Early Feminist Histories

The early feminist histories of the indentureship experience spoke to the new context of gender relations that immigration to the Caribbean and the system of indentured labor brought to Indian women and men (Reddock 1985, 1994; Shepherd 1994). This work challenged traditional notions of the Indian family’s transference in pristine patriarchal form to the Caribbean and documented women’s assertions of relative autonomy on a new stage and men’s resistance to this. It also recorded the collusion of church, state, and Indian patriarchy in the reconstruction of a new patriarchal order in late nineteenth century in Trinidad (Reddock 1985, 1994, 1998).

Patricia Mohammed makes a useful contribution when she posited the existence of three competing masculinities in Trinidad at the end of inden- tureship in 1917. She delineates these as the dominant white patriarchy, which controlled state power as it existed then; a ‘creole’ patriarchy comprising the Africans and a mixed group which was emerging; and finally an Indian patriarchy seeking to construct itself out of some aspects of the cultural baggage brought from India in the context of the systems functioning in Trinidad at this time (Mohammed 1994, 32).

This resulted in a situation of competition among males of different ethnic groups for social status and economic, political, and other sorts of power, all of this “in the face of a hegemonic control by the white group and another kind of dominance by the ‘creole’ population” (Mohammed 1994, 32). She saw this as contestation over the definition of masculinity as well as a struggle “for Indian men to retrieve a ruptured patriarchy from the ravages of indentureship and thus be better placed to compete in this patriarchal race” (Mohammed 1994, 32).

At this time, Mohammed argued, Indian men found themselves at the lowest end of the ladder:

They were still largely agricultural labourers, even though in this area they had already begun to establish themselves as landowners and peasant farmers. They had only just entered the arena of national political struggles, and they had not yet produced a significant crop of educated or professional men who could compete evenly with other men for other resources on a wider social scale. (Mohammed 1994, 32)

These earlier feminist histories also brought to the fore the phenomenon of plantation violence in general and violence against women—beatings and murders—perpetrated by Indian men. This phenomenon was present in other sites of South Asian indentured labor (Jain and Reddock 1998). These murders of women occurred in the context of a plantation model inherited from the slave system where beatings by the drivers, managers, and overseers’ whips were routine—a theme taken up more recently by Gaiutra Bahadur in Coolie Woman (Bahadur 2013, 123-124). This, I argued, was part of the process of re-subjugation necessary to reinsert migrant Indian women into the patriarchal Indian family in this new society (Reddock 1985). But they were also the pathological results of immigrant men’s efforts to reestablish power, control, and the patriarchal contract (Mohapatra 1995) or “domestic stability” as they understood it, to allow for the economic improvement that they hoped migration would bring. As noted by Prabhu Mohapatra:

If the official explanations of wife-murders produced and confirmed the figure of the immoral woman and the unfaithful wife, the discourse on punishment, created a complementary image of a violently jealous husband who was driven by a fatalist creed. (Mohapatra 1995, 239)

Also emerging from these early histories was the phenomenon of self- inflicted violence or suicide (Reddock 1994). Again this was characteristic of other sites of Indian immigrant indenture—e.g., Fiji, Mauritius, British Guiana, and Jamaica—ranging from 406 per million in Trinidad to 396 in Jamaica and 100 in British Guiana between 1902 and 1912 (Kondapi 1951, 27), the majority of cases being men. Although a relatively small number in relation to the total number of male deaths, in all cases, they exceeded the rate in India. Why did male suicides exceed those of females? The popular understanding that they were the result of female infidelity has been soundly rejected (Shameem 1998, 62; Mohapatra 1995, 239), while other suggested reasons such as disappointment with the sites of migration, the absence of integrative institutions of family, marriage, caste, kinship, and religion were proposed (Lal 1985, 138). These institutions, however, were also intensely patriarchal and embedded with structures of inequality.

 
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