Representations of Indian Indenture in Contemporary Caribbean Literature

Lead Research Organisation: Nottingham Trent University
Department Name: Sch of Arts and Humanities


This project explores the representation of Indian indentured labourers in the British Caribbean in contemporary Caribbean literature. Indentured labourers were brought from India, then one of Britain's colonies, from 1838 to compensate for the substantial loss of African labour in the period following the emancipation of African slaves in the British Caribbean. These labourers were normally contracted to work for five years, and were promised a return journey home (though most migrants were required to work longer than the contracted period of time, and the majority remained in the Caribbean). Aside from Edward Jenkins's novel 'Lutchmee and Dilloo' (1877), it was not until the twentieth century that novels on Indian indenture in the Caribbean began to be published, beginning with A. R. F. Webber's novel 'Those that be in Bondage' (1917). This project explores literary representations of Indian indenture in the former British colonies of Trinidad and Guyana by a range of Indian-Caribbean writers. The primary writers under focus in this monograph (A.R.F. Webber, Harold Sonny Ladoo, David Dabydeen, Mohammed Sharlow, Ismith Khan, Jan Lo Shinebourne, Cyril Dabydeen, Ramabai Espinet and Peggy Mohan) form a dynamic collective, as all return imaginatively to the past of Indian indenture. This part of Britain's colonial past has been overlooked in most literary and historical works, yet the legacies of Indian indenture continue to haunt the Caribbean today. Therefore, this book examines representations of Indian indenture, but also considers the legacies of this past (both immediate and long term), including the problems of translation, such as ongoing racial anxieties and the alienation of the Indian-Caribbean figure, and issues of diaspora, identity and belonging.

Indian indentured workers played a crucial part in the Caribbean's economic, cultural and social life during this period of indenture, and the legacy of this role is evident in the region's continuing rich ethnic and cultural diversity and outstanding Indian-Caribbean creative output. This will be the first book-length study of literary representations of Indian indenture in the Caribbean.

The monograph comprises five chapters; chapter one ('Introduction') explores the historical and literary contexts for my work; the second chapter ('Representations of Indenture') examines work by A. R. F. Webber, Harold Sonny Ladoo and David Dabydeen, focusing on the connection between madness and Indian indenture. The third chapter ('Legacies of Indenture') explores texts by Ismith Khan, Jan Lo Shinebourne and Cyril Dabydeen, thinking about the various legacies of Indian indenture, such as the continued alienation of the Indian-Caribbean migrants, racial anxieties between African- and Indian-Caribbean workers, and the complexity of 'home' for diasporic subjects. The fourth chapter ('Ghosts of Indenture' looks at novels by Ramabai Espinet and Peggy Mohan, and considers the role of women in Indian indenture in the Caribbean, and also the late twentieth- and early twenty-first century 'hauntings' of this past. The final chapter ('Conclusion') considers the implications of the preceding chapters and seeks to think about how literary representations of Indian indenture may offer new and exciting ways of remembering and memorialising Indian indentured labourers. I shall return to some of the questions raised at the start of the book; thinking, for example, about why contemporary authors feel compelled to return to the past of Indian indenture, and the divergence and convergence of their approaches to this history.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from this research?

- Academics, postgraduate and undergraduate readers looking at postcolonial literature or Caribbean Studies (including History and Cultural Studies);
- The general reader interested in this area of literature or history;
- Local and international Indian diasporic and cultural groups (such as the Indo-Caribbean Cultural Council, based in Trinidad and Tobago);
- Members of the public interested in finding out about Britain's involvement in Indian indenture in the Caribbean.

How will they benefit?

This research will be enhancing knowledge of:
1. The role played by Indian indentured labourers in the British Empire;
2. Literary representations of Indian indenture;
3. Why Indian indenture is relevant today (for example, in terms of the Indian diaspora; the cultural significance of Indian migration to the Caribbean; the continuation of racial anxieties in the Caribbean, which stem from this period of Indian indenture).

Possible routes for impact:

1. Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Earlier this year, 'The Memorandum of Understanding' was signed between the UK and India - this promises a range of cultural exchange activities. My reseach will be made available to the DMCS for potential use in cultural projects and exhibitions.

2. The Indo-Caribbean Cultural Council (Trinidad and Tobago) publishes two magazines a year dedicated to the production of information about issues and events affecting Indian-Caribbean people. I will investigate the possibility of contributing to the council's publications.

3. The British Empire and Commonwealth Museum is currently closed, while it relocates from Bristol to London, but is expected to reopen in 2012. Given the importance of Indian indenture to the British colonial project, I shall investigate whether it is possible to use some of my research material to support the museum's displays or catalogues, and to ascertain the possibility of curating an exhibition dedicated to Indian indenture in the Caribbean.

Please see the 'Pathways to Impact' attachment for further details.


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