The abolition of slavery was the catalyst for the system of indenture, under which the British brought Chinese and East Indians to the Caribbean to labour on the region’s sugar plantations. The first wave arrived in Mauritius in 1834, followed by Guyana (1838) and Trinidad (1845).

By the time the system, which also operated in South Africa and Fiji, was abolished between 1917 and 1920, more than a million labourers had been contracted – mainly from East India. The overwhelming majority never returned to their homeland. Yet this is a largely unknown chapter of Britain’s imperial history.

A new book published by the School of Advanced Study (SAS) and the Commonwealth Foundation in association with Commonwealth Writers aims to change this. We Mark Your Memory: writings from the descendants of indenture, co-edited by Dr Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, an associate fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at SAS, explores through poetry and prose, the indentured heritage of the 21st century.

It not only exposes the little-known system of 19th- and early 20th-century Indian migration under the British Empire, it also tells the hitherto-neglected stories of workers who were both exploited and unfree. Some 56 stories and poems reveal an Indian diaspora in Commonwealth countries including Belize, Kenya, Malaysia, Jamaica, Guyana, Sri Lanka, South Africa,Mauritius and the Seychelles.

Gitanjali Pyndiah, a doctoral researcher in cultural studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, explains why her contribution focuses on her maternal grandmother, Gouna Damayantee Pyndiah.

Why did you decide to take part in this anthology?

The anthology was the perfect home for my non-fiction ‘Mother Wounds’, which is about my matrilinear genealogy. It traces the journey to discovering my ancestral grandmother who travelled from India to Mauritius in 1863. It was initially a personal project that took shape in the years 2004-2008 when I was working at Mauritius’ Folk Museum of Indian Immigration. When Maria Kaladeen sent me the call for non-fiction for the anthology, I gathered ten years of notes, anecdotes and photographs and did some archival work as well as some topological exploration of Mauritius during my holiday there in August 2017. I then experimented with non-fiction, for the first time, and put all the information together into a coherent narrative.

Prior to the book were you aware of the scale of the Indian indentured labour system? And was it, in fact, merely a ‘sanitised’ form of slavery?

I was born in the UK but went to primary and secondary school in Mauritius where we were not taught about the history of colonialism. I then went to New Delhi for four years and in the midst of the euphoria of my undergraduate years in visual cultures, I never really thought about indenture either. It was only when I returned to Mauritius and worked at the museum, especially after my introduction to postcolonial studies during my MA at USQ Australia, that I became interested in the history of my ancestors’ indenture. From there on, a PhD in Cultural Studies and my ‘return’ to the UK and meeting inspiring scholars like David Dabydeen sharpened my interest.

And yes, in a way, indenture is a form of ‘sanitised’ slavery in the sense that it was designed by the English government as a supposedly more ‘humane’ way of exploiting people from British India. In Mauritius, for example, there was a Protector of Immigrants to whom complaints could be made. They were coerced into contracts to work in the French and English sugar plantation colonies after the abolition of slavery.

In a way they did not suffer the same dehumanisation that enslaved Africans had to endure, such as being treated as human property and stripped of their languages and cultures, sometimes even before they left African shores. But like the Africans who came before them, Indians on the European plantations were subject to verbal abuse, physical punishment, rape, lack of sanitation, cramped housing, rationed food.

This is quite a personal story for you. What support and encouragement were you given to take part in the project?

Maria Kaladeen believed in me. She’d read an extract of a novel I started writing, prior to embarking on a PhD and in the first year that I moved to the UK, and asked me to read from it at a live Periscope session to mark Arrival Day in Guyana.

Although my piece dealt with Mauritius in the 1940s, she noticed the familiar (with the Caribbean) setting, atmosphere and food, for example, that I was describing, and she found the voice of a girl as narrator refreshing. So, this anthology is very dear to me, and it was with great pleasure that I entrusted such a personal story to the three editors, Maria, David and Tina Ramnarine, who I also met at the 2017 Indenture Abolition Centenary conference where I presented a keynote with Kavyta Raghunandan and Reshaad Durgahee.

What has giving voice to the individuals featured in the book meant for you? 

It’s an experience that is very new to me. In a way, academic writing propelled me to engage with contemporary issues. But this story about my personal ancestry and history was, in many ways, the bridge that I needed to build between archival, historical and critical work and literary writing. I knew this piece was going to be homed among incredible writings selected by three editors, whose work I personally admire. It has also allowed me to develop a visceral form of writing where I felt I could explore and merge different sub-genres and styles – memoir, essay, non-fiction, poetic and lyrical prose among others.

Have you learnt much that you didn’t previously know? Why do you think this aspect of Indian migration under the British Empire has remained largely ‘hidden’?

I have learnt a lot about indenture in the Caribbean and the Pacific from the anthology and the conferences organised by Dr Kaladeen. Because of its majority Indian descendants and their political, intellectual and economic power, the histories of Mauritian indenture are fairly visible and accessible. However, in the European context, the histories of indenture remain unknown because of the prominence of the histories of the Atlantic slave trade – coming from African-American and Afro-Caribbean scholars (as well as black and race studies in America) since the 1950s.

We are nevertheless witnessing a surge of mainstream awareness on other facets of European colonisation, such as the histories of violence on indigenous people before the enslavement of Africans, and the indenture of Indians after the abolition of slavery. I believe that this is the case because Indigenous people and Indians have voiced out their traumatic experiences in their own languages and did not receive a readership in the Anglo-dominant institutions – academia, literature or media.

How has the book been received so far?

I think it is a bit early to assess the impact of the book. I personally believe that it will have a far-reaching avalanche effect and inspire many writers and scholars to publish their stories and research in the future. On Twitter, I noticed a constant interest in the anthology from many people across different continents.

The success of the launch at the Migration Museum and the readings at the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit also show that the book is gathering momentum and that the histories of indenture are being made visible. On a personal note, close family and friends have ordered the book and read my piece. One feedback that I have found constructive, as an academic writer exploring creating writing, is how the non-fiction piece has allowed them to understand the complexity of colonialism and indenture through the narration of a personal story.

What will you be working on next?

I am finalising my PhD thesis – in cultural studies – on ‘Creative practices (contemporary art, poetry and music in the Creole language) in Mauritius’ and hope to publish it in a book soon. I have also re-opened the novel that I started writing six years ago. Let’s see where that takes me!

Gitanjali Pyndiah is a London-based Mauritian writer and doctoral researcher in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her present research and publications look at decoloniality and creative practices in the Creole mother-tongue. She is also engaged in creative writing and has published her first non-fiction work ‘Mother wounds’, in ‘We Mark Your Memory: writings from the descendants of indenture’published by SAS Publications and the Commonwealth Foundation in association with Commonwealth Writers, 2018.