In collaboration with colleagues from the University of Warwick’s Yesu Persaud Centre for Caribbean Studies, Royal Holloway (University of London) and the Centre for Integrated Caribbean Research, Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, Research Fellow at the Centre for Postcolonial Studies, has been working on a number of events to commemorate the centenary of the abolition of indenture in the British Empire.
The largest of these is an international conference, taking place at Senate House, on October 6-7th 2017 – click for more info.
We grabbed an ice cream with Maria to find out how this has been going.
CICR: Maria, at the beginning of the year you said that you were keen to raise awareness about the history of indenture. How successful do you feel you’ve been so far?
MK: In the UK and beyond, few people are aware of the system that immediately replaced slavery in parts of the former British Empire. This invariably makes it hard to engage them with the process of that system’s abolition! One approach to tackling this neglect was an experimental but really enjoyable and revelatory exhibition on the history of indenture in the Caribbean. In collaboration with Senate House Library, I set up a series of lunchtime tours and took people around the collection talking about aspects of my own research in relation to these texts.
While I was waiting for guests to arrive I noticed that a lot of people who were in Senate House for other events were gathering around the exhibition during their lunch and coffee breaks! As I waited for my tour to arrive I could see people engaging with the items on display and discussing the pieces of indenture history that they vaguely knew. So while I was very happy to have people actively sign-up for the tours, it was wonderful to see so many people absorbed in the exhibition in an unexpected way.
Another thing, which made a big impact for us, was the article I wrote for The Voice newspaper to promote the Indenture to Windