deprivation continued within schools themselves. In a multi-ethnic, coeducational, public school environment, with mostly christian male teachers, indian girls were alienated around issues of religion, language, culture and gender. The introduction of needlework and home economics into the curriculum further served to reinforce the sexual division of labor and maintain gender differences, thereby keeping women out of the formal economy as clerks, administrators, and so on. The majority of girls (and boys) were also denied access to knowledge of their own history in these western schools.
Nevertheless, access to educational opportunities did provide some girls with new options during the late period of indenture and schooling began to have a much more positive influence in the lives of many women after the mid-1930s. Despite these changes, educated women’s access to formal employment and equal status were severely limited by colonial and post-colonial policies. Women’s empowerment was also restricted by the gendered ideology of various cultures, and the continued domination of men in the family and society.
Women's role within the indian patriarchal family structure
Defining the subordination and oppression of females
The ideologies, systems and institutions of female oppression have a long history in south asia, as elsewhere. Men’s domination over women started in the family and extended kinship group. Patriarchy, or the establishment and practice of male dominance over women and children, is a historic process formed by men and women, with the patriarchal family serving as a basic unit of organization. Family and kinship patriarchy is separate from, although related to, larger ideologies and institutions of female oppression like religion, culture, and the state. These larger, gendered processes and practices are referred to here as specific social, cultural and political institutional forms of domination and oppression of women.
In her study on the origins of female oppression, american feminist, Gerda Lerner argues, “the enslavement of women, combining both racism and sexism, preceded the formation of classes and class oppression. Class differences were, at their very beginnings, expressed and constituted in terms of patriarchal relations. Class is not a separate construct from gender; rather class is expressed in genderic terms.”cix
As part of the historical process in the development of a patriarchal system, roles and behavior deemed appropriate to the sexes are expressed in values, customs, laws, social roles, and metaphors which then become part of the construction of culture and society. Lerner argues that the sexuality of women, consisting of their sexual and reproductive capacities and services, became commodified by the family and society as bride price, the private property of men, in paid sex work, and so on (ibid.:213-14). This paper argues similarly that class formation and division among east indians in guyana were constituted and expressed in gendered terms.
The family or kinship group lies at the center of south asian socio-cultural integration in south asia and the caribbean, and is probably the most patriarchal.cx A patriarch is considered the head of the household and, within the family, he controls productive resources, labor force, and reproductive capacities based on notions of superiority and inferiority and legitimized by differences in gender and generation. According to Gerda Lerner, the system of patriarchy can function only with the cooperation of women. Lerner writes,
this cooperation is secured through a variety of means: gender indoctrination; educational deprivation; the denial to women of knowledge of their history; the dividing of women, one from the other, by defining “respectability” and “deviance” according to women’s sexual activities; by restraints and outright coercion; by discrimination in access to economic resources and political power; and by awarding class privileges to conforming women... a form of patriarchy best described as paternalistic dominance (:217).
Women have always shared the class privileges of men of their class as long as they were under “the protection” of a man. For women, other than those of the lower classes, the “reciprocal agreement” went like this: in exchange for your sexual, economic, political, and intellectual subordination to men you may share the power of men of your class to exploit men and women of the lower class (:218).
Lerner’s statements here are very instructive for the purposes of this paper. She points out not only the cultural dimensions of female oppression, but the gender and class inter-connection as well. We can assume that the class dynamics she writes about would be similar for lower caste or dalit women. Interpreting the “reciprocal agreement” in the context of colonial guyana would require further analysis of how upper caste/class indian women were continually renegotiating their bargaining power at the expense of dalit and other women (and men). For example, in the employment of domestic servants and so on.
Men were also disadvantaged by indian patriarchy and female subordination. For example, as fathers, brothers and sons of dominated females, in being pushed into stereotypes and denied genuine choices in sexuality and behavior; in domination by other men in regards to marriage; employment, etc., However, the experiences of these men can in no way be compared to, or equated with, the subordination of women, simply because there is no equality or symmetry between male and female experience.
The indian family under colonialism in guyana
All through the period of indentureship, colonial authorities consistently refused to grant hindus and muslims the same marriage rights as christians. Under the ‘heathen marriage ordinance’ 10 of 1860, before a marriage was contracted the parties were required to sign a declaration that no impediment exists against the proposed union either by previous or existing marriage, blood relation or parental dissent. Tthe district magistrate then gave each party a certificate to produce to the immigration agent-general in the capital, georgetown, who then validated the marriage and issued a marriage registration certificate for a two dollars fee (Mangru 1987a:213).
The consolidated ordinance 15 of 1891 made provisions for the marriage of east indians by a magistrate, christian minister, hindu priest or muslim moulvi thereby rendering it unnecessary for the contracting parties to travel to georgetown. The priest was merely required to sign and witness the date of marriage, but within seven days the certificate had to be delivered to the immigration agent-general under heavy penalty. When all such technicalities were fulfilled the marriage was registered and a certificate issued (ibid.).
While difficulties in registration did exists, this does not in itself explain why so few of the immigrants' customary marriages were registered. Between 1860 and 1871 an average of 12 marriages were registered annually under the 1860 ordinance and 7 between 1904 and 1914 (ibid.). Consequently, most south asian marriages were considered invalid by colonial law and society, which meant that the majority of children were registered as born out of wedlock and therefore illegitimate. A similar situation existed among the african population as well. As such, there were considerable difficulties over succession to intestate properties.
One reason why several marriages went unregistered was because one or both of the contracting parties were below the prescribed legal age limit, 12 years for girls and 15 for boys (ibid:214). The raising of the minimum age for girls to 14 years in 1888 (Tinker:203-4) may have served as a further disincentive for parents. Another reason for the lack of registration of marriages among south asians was that the situation allowed fathers to sell and re-sell daughters several times without penalty. For instance, Sarah Morton wrote of a case in 1916, in which a father sold a daughter nine times for money and goods. On each occasion of her ‘marriage,’ he refused to deliver her (Reddock 1985:85).
The institution of marriage within the patriarchal family
Under the pressures of class exploitation, racism, and sexual abuse, both african and east indian families in guyana were maintained largely through the struggles of women. However, this area remains one of the most neglected in carribean studies. Women not only resisted multiple forms of colonial exploitation, but they were actively involved in creating and maintaining families and cultural practices in an environment hostile to their family, independent group formations and customs. In spite of this, women generally remained oppressed within the very family structures and cultures they helped to create in the colony, which were reinforced by religious beliefs, economic functions, and patriarchy. In the case of south asians, the ‘stability’ of the family unit was also reinforced by traditional marriage forms and the re-construction of gendered cultures.
Among south asian families, gender indoctrination occurred at an early age and it was customary to have child marriage rites for both sexes. Early marriage was also an effective means of patriarchal domination to keep children in the rice fields. Indian men settled in different villages arranged for the first unions of their children during early adolescence and celebrate these marriages by traditional hindu or muslim rites. Customarily, jahagis or shipmates would maintain ties through arranged marriages of children.
The practice of using south asian females’ bodies as an exchange or an economic value, meant that marriage became a way by which indian families build alliances, accumulate land, labor and other resources through bride price and dowry. After an east indian girl leaves her native village to join a husband in his father's community, she continued to be exploited as a daughter-in-law under the in-laws’ patriarchal household. And, as almost all traditional marriages were invalid under british colonial law, women’s ownership of property and other economic resources in her husband’s family became severely limited.
