Coolie Woman: Book talk and Q & A with Gaiutra Bahadur
Monday, December 10, 2018, 04:30pm
Co-sponsored by the Department of History
Organized by Professor Julia Stephens (History), firstname.lastname@example.org
In 1903, a young woman sailed from India to Guiana as a “coolie”—the British name for indentured laborers who replaced the newly emancipated slaves on sugar plantations all around the world. Pregnant and traveling alone, this woman, like so many coolies, disappeared into history. In Coolie Woman—shortlisted for the 2014 Orwell Prize—her great-granddaughter Gaiutra Bahadur embarks on a journey into the past to find her. Traversing three continents and trawling through countless colonial archives, Bahadur excavates not only her great-grandmother’s story but also the repressed history of some quarter of a million other coolie women, shining a light on their complex lives.
Shunned by society, and sometimes in mortal danger, many coolie women were either runaways, widows, or outcasts. Many of them left husbands and families behind to migrate alone in epic sea voyages—traumatic “middle passages”—only to face a life of hard labor, dismal living conditions, and, especially, sexual exploitation. As Bahadur explains, however, it is precisely their sexuality that makes coolie women stand out as figures in history. Greatly outnumbered by men, they were able to use sex with their overseers to gain various advantages, an act that often incited fatal retaliations from coolie men and sometimes larger uprisings of laborers against their overlords. Complex and unpredictable, sex was nevertheless a powerful tool.