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Disciplining Coolies

An Archival Footprint of Trinidad, 1846

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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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Preface

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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...

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