During the early indenture period, unmarried daughters were rare. As the sex-ratio equalized, there were occurrences of south asian females ‘deciding’ to remain unmarried. These women occupied the lowest position within the family hierarchy; many were cast aside by their families and further marginalized in their communities. Frequently, they end up as under-paid, sexually exploited, domestic servants for the rest of their lives.
Indian women’s married life in patriarchal households
Marriage in patriarchal south asian households meant that women and girls were expected to conform to ideologies of wifely fidelity and chastity, as part of their religion and culture. Many women internalized these ideologies in their worship and devotion to god and family. These cultural definitions of female identity made it easier for them to be complacent with the sexual division of labor, and with their husband’s control over their labor, reproduction, sexuality, mobility, and so on. Women’s power as wives and mothers was related to their conformity to these ideologies, especially those governing female sexuality.
In this sense, unindentured women who left bonded servitude on the plantations remained bonded within the family structure as wives, daughters and mothers. They could not leave their employer (father and husband), or leave the estate (male’s house), or demand ‘wages for their work,’ or refuse the work assigned to them. As female status and mobility became circumscribed and expressed through household production, many women worked very hard cleaning, washing, gardening, and maintaining the family’s property. Not allowed to leave, beautifying the house/estate and family became a source of immense pride for middle class indian women.
Many young boys and girls disliked their early arranged unions, and there were many cases of separation. Still, early marriages generally had more negative consequences for young girls than boys. As females became less scarce, boys found it easier to re-marry than girls who were labeled as "divorcee." According to cultural anthropologists, M. G. Smith, between one-fifth and one-quarter of early arranged marriages among east indians dissolved, usually not long after their celebration and before children were born to the couple.cxi Following this the girl almost always resumed cohabitation with another partner, generally after returning to her parental home. Nonetheless, the stigma placed on east indian girls and women from broken unions within the community acted in such a way that many women were compelled to seek partners outside of the ethnic group, in the sense that this may not have been their first choice.
There were many instances of extra-residential mating among south asian men. Children with two or more women from south asian and other ethnic backgrounds was common among indian men. Alcoholism and economic exploitation was also a serious problem. Comins (1893:17) reported, there were two hundred and five liquor shops opened by south asians in trinidad in 1890. Polygamy, alcoholism, domestic violence and other forms of oppression within the indian patriarchal household meant that females were persistently abused throughout a major part of their lives, both in their paternal home and in their husband's home. Married women who resisted their husbands’ abuses by returning to the paternal home were often beaten by their father and told to return to their spouse. Given the limited set of options women had, Crowley (1973) notes that the suicide rate among indian women was high in contrast to that of african marriages (:284).
Decisions over childbirth and family size in south asian patriarchal families were related to many factors: social, economic, cultural, environmental, and so on. In terms of social factors, many east indian girls and women during indenture had limited control over their own bodies and decisions about reproduction, because men viewed their fertility as a way to make up for families left behind in india. There were several economic factors related to decisions concerning family size including the value of children’s labor, male inheritance, and so on. As a result, many east indian girls were impregnated at a very young age, leading to miscarriages and deaths of teen mothers and their firstborn. Besides, these processes resulted in frequent pregnancies for many indian women into the late stages of their reproductive cycle.
The control and abuse of females within the patriarchal family continued in many cases after a husbands’ death. In upper caste hindu custom, widows are not encouraged to remarry, and with the blending of brahamanical religious norms, this meant that the majority of south asian women from all castes were expected to observe upper caste notions related to sati, so that they had to live the rest of their lives as if in mourning. Accordingly, widows were customarily treated as a bad omen or bad luck by men, and women to a lesser extent.
Also, due to the prevalence of male promiscuity, widows, and other “single” east indian women were often viewed as potential threats by other women, especially married women. Widows, moreover, experienced discrimination in inheritance of property and other economic resources, where they were disinherited in favor of older sons. And because women usually lived longer than men, this meant that many old indian women ended their lives in impoverishment, living with previously dis-inherited daughters.
Dividing women: daughter-in-law and mother-in-law relationships
The south asian family was characterized by several patterns of dominance and subjugation. The "indianness" of the east indian family was specifically characterized by male power and control, and dominance of mother-in-law over daughter-in-law.cxii Within the structure of patriarchal authority, there was a strong sub-system of domestic controls by women, especially the control of mature women over their daughters-in-law, who was symbolized as property owned. The sexuality of female in-laws was viewed as an object of spiritual degradation to the family, and was therefore, carefully guarded. The mother-in-law demanded the bride's time and energy while her husband demanded her for intercourse.
The hierarchical distribution of power within the structure of patriarchal dominance was related to class, caste, and socio-economic issues as well. Even in upper caste and class marriages, a woman was not permitted to participate actively in an independent role, to have her own career and live her own life. Rather, she was seen as an extension of her husband, and as such, her own status was closely related to, and could never be independent of, his own prestige and power, with few exceptions.
Patriarchy and women's resistance within the east indian family after indenture
East indian women and girls were constantly renegotiating their bargaining power and resisting forms of patriarchal oppression within the family and culture, as individuals and groups. Women’s day-to-day resistance was based on an awareness of their own power within individual family relations and collectively derived from traditional roles. Some women and girls choose, while others were compelled, to outrightly defy patriarchal and cultural regulation of women’s labor, reproduction, religion, sexuality, and mobility. Other women, through cooperation and compliance, turned these very limitations into a source of power. Many women defined their own goals and pursued knowledge in all areas.
This section of the paper explores some of these issues by drawing on the article, "Structures of Experience: Gender, Ethnicity and Class in the Lives of Two Indian Women," by caribbean feminist, Patricia Mohammed (1993).cxiii This author points out that indian patriarchal control is not only exerted by the father, clearly, but is rather a system of values entrenched in the indian family itself. In her interviews with two trinidadian women, Mrs. Droapatie Naipaul, mother of V.S. and Shiva Naipaul and Mrs. Dassie Parsan, she finds that gender and ethnicity were closely interlinked during the earlier part of both women's lives. Patricia Mohammed writes,
a strictly demarcated gender role was rendered in both these women's lives, which consisted of the responsibility of a girl child to parents; the obligations to both parents and husband; the duties expected of a woman and wife; and the role of mother. The imagery of gender - that is the expectations, responsibilities and so on of men and women - is firmly rooted in the ethnic consciousness of the women of this group. It was a consciousness that both women shared despite caste differences"(ibid:230).
It is worth pointing out here the author’s recognition of caste differences among the two women. Still, Patricia Mohammed argues that both women were subjected to a similar ‘imagery of gender’ which is ‘rooted’ in ‘ethnic consciousness’ among south asian women. Nevertheless, this ethnic consciousness should not be confused with, or equated to, a common caste, class or gender consciousness among indian women. As previously argued, as part of a “reciprocal agreement” with men, upper caste women exploited dalit and lower class women.
With regards to the connection between gender ideology and ethnic consciousness, Mrs. Naipaul is quoted as saying, "my sisters all felt the same way about their duty as wife and mother. It was an honor to me." In contrast to Mrs. Naipaul’s comment on cooperation and compliance with these gender roles, Mrs. Parsan expressed a view on female abuse and resistance, saying, "Long ago, no matter what you meet with your husband you have to put up with it. Even though you go to your parents they will take you and bring you back" (ibid.).
