11.04.134:45 AM ET

An Ancestor's Perilous Voyage

A quarter of a million Indian women boarded ships as indentured servants in the 19th century, bound for the West Indies. Gaiutra Bahadur's new book follows their precarious sea-crossing and life in the New World.

In Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, author Gaiutra Bahadur traces the journey of her great-grandmother from India to the West Indies as an indentured sugar plantation laborer, whose kind were called "coolies" by their colonial masters. After the abolition of slavery, the British transported more than a million indentured Indians to a more than a dozen colonies from 1838 to 1917, a traffic that was a third the size of the British slave trade. Among the workers rounded up and shipped across the globe, in cargo holds known as 'tween decks where they were subject to sexual exploitation, were a quarter million women. Coolie Woman tells the story of their transfiguring voyages, in traumatic "middle passages" from Calcutta to the Caribbean.



In his Handbook for Surgeons Superintendent in the Coolie Emigration Service, the reclusive Scotsman Janes M. Laing, a veteran surgeon, instructed novices in the trade to look to the rule against molesting women. “By far the most important and, in some cases, fatal cause of trouble is jealousy from women being interfered with,” he warned “…Some may feel inclined to smile at this, but I assure him he will find it no laughing matter, as most of the serious trouble and all suicides, or attempted suicides, can be traced to this one cause.”

The surgeon’s duty was delicate. In effect, he had to police the nocturnal activities of a crew he technically had no authority over. He was marooned outside the chain of command, able to discipline no one but the emigrants. Laing explained the protocol in the case of violations: Insist in writing that the captain punish any offences by officers or the crew, and punish any by the emigrants yourself. “It surely should,” he added, “be quite unnecessary to say that the surgeon superintendent himself ought to show a good example.”

The job of surgeon on an indenture ship—isolating, demanding, sometimes life-threatening—did not always attract the best and the brightest. It was paid by commission—a set number of shillings for each emigrant landed alive, depending on the surgeon’s experience. This didn’t necessarily lead to conscientious or humane treatment. The indenture scholar Hugh Tinker described the surgeons as loners and misfits drawn to the “coolie” voyage by a paternalistic sense of responsibility. This could manifest in odd ways, as with the surgeon who punished a man who admitted having gay sex in the ‘tween decks by blistering his penis. Or it could manifest as heroics, as with the surgeon on The Main who brandished a revolver in 1901. Dr. Oliver caused a near mutiny among the crew because he was trying to safeguard the women aboard.

It is, however, difficult to ignore the example of another surgeon. Dr. William Holman caused a near mutiny among the emigrants in his charge because they believed he was preying on their women. Instead of a hero’s gun, he wielded a leather strap—thick as a ruler, but longer and wider. The crew said he always carried it in his pocket, as an “emblem of authority,” and used it freely to discipline the emigrants, both men and women.

Holman came from a family of professional adventurers, his father a Royal Navy commander and his uncle the famous “Blind Traveler” who published volumes about his sightless exploits across the globe. A river in Equatorial Guinea was named Holman, according to that uncle, in recognition of his contributions to the fight against the slave trade. The surgeon superintendent, who spent four decades in the successor trade in coolies, left rather a different legacy. At the outset of his career, during the voyage of The Merchantman to British Guiana in 1857, 31 percent of the emigrants in his care died. That was one of the highest mortality rates ever for an indenture ship, anywhere in the world. An additional 93 of the emigrants had to be sent to the hospital on arrival, “all pale and emaciated and listless, some but crawling skeletons, many unable to articulate and others moribund.” Despite this, Holman kept his job. He survived to make another shameful mark, midway through his career.

On 23 November 1875, the protector of emigrants on St.. Helena, the south Atlantic island where indenture ships often stopped to refuel, boarded The Ailsa for routine checks. He soon found himself surrounded by the women aboard, who fell at his feet to complain about Dr. Holman. Later, as the protector and the surgeon were in the captain’s cabin, hundreds of emigrants stormed up from the ‘tween decks to demand Holman’s ouster. They threatened to jump overboard if he was allowed to sail on with the ship. And they made slashing gestures as their throats, indicating Holman’s fate if he stayed. The emigrants claimed that the doctor did not give them enough to eat. They said he pinched and slapped women on the bottom. And they charged that he forced several women to sleep with him.

