Outcast: The Women That Left India For the New World In The Nineteenth Century
Updated: Mar 6
Nearly a quarter million women left India between 1838 to 1917 as indentured laborers. They went from India to Mauritius, Fiji, Trinidad, British Guyana, Suriname, Jamaica and a few other Caribbean islands to work on plantations. Who were these women? Why did they leave India? What were their motivations for leaving?
Indentured labor was a replacement for the labor shortage left after the abolition of slavery. Plantations turned to their colonies to entice cheap labor to continue their production. The colonists offered economic incentives to motivate the laborers. Indenture typically consisted of a five year contract obligating the laborer to travel to the plantations and work for a period of five years and a return passage after completion of the indenture.
However, many laborers were duped upon arrival to their destinations as their working conditions and financial incentives were not as promised. Depending on the value of the sugar in the world markets, plantation owners adjusted for the labor demands. Women were not considered lucrative for indentured labor and so were initially not recruited. However, over the years, plantation owners saw value in their ability to take care of the male laborer’s domestic needs and desired to have a supply of laborers through childbirth on the plantations and reduce reliance on importing laborers.
The women who engaged in indenture labor were always disproportionately fewer in number to the males being recruited, thus creating a shortage of women on the plantations. Indentured women could leverage the shortage to their benefit. They often were allotted husbands on their passage but once on the plantation, they could exchange them for a laborer who had completed his indenture and was more financially secure or became kept women of the white overseers.
They could advocate for their needs and become more financially secure by leveraging their scarcity. However, the scarcity often made them vulnerable to violence motivated by jealousy. Many of these women were victims of violent attacks by competing men, accused of infidelity and murdered or victims of domestic violence and exploitation at the hands of Indian men as well as the Colonizers.
These women who emigrated from India were victimized even while in India. They were already outcasts in the societies they were leaving, either they were prostitutes, widows, unmarried pregnant women, wives who were abandoned by their husbands for various reasons or women who were married to the indentured laborer already (a very small fraction of the women were of this category).
In a way, these women’s journey out of India was a means of transformation and reinvention. However, the legacy of indenture has not been as transformative or advantageous to these women as one might have hoped as many fell victim to anger and jealousy at the hands of men who found an outlet for their rage at their own victimization as indentured laborers.
For a gripping, sensitive and nuanced account of the lives of these indentured women, read Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture by Gaiutra Bahadur.
References: Coolie Woman The Odyssey of Indenture Gaiutra Bahadur (University of Chicago Press, 2013)
Coolie Women Are In Demand Here, By Gaiutra Bahadur In Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2011