The author argues that in the case of east indian women, gender was unmistakably defined by ethnicity. She notes that the scarcity of women in the earlier phase of indentureship led to their increased importance since they were necessary for reconstituting south asian communities in the caribbean. East indian women were viewed as embodying certain values, primarily because of their role in reproduction, but also because gender relations inherited from india were built on the primacy of the male role to that of the female in matters of religion, marriage and a sexual division of labor. The life stories of both women reveal an effort to retain the harmony of the group's concern, and alternatives being unthinkable at the time, women colluded equally with men in reinforcing a particular gender and ethnic identity as observed by this group (:231).
As an example of the influence of identity issues and male control, even though Mrs. Naipaul's father died when she was 13, her mother, and possibly brothers and elders, ensured the same control over her life; they determined the level of education she should receive, and when and whom she should marry. Interestingly, when her husband died and she was forced to provide for her family, she chose to work and support them, rather than remarry. It is worth pointing out here that Mrs. Naipaul’s decision to work indicates her desire for economic idependence from men; however it also suggests that she was conforming to cultural and religious prohibitions against upper caste hindu widows’ remarriage. Although Mrs. Parsan's father did not provide for his family, his authority was dominant in decisions over her marriage, and so on (ibid.).
The author concludes that each woman is the product of her ethnicity, class and assigned gender role. Nonetheless, she points out that they defy our expectations of them as stereotypes of a specific ethnic group, class and gender. They took pride in carrying out what they saw as their responsibility, yet they have not been passive actors in all of this. At times they made a virtue of necessity, at others they determined their own goals. In these interviews, the two women demonstrate that none of these categories are static; in real life, they are constantly being negotiated and re-negotiated (ibid.:233).
Women's resistance against colonial and neo-colonial exploitation
Women’s resistance on the estates
Both enslaved and indentured women consistently resisted the ‘passive’ roles defined for them by both colonial and colonialized males. Women’s resistance as indentured laborers on the plantations included faking illness, refusing to work, verbally abusing owners and administrators, destroying crops, using poison and witchcraft, suicide, limiting their fertility, leaving the estate or running away, and active rebellion.
Concerning east indian women's resistance during indentureship, Rodney (1981) writes that the sources are almost silent on this crucial issue, but women certainly must have had specific grievances that would have called forth protest (:157). The spirit of south asian labor resistance was both generalized and ongoing throughout the indenture and colonial period. Resistance repeatedly originated from within the ranks of the outwardly placid indian women whom management, as well as male workers, apparently expected to remain isolated from social decision making. From time to time, indian labor resistance on the estates would start in the weeding gang, which was essentially the women's sphere.
In one resistance at plantation Friends in berbice in 1903, a key role was played by the veteran indentured woman worker, Salamea. At a hearing after the disturbance, one driver testified: "I know a bound coolie woman named Salamea. She has been on the estate for three years. I heard that she told her shipmates on the Thursday to go fight. She was at Friends before and she went to Calcutta and returned to Friends. Salamea, I hear, urge the coolies who had assembled to fight” (ibid.). It is significant to emphasize here that Salamea, and others like her, challenges the myth of the ‘passive’ indian woman. The scant details about this woman activist reveals an early political leader who utilized her community networks to organize a resistance movement, spoke out against her oppressors, and advocated violent struggle.
In a earlier incident at Devonshire Castle plantation in essequibo, east indians were being forced to work twenty hours without additional pay. Their resistance in 1872 led to a confrontation with the police in which five indians were killed. Magistrate Loughran noted the incidents that led to the confrontation, and women’s role in the resistance as follows:
During the interval about 50 women came to the front of the rioters and screamed and cursed in a most diabolical manner. One woman in particular, apparently their leader, went through the most extraordinary gesticulations I ever beheld. Knowing that legally women are rioters, and rioters of the very worst description from my own knowledge, I sent the interpreter to request women to retire and leave the fray to men; their reply was a coolie curse which is too horrible for translation. They said they would kill us or they would die with their husbands (Mangru 1987b:178).
These accounts of women’s activities are very different from those of other colonial officials like Young. This last account, in particular, reveals that in situations in which women did not serve as the actual leaders of indentured indian resistance, they nevertheless played a very active role as supporters. As part of their resistance, the women also had leaders. Their methods of resistance included verbal abuse, damage of property, and threats to kill their oppressors, or die in the attempt next to their husbands. In this sense, the resistance of women were no different from that of men.
Both women’s and men’s resistance on the plantations became major factors in the decision to end the indenture system. The resistance of the majority of colonialized peoples in the colony further led to the ending of colonial rule. At the end of the colonial period, indian women were still loosing their lives in the nationalist cause.cxiv These women include Kowsilla of Leonora, who was 44 years old when she died in 1964 leaving four children ranging in age from five to 15 years. She was at the front of a women’s picket line on bridge at the plantation, which was charged by a tractor. Kowsilla died on the spot and fourteen other women suffered severe back injuries; two women were permanently disabled.
However, women’s resistance against slavery and indentureship, and their sacrifices in the nationalist struggle against colonialism, were never related to feminist goals. As a result, women resistance have not brought about in their liberation from the state or patriarchy. Nationalist aspirations for popular sovereignty did result in an extension of citizenship rights and voting privileges, clearly benefiting women. Nevertheless, women’s and girls’ exploitation in the colony, and their history of resistance to colonial rule, were largely ignored in post-colonial political discourse. As a consequence, women’s political, social and economic status have not change much since independence in 1966.
Whereas in the 1860s, women comprised nearly half the workforce, one hundred years later, by 1960 this figure was reduced to less than a quarter, or 23 percent.cxv It is significant to note that this reduction occurred in the colonial context. Similarly, women’s work as paid agricultural workers decreased from around 70 percent in 1861, to 25 percent in 1960. After independence, female participation as laborers in a state economy dominated by african males was reduced to 19 percent in the 1970s and 80s. Their participation as agriculture wage laborers was reduced further to 10 percent.
Women’s resistance as part of pre-independence organizations
Many african and east indian women lost their lives in resisting slavery, indenture and colonialism, however, even when women take leading roles in fighting for their rights as workers, men usually came to occupy the senior positions in labor organizations. Women’s placement within the ‘domestic’ or ‘private’ sphere, was responsible in part for their marginalization. Further, women’s networks, church groups, employment and service organizations were also regulated to a private or non-public space, and were therefore considered nonessential. One example of a marginal south asian group was the balak sahaita mandalee organization, formed in 1936 with Alice B. Singh as president, which held garden parties for charitable causes for needy children.
Caste and class bias in early east indian organizations in guyana have been commented upon as catering “only for the upper social circle of the community concerned,” due to “the aloofness of members of the race from one another.”cxvi Klass (1973) noted of south asian politicians, “an examination of the caste affiliations of Hindu members, of whatever party, of the Trinidad Legislative Council reveals that almost all are of the two highest castes, Brahman and Kshatriya” (:293).
