Books : Indentureship in the Caribbean


The theme of this year’s edition of the Indian Arrival Day magazine produced by the Indo-Caribbean Cultural Council is “A pictorial survey of books on Indentureship in the Caribbean.” After the abolition of African slavery, Indians came to the Caribbean to work as indentured laborers from 1838. They came to work in sugarcane plantations in the British, French and Dutch colonies under a semi-slave contract system known as indentureship. By the time indentureship ended in 1917, about 400,000 Indians had come to Trinidad, Guyana/Guiana, Jamaica, Guadeloupe, Martinique and other Caribbean islands.

A survey of the literature reveals that approximately 85 books have at least one chapter on Indian indentureship in the Caribbean. The first book was written by Joseph Beaumont and published in 1871. It is entitled The New Slavery: An Account of the Indian and Chinese Immigrants in British Guiana. Beaumont was appointed Chief Justice in 1863 and attempted to alleviate exploitation and abuse of both Chinese and Indian labourers by applying the laws that were designed to protect them. 

About 80 years later, the second non-fiction book on Indian indentureship in the Caribbean was written by Dwarka Nath and published in 1950, entitled A History of Indians in British Guiana. Unlike Beaumont,Nath was an Indian and a senior immigration agent in colonial Guyana. Nath ranks among 75 Indian historians to have written at least a chapter on the subject. 

Sixteen books on indenturehip were written by women, seven of which are by non-whites. Two books were written by Verene Shepherd, a half-Indian from Jamaica

Eighteen years after in 1968, two non-fiction works were published independently by Judith Ann Weller and Donald Wood. Weller is the first woman to undertake an in-depth study of the Indian indentureship in the Caribbean in The East Indian indenture in Trinidad. Wood’s publication, Trinidad in Transition: The Years After Slavery, is an important contribution to the historiography of indentureship.

Since then about 80 books have been written on the subject, mainly by Indians in the Diaspora, some of them being women. Basdeo Mangru and Clem Seecharan, are the two Guyanese historians who have written the most books on indentureship. Seecharan has four books and Mangru five. They were followed by a Trinidadian, Ron Ramdin who has written three books on the subject. Brinsley Samaroo and David Dabydeen have edited the largest number of volumes on the subject. 
Sixteen books on indenturehip were written by women, seven of which are by non-whites. Two books were written by Verene Shepherd, a half-Indian from Jamaica. Shepherd’s two books are Transients to Settlers: The Experience of Indians in Jamaica, 1845-1950 and Maharani’s Misery: Narratives of a Passage from India to the Caribbean. Another woman, Laxmi Mansingh, co-authored with her husband Home Away From Home: 150 Years of Indian Presence in Jamaica 1845-1995. 

Eight of the 85 books on indentureship in the Caribbean are works of fiction. The first of which was published over 132 years ago in 1877, and entitled Lutchmee and Dilloo: A Study of West Indian Life. It is written by Edward Jenkins.The second came 40 years later in 1917, entitled Those That be in Bondage: A Tale of Indian Indentures and Sunlit Western Waters (1917). Its author is Albert Raymond Forbes Webber. Other novels published on the subject are The Dispossessed (1992) by Clement Maharaj, The Promise (1995) by Sharlow Mohammed, Tikasingh’s Wedding (1998) by Wilfred D. Best, Chalo Chinidad - Let’s Go Trinidad (2003) by Jang B. Bhagirathee, Rama’s Voyage (2004) by Ron Ramdin, and Jahajin (2007) by Peggy Mohan. 

Both Trinidad and Guyana have produced an equal number of books on indentureship in the Caribbean. However, there is a severe scarcity of books on indentureship from the smaller Caribbean islands and the non-English-speaking territories. There is also, an absence of imaginative books in the form of poems and plays on the subject.

August 2009

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