Disciplining Coolies

An Archival Footprint of Trinidad, 1846

by Amar Wahab (Author)
©2019 Textbook XVIII, 282 Pages
Series: Studies in Transnationalism, Volume 1


The early years of the East Indian Indentureship system in the Caribbean saw experiments on "coolie" laborers under the British Empire. Colonial Trinidad was one of the main sites for this experiment. This book foregrounds one of the earliest cases (1846) of occupational and physical cruelty against East Indian indentured laborers in Trinidad within this very early period of experimentation. It presents and analyzes the full transcripts of an inquiry concerning the ill-treatment of "coolie" laborers and the severe punishment and death of one laborer, Kunduppa, by a Scottish planter in Trinidad. Drawing on the concepts of discipline, governmentality, and Orientalism, the main argument of the manuscript is that within the early experimental period of Indentureship, the figure of the "coolie" and disciplinary tactics of bodily torture were instrumental to redrafting and stabilizing the colonial governance of contract labor. It also argues that Crown investigations of "coolie" abuse and death became occasions for establishing a new colonial order, in which the disciplinary powers of planters were curbed in the interest of protecting and "caring" for the "coolie" —a discourse that was crucial to re-inventing colonial rule as benevolent. As such, the author’s analysis of colonial violence has crucial implications for critically re-thinking colonial liberalism and its legacies in the present.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgments
  • Preface
  • Cast of Characters
  • Primary Characters
  • Supporting Characters
  • Introduction: The Footprint
  • Buried: An Archeology of the Grave
  • Across Horizons: Situating the Study in Indo-Caribbean Studies
  • Exhumed: A Summary of the Inquiry
  • Summary of Chapters
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter 1. Disciplinary Orientalism and Indian Indentureship in the Colonial Caribbean
  • Historical Context of East Indian Indentureship in the British West Indies: The Experimental Period (1838–1848)
  • West Indian Orientalism and ‘The Coolie Question’
  • Can the ‘Coolie’ Speak?: The Question of Agency
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter 2. ‘Coolie’ Genealogy as Colonial Governmentality: An Analysis of ‘Mr. Walkinshaw’s Ill-treatment of Coolies’
  • Introduction
  • The Inquiry: Mr. Walkinshaw’s Ill-treatment of ‘Coolies’ (1846)
  • Walkinshaw’s Despotic Liberalism: ‘Miscalculated’ Reason
  • Food Rationing
  • Double Tasking
  • Corporal Punishment
  • Medical Neglect
  • The Force of Inquiry: Liberalism’s Struggle for the Docile Subject
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter 3. The Transcripts: Trinidad 1846, Volume 4, Mr. Walkinshaw’s Ill-treatment of Coolies, Governor Lord Harris, Disp. 75 and 88
  • Note
  • Chapter 4. Postscript: ‘Coolie’ Hauntings
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

| vii →


Figure 1.1: Coolie Re/marks

Figure 3.1: Outline of Kunduppa’s Feet

Figure 4.1: (a) and (b): Abbey of the Parasite: on Human Remains

Figure 4.2: Slow Death: Consignment No. 348/520

Figure 4.3: (a), (b), and (c): DisAffections: A Parliament of Things (triptych)

Figure 4.4: Re/marks: A Coolie Parliament

Figure 4.5: (a) and (b): In a Queer State: The Wail

Figure 4.6: (a) and (b): After/Still Life

| ix →


This book could not have been possible without the contributions of the many people, voices and institutions which supported me throughout my writing. I am grateful to The National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom for permission to read and publish the transcript of the inquiry and to include imagery of the institution’s buildings in my visual installations. Thanks also to the staff at the National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago who were very helpful during my research in Trinidad. I also thankfully acknowledge the Journal of Historical Studies and the Journal of Asian American Studies for providing permission to reprint edited versions and sections of my published articles. I acknowledge the support of funding for the initial leg of this research, which was gained through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Centre for Caribbean Studies, University of Warwick, UK, for providing the initial institutional base for this research. Thanks also to Silmi Abdullah, who worked on the first phase of transcription of the original archival material and to the reviewers and editorial staff at Peter Lang Publishers Inc., who provided valuable feedback, support and advice throughout the publication process.

