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On the Plantations: Women

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By Ravi Dev

The official report mentioned in the previous article on immigrant housing raised another sore issue about indentured life on the plantations, which was a theme throughout indentureship and in all the “indentured countries” – “morality”.
“Some of the ranges, in our opinion, are hardly fit for habitation, resembling more a “pigsty” in the vivid phrase of a labourer, than a dwelling fit for men; while, as regards married couples, they are absolutely unsuitable. No privacy is possible, when words whispered on one side of the partition may be overheard on the other. In these circumstances, it is not at all surprising to find all decency of a family life destroyed. The “‘Coolie” lines are as much responsible for the immorality among the immigrants as any other cause.”
What exactly was this “immorality” they were talking about? Not surprisingly it was about women, who are usually appointed guardians of morality in most societies. From the beginning of indentureship (with Gladstone) to its end, obtaining an equal number of women and men to be indentured was a challenge never met. And this even though the recruiters in India were paid more for women than men. Women were, therefore, pursued starting in the Depots in India as well as the Depot in Guyana. When immigrant ships arrived, there were always men from the plantations who would show up looking for wives.

Indian Indentured women

Most of the indentured women came by themselves and had been married before, with many bringing children with them. This was the case, for instance with Dr Jagan’s grandmothers on both sides. It is speculated that in an era of child-brides, the young husbands might have died and the women – girls often – were escaping tyrannical in-laws. Sadly, the authorities often dubbed them “prostitutes”.
But on the plantations, the women would now be earning their own wages, albeit half of the paltry shilling earned by men; had their own sleeping quarters and were in demand. Unfortunately, also by the overseers as had been the case with the sailors on the ships. They became, however, much more independent than in village India, where patriarchal norms were much more entrenched than even Victorian Br Guiana.
As a result, both the male Indian Indentureds and the colonial authorities – including churchmen – adjudged the plantation women as” immoral” because they would not put up with domineering men and would move on with other relationships. This relative independence was resented and in Guyana, there developed the phenomenon of “Coolie wife murderers”. In one sample period between 1886 and 1890, 25 women were killed by their husbands or partners while 6 women were killed by random men and 6 men were killed by other men. No man was killed by a woman.
The female Indian indentured exemplified the saying “women’s work is never done”. Even though they had to proceed to the fields at the same time as the men, wives still had to prepare breakfast as lunch, and after returning in the evening, dinner. They would have picked up their children from the creche where they were dropped off in the morning.

The post On the Plantations: Women appeared first on Guyana Times.

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