Four spoke up against Holman. Their testimonies, preserved in transcripts of a Guiana inquiry into the disquiet on the ship, provide a rare example of “coolie women” speaking for themselves in the historical record. The words are not entirely their own. Government translators paraphrased them, perhaps even misreporting details. The questions put to the women have been cut out of the record. The colonial officials ultimately discounted them as “improbable,” “almost impossible to credit.” Still, however mediated, flattened and discredited, their testimonies survive.

The first woman said: “The doctor came down one night between decks, took me by the arm and dragged me upstairs into his cabin … He is a great scamp … The doctor used to offer me biscuit and sugar, and did so as I was going to the (water) closet, taking that opportunity .. I did complain to the Commander but he is as bad as the doctor.”

The second woman said: “On one occasion, the surgeon asked me to go into his cabin, but I refused … the surgeon was in the habit of pinching use and slapping us on the bottom; we did not like it.”

The third woman said: “One night, the surgeon came down between decks, took me by the arm, and dragged me up into his cabin and had connexion with me. He put his hand on my mouth when I was between decks … The surgeon was in the habit of taking liberties with the women . The surgeon used to ill-great the immigrants by beating them with his hand and putting some of them in irons.”

Then three weeks later, the same woman, in a group recalled from their sugar estates to be cross-examined by Holman, suddenly took ill with fever. Rojeah—that was her name—had to be hospitalized. On recovering, she found that her compatriots had all been cross-examined and sent back to their plantations. Facing Holman alone, in the colony’s immigration office, she said: “The surgeon of the ship never seduced me, or did anything to me, nor did I ever go into his room, nor did he ever ill-treat or abuse me, nor seduce me.”

The fourth woman stood by her story. She said: “The surgeon frightened me … I was afraid to refuse … He used to slap me hard on my bottom and hurt me … The surgeon came after me, and made me go by force … Inside his room, the surgeon had connexion with me near the door, on the floor; the door was shut … It is true that on three nights the surgeon took me into his room and had connexion with me … I was not a prostitute in India.”

It’s not difficult to guess what the questions, edited out of the transcript, were. The commission probably asked Ramjharee—that was her name—if she had invented the charges so the immigrants wouldn’t be tried on charges of mutiny. It no doubt tried to cast aspersions on her character by suggesting she had been a prostitute. But Ramjharee would not recant. She said she had refused the surgeon once, 15 days after the ship departed India. He had cornered her on her way to the toilet, promising, “I will give you a biscuit. Come at 12 o’clock.” Ramjharee testified that she refused—and was, as a result, handcuffed for 10 hours. Other emigrants also claimed that Holman handcuffed them when they resisted or informed on him.

The emigrants did succeed in forcing Holman off the ship at St. Helena. Another surgeon finished the voyage for him, receiving part of his pay. But the committee in Guiana ultimately cleared him of taking any “indecent or licentious liberty” with the women aboard. It allowed that he “acted very injudiciously by carrying about with him a leather strap” and that his use of it was “indiscreet.” But it concluded that Holman was the victim of a vengeful plot by the third mate, who had been reprimanded by the surgeon for having a woman in his room. Several crew members testified that the third mate nightly took emigrant women to bed, and several heard him say, as the doctor left the ship at St. Helena, “Ah Mr. Bloody Doctor, you tried to catch me, but I have caught you. If you can stop my money, by Jesus Christ, I can stop yours.”

In a letter to London, Guiana’s governor reported the committee’s findings and acknowledged that their “view of the case necessarily involves the assumption that the coolies who have sworn that the Doctor took women into his cabin for improper purposes have conspired to swear falsely.” He also admitted that he wished “the charge had been more completely disproved.” But in the end, the governor and the Colonial Office backed Holman. After calling attention to some inconsistencies in the statements against him, the surgeon had sown some blatantly racist doubts to defend himself. “I confess that I feel not only anxious but pained that these charges should have been made,” he wrote, “but knowing as I do the faculty of the coolie for favourication (sic) and his tendency to exaggeration, I am hardly surprised.”

