Cutlass: Objects Toward a Theory of Representation

Kaneesha Cherelle Parsard

When entering the archive, one must observe certain guidelines. Most important is to handle with care. Do not run a finger under each line while reading; do not rest one’s camera on the document while sending too many photographs to virtual storage. Yet, one must also handle the stories within the documents with care. If one writes of colonialism or any of its historical consequences, one will soon find an unfinished story. So handle with care also means that one must not make the story fit universal theories or tie it together with a happy ending or reproduce its striking violence.

We know these rules by heart because feminist scholars, particularly black feminist scholars, have considered how one writes about modernity and violence. In particular, cultural critic Saidiya Hartman opens her book Scenes of Subjection with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: At the moment that Frederick Douglass witnessed his Aunt Hester’s beating, he understood himself as enslaved. In other words, the enslaved subject emerges through the spectacular act of violence. In the study of historical violence, however, the act of violence can also produce a witness who uses the scene as an opportunity for “self-reflection” or voyeuristic enjoyment

K.C. Parsard (H)

American Studies, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA © The Author(s) 2016

G.J. Hosein, L. Outar (eds.), Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought, New Caribbean Studies, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-55937-1_15

or who with repeated exposure becomes indifferent to black suffering (Hartman 1997, 3-4). Hartman uses the black female body to illustrate the problem of representation under slavery. However, this problem is not limited to the historical period of slavery.1

In the British West Indies, Indian indentureship invites us to examine violence not only between overseer and worker, for example, but also between contracted Indian women and men. After emancipation in the British West Indies, planters appealed to the British government as the sugar industry declined (Brereton 1981, 77). With the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, effective in 1834, formerly enslaved Africans began a period of apprenticeship in which they were still bound to their estates (Paton 2004, 54-56). While apprenticeship was meant to prepare formerly enslaved Africans for wage labor and for freedom, they were often absent and demanded increasingly high wages. This period presented a crisis of free labor (Holt 1992). In response, Indian indentureship began in 1838 (Bahadur 2013, 79). After a brief period in which India outlawed the recruitment of workers to British colonial estates, Indian men, women, and children migrated to the British West Indies until 1917 (Brereton 1979, 176).

The government of British India and the British East India Company collaborated to recruit and transport Indian contract laborers to the British West Indies, and gender and sexuality influenced recruitment. Because planters argued that women were not as strong or as efficient as men were, immigration officials recruited fewer women to the British West Indian colonies (Mohammed 1995, 40). In addition, trade companies found it difficult to select “the right kind of woman” for indenture—women who had not performed sex work or fled their husbands (Reddock 1985, WS-80). Planters believed that the moral atmosphere of the estates would depend upon the women who migrated. Due to these prescriptions, the sex ratio among indentured Indian laborers was skewed, with many more Indian men migrating than Indian women. In this context, Indian women were able to choose and leave sexual partners at will (Reddock 1985, WS-80). When Indian men experienced rejection, they sometimes chopped their partners with a cutlass, an agricultural tool with a curved blade. Indian men thus colluded with administrators and planters, though not formally, to control Indian women’s sexuality. While Indian men sometimes used the cutlass to chop Indian women, it was primarily a tool for sugarcane harvesting. Because the cutlass can be both an agricultural tool and a weapon, it invites us to consider how intimacy and work are intertwined in the post-emancipation period.

To date, Indo-Caribbean feminist scholarship has narrated historical violence against Indian women as a way to intervene into labor histories centered on men, but this body of literature has not yet outlined the politics of narration. If black feminist thought warns against reproducing the spectacular violence of the colonial archive, Indo-Caribbean feminist writing and arts often articulate themselves through and against violence—particularly the cut of the cutlass on the Indian female body during indentureship. In this chapter, I recognize that some stories cannot be recovered and propose that we consider the objects at work in colonial histories. In examining the cutlass, I draw attention not to the abject body but rather to the instrument of violence.