While the act of writing is a lonely process, I am deeply grateful to my transnational network of family and friends—in Trinidad, the US, Canada, ← ix | x → and the UK—as well as colleagues—at York University—who provided a nurturing and supportive context in which to work. I am especially thankful to my mom, Sarojanie, who has always been there for me and whose encouragement has been crucial to the completion of this project. Our daily conversations have fuelled this project in very significant ways. I am also deeply thankful to my partner, Graëme, who listened supportively throughout the process, nourished my drive to see this project through, and helped me in creating some of the experimental artwork as well as staging it in the UK—especially at a moment when my own disability threatened to further delay this project. Moreover, he never failed to keep me inspired and going at some of the most dismal moments of working with the horrific footprint of violence presented in this book. To all the authors whose works I have drawn upon, I am grateful for the ways in which they’ve helped this book to matter. They offered—through their scholarship—a meaningful community for voicing in moments at which I felt utterly horrified, depressed and alone in the archival grave. In this regard, I acknowledge the ghostly presences of the inquiry, especially Kunduppa, whose footprint has spoken to me for the last decade. His haunting has awakened new and creative intellectual horizons for me and as such, this book is situated in a space of questioning how we reconcile the violence of the past and listen to voices that refuse to be silenced in death.

As a work of dedication, this book is dedicated to the collective I have mentioned above, for in many ways, we have co-produced this space of meaning. I would also like to dedicate this work to ‘the Caribbean community’ (regionally and transnationally), because it may help to hold us in a different relation to ourselves. Last, but not least, I dedicate this work to those who survived the violence of indentureship, and especially to Kunduppa; I see you.

| xi →


The year 2018 marks the 180th anniversary of the beginning and the 101st anniversary of the end of the British East Indian indentureship system in the Caribbean—a system of contract labor that not only aimed to stabilize the plantation labor supply to British colonies after the abolition of slavery, but which also experimented on East Indian laborers to work out a new regime of governing ‘contractually-free’ labor across the British Empire. Colonial Trinidad was one of the main sites for this experiment, which began in 1845, but was (temporarily) suspended in 1848 due to financial crisis in the colony. This three-year period was also marked by an intense humanitarian outcry—especially in Britain and India—about the extreme forms of punishment and alarming cases of abuse and death of indentured East Indians within a system of supposedly free labor.

This book foregrounds one of the earliest cases (1846) of punishment and cruelty (emotional, occupational and physical) against East Indian indentured laborers or ‘coolies’ in Trinidad within this very early period of uncertainty, experimentation and recalibration. It presents and analyses the testimonies of a state inquiry concerning the ill-treatment of ‘coolies,’ including the severe punishment and death of an East Indian laborer, Kunduppa, by a Scottish planter, Edward Walkinshaw, on the Clydesdale Cottage estate in ← xi | xii → South Naparima, Trinidad (within the first year of this experiment), in which the latter claimed that torture was a necessary tactic to indulge ‘coolies’ to work. Drawing on the concepts of discipline and governmentality (developed by French philosopher and social historian, Michel Foucault) and Orientalism (developed by Edward Said, a founding figure in the field of post/colonial studies), the main argument of the book is that within the early experimental period of indentureship, the figure of the ‘coolie’ and disciplinary tactics of bodily torture were instrumental to redrafting and stabilizing the colonial governance of ‘contractually-free’ labor. It also argues that state investigations of ‘coolie’ abuse and death (such as the case focused on in this book) became occasions for establishing a new colonial order, in which the disciplinary powers of planters were curbed in the interest of protecting and caring for the ‘coolie’—a discourse that was critical to the image of a benevolent rule of bonded labor within the British Empire.