As a result of class, caste and gender descrimination, the majority of south asian women were excluded from, and marginalized within, indian-based political organizations. This is not to say that there were no examples of female, south asian political leaders in these organizations. For example, one early leglislator, Ester Day was very active in the BGEIA and other indian-based political organizations. However, her presence was a token one, and her position did not translate into improved status for the majority of indian women. The same can be said of Roma Persaud and Ruby Samlall Singh of the Sugar Producers Association (SPA). The cases of Nelly Sudeen and the WPO are two further examples of the oppression of women within the political sphere.
Nelly Sudeen: Feminist and Nationalist
An important nationalist leader, Nelly Sudeen was one of the early co-founders of the Man Power Citizens Association (MPCA), the largest union representing indian sugar workers in guyana at that time. Ms. Sudeen, who was most active during the late 1930s to early 40s, came from a very poor family, was never married and had no children, according to a contemporary journalist.cxvii As a political leader and eloquent speaker at several meetings all over the country, she spoke out against indian men sending their women folk to work in the fields. Nelly Sudeen felt there was enough land around the home for gardening, etc. She said, “you can’t bear children and do hard labor too. What kind of child will you bring, if you do bring it?” Nelly Sudeen also spoke against child labor gangs on the plantations consisting of creole (born in Guyana) indian children 10 to 12 years old.
She argued with parents, “so much rice and cow milk you have. You cannot claim you don’t have food to feed the children, so why send them to work?” (ibid.). She emphasized that girl children should be prepared to learn. Ms. Sudeen herself faced several obstacles for being indian, a woman, and single, in the political contexts at the time. Nevertheless, she gained the respect of many south asian men and women who admired her courage at a time when many were hesitant to openly confront and challenge the colonial planters.
Nelly was used in the construction of a national east indian identity and an indian political struggle which emphasized the liberation of indian men, not women. Ms. Sudeen and many other east indian women who did not support upper caste/class, patriarchal and racial constructions of indian political discourse, were purged from indian political, religious, cultural, and even women’s organizations. After uncovering missing funds in MPCA’s accounts, Ms. Sudeen was chased out of the office by its corrupt, indian male leadership. She retired around 1944 and never re-entered politics, and so faded from the public’s view. The MPCA subsequently served as an ally to the planter class and lost the support of indian workers.
Resistance and marginalization within women’s political organizations before and after independence
Marginalization of amerindian, african and indian women also occurred in the few women’s organizations which existed before, during and after the nationalist struggle. The first set of women’s organizations established in guyana were social welfare organizations headed by european and colored (eurpean-african) women, usually the wives of colonial officials. One example of this kind of organization was the children protection society started in 1890. Other examples include the infant welfare and maternity league (1900s) and child welfare movement established in 1914 by the wife of the governor, the gentlewomen’s relief association, the girl guide movement (1924), and the working women’s guild started by the wife of a colonial official in 1931 (Peake 1993:111).
One of the most important nationalist group, the Women’s Political and Economic Organization (WPEO), was formed in 1946 by two women, one african and one white (ibid.:116). In many respects, the situation in these women’s political organization remained the same as with the earlier social service women’s organizations. WPEO leadership included african women, but the representation of amerindian and indian women was small, as in its successor, the Women’s Progressive Organization (WPO) formed in 1953 by a white woman. After an ethnic-leadership split in 1955, the WPO began to target east indian women peasant women, sugar workers, and housewives to become members (not leaders) in the predominantly indian male, People Progressive Party ( PPP). Once within the WPO, indian women were marginalized if they became too popular and powerful, for example, Edith Persaud, the former secretary of the organization, who left politics in frustration over the leadership issue.cxviii
Although women participated actively in the nationalist project for independence, they became at the same time, hostages to this project. While western colonizers used the ‘plight’ of colonialized women to justify their rule, nationalist leaders used the condition of women as a clear sign of their ‘backwardness.’ Both strategies end up justifying the superiority of the colonizer.cxix Once again, women were reduced to mere objects at the service of a political discourse conducted by and for men. While they were invited to participate more fully in collective life, their bodies were used to reaffirm ethnic boundaries. According to post-colonial feminist critic, Deniz Kandiyoti, “culturally acceptable feminine conduct also exerted pressure on women to articulate their gender interests within the terms of reference set by nationalists discourse” (ibid:380).
After independence in 1966, the predominantly african leaders of the People’s National Congress (PNC) party was able to maintain dictatorial powers for twenty-eight years, partly through the effort of women’s organizations and groups affiliated to the party. The pre-independence formation of the Women’s Auxiliary group in 1964; its successor, the Women’s Revolutionary Socialist Movement (WRSM) started in 1976; along with other women’s organizations, were integral parts of neo-colonial politics, characterized by a centralization of power within a male elite group (Peake 1993). Although women were granted certain rights as individual citizens by the regime, these laws were imperfectly enforced (if at all).
Granted that there are other issues of national debt and out-migration which influences the economy. Nevertheles, the social and economic position of the vast majority of women remain oppressed at the end of the 20th century. Guyana is the second poorest country in the hemisphere (next to hati) with over 70 percent of the population living under the poverty line. The infant mortality rate of 30 per 1000 live births is the lowest in the english-speaking caribbean (ibid.).
Women’s representation at higher levels of economic decision-making remains low, as is their representation in parliament, regional and national assemblies, and the legal system as judges, magistrates, etc. As Momsen (1993) writes, “patriarchal attitudes in society make it difficult for women to achieve managerial positions or seek jobs outside the accepted stereotypes. This situation is little affected by differences in ethnicity or nationality between employers and workers” (ibid.:248).
With the end of african PNC rule, women remain subjugated under the political and economic control of the predominantly indian PPP, who gained power in 1992 largely through ethnic support. The party affiliated WPO have kept decision-making firmly within the control of a small group of PPP women, many of whom are married to PPP members. Like the WRSM under the PNC regime, the goals of the WPO are subordinate to the PPP party and its social and economic priorities are defined by men.
To some extent, these two dominant women’s political organizations further served to divide women across racial lines, and at the same time have acted to impede the development of feminist issues in both majority and minority groups. Similar to it predecessor, the WRSM, the WPO is not a feminist organization, and while it engages in ‘political’ education, its leaders largely ignore issues of racism, casteism, sexism and patriarchy.
Female representation on the PPP executive committee is minimal; the same with government posts. The activities of the reformist WPO, like many of the pre-independence social welfare groups, suggests a white, middle class bias. A quasi-marxist framework is used to politically mobilize women voters, in fundraising and election campaigns. Although the WPO may press for more support and resources for women, it have not challenge the policies of the party, even when women are negatively influenced, as in the case of mining and the pollution of rivers and drinking water. Additionally, the political mechanism for questioning the influence of state development policies on women is not utilized by the WPO, and the responsibility falls on other groups like the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) and Red Thread. The WPO only encourages women to participate in the development process when this happens to suit the interests of the government, and women’s needs are invariably secondary.
Indentured and free women’s experiences were different in terms of gender, labor, caste. Variation also existed in women’s resistance against these multiple forms of oppression. In terms of gender, difference consist of colonial policies and practices for recruitment and transportation to colonial plantations. The sex-ratio disparity in emigration had further gendered consequences. Variation of experiences also existed in the sexual division of labor on and off the estates, unequal wages, and women’s triple burden.