Holman survived two more decades in the coolie trade. He was even consulted as an expert on maintaining morality on the ships. In 1883, after a woman on the Trinidad-bound Hesperides accused a boatswain of raping her, the surgeon aboard called on colonial officials in India to insist that single women occupy a compartment separate and distinct from married couples and single men. That was, in fact, already the law. But in practice, like many regulations aimed at partitioning indenture in the public mind from slavery, it was a figment of bureaucratic imagination. As one official noted: “In Bengal … a compartment seems to have much real substance as the Equator or the North Pole.” The protector of emigrants in Calcutta enlisted a few surgeons to defend the breach. Holman was one of them. The doctor matter-of-factly related how he broke down the bulkheads in one ship before it sailed.

There were valid arguments to be made against physical partitions. They obstructed the flow of air in the already suffocating ‘tween decks. And, in a way, confining the compartment, or not—was like pointing a blinking neon arrow directly at them, advertising their vulnerability. The hatchway to the single women’s section was guarded at night, but the sirdars could be bribed, bullied or evaded. On The Hesperides, a sailor who slipped down the hatch threatened to stab a female guard with a knife when she tried to stop him from molesting the women. One The Ailsa, Holman entirely bypassed the guarded main hatchways. A special ladder had been set up to lead directly from his cabin to the ‘tween decks. He claimed that it was a convenience in bad weather and that initially, he had resisted it, given its strong appearance of impropriety.

Partitions would have prevented Holman from moving freely in and out of the women’s section, after he had gone to the trouble of building his own private steps into the ‘tween decks. Asked his opinion of partitions—after being accused of doing the very things they were meant to prevent—he dismissed them as unnecessary. “I cannot say,” he asserted, “that I have seen any gross immorality on board any vessel to which I have been appointed.” He wouldn’t concede that a problem existed, and the system, by turning to him as judge, showed itself to be as richly capable of denial. Holman continued to serve as a surgeon superintendent until he died in an apoplectic fit, breathless and foaming at the mouth, on an indenture ship in 1895.


On Holman’s mutinous vessel, the first mate charged that the women, “very often … very cheerful themselves, “ would “meddle” with him on deck, and the captain testified that they “would take liberties and laugh and joke with the men.” Women who accused, found themselves accused. Throughout the archives, repeatedly they face the classic insinuation against victims of sexual assault. The boatswain charged with rape on The Hesperides swore that it was the woman who came after him—and not the other way around. A surgeon consulted during the debate on partitions insisted the indentured women would not “take kindly to such a separation from the men at starting.” Another argued that partitions were beside the point, because “it would be no more easy to prevent the women going down the ladder to the men’s quarters than it is now to prevent them going from their own end of the well-lighted decks to the men’s end.”

Mincingly, they characterized the women aboard indentured ships as sluts, while others depicted them as victims. But was that the full range of their possibility, or was there some disconcerting middle ground? Did they ever exercise choice?  And what choice could they truly have in a landscape of want and coercion, of biscuits with sugar and a leather strap? Looking for answers, I analyzed the records available on 77 indenture ships, most of which landed in Guiana in the dozen years before my great-grandmother did. Whenever a ship docked, the chief immigration agent at its destination had to report to the Colonial Office on its passage from India. Some of these dispatches, including the one detailing my great-grandmother’s voyage, have been destroyed. Those that survive pull back the screen, if only for brief moments and partial views, on the lives of the women aboard. It is hard, in these glimpses, to escape the angle of sexual exploitation by figures of all ranks and races. In these archives of misconduct, the women appear resisting advances. Or, giving in to them. Or—in the eyes of many ship officials—courting them. But the records also provide other views of the women: on deathbeds, giving birth, losing children, going mad, being driven to suicide, engaged in infanticide, rejecting and being rejected by shipboard husbands, demanding that husbands prove themselves, stowing away, crying, cursing, possibly in love and clearly in anguish. Admittedly, the reports present psyches aboard ship at their most awry, since they typically only mentioned a migrant when something had gone wrong.

