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Indian women's lives and labor: The indentureship experience in Trinidad and Guyana, 1845-1917

Indian women's lives and labor: The indentureship experience in Trinidad and Guyana, 1845-1917
Sumita Chatterjee


Department of History, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Amherst, MA 01003, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.


This study examines the gender dynamics of the migration and settlement of Indian indentured workers in Trinidad and Guyana between 1845 and 1917, laying particular emphasis on the ways in which migration of Indian women workers impacted and changed the dynamics of the settlement process of Indians in Trinidad and Guyana. I argue in this thesis that the presence of sufficient numbers of females throughout this particular history of indentured migration and settlement had important and far-reaching implications for the nature of rural social and economic formations that evolved in post emancipation societies of Trinidad and Guyana.

This thesis, is not then, the story only of women's migration, or their roles in the new social and economic formations in Trinidad and Guyana in the period 1845 to 1917, but also discusses the relational aspects of women's and men's experiences and the politics of gender that influenced the indentureship experiment. I examine the ways in which the presence of a critical mass of women indentured and ex-indentured workers influenced not only the working of the sugarcane economy but also the ways in which the socio-cultural and sexual relationships evolved within the emergent rural community of Indians. The history of migration and indentureship is traced from the recruitment process in India where gender and patriarchy impacted the ways in which females were enlisted for contractual work overseas, to the eventual settlement of Indian women and men workers in their newly adopted homes in Trinidad and Guyana.

I have based this thesis on British official sources like annual emigration and immigration reports, official correspondences, parliamentary and other inquiry committee reports, censuses, and non-official sources like contemporary newspapers, journals, travel and planter memoirs, missionary memoirs, an autobiography by Anna Mahase, Sr. born during my period of study, and oral interviews with ex-indentured men and women in Trinidad. Some of the hidden areas of knowledge about indentured men's and women's lives, particularly around questions of social, sexual, and ritual expressions, as also the ways in which the economic and social activities of women and men in peasant households were allocated, have been constructed through the reading of non-official sources like memoirs, newspapers, autobiographies, and three different sources of oral interviews of men and women.