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Disciplining Coolies

An Archival Footprint of Trinidad, 1846


Amar Wahab

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.

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Chapter 2. ‘Coolie’ Genealogy as Colonial Governmentality: An Analysis of ‘Mr. Walkinshaw’s Ill-treatment of Coolies’


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An Analysis of ‘Mr. Walkinshaw’s Ill-treatment of Coolies’1


The framing and contemplation of what was termed “the West India question” might be read as a problematic of governance that encapsulated diverse projects of social and political engineering that conditioned the fitful workings of freedom in the nineteenth century. The dominant historical and theoretical formulation of Anglophone Caribbean thought has assumed this problematic to be oriented about the pre/post emancipation axis that signaled the shift from slavery, regarded as the densest institution of unfreedom, to a series of more experimental institutions and regimens that supposedly motored the Victorian West Indies within a regulated yet troubled tract of freedom. While this problematic permeated all material dimensions of colonial society, such as economy, politics, law, and administration, its effect was also potent at representational and discursive levels. For example the pre and post emancipation discourses on “the negro question” were preoccupied with certain ontological inquiries about “the negro,” answers to which would serve to rationalize the attitudes and techniques of managing conflict and order at different moments. This chapter considers, within this framing, “the coolie question” as a parallel yet marginally acknowledged dimension ← 51 | 52 → of the problematic, constructed through the colonial state-based system of Indian indentureship. In fact this latter question emerged with increasing gravity precisely at the moment of transition between the pre and post emancipation periods. It therefore has serious implications for...

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