Still, I cannot imagine that the journey was anything but a saga, even for emigrants whose lives passed relatively without incident. Seasickness afflicted most. A majority aboard fell ill with mumps, measles, dysentery, hookworm or fever. The ache for home was so sharp that Laing the handbook writer declared: “I know that many die from nostalgia pure and simple … The excitement of the newness of everything keeps them up for a time, but soon dies away, and is followed by depression when they realize what they have done.” The realization must have dawned slowly, as the sea lengthened and the conditions aboard affected them one by one: as blankets rough as jute, sometimes rotten and foul-smelling, caused pus to form on children; as the fans for circulating air were shut down at night, when most needed; as the condenser to make the water potable broke, which it routinely did; and as the floor beneath them sweated. For decades, surgeons urged that vessels transporting coolies be barred from transporting salt, which made the ‘tween decks damp and unhealthy, but the practice persisted and the emigrants continued to succumb to fever. And their stomachs often churned from unfamiliar, religiously forbidden or spoiled food. The ship reports refer to putrefying pumpkins, potatoes past their prime, milk that had curdled, tins of mutton gone bad, dal infiltrated by dirt and drinking water laced with rust and cement. In the few first-person accounts by survivors of the crossing, the theme of being reduced to animals recurs: they slept like cattle, and they were fed biscuits fit for dogs.

All the while, surgeons prepared their balance sheets of births and deaths, recording “Shiva’s unending dance” without realizing it. The Hindu god who destroys in order to create, who dances in an aureole of flames to maintain the universe’s ceaseless cycle of creation and destruction, did not forget the ‘tween decks. Four percent of emigrant women arriving in Georgetown in the dozen years before Sujaria did give birth aboard the ship, but I’m referring to something far more metaphysical than that birthrate, roughly equal to India’s at the time. Just listen to a woman born on a ship to the West Indies in 1888: “On that made ocean, when all was tossing, people’s heads were spinning, and then labor pains started for her to have her child, on that made ocean I was born, on that mad ocean I came to life.” She was describing her own origins but, with her incantatory words, she could have been telling the creation story of our people, mine and hers. She could have continued, in her voice of myth: In our beginning there was a boat. On that mad ocean, we came to life. We passed the red sea to reach the black. The water was blue before it was green, and then it was mud. We crossed seven seas: seven shades of water, shades of darkness and light, light that died and darkness that was born, darkness somehow extinguished and light rekindled. The captain’s wheel became Shiva’s fiery circle, turning and turning in its cosmic spiral. And in the gyrating of the gales, and the churning of the waves, as one steered and the other danced, we became new. The moorings of caste had loosened, and people who had left behind uncles-sisters-husbands-mothers substituted shipmates, their “jahajis,” for kin. Unraveled, they began, ever so slowly, to spin the threads of a novel identity.

Indenture ships were not slave ships, of course. “Coolie” vessels were four to give times larger than slavers. In indenture’s early years, the emigrants aboard occupied about 5.5 square feet per person, twice what each slave had; later, the space grew to 10 square feet, or a human-sized chunk about 6 feet long and slightly over 1.5 feet wide. Covering three times the distance as slavers, indenture ships to the West Indies two to three times longer, more for sailing ships, less for steamers. Indentured emigrants had to contend with the conditions aboard for far longer. But they could break the monotony by playing cards and drums, by singing and wrestling. The surgeons encouraged these pastimes, as well as exercise, to avert the melancholy of the emigrants. On indenture vessels, it often seemed like regulations existed simply to be violated, often with impunity, but at least they existed. During the most catastrophic years of the coolie trade, between 1854 and 1864, the death rate on ships to Guiana was 8.54 percent, equal to that on slave ships in the final decades of the 18th century. But by the time my great-grandmother sailed, the mortality rate on most indenture ships had fallen to between one and two percent.

Despite these colossal distinctions, there can be no denying a few ties that should have bound the three million Africans trafficked by the British as slaves and the million Indians transported as coolies. The people in the hold, in both cases, were cut from the same demographic, mainly young and overwhelmingly male. Women were in short supply and subject to sexual exploitation during both crossings. And both journeys were transformative, signaling a break with the past, making whatever came before it seem almost as unimaginable to later generations as time and space before the Big Bang. In the beginning, there was a boat. Having emerged from its belly, as survivors, the indentured Indians could no longer be who they had been. Like the slaves before them, they were an entirely new people, forged by suffering, created through destruction. In this sense, above all else, theirs was a middle passage.


Excerpted with permission from Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture by Gaiutra Bahadur (University of Chicago Press, 2013).