Charles Sarvan


The slave trade in Africans is perhaps the worst blot on recorded human history, given the trade's duration, the numbers involved and, above all, its appallingly cruel nature. The effects of the trade persist in various forms into the present, not least in the presence and experiences of Africans now native to the United States and the Caribbean. Ironically, the trade has been enabling in that it has generated numerous studies, autobiographies, memoirs and fictional works, the last not only by Africans (Toni Morrison, Caryl Phillips and others) but also by non-Africans, for example, Barry Unsworth {SacredHunger), Graeme Rigby {The Black Cook's Historian)- and the Indo-Guyanese-British writer, David Dabydeen {A Harlot's Progress). The exodus of Indians, voluntary or otherwise, to labour on British plantations under the indenture system, some heading East to Malaya and further to Fiji, others West through the Suez Canal (opened 1869) to the distant Caribbean, was a newer form of slavery, but it has not drawn the attention of researchers nor inspired writers as much as the 'trade' in Africans has done. This article examines some of the available work. I regret I have been unable to trace primary material from Mauritius, but I am sure others will fill in this, and other, gaps. The title specifies 'Indian' because many Chinese also went, or were taken, as 'coolies'; 'plantation' because Indians who slaved other than on estates were also derogatorily known as 'coolies' ('don't visit Colombo harbour, for it is full of sweaty, smelly coolies' [Muller 1993, 19]) and 'overseas' because 'coolie' exploitation featured within India too (see Mulk Raj Anand). Why the indentured labourers themselves haven't left a substantial body of literature is not difficult to understand: most were illiterate, work was exhausting, housing squalid and they were segregated, trapped within the confines, physical and mental, of the plantation. No doubt, there were songs expressing their sufferings and their longings, their yearning for a home made attractive by immediate misery, by time and distance, but these songs appear not to have been translated into English. I fear most are lost even in their original languages.



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