Academic journal article ARIEL

Shadows of Slavery, Discourses of Choice, and Indian Indentureship in Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies

Academic journal article ARIEL

Shadows of Slavery, Discourses of Choice, and Indian Indentureship in Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies

Article excerpt

Abstract: In his novel Sea of Poppies, Indian writer Amitav Ghosh emphasizes the fact that while the indentured laborer was not a slave per se, the indenture of South Asian laborers developed in the belly of plantation slavery. Without conflating the categories of slavery and indenture, the novel demonstrates that the indentured laborer's decision to "accept" indenture was prompted by the need to survive within a world of shrinking options for the Indian peasantry rather than a desire for personal mobility. Indeed, the Indian peasant-turned-indentured laborer faced a lack of choice, which, while not equivalent to the forced abduction of the African slave, must nonetheless be studied alongside it within an overarching framework of the epistemic and material violence of nineteenth-century global capitalist-imperialist formations. In other words, the novel highlights the inadequacy of applying the binary of freedom and bondage characteristic of the discourse of chattel slavery directly to the narrative of indentured labor. Through his portrayal of the decommissioned slave ship as a central metaphor of capitalist modernity, around and within which all the social relationships of the novel circulate, Ghosh represents indenture as a form of "decommissioned slavery." This reading interrogates our understanding of both "choice" and "coercion," enabling us to reexamine the blurred lines between these two categories in a global economy characterized by the structural transformations of plantation slavery and territorial colonialism. As a text that rethinks historical narratives as well as aesthetic ones, Ghosh's Sea of Poppies also provides a meticulous reappraisal of the narrative strategies of the liberal-realist novel.

Keywords: indenture, slavery, retrospective realism, historical novel, global plantation complex

I. Introduction

On 10 January 2012, Kamala Persad-Bissessar, then Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, visited her ancestral village of Bhelupur, located in Bihar, a state in eastern India. In her speech, Persad-Bissessar, whose great-grandfather left Bhelupur for Trinidad-Tobago as a girmitiya (indentured laborer) in 1889, described her ancestors as "immigrants who had worked hard in foreign lands" (Banerjee). She observed that "while for some the decision to sail was voluntary, there were others who were 'dragged away' to work as laborers" (Banerjee). While Persad-Bissessar's speech acknowledged the history of being "dragged away," it also portrayed Indian indentureship as a variation on the pioneer narrative of free labor migration wherein the indentured Indian laborer is rewritten as a voluntary immigrant.

Of course, absent in Persad-Bissessar's speech is the figure of the enslaved African whose shadow enables her to represent indenture as a form of immigration while creating a narrative of affinity between it and slavery, as is implied in her use of the phrase "dragged away." This absence is the site of an unavoidable representational dilemma that haunts numerous depictions of post-slavery indenture throughout the Caribbean and the islands of the Indian Ocean. In most of these representations, indenture is read as either a volitional system of labor migration that is somehow not quite free or a system of coercive traffic in human bodies which is somehow not quite slavery. Notably, Guyanese-Indian-American journalist Gaiutra Bahadur's hybrid critical memoir Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture uses the term "semi-forced" to describe indenture (129; 158), implicitly acknowledging that the binary terms "coerced" and "volitional" do not adequately express the complexities of indenture.

This article is based on the premise that any understanding of indenture that is reflective of its history must confront this dilemma head-on. Published in 2008--four years before Persaud-Bissessar's speech in Bihar--Bengali-Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh's novel Sea of Poppies, the first of his celebrated Ibis trilogy, is one of the literary texts in the recent history of South Asian Anglophone postcolonial literature that engages in such an endeavor. …

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