Labouring under the Law: Exploring the Agency of Indian Women under Indenture in Colonial Natal, 1860 – 1911
This paper is intended as the beginnings of an introduction to a Master’s thesis that will look at discourses around Indian women and gender under indenture in Colonial Natal from 1860 to 1911. I attempt to highlight what I consider to be the main aspects of my arguments about Indian immigrant women who came to Natal under the indentured labour system. The primary intention of the arguments that are presented here is to grapple with the agency of indentured Indian women. There is a distinct set of ideas in this paper about the manner in which the decisions and actions of women who immigrated to Natal as indentured workers confounded a colonial administration that held particular ideas of gender and the expected roles of men and women – both of English men and women in Victorian England, and of Indians they had come to ‘know’ through the colonial encounter on the subcontinent. As such, it departs from the argument proposed by many scholars of Indian women’s history – both on the subcontinent and in the Indian diaspora – that the weight of subalternity shouldered by the Indian woman was
1 This is a work in progress so please do not cite. I would like to thank Julie Parle, Catherine Burns and Stephen Sparks for reading and commenting on earlier versions of this paper, and to Prinisha Badassy for a spirited fight over ‘free’ Indians!
2 Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository (PAR) Colonial Secretary’s Office (CSO) 509 681/1875. Telegraph from Protector (Mitchell) to Colonial Secretary & Telegraph to Resident Magistrate Pinetown 24/2/1875.
compounded by her position as both the racial and gendered Other and that as a result, ‘there [is] no reprieve from the structures of domination’.3
There are layers of discourse around Indian women and their labour in the Colony that have not been explored. The thicket of discourses that the sexual, social and administrative interactions amongst men and women produced around women’s labour and the place of Indian women in the Colony belies the straightforwardness of an argument such as the one made by Jo Beall in her article on indentured Indian women in Natal.4 Women came to be constituted as subjects in these discourses not simply by virtue of their sex, but more importantly by the historically specific social meanings attached to the idea of their ‘womanhood’. With the advent of indenture in the mid-nineteenth century at the end of the Atlantic Ocean slave trade, the British Empire sought moral legitimacy for this new system of waged labour which purported to acknowledge the humanity of its subjects. The manner in which the social reproductive role of women was viewed under this system would mean that females who indentured in Natal were uniquely placed in relation to both their slave counterparts, and women who remained on the Indian subcontinent. Not only were they subjects in the law under indenture, but in Natal they were – for a time at least – outside of the struggles between colonial and Indian men which inscribed their subordination to ‘tradition’ on the Indian subcontinent.5