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‘Memory against forgetting’: For the unknown indentured

Photo credit: Navayana

“Prof Ashwin Desai is one of the most exciting sociologists of South Africa.He wields his pen with great capacity, awakening the archive. It’s people like him that makes one want to write… Steve Biko knew this story too well. Hence his definition of Black” – Andile Mngxitama, President of Black First Land First

By Ashwin Desai

From across the oceans they came

Britain, colonising India, transporting her chains

From Chota Nagpur and Ganges Plain
Wooden missions of imperialist design
Human victims of her majesty’s victory. Mahadai Das

Indian indenture came in the immediate aftermath of slavery. Lessons were learnt. Dress up it up with the language of agreements and other niceties. Ticking at its heart was the snatching of people to labour as cogs for the colonial profit machine. At the port of departure, the “stripping” began, as numbers replaced names and unquestioned authority was the preserve of Empire’s henchmen.

Bodies were piled into the ship. On top, at the bottom, the indentured would jostle for a tiny bit of space with people who were strangers. Then friends. Humiliations by those who had power a constant companion.

Violent abuse, rape by lascars and ship’s officers were an ongoing threat. Dr WJ Jackson, surgeon on the Congella which landed in October 1889, was especially masochistic. He struck Latchmi five times with a cane because her child messed the deck. When Ramalinam was alleged to have wet her sleeping corner, Jackson drew a pig on her chest, painted her white, tied her hands behind her back and marched her around to the mocking laughter of the crew.

Dr George Paterson, surgeon on the Umvoti which arrived in November 1886, was accused of raping several women who then gave depositions to Magistrate Finnemore. The evidence was stark. Munsami, Sirdar at the quarantine station, said he was putting out the light one night, when he heard Manickam crying. When he approached her, he saw Paterson ‘with one leg between hers and his arms around her body. The drunk doctor called out to me “you damn fool” and I went without putting out the light.’

The Captain told the magistrate that Paterson ‘seemed to joke and laugh with certain unmarried girls more than I thought he should and I spoke to him about it, but he told me to mind my own business.’ Weighing the testimony of the ‘wily Orientals’ against that of Paterson, Finnemore ruled in the latter’s favour. However, he did feel that it would be best for Paterson to stand down to avert negative publicity.

Trawling through the Official Logs of Captains of ships with human cargo, we come across that of Captain Charles Reeves. 1 October 1882. The Umvoti departs from Madras with 342 passengers aboard. Passenger 122. Muniyammah. Female. Single. Aged sixteen. 22 October 1882: Muniyammah reported missing. Allegedly committed suicide. Digging deeper, we can construct a fuller picture of Muniyammah’s short life.

The Log Book records:

22 November 1882:

Muniyammah had conducted herself in a loose manner… I told her that she must conduct herself properly, or else I should have to put some restraint upon her, and to remove her out of temptation…I went down with a pair of handcuffs and with a piece of chain. To give her some drift I fastened her by the ankle to a stanchion. At 4:00a.m., I was called and told she wanted to go to the closet. I released he… I looked to see if she had come back, and finding she had not I said to the Interpreter, ‘She’s a long time. Look in the Closets.’ He looked and said ‘I cannot find her.’ So we had a general search, when one of the sailors said that it must have been her going overboard when we heard that splash. I questioned the men and it is logical to come to the conclusion that she deliberately committed suicide for not a cry was heard. There was not much wind and the ship was quite free from motion and no chance of a person getting over unless they tried to do it. It appears also that during the night she took off her good cloth and gave it to a woman who slept near her, and put on an old one, showing that she had made her mind up for it previously. I did not stop the ship and lower a boat because quite fifteen minutes had elapsed since the splash in the water was heard, and the time I was informed of it, and we must have been at least a mile and a half from the place, and it was quite dark. Moreover, it was not advisable to create a panic in the ship unnecessarily.

When I first came across the story of Muniyammah, I was haunted by stories of those who never survived the journey across the Paglaa Sumandar (Mad Ocean). How to tell their story when the records were those of the colonial archive or did not exist at all?

The Belvedere reached Natal on 26 November 1860, spending almost fifty days at sea. The longer journey took its toll, as twenty-nine migrants died from cholera, dysentery, and other illnesses. Another ten died on shore.