Caste differences existed in recruitment, class formation, blending of cultures, the subordination of dalit women, in the position of caste hindu widows, and so on. The nature of women’s active resistance, suggested by the cases of wife murders and transfers, and within indian resistance movements and the family, were also distinct from male resistance. Regulated to the cultural and household spheres, women’s resistance frequently took the form of compliance and cooperation with these various forms of domination.
For both high caste hindu widows and dalit women, emigration was a active form of resistance to oppresive cultures. However, many females were tricked or compelled to migrate. Some improvemt in status did occur in terms of gender status within the family, culture and society. However, these structures were also dominated by men throughout the colonial and post-colonial period.
The most ‘improved’ condition occurred among caste hindu widows in india who migrated remarried within the same caste and class in guyana; however they remained oppressed within the indian family. These same caste hindu women were among the most oppressed later on as widow remarriage once again became difficult. For dalit women, the most ‘improved’ condition occurred among those who were able to leave their untouchable status behind in india or through marriage in guyana; however they also remained oppressed within indian culture and the indian family. As caste and class associations became reinforced, dalit females became among the most disadvantaged in terms of culture, economics and society.
After colonialism, the homogenization of an indian national identity in guyana continued, even though the upper caste brahmanization processes began to unravel and their support among the east indian masses waned during the 1970s and 1980s. Nevertheless, some form of brahmanic hinduism remain as a vital aspect in the lives of many indian women and men, especially of the older generation. The homogenization of south asian cultures and the creation of an indian national identity continue to use religion and culture as major components, however issues around ethnicity and nationality have become far more important factors.
In the post-colonial context, south asian women’s subordination is maintained by the controlling, interlocking ideologies and devices of the state, indian national identity and the patriarchal family. Discrimination by the neo-colonialist state occurs through limited access to educational and economic resources, the sexual division of labor, limited access to white collar and higher level employment, unequal wages, etc.; and in denial of political representation. The state obtains the cooperation of south asian women through their support of an indian national identity, thereby maintaining the control and suppression of indian women’s and girls’ labor; reproduction, in limited access to health care, housing, goods and services. Women’s sexuality are also influenced, for example, in dating and marriage to males from other ethnic groups, mobility, etc.
The ideology of indian national identity also serve to reinforce indian patriarchy and the oppression of east india women’s and girls’ labor, sexuality, reproduction, mobility and access to property and access to economic resources within the patriarchal family. This ideology also have very negative consequences for the majority of guyanese women’s status, ethnic and social relations, and so on. However, east indian women are actively resisting the state; ideologies of religion, culture and indian identity; and patriarchy. The current protests and struggles by poor, rural women of all races to protect their environmental resources against the pollution and exploitation of multinationals and the state, is just one of countless examples of women’s agency and resistance.
i Thanks to my nanis, ajies and mais of guyana and india; my wonderful parents and family; and friend and companion, sushila patil. Thanks also to karna singh, a friend and scholar; and professors basdeo mangru and arnold itwaru for suggesting improvements. Finally, thanks to Florence McCarthy of columbia university, for being an invaluable advisor and mentor.
An early draft of this Paper was presented at the conference on indo-caribbean women at borough of manhattan community college, city university of new york, on december 15, 1995.
ii The terms ‘indian,’ and ‘east indian’ are used interchangeably with ‘south asian’ in this paper with the understanding that these reductionist terms refer to a wide variety of culturally specific religious belief and customs which indentured laborers were brought to the caribbean. These terms also refer to their descendants in the caribbean and diaspora. Limited capitalization in this text is used as a way of deconstructing nationalism and institutional authority.
iii The terms ‘british guiana,’ ‘guiana’ and ‘guyana’ are used synonymously in this paper to refer to lands presently and formerly occupied by indigenous amerindians. Three separate colonies (counties) of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice were colonized and united in 1831 to form the colony of British Guiana, popularly known among east indians as Demerara. The colony gained indepedence in June 1966 when the amerindian name, Guyana (land of many rivers) was adopted.
iv This paper places a heavy reliance on relatively few sources; nonetheless, it goes beyond articles and books cited. Factual basis for arguments are based on data collected by south asian and caribbean historians (Tinker, Jha, Prakash, Mangru and Rodney) and anthropologists (Klass, Smith, Jayawardena and Vertovec). South asian feminist-sociologists (Oberoi, Das, and Chakravarti) and caribbean feminist-historians and sociologists (Reddock, Peake, Mohammed and Mahabir) provide the theoretical basis for arguments. However, intrepretation of the data and theories, and general arguments made, are my own.
v M.G. Smith argued that guyanese society is a plural one, made up of distinct cultural groups, each with its own “integrated entity with its own culture.” 1965. The Plural Society in the British West Indies. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Other anthropologists pointed out the existence of cultural similarities and the creolization among different ethnic groups in guyanese society. See R. T. Smith. 1962. British Guiana. London: Oxford University Press; and Chandra Jayawardena. 1963. Conflict and Solidarity in a Guianese Plantation. London: Athlone Press. However, the extent to which integration occured is related to colonial and neo-colonial policies of divide and rule, and resultant ethnic stratification of guyanese society.
vi Morton Klass. 1961. East Indians in Trinidad: A Study of Cultural Persistence. New York: Columbia University Press. For an opposite perspective see Arthur and Juanita Niehoff. 1960. East Indians in the West Indies. Milwaukee, WI: Milwaukee Public Museum. For other early discussions on these issues see Barton Schwartz., ed., 1967. Caste in Overseas Communities. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing; and John LeGuerre., ed. 1974. Calcutta to Caroni. Port-of Spain: Longman Caribbean.
vii Andrew Sanders. 1987. The Powerless People: An Analysis of the Amerindians of the Corentyne River. London: Macmillan.
viii For an economic analysis of enslaved african peoples in guiana see Walter Rodney. 1974. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. DC: Howard University Press; and Walter Rodney. 1981. A History of The Guyanese Working People. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press. For a recent anthropological study on african guyanese, see Brackette F. Williams. 1991. Stains On My Name, War In My Veins: Guyana and Politics of Cultural Survival. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
ix Janet H. Momsen. 1986. “Gender Roles in Caribbean Small-scale Agriculture,” paper presented at the Conference on Gender Issues in Farming Systems. FL: Research and Extension. University of Florida, Gainesville. Feburary.
x Barbara Bush. 1990. Slave Women in Caribbean Society: 1650-1838. London: James Currey. p. 45
xi Lucille M. Mair. 1974., quoted in Janet H. Momsen., ed. 1993. Women and Change in the Caribbean: A Pan-Caribbean Perspective. London: James Currey. p. 1.; and Bush, ibid. For more detailed discussion on enslaved african women in the caribbean see Lucille M. Mair. 1975. The Rebel Woman in the British West Indies During Slavery. Kingston; and L. Mair. 1987. Women Field Workers in Jamaica during Slavery. Mona, Jamaica: Dept. of History, University of the West Indies. See also Marietta Morrissey. 1989. Slave Women in the New World. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas; and Hilary Beckles. 1988. Afro-Caribbean Women and Resistance to Slavery in Barbados. London: Karnak House.
xii Chaitram Singh. 1988. Guyana: Politics in a Plantation Society. NY: Praeger.
xiii Clive Y. Thomas. 1984. Plantations, Peasants, and State: A Study of the Mode of Sugar Production in Guyana. CA: Center for Afro-American Studies, University of California, Los Angeles.
