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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 3. The Transcripts: Trinidad 1846, Volume 4, Mr. Walkinshaw’s Ill-treatment of Coolies, Governor Lord Harris, Disp. 75 and 88


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Trinidad 1846, Volume 4, Mr. Walkinshaw’s Ill-treatment of Coolies, Governor Lord Harris, Disp. 75 and 881


5 October 1846

My Lord,

I deem it right to furnish your lordship with copies of a correspondence with a Mr. Walkinshaw, proprietor of the Clydesdale cottage estate in the district of South Naparima in this Island and also of the proceedings of an enquiry held by my orders, in consequence thereof.

After a careful investigation of the evidence therein given, I have felt it my duty, however painful, to remove the coolies from Mr. Walkinshaw’s charge.

Before entering upon any explanation of this affair to Your lordship, I would promise that in consequence of having discovered considerable slackness to say the least of it, in many of the proprietors and managers of estates in complying with the regulations which require them to furnish clothing and other necessaries to the coolies, Major Fagan had been required by me to remark on this matter during his visits in the country and to report to me verbally on his return. Previous to the receipt of Mr. Walkinshaw’s letter ← 77 | 78 → marked and dated 12th August, I had been informed by Major Fagan that the coolies on the Clydesdale Cottage estate had not been properly supplied and were therefore, discontented. On the receipt of that letter, I immediately directed Major Fagan to proceed to...

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