How Much do you Know About Indo-Caribbeans in Guadeloupe?
The first Indians arrived in Guadeloupe on December 25th, 1854 on a former slave boat while the French authorities were still recruiting workers in Africa, China and Madeira to address the loss of workforce in the plantations of the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean. More than 42,000 Indians - mainly from Puducherry, Karaikal and Kolkata - arrived in Guadeloupe between 1854 and 1889.
I am the descendant of these Indian indentured workers – no longer Indian, legally French, geographically Caribbean and torn between a multiplicity of worlds and identities that are not always compatible with one another.
While other territories were seeking to (re)gain their independence from the French, British, Portuguese and Dutch Empires, Guadeloupe – alongside French Guiana, Martinique and Réunion – became an overseas department of France in 1946. All citizens born in Guadeloupe are thus French by birth. This administrative and political extension of the French state overseas does not mean that the history of the former colonies it transformed into overseas territories has become integrated in France’s official history and imagined community.
Growing up, I was taught that the history of Guadeloupe was a history of rivalries and unpaid debts between Black and White people. Later, when I joined Sciences Po Paris – a French elite university - through an affirmative action program, I was taught that the history of France was only relevant to Caucasians. Sometimes, it would involve Black and ‘Arab’ people, but only when they claimed on national TV that France ‘isn’t a racist country’ and that Muslims were creating ‘parallel societies’ in Parisian banlieues (suburbs).
I only discovered the word ‘Brown’ as an identity when I moved to the United Kingdom. There, I was racialized as ‘Asian’, until I would start to speak and my French accent would take over. I was still Brown, but no longer ‘Asian’. I was, at best, an exotic Mauritian.
Living in the UK and creating connections with people from the South Asian diaspora, however, helped me reclaim my identity as Indo-Caribbean. My parents always taught me that we ‘Indians’ (in Guadeloupe we are ‘Indians’, while Indians are called ‘Indians from India’) had a different history. We sometimes ate different foods – colombo, lotis, vadès, and always had massala in our fridges. We would binge-watch Bollywood movies on weekends, and were always asked in school if we practiced witchcraft. We did not experience slavery, yet we were constrained by a relatively similar system of oppression called indentureship (engagisme). My ancestors spent most of their lives working in sugarcane plantations and factories. The French State never recognised indentureship as a system of oppression, let alone as a part of the French colonial history.
I don’t know where this leaves me. I feel French because I was brought up in a postcolonial society where I was taught to be a good French minority – quiet and loyal to France. I didn’t want to be French, but France came to me and it’s now entrenched in me. I feel Guadeloupean, and I was taught that being Guadeloupean and French aren’t incompatible. After all, Guadeloupe isn’t legally a country, but a region and department of France. However, I’m not sure I feel at home in mainland France or Guadeloupe. In the former, I’m ‘Other’, ‘exotic’ and ‘cute’. Sometimes, I’m from Mauritius, sometimes from Madagascar. Maybe from Pakistan.
I entertain White people who think I’m ‘racist against Whites’ when I voice my concerns. In the latter, I’m a ‘kouli malaba’, and according to the clichés people have of Indo-Guadeloupeans, my dad is either a very rich entrepreneur or a poor farmer who can’t speak proper French.
I don’t see myself in the writings of famous Guadeloupean and Martinican intellectuals. Maryse Condé talks about us as ‘chapé koulis’ (an expression as humiliating as ‘kouli malaba’), and Edouard Glissant advocates Créolité – a concept according to which all Martinicans and Guadeloupeans should set aside their cultural specificities to embrace a common ‘Creole’ identity. French assimilation and Créolité want me to forget how marginalised my family has been, generation after generation.
They want me to see myself as either only French or only Guadeloupean. But that’s not who I am. I’m Guadeloupean, French, but above all
I am brown, and I am Indo-Caribbean.
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