Toward a theory of representation, I examine two works that represent the violent conditions of Indian indentureship and its legacies, particularly for Indian women: visual artist Andil Gosine’s mixed-media series WARDROBES (2011-2013) and journalist Gaiutra Bahadur’s non-fiction Coolie Woman (2013).2 In contrast to black feminist scholarship on the nineteenth century, which has focused on violence between master and the enslaved, both Gosine and Bahadur explore the violence of indentured Indian men against their female partners. Both works address this violence through the weapon with which it was inflicted, the cutlass. And, differently than Hartman’s approach, these Indo-Caribbean feminist works discuss violence against indentured Indian women in stark detail. In particular, Bahadur rehearses British West Indian stories of “wife murders,” counting the number of cuts on the victim and naming the afflicted body parts.

To what end do these Indo-Caribbean writers and artists represent historical violence against Indian women, with particular interest in the cutlass? How do Gosine and Bahadur narrate historical violence? To what other ends might we examine the form and function of the cutlass in their works? In its destruction, the cutlass highlights the social and intimate relations among indentured Indian women, Indian men, African workers, and their descendants. This object sheds light on the political economy of the post-emancipation period.

There is a tendency, in the study of violence in the Caribbean, to hold “culture” responsible for violence rather than linking it to historical processes (Thomas 2011, 3). Indeed, violence in the Caribbean must be understood through negotiation with the past and present: the original violence of “New World expansion” as well as the influence of neoliberalism on citizenship today (Thomas 2011, 3). There are links between the violence of slavery, indentureship, and colonialism and that of the present. Indo-Caribbean feminist thought has largely narrated violence against Indian women solely through the legacies of Indian indentureship. However, this violence was a product of the broader crisis of free labor that followed emancipation in the British West Indies.

To our original guidelines for the archive, we add another. One should consider the limits of representation, while examining how violence structures a particular historical period or question. In order to link and reconcile theories of representation in black feminism and Indo-Caribbean feminism, a dougla feminist theory of representation points to the intimacy and work at the heart of the British West Indian project. Dougla, which describes people of mixed African and Indian descent, is not a new framework in Caribbean studies nor in Indo-Caribbean feminist thought. Brinda Mehta has proposed dougla feminism as a way to think about cooperation between African and Indian women (Mehta 2004, 25). And Shalini Puri has offered dougla poetics as a way to think about how antagonisms between Africans and Indians in party politics, for example, might be resolved in expressive culture that draws on both African and Indian influences (Puri 2004, 221). I have also written previously on the figure of the dougla in twentieth-century Caribbean literature, arguing that the dougla should not be appropriated to illustrate cross-racial dialogue and understanding (Parsard 2011). Indeed, while black feminist and Indo- Caribbean feminist approaches to representation and violence might differ, they nonetheless emerge from the British colonial histories that black women and Indian women share.

In resolving approaches to representation in black feminist and Indo- Caribbean feminist thought, dougla feminist thought also charts a materialist history of the post-emancipation period. While there is no consensus about whether Africans and Indians were intimate or had children during the nineteenth century, the arrival of indentured Indian laborers to British West Indian plantations inaugurated anxieties about Indian women’s sexual choices as tensions flared between African and Indian workers (Diptee 2000, 19-20). The possibility of relations between Indians and Africans framed the anxieties about Indian women’s sexuality, and the dougla is present regardless of the relations into which Africans and Indians might have entered. Indian men may have chopped Indian women because they expressed desire for many Indian men at once and possibly for African men or because Indian women defied or rejected those who desired them. The cutlass in Coolie Woman and “Cutlass” is the object at work in the history and present that Africans and Indians share.

In the remainder of this chapter, I examine the cutlass as object through close readings of “Cutlass” and Coolie Woman. In Coolie Woman, the cutlass is associated with “wife murders” in the indentureship period. While Bahadur argues that this form of violence emerges from the Ramayana, I examine how such violence instead enforces the productive capacity of the plantation by controlling Indian women’s sexualities, revealing anxieties about the sex ratio and miscegenation. By contrast, Gosine’s “Cutlass” is a metal object, a brooch in the shape of a cutlass, and has a different function than the tool. As a part of the WARDROBES suite, “Cutlass” transforms the plantation tool into an art object. Through a consideration of violence through visual and performance art, Gosine connects Indian indentureship with the contemporary moment. I ask how, as an art object, the cutlass’ function might be to join—black feminist and Indo- Caribbean feminist thought, past and present—as well as to cut. In that spirit, I meditate further on dougla feminism to argue that the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds have been and continue to be linked through labor migrations, plantation economies, and contemporary political and economic crises.

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