The Odyssey of Indenture
Writing history is hard. Writing good history? Even harder.
Writing good history implies a fair treatment of one’s source materials, a readability of the narrative, and a clear voice. Juggling these three demands is difficult, to say the least. Writing history involves understanding the trade-offs between these three components. Different types of histories show different balances, and when one component is weighed over another, a different type a history emerges. Academic histories tend to favor attention to source material and detailed footnotes. Popular histories rely on readability. Memoir-infused histories blend present and past as the author’s own connections frame how stories are told. Even when given the same set of events, there are many ways to write about those events and many ways to write it well. Refusing to pick a specific frame, however, leaves loose threads in the historical narrative—threads that snarl and knot, distracting the reader from the author’s purpose.
Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture by Gaiutra Bahadur is a curious history. On one hand, it tells the story of the “coolie” indenturment in the British Empire (with a great introductory note about the use of the word “coolie”). On the other hand, it’s a story of family legacy. Coolie Woman grounds itself in the legitimacy of archival sources, interviews, and photos—its footnotes and documentation are extensive. The book’s sources span the India Office Records to the Colonial Office Correspondence in the UK’s National Archives. It uses quotes, through dialog, extensively. Its collection of historical photos and the deconstruction of the photos’ context is nuanced, giving readers a visual narrative to follow and faces to put with its history.
But Coolie Woman is fundamentally built around a family’s own genealogical history—it serves as memoir. The author’s own great-grandmother sailed from India to Guiana in 1903 as a “coolie” worker and part of the wider indentured movement of the twentieth century when Indian workers replaced emancipated slaves in British colonies. It’s impossible to talk (or write) about such a significant part of one’s family history without acknowledging and engaging with that genealogical legacy. Even the title speaks to the singularity and focus that inspired the extensive research in the first place. For Bahadur, to write about the broader historical movement is to write about her great-grandmother working in cane fields. It is also to write about her extended family and her own experiences emigrating from Guiana to the United States.
Bahadur situates her great-grandmother’s immigration from India to Guiana in the broader space of the early twentieth century British Empire. To understand what her great-grandmother’s everyday life was like, Bahadur steps back to a larger context—a context that tells many histories of life under the British Empire: social histories, economic histories, cultural histories, histories of science and technology, histories of networks, histories writ large. Bahadur’s history engages with the lives of indentured women from India who lived in the far-flung British colonies. These women were “widows, runaways, or outcasts. Many fled mistreatment, even mortal danger . . . to face a life of hard labor, dismal living conditions, and sexual exploitation.” Bahadur argues that she is writing a history of sexuality and identity. Yet, Coolie Woman spans a larger scope. It brings together economic, social, and cultural threads—it creates a stratigraphy of history, one layer at a time.
In these many histories, however, the frames are often cross-cutting. They pull the reader from one narrative and simultaneously cut against the grain of the other. There’s almost a franticness to Coolie Woman—a fear of leaving out some detail or some story. Each detail, every archival letter, each family photo that Bahadur includes speaks to her theme of courage and dignity. In writing Coolie Woman, she gives indentured Indian women a voice and a legacy where these women have typically lived in exclusion, stripped of any historical voice. Bahadur has given them an opportunity to speak. But the overwhelming cacophony of voices requires a patience to sift through. Everything is saved and everything is included. Every archival note makes it into the book. In juggling the components of good history, sometimes the hardest decisions a historian makes in writing their narrative is deciding what to leave out.
From the first page, Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture draws the reader in to the history of indentured women. In Coolie Woman, indenture becomes a real phenomenon—with real women, real lives, and real details. Where economic histories of the British Empire might focus on the impact of indenture, and social histories might focus on the legacy of its policy, a history like Coolie Woman gives voices and faces to those who participated in this history.