xiv Guha, Ranajit. 1983. “The Prose of Counter-Insurgency” in Guha, ed., Subaltern Studies II: Writings on South Asian History and Society. Delhi: Oxford University Press. p. 1. See also R. Guha. 1983. Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
xv J. C. Jha. 1994. “East Indian Culture in the West Indies,” in Mahin Gosine, ed., 1994. The East Indian Odyssey: Dilemmas of a Migrant People. NY: Windsor Press. p. 103.
xvi Jha, ibid; and Tyran Ramnarine. 1987. “Over a Hundred Years of East Indian Disturbances on the Sugar Estates of Guyana, 1869-1978: A Historical Overview,” in Dabydeen and Samaroo, eds., India in the Caribbean. London: Hansib Pub. Ltd. p. 119.
xvii Hugh Tinker. 1993. A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour overseas 1830-1920, 2nd edition. London: Hansib Publishing Ltd. p. 263., (hereafter quoted in text).
xviii Ramnarine, ibid:119; and Sahadeo Debiprashad and Dowlat Ram Budhram. 1987. “Participation of East Indians in the Transformation of Guyanese Society 1966-1979,” in Dabydeen and Samaroo, ibid.:147.
xix Discussion of caste in the caribbean controversial and arguments vary dramatically over time. For example, during the period of indenture, planters complained about the majority of recruits being ‘unfit lowly coolies.’ After independence, caribbean scholars and leaders tend to deny lower caste family orgins, and by extension, the dalit origins of caribbean indians.
xx On the dalit movement in india, see D. R. Nagaraj. 1993. The Flaming Feet: A Study of the Dalit Movement. Bangalore: South Forum Press; Eleanor Zelliot. 1992. From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movement. New Delhi: Manohar; and Trilok Nath. 1987. Politics of the Depressed Classes.Delhi: Deputy Publications.
xxi J. C. Jha. 1974. “The Indian Heritage in Trinidad,” in John La Guere, ed. Calcutta to Caroni: The East Indians of Trinidad. London: Longman Caribbean Limited.
xxii After 1860, the numbers of madrases sent to demerara was smaller. This was in part due to ‘a prejudice against coolies from South India in the Caribbean.” Tinker ibid.:55.
xxiii Emigration from bombay under the indenture system ceased in 1865. Tinker ibid.: footnote 23; p. 391.
xxiv Daniel J. Crowley. 1973. “Cultural Assimilation in a Multicultural Society,” in Lambros Comitas and David Lowenthal, eds., Slaves, Free Men, Citizens: West Indian Perspectives. NY: Anchor/Doubleday. p. 279.
xxv R. T. Smith. 1959. “Some Social Characteristics of Indian Immigrants in British Guiana,” Population Studies, vol 13, no. 1, July, p. 39.
xxvi Tinker notes that the average age of the fiji emigrants was young: 42 percent of the males and 45 percent of the females were under 20 years old, and almost all the remainder were under 30 years old. Ibid.:59.
xxvii Captain and Mrs.Swinton. 1859. Journal of a Voyage with Coolie Emigrants from Calcutta to Trinidad. London: Alfred W. Bennett, pg. 3., reprinted in Ron Ramdin. 1994. The Other Middle Passage: Journal of A Voyage from Calcutta to Trinidad, 1858. London: Hansib Publications Ltd. p. 3.
xxviii James Mac Neill and Chimman Lal. 1915. Report to the Government of India on the Conditions of Indian Immigrants in Four British Colonies and Suriname. Part 1. Trinidad and British Guiana. London: HMSO, Cmd, 7744. Quoted in Rhoda Reddock. 1985. “Freedom Denied: Indian Women and Indentureship in Trinidad and Tobago, 1845-1917,” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 20, no. 43, p. WS-81.
xxix Poynting, Jeremy. 1987. “East Indian Women in the Caribbean: Experience and Voice,” in Dabydeen and Samaroo, ibid.:232.; Brinsley Samaroo. 1987. “Two Abolitions: African Slavery and East Indian Indentureship,” in Dabydeen and Samaroo, ibid.:29; and Mangru, 1987a. Ibid: footnote 69.
xxx Uma Chakravati. 1993. “Conceptualizing Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India: Gender, Caste, Class and State,” in Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), April 3rd, :579.
xxxi Bina Agarwal. 1988. Patriarchy and the ‘Modernizing’ State,” in B. Agarwal, ed., Structures of Partiarchy. London: Zed Books; Vanaja Dhruvarajan. 1989. Hindu Women and the Power of Ideology. New Delhi: Vistaar Publications; Patricia Uberoi. ed., 1993. Family, Kinship and Marriage in India. Delhi: Oxford University Press; Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid. eds., 1989. Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History. New Delhi: Kali for Women; Bina Agarwal. 1986. "Women, Poverty and Agricultural Growth in India", The Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 13, no. 4, July.; and Kumkum Sangari. 1993. “The ‘Amenities of Domestic Life:’ Questions on Labour,” Social Scientists, vol. 244-46, pp. 3-46.
xxxii Sakuntala Narasimhan. 1989. Born Unfree: A Selection of Articles on Practices and Policies Affecting Women in India. Bangalore: Samanvitha, NMKRV First Grade College for Women; and Veena Poonacha. ed., 1991. Understanding Violence. Readings on Women Studies Series No. 3, RCWS. Bombay: SNDT Women's University.
xxxiii P. G. Jogdand. ed., 1995. Dalit Women: Issues and Perspectives. New Delhi: Gyan Publishing House; B. P. Chaurasia. ed., 1992. Women's Status in India: Policies and Programmes. Allahabad: Chugh Publications; and Gabriele Dietrich. 1992. "Dalit Movements and Women's Movement" in Reflection on the Women's Movement in India. New Delhi: Horizons India Books.
xxxiv Amartya Sen and Sunil Sengupta. 1983. "Malnutrition of Rural Children and the Sex Bias," Economic and Political Weekly, Annual Number, May; and RCWS. 1991. A Lesser Child: Girl Child in India - Readings on Women Studies Series, No. 7. Bombay: SNDT Women's University, Research Centre For Women's Studies (RCWS).
xxxv Manisha Gupte and Anita Borkar. 1987. Women's Work, Fertility and Access to Health Care: A Socio-Economic Study of Two Villages in Pune District. Bombay: Foundation Research in Community Health.
xxxvi Based on author’s fieldwork (1994-95) in karnataka, india.
xxxvii Devaki Jain, and Malini Chand. 1982. "Report on a Time-Allocation Study - Its Methodological Implications," Paper Presented at a Technical Seminar on Women's Work and Employment. Institute of Social Studies Trust, April 9 11.
xxxviii Pramod S. Bhatnagar. 1988. "The Gender Gap in World Economy," in Yojana, vol. 32:6, p. 8-9, 32.
xxxix See Uma Chakravarti. 1985. “Of Dasas and Karmakaras: Servile Labor in Ancient India,” in Utsa Patnaik and Manjari Dingwaney, eds. Chains of Servitude: Bondage and Slavery in India. Madras: Sangam Books. P. 35-75; K. Sardamoni. 1980. Emergence of a Slave Caste - Pulaiyas of Kerala. Delhi: People’s Publishing House; and Sudipto Mundle. 1979. Backwardness and Bondage: Agrarian Relations in a South Bihar District. New Delhi: Indian Institute of Public Administration.
