On Origin Stories
Written by: Alexandra Daignault
“Remember one-third quota, coolie woman.
Was your blood spilled so I might reject my history —
forget tears among the paddy leaves.”
— Mahadai Das, “They Came in Ships”
“Oh, Oh, Nanni, tell me a story.” A little wispy ghost girl whispers, green eyes gazing fixed at me. I watch myself speak, as you can in dreams:
“Oh my darling, we came from the belly of a great snake — wooden, splintered from frothy salt kisses.”
“Who came, Nanni?” She twirls red brown wisps round tiny fingers.
“My Nanni’s Nanni— your great, great, great, great grandmother.”
“So even Nanni’s have Nannies?” Her eyes wide.
“Yes, even Nanni’s have Nannies.”
What does it mean to exist within the margins of an already marginalized story?
Indentureship in the Caribbean was largely left out of global Caribbean memory, absent from the literature and narrative of what it means to be “from the islands” or even the Caribbean. Male authors of Indian descent toiled to carve out a place for themselves in the literary tradition. However, these same men who can be celebrated for shedding light on the indentured experience, painted a universalized experience of Indo-Caribbean women and their identity and position within our diverse communities.
These women, unable to write and speak for themselves, were subject to the interpretation of others without agency in the telling or shaping of their own stories. In the past 50 years, we have seen a rise in Indo-Caribbean Women’s literature marking a much needed turn in the tradition. In order to fully appreciate why this is important, we must first look at the gendered experience of indentureship itself.
The conditions of indentureship, barely better than systems of enslavement, are no secret. Indo-Caribbean peoples were seen as a source of cheap and expendable labour. Lured to work in far away lands under the false promises of a better life, these people gave up everything to make the long journey across the Kala Pani. Under the system they experienced physical, emotional and sexual brutalization at the hands of both the oppressors and later each other. Stripped of their humanity, community, and ways of being - many died on the ships and in the plantations.
What is not commonly discussed is the particular exploitation and brutalization of women.
Before taking the journey, women were screened - often using dye to mask grey hair (Bissessarsingh). Those who were accepted were examined by a medical examiner who was usually a man (Bissessarsingh). Women on the ships were a minority, because they were seen as less valuable workers, and had to build social bonds with one another quickly as a means of protecting themselves from rape and gang rape on the ships (Bissessarsingh). Each woman had been given a pair of shoes, a cotton sari, and some other articles of clothing and an identification disk to wear (Bissessarsingh). These women were brought or sometimes kidnapped from communities across India — many were assumed to be prostitutes, or low caste and suffered under deeply rooted cultural discrimation and colourism on the ships (Bissessarsingh). Forced marriages, rape and prostitution were not uncommon during this time (Bissessarsingh).
My Nanni says that her Nanni told her stories about them being packed together on the floor with nothing to sleep on but straw.
The three month journey was arduous, everyone was sick and many people died. Despite all this, Brinda Mehta writes that: “enduring the hardships of the kala pani was a worthwhile risk to take because it offered the potential for renegotiations of gendered identity within the structural dissolutions of caste, class, and religion that occurred during the transatlantic displacements” (5).
In the years directly after the start of Indentureship, the women who lived through the journey were afforded more agency (Mehta 5). Those who were not married were, in many cases, able to choose if they would marry and who they would marry because there were more men than women (Mehta 5). They were also given money or land after serving their period of indentureship which (although super meagre) was something they could use to build for themselves (Mehta 5).
Originally, the gender ratio was 40:100- approximately (Bissessarsingh). However, as the years went on and the gender balance evened out the cultural traditions that had oppressed these women in their homelands became more entrenched in this new place. Women were once again relegated to the edges of their world with primary decisions made through their: fathers, husbands, uncles, brothers and sons (Mehta 5-6).
Despite working alongside their male counterparts, they were often doubly oppressed by both the colonial system in which they worked and the cultural systems at home.
As well, it would be remiss to note that the brutalization endured by both men and women on the plantations did not come to influence behaviour at home and perhaps we might say it increased levels of violence?
Women further laboured under the lens of exoticism, and were often stereotyped as being promiscuous or wild. In the sugar cane fields women were often assaulted, and when this happened it was they who carried the shame and blame. These stories have made me wonder if the large immovable bracelets, what she called slave bands, on my Parnanni’s arms were there for decoration or as a means of self defence.
In spite of all they endured, these women represent the crux of our culture. Deeply grounded in diverse forms of oral narrative, through story, cooking and songs, these women carried the culture from their homelands but also participated in the creation of what is now considered Caribbean culture (Mehta 6). Their teachings, the ones they brought and the ones they made, changed the physical and non-physical landscape around them.
As a child, I heard stories about women who came from snakes and would drown men in the sea. I don’t know where these stories came from - likely, it’s a mix of stories just like me.
Perhaps it started when my Parnanni showed me the scars on her legs from working in the same sugarcane fields where her mother came to work?
Whenever I go through a struggle or a hard time, I think about how much my Nanni and her Nanni lived through — and it gives me strength to keep going. My life is the literal manifestation of their hopes and labour. I have the “better life” they had hopes for (even if some days are hard). I feel like it is my responsibility to honour them and their stories through my work.
Brinda Mehta writes, in Diasporic (Dis)locations, “The cane-cutting woman, hidden in the cane fields, pitting her will, her endurance, her ingenuity against a system that would grind her through its mills and spit her out as canet-rash, is the history and psyche of the Indo-Caribbean woman who wants to write.”
To me this is truth.
Brinda Mehta, Diasporic (Dis)locations. University of the West Indies Press, pp 5-6.
Angelo Bissessarsingh. “The Passage of Shame.” Angelo Bissessarsingh’s Virtual Museum of Trinidad and Tobago. May 20th 2020. Link: https://www.facebook.com/groups/191766699268/permalink/10158431527179269/