…remember one-third quota, coolie woman,
Was your blood spilled so I might reject my history…
forget tears among the paddy leaves? – Mahadai Das
Of recent, I have been forced to think about the question of “feminism” through the lens of being a member of a community that looks at the issue a bit differently than the metropolitan countries where the notion arose. For instance, the reality of worshipping God as female – Mother Saraswati, in my case, as I wrote about a few days ago – has to challenge you to question the feminist take on “patriarchal dominance” when females symbolise “power” and males, “inertness”. And the male gods all had to surrender their weapons to Mother Durga to save them from Mahishasura.
But with Indian Arrival Day coming up, I thought I would lay the groundwork for the Indian female’s experience in the West Indies to concretely locate the discussion. Now we all know about the first Indians arriving in the Whitby and Hesperus on May 5, 1835. But did we know of the 396 that were in those ships, only 15 were female – of which just 11 were adult women?
This gender imbalance was to characterise Indian immigration until it was ended in 1917 and had a profound impact on the community’s life in their new homeland. That first 1838 batch faced so much hardships on the sugar plantations under “drivers” who still conducted themselves as they had with the newly freed slaves, that two thirds of them returned to India at the end of their five-year contract – along with all the women. One quarter perished.
When Indentureship resumed in 1845, new regulations demanded that one-third of all immigrants should be women. And this is the “one-third” that the poet Mahadai Das (who lived her last years in my village) referred to in her poem. Finding the “one third” in India was not easy and was a constant source of complaints by the agents of the planters. In India of the 19th century, after a thousand years of invasions, the role of women were firmly fixed in the home to be “protected”.
But the India of the 19th century had also been devastated by famines and uprootings due to the British rape of the economy to funnel off India’s wealth to Britain. Within India, men from the now poverty-stricken north had become a familiar sight in other parts of their vast country looking for jobs. In this way, families were torn apart and many women would have been left adrift when their husbands departed.
As it was, most of the women who immigrated to the Caribbean were single – some being widows with children. But a major adjustment was made at the large “depots” where all the prospects were housed until the “shipping season” began.
At these depots the change from “Indian” to “West Indian” began – especially for women. While in the Indian villages, their single or widow status might be a burden, in the depots that was reversed. Many got married as the men faced the daunting prospect of becoming strangers in strange lands.
On the three-month journey to the Caribbean, men and women were forced into even closer proximity and while the custom of having the single women sleep near the married couples was in place, shipboard marriages were also common. They however also faced sexual advances from the ship’s crew and there are several documented cases that described their ordeal. However, the strong bonds that developed aboard the ships (“Jahaj”) made men and women become as close as any family. They called themselves “Jahajees” – shipmates – for the rest of their lives.
The story is told in my family of my Great-great grandfather Ram Bishun who was bound to Plantation De Willem along with one of his female Jahajees. And when she didn’t return from the backdam one evening, he went to search for her in the darkness and brought back to the logees her lifeless body that he fetched for miles in the night
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