xl Colonial definitions of these outcaste groups went from ‘unfree’ (ideological) to ‘bonded laborers’ (economic) as a justification for the ‘positive’ changes attributed to british rule. See Gyan Prakash, ed. 1992. The World of the Rural Laborer in Colonial India. Delhi: Oxford University Press. p. 15-19. On the ideology of servitude among caste hindus and dalits, see Jan Breman. 1974. Patronage and Exploitation: Emerging Agarian Relations in South Gujarat; J. Breman. 1990.Taming the Coolie Beast. Delhi: Oxford University Press; and Robert Deliege. 1992. “Replication and Consensus: Untouchability, Caste and Ideology in India,” in Man (new series), vol. 27, p. 155-173. Deliege argues that while dalits may refer to caste ideology to explain the inferiority of the castes below them, they do not accept their own position within the caste system.
xli Dharma Kumar. 1992. “Caste and Landlessness in South India,” in Prakash, ibid.:75-106; and Dharma Kumar. 1965. Land and Caste in South India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
xlii Indians were taken as slaves to dutch colonies (sri lanka), french colonies (mauritius and reunion), to malaya, etc. See Tinker :44-45.
xliii Tinker, ibid.; Prabhu P. Mohapatra. 1985. “Coolies and Colliers: A Study of the Agarian Context of Labour Migration from Chota Nagpur, 1880-1920” in Studies in History (new series), vol. 1, no. 2, p. 247-303; Lalita Chakravarty. 1978. “Emergence of an Industrial Labor Force in a Dual Economy-British India, 1880-1920,” Indian Economic and Social History Review, vol 15, no. 3, p. 249-323; and Panchannan Saha. 1962. Emigration of Indian Labour (1834-1900). Delhi: People’s Pub. House.
xliv For example, Scoble of the anti-slavery society describe indentureship in 1839 as “a slave trade in a more appalling form,” quoted in Basdeo Mangru. 1993. “The Campaign For Abolition of Indenture in India, 1908-1918,” in Mangru, Indenture and Abolition: Sacrifice and Survival on the Guyanese Plantations. Toronto: TSAR.
xlv Kelvin Singh. 1974. “East Indians and the Larger Society,” in John La Guerre, ed., ibid.:45.
xlvi Tinker :frontispiece.
xlvii Basdeo Mangru. 1987a. "The Sex Ratio Disparity and its Consequences Under the Indenture in British Guiana," in Dabydeen and Samaroo, ibid.:212.
xlviii Crispin Bates and Marina Carter. 1992. “Tribal Migration in Indian and Beyond,” in Prakash, ibid.:205-47.
xlix Joanna Liddle and Rama Joshi. 1985. “Gender and Imperialism in British India.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 20, no. 43., pp. WS 72-78.
l Mr. Caird, Mauritius Emigration Agent at Calcutta, quoted in C. Bates and M. Carter, ibid.: 236.
li Basdeo Mangru. 1987b. Benevolent Neutrality: Indian Government Policy and Labour Migration to British Guiana 1854-1884. London: Hansib Publications Limited. p. 102-105.
lii A. H. Hill. 1919. “Emigration from India,” Timehri, vol. VI, pp. 45-48.
liii Pitcher’s Report on System of Recruiting Laborers to the Colonies - 1882, quoted in Tinker :121.
liv Tyran Ramnarine. 1980. “Indian Women and the Struggle to Create Stable Marital Relations on the Sugar Estates of Guiana during the Period of Indenture, 1839-1917.” Paper presented to the 12th Conference on Caribbean Historians, UWI, St. Augustine, March-April. pp. 3-4.
lv Lyall quoted in Tinker : 267.
lvi Report of Crosby on the ship Howrah, 13 Feb.1869, quoted in Basdeo Mangru. 1993. Indenture and Abolition: Sacrifice and Survival on the Guyanese Sugar Plantations. Toronto: TSAR Publications. :26.
lvii Report of Crosby on the ship Himalaya, 2 April, 1869, quoted in Mangru, ibid.
lviii Swinton, ibid.
lix Kumar Noor Mahabir. 1985. The Still Cry: Personal Accounts of East Indians in Trinidad and Tabago During Indentureship (1845-1917). Ithaca, NY: Calaloux Publications.
lx For related studies of south asian women’s status during indenture in other colonies see Brij Lal. 1985. “Kunti’s Cry: Indentured Women on Fiji Plantations,” in Indian Economic, Social and Historical Review, vol. 22, no. 1, ibid.; and P. C. Emmer, 1985. “The Great Escape: The Migration of Female Indentured Servants from British India to Suriname, 1873-1916”in David Richardson, ed., Abolition and its Aftermath: The Historical Context 1790-1916. London.
lxi For example, the african people, Siddhis, of uttara kannada district (karnataka, india) are considered dalits.
lxii Momsen, ibid.:233.; and Linda Peake. 1993. “The Development and Role of Women’s Political Organizations in Guyana,” in Momsen. ibid.:121.
lxiii Mac Neil and Lal. 1910:20. Quoted in Reddock. 1985:ws-83.
lxiv Ross Sheils. 1969; and H. H. Clarke. 1892. Quoted in Reddock, ibid.
lxv Indra S. Harry. 1993. “Women in Agriculture in Trinidad: An Overview,” in Momsen, ibid.:207.
lxvi bell hooks. 1990. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston, MA: South End Press.
lxvii Third world writers’ emphasis on the colonialized subject (= middle class males) neglect equally important issues like neo-colonialism and the internal colonalization of the poor, women, children, indigenous peoples, forests and wildlife in the south.
lxviii Despite political ‘credentials’ as anti-imperialists, the indian (and african) bourgeoisie and bureaucracy have nevertheless succumbed to western cultural hegemony and racism against indigenous people, the amerindians.
lxix Lloyd Braithwaite. 1973. “Stratification in Trinidad,” in Lambros Comitas and David Lowenthal, eds., Slaves, Free Men, Citizens: West Indian Perspectives. NY: Anchor/Doubleday. p. 224. The author argues that social stratification in trinidad was based on certain caste-like qualities like skin-color.
lxx Henry Kirke, Twenty Five Years in British Guiana, quoted in Mangru 1987a: ibid.
lxxi Guyanese-canadian sociologist/writer Arnold Itwaru. Personal interview conducted in toronto, june 1996.
lxxii Report to british colonial office, quoted in Mangru 1987a: 225.
lxxiii For more discussion on women and marriage, see Ramnarine 1980, ibid.; and “Autobiography of Alice B. Singh” an unpublished manuscript completed around 1961, part of the Special Collections of the library of the University of Guyana.
lxxiv Kevin Singh, ibid.:45.
lxxv Mangru 1987a: 222.
lxxvi Basdeo Mangru, “The Campaign For Abolition of Indenture in India, 1908-1918,” in Mangru, 1993:98-122; and Tinker :349-351.
lxxvii Joan Wallach Scott. 1988. Gender and Politics of History. NY: Columbia Unversity Press.