While much of the historical literature and analyses of labor in colonial Trinidad (as well as the wider Caribbean) focus on free and enslaved African labor, there remains a deep paucity of substantive analyses concerning the regulation of East Indian labor, specifically within this early period (1845–1848) of the indentureship system. In the handful of books that have been published on indentureship in Trinidad, few have briefly referenced the case which is central to this book. In addition, none of the existing works offer a substantive analysis of the cruelty, torture and death of ‘coolies’ within this experimental period in relation to the concepts of discipline and governmentality. Moreover, none of the existing analyses trace the footprint of ‘coolie’ death as a crucial installment in the production of colonial liberalism i.e. the reimaging of Empire as humanitarian, in the immediate aftermath of slavery. This is perhaps because almost all existing analyses are situated within the scholarly discipline of history. While this manuscript is definitely a contribution to the field of historical studies, its analytical uniqueness lies in its reliance on conceptual strands in critical studies of colonial discourse (Orientalism) and social and political theory (discipline and governmentality). In addition, the visual experiments in the final section of the book are also inspired by studies at the intersections of critical race studies, queer studies, and studies of debility to deconstruct the ‘coolie’ as a racialized-queer and debilitated figure, whose invention as such, was crucial to his/her disposability, which served to reconfigure and re-capacitate the hegemony of colonial rule. The book targets general and scholarly readers (concerned with British, Caribbean and Indian history), with a keen interest in understanding the very material and measured ← xii | xiii → torture of ‘coolie’ laborers within this period of the indentureship scheme (a part of the indentureship story that is understudied and silenced, even within the academic domain) and in understanding the productive value of such cruelty and torture to the British Empire at the very moment of its reinvention as benevolent. As such, the author hopes to contribute to scholarly and creative literature situated within the interdisciplinary nexus of social science and historical studies on indentureship, specifically in fields such as Indo/Caribbean Studies, studies of British colonialism and Orientalism, Indian and South Asian studies, and critical labor studies.

| xv →


The following is a list of the main characters, followed by a list of supporting characters involved in the inquiry focused on in this book. Many of the non-European names are inconsistently spelled in the transcripts of the inquiry (fully reproduced in Chapter 3).

Primary Characters

Bilchie East Indian laborer accused of rum drinking and attack on fellow laborers.
Bitchook East Indian laborer accused of being part of a gang.
Edward Young Creole laborer, witness
Major James Fagan Coolie Stipendiary Magistrate
Justice Floyd Magistrate
Ginno East Indian laborer accused of being part of a gang.
Girdarry East Indian laborer accused of stealing sugar and exposing his private parts to women and children.
Earl Grey Secretary for the Colonies ← xv | xvi →
Lord George Harris Governor
Justice Horatio Nelson Huggins Magistrate
Hurra Sing Estate Sirdar
Jarroo East Indian laborer accused of smoking, not completing his task work, absent without pass, scolded. Mr. Walkinshaw hit him to get him to work.
Justice Charles Knox Magistrate
Kunduppa East Indian laborer who died on the Clydesdale Cottage estate.
Mr. James Huggins Lacroix Planter of neighbouring Fullerton estate, former Justice of the peace (St. Vincent).
Latoo East Indian laborer accused of being part of a gang.
Luono East Indian laborer accused of being a member of a gang of Calcutta coolies who supposedly attacked Mr. Walkinshaw.
Nattoo East Indian laborer.
Mr. Sidney Smith Overseer
Sonnu East Indian laborer accused of being part of a gang.
Phil Thomas Creole laborer, witness
Edward Walkinshaw Proprietor of the Clydesdale Cottage estate.
Mr. Watson Friend of Mr. Walkinshaw in Belmont.
Arthur White Colonial Secretary, Trinidad

Supporting Characters


XVIII, 282
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2019 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XVIII, 282 pp. 2 b/w ills., 9 color ills.

Biographical notes

Amar Wahab (Author)

Amar Wahab is Associate Professor in the School of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at York University, Canada. He received his PhD in sociology and equity studies from the University of Toronto. Among his publications is the monograph, Colonial Inventions: Landscape, Power and Representation in Nineteenth-Century Trinidad (2010).


Title: Disciplining Coolies
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