Disease and death continued to stalk the passengers of the Belvedere on landing. ‘The ship was placed in quarantine on arrival and on the instructions of the Health Officer, the clothing and bedding of the 351 survivors was burnt and replaced…Dropsy, dysentery and insanity complemented the cholera…Twenty three more died in the wooden lazaretto and stuffy tents in which they awaited their recovery and removal.’

Despite the deaths, Captain WB Atkinson reported ‘all well’ when the ship docked. Atkinson only counted the crew as worthy of his report. The rest were cargo.

How to write the story so that those who died en-route do not vanish into the netherworld? Piecing together snippets of biographies, traces of lives in official documents, reminiscences of those who survived, to build a life that stands in for all the unknown indentured that never survived the journey. This is what I try to do as I reconstruct what might have been, what probably was Muniyammah’s life.

Muniyammah opened her eyes on the second day, still racked with cholera, scabs on her arms and legs. She had no idea where in the Paglaa Sumandar she lay. Hazy glimpses of her journey of over six months from her village flashed before her. Despite her wretchedness, she felt a deep power now. Every time Muniyammah’s fever boiled her up from her shallow sleep, she felt again the moving, the shaking of the only power she had ever known; and her eyes would become gentle.

She looked into the faces of the family crowded over her, sold into the same sugar slavery, and murmured she had decided to die.

The medical doctor in the first week of the journey had visited Muniyammah every night. Her fellow indentured Kogi marveled at her long hair, her height – almost six-foot, her carriage. The women heard her attempts to push him away. They could see his bulk pushing her down. Every morning she walked with dignity refusing the leering, cynical stares of the lascars.

Once the fever came, the doctor was nowhere to be seen. The family of Kogi, aged 18, Yogin aged 29 and their two children looked after Muniyammah night after day. Things were tough. It was the end of October 1860 and the mats on which they lay were already steaming up the rainwater of the night before. New clouds gathered.

Yogin had lost his caste. A brahmin, he sat, ate, spoke and slept rolled up next to untouchables. He saw Kogi, oblivious to this concern, spitting water into the mouth of the most diseased and decrepit woman he had ever seen. He was suddenly irrationally angry with both of them. He was impotent. He was scared. Had he known she wanted it too, Yogin would not have felt so terrible when, not more than ten minutes after, he found himself muttering, ‘I hope the sick one dies so I can be with my wife’. Muniyammah rose up, and with a long dry retch, hollow and loud, she lay down. There was no anguish on her face or celebration either. Muniyammah lay in the dirt of indenture, under Empire’s shameful sun and died with a look of defiance.

Muniyammah story is no sadder than most dark-skinned people forcibly taken from their continents in some or the other European scheme. Like all indentured labourers, Muniyammah carried the marks of her story on the cage of her body.

After two weeks at sea, Muniyammah had forgotten so much of herself that even her hunger seemed distant. She secretly gave her meagre food ration to two young children of a friendly couple and rather enjoyed the sense of herself getting thinner and thinner, her hair falling out in chunks. When the ship was due to land, she chanced to look in a mirror. She saw behind her the kidnap, the rapes, the smiling priests, the shackles, the groping British soldiers. And then… the dawning that in death, there is resistance.

First off from the Truro on November 16, 1860 were Naguim, her husband Davarum, and their young children Elizabeth, eighteen months old and four year old Kirbay. Last off were Nagapen Moneesamy, Veerasay Cunnee, and Coombalingum Arnachellum from the Bellarny in Malabar.

Local officials recorded that all three had godna [tattoo] marks on their forehead. In Indian colonial society, these highly visible marks aimed to deter offenders and others from committing crimes. This violent wounding of the skin was a practice used by colonial regimes to “teach” a lesson that ‘would infiltrate deep into the consciousness of colonised subjects’ about the consequences of violating the rules.’

For some, having nurtured their children through what they thought was the worst of the journey, wrenching pain was to come. Passenger 99, Choureamah Aurokuim, a thirty-four year old Christian woman from Trichinopoly, was separated from her daughters, eight year old Megaleamah (100) and three year old Susanah (101). Choureamah was assigned to Grey’s Hospital; Megaleamah was considered to be of “working age,” and apprenticed to A. Brewer in July 1861; while Susanah was apprenticed to Isabela Ottava. Cruelly separated from her young children, Choureamah died at Grey’s Hospital in September 1863, aged thirty-seven. Little is known about the whereabouts of her daughters, stripped of their mother, ripped from each other, and orphaned before the age of ten.

And so our future began. An epic African journey.

The above article was previously published on Africa Daily.