lxxviii A related study on gender and class among the jewish community of the antilles was conducted by Eva Abraham-Van der Mark. 1993. “Marriage and Concubinage among the Sephardic Merchant Elite of Curacao,” in Momsen, ibid.: 38-49. Gender and class among the chinese in guyana and jamaica was briefly addressed by Orlando Patterson in his 1975 study, “Content and Choice in Ethnic Allegiance: A Theoretical Framework and Caribbean Case Study,” in Nathan Glazer and Daniel Moynihan, eds., Ethnicity: Theory and Experiences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 305-49.
lxxix It was not until 1953 that all women got the right to vote. Dwarka Nath. 1970. History of Indians in British Guiana. London, p. 245-247.
lxxx For more discussion on east indian women in agriculture, see S. Odie-Ali. 1986. “Women in Agriculture: The Case of Agriculture,” in Social and Economic Studies, vol. 35, no. 2, pp. 241-90; and Noor Kumar Mahabir. 1995. "The Last Female Field Gang: East Indian Women Agricultural Laborers in Trinidad," in Gosine, Malik and Mahabir, eds., The Legacy of Indian Indenture: 150 Years of East Indians in Trinidad. NY: Windsor Press. For an analysis of women’s labor in the informal economy in guyana, see G. Dann. 1985. The Role of Women in the Underground Economy in Guyana. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan, mimeograph; and Y. Holder. 1988. Women Traders in Guyana. Consultancy Report. Santiago: Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean/Caribbean Development and Cooperation Committee.
lxxxi Poynting, ibid.: 235
lxxxii Percy C Hintzen. 1989. The Cost of Regime Survival: Racial Mobilization, Elite Domination and the Control of the State in Guyana and Trinidad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
lxxxiii Bridget Brereton. 1974. “The Experience of Indentueship: 1845-1917,” in Le Guerre, ibid.:33.
lxxxiv Morton Klass. 1973. “East and West Indian: Cultural Complexity in Trinidad,” in Lambros Comitas and David Lowenthal, eds., Slaves, Free Men, Citizens: West Indian Perspectives. NY: Anchor/Doubleday. p. 293.
lxxxv Marisol de la Cadena. 1995. “Women are More Indian: Ethnicity and Gender in a Community near Cuzo,” in Brooke Lavson and Olivia Harris, eds., Ethnicity, Markets and Migration in the Andes: At the Crossroads of History and Antrhopology. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
lxxxvi Niehoff. ibid.:90.
lxxxvii In some parts of pre-colonial india, dalits were forced to lie on the ground whenever brahmins passed by, so that their shadow would not fall on the passing brahmins. For more discussion on these issues see footnote 21.
lxxxviii Kevin Singh, ibid.:49.
lxxxix Robert James Moore. 1970. East Indians and Negroes in British Guiana. 1838-1880. Unpublished Ph. D. Thesis, University of Sussex. p. 369-70.
xc Chandra Jayawardena. 1966. “Religious Belief and Social Change: Aspects of the Development of Hinduism in British Guiana,” Contemporary Studies on Society and History, vol. 8, p. 227.
xci Steven Vertovec. 1994. “‘Official’ and ‘Popular’ Hinduism in Diaspora: Historical and Contemporary Trends in Suriname, Trinidad and Guyana,” Contributions to Indian Sociology, vol. 28, no. 1., p. 135.
xcii In Shamoon Mohammed. 1994. “Some Aspects of East Indian Contribution to West Indian Society: Indentureship and Beyond,” in Gosine, ibid.:50.
xciii R. P. Upadhyaya. 1994. “Changes in Rituals of Hinduism in the Caribbean,” in Gosine, ibid.:250.
xciv Gora Singh. 1994. “The Forgotten Indian: The Performing Arts and East Indian Artists of Guyana: Tradition, Creativity and Development,” in Gosine, ibid.:226.
xcv M. N. Srinivas. 1966. Social Change in Modern India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
xcvi Arnold Itwaru, ibid. Professor Itwaru argues ‘brahmanic hinduism was only one of a range of religious practices among east indians which included madrases, siewnarines, christians, and muslims.” He later explained, “my father was a siewnarine who spent his entire life fighting arya samajis and sanatanists in berbice.”
xcvii Karna Singh and George Stephanies, “The Feast and Festivities of Mother Kali.” (Forthcoming publication).
xcviii Jha quoted in Shamoon Mohammed, ibid.:49.
xcix Male drummers lead the dance performance, and young boys carry the two karagams, or sacred vessels of the two Mothers, in the kali ceremony performed by the Virasammi family of berbice. Karna Singh in personal interview, January, 1996.
c In Bindimattie Mahabir. 1994. "The Changing Role of the East Indian Woman in Trinidad: The Family Perspective," in Gosine, ibid.:20-27.
ci The Singh family, and others, were former sikhs who became part of mainstream hindu society in the absence of sikh cultural practices in guyana.
cii David Dharry. 1938. “Where are Our Nation’s Youths?” in The Indian Opinion, vol. 11, no. 12, p. 408.
ciii For example, the BGDS was one of the first organizations that allowed the hindu dentist, Jagan, (now president of guyana) to express his political views in the late 1940s. See Baytoram Ramharack, 1994. “Entrepreneures and Managers in Plural Societies: Indian and Afician Political Elites in the Caribbean,” in Gosine, ibid.:83.
civ At the very bottom of this order were (are) the amerindians, and specifically amerindian women. For an analysis of women’s status among present day indigenous peoples in the Andes, see Marisol de la Cadena. 1995. Ibid.
cv This process continues. For example, during a recent trip to canada, the indian president of guyana public speeches were prefaced by religious recitals by a muslim iman and brahmin priest. This appeal to religious identity among diaspora indians not only alienates the majority christian population, but violates stated principles of a secular government.
cvi M. K. Bacchus. 1980. Education for Development or Underdevelopment? Guyana’s Educational System and its Implications for the Third World. Ontario, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
cvii Gordon, Shirely. 1963. A Century of West Indian Education - A Source Book. London: Longmans.
cviii Bacchus, ibid.:79; and Poynting, ibid.:235.
cix Gerda Lerner. 1986. The Creation of Patriarchy. NY: Oxford University Press. p. 213.
cx Kamla Bhasin. 1993. What is Patriarchy? New Delhi: Kali for Women; Uma Chakravarti. 1993. ibid.
cxi M. G. Smith. 1966. "A Survey of West Indian Family Studies," in Edith Clarke, My Mother Who Fathered Me: A Study of the Family in Three Selected Communities in Jamaica, 2nd edition. London: George Allen and Unwin.
cxii M. Angrosino. 1973. “Sexual Politics in the East Indian Family,” cf Mahabir, ibid.:21.
cxiii In Kevin Yelvington, ed., Trinidad Ethnicity. London: The Macmillian Press. pp. 208-232.
cxiv For the case of Trinidad and Tobago, see Rhoda Reddock. 1994. Women, Labour and Politics in Trinidad and Tobago. London: Zed Books.
cxv Momsen. 1993. Ibid.:233; Peake. 1993. ibid.:121.
cxvi Dharry. ibid.; and Joseph Ruhomon. 1938. “Centenary Notes and Comments,” The Indian Opinion, ibid.:404.
cxvii Personal recollection of Harry Singh in new york, december 1995.
cxviii Interview with Gora Singh, 1996.
cxix Deniz Kandiyoti. 1994. “Identity and Its Discontents: Women and the Nation,” in Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman, eds., Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory. NY: Columbia University Press. p. 378.