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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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Introduction: The Footprint


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The Footprint

Buried: An Archeology of the Grave

Graves are not solely places to bury the dead. They also function as prisons where presences are disposed of by those who fear the unruly power of the dead. I first came across the case presented in this book in 2006, while I was a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Caribbean Studies at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. I was researching visual and textual representations of East Indians in the nineteenth century in preparation for my book manuscript Colonial Inventions: Landscape, Power and Representation in Nineteenth-Century Trinidad (2010, Cambridge Scholars Publishing). On a very cold and bleak winter’s morning in 2006, I boarded a train from London to Kew, where I would spend the day at The National Archives (UK), carefully sifting through colonial records on East Indian indentureship in Trinidad. A few days earlier, while exploring London on foot, I had seen an old sooty Victorian bridge with the date ‘1845’ engraved on it, the very same year that the first shipment of East Indians was brought to Trinidad under the British indentureship scheme. As I made my way to Kew, this image of the bridge haunted me as it signalled the treacherous crossings of indentured East Indians into the Atlantic world and the difficult destinies that awaited them on the sugar and cocoa plantations in Trinidad. I was also mourning the ← 1 | 2 → recent loss of...

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