From 1838 to 1917, ships sailing from Calcutta and Madras ferried roughly 238,000 Indians to the British colony of Guiana, on the northeastern coast of South America, to toil as bonded laborers on sugar plantations. These men and women did the work that enslaved Africans had done in a system of indenture described by historians as “a new form of slavery.” The system gathered more than a million Indians in its net, scattering them to more than a dozen colonies across the globe, from Fiji and Mauritius to many islands in the West Indies, including Trinidad and Jamaica. The workers, branded “coolies” by British bureaucrats, were paid for their work, which was supposed to last three to five years, terms laid out in an English-language contract many had signed with thumbprints, often without being able to read it. The contracts were honored more in the breach, with plantation managers and overseers cheating many workers and jailing them for disobedience. The system made debtors of many, forcing them to extend their contracts. It also created conditions that led to alcoholism and violence against women that has persisted for generations.

This legacy of harm is not, however, the only thing descendants of this system carry with us.

Gaiutra Bahadur, author of Coolie Woman: the Odyssey of Indenture, is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University-Newark in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media. Her Archival Creators Fellowship project focuses on documenting within Guyanese communities descended from Indian indentured laborers. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Read Gaiutra's writing about her fellowship project in TIDES:
• The Things We Carried
• The Storytellers in the Mandir
• Notes Toward a Prehistory
No Homeland Here

You can also listen to the oral history interviews Gaiutra conducted for her project and browse the archival materials she collected.

For their work and their guidance, Gaiutra is deeply grateful to her advisory board members William Depoo at DRUM, Annetta Seecharan at CHHAYA CDC, Pritha, Chitra and Karna Singh at the Rakjumari Cultural Center, Aminta Kilawan at Sadhana and the members of the collective of Ro(u)ted by Our Stories: Arita Balaram, Sasha Balkaran, Lissa Deonarain, Kimmi Ramnine, Tarika Sankar, Dharani Persaud, Simone Devi Jhingoor, Shivana Jorawar, and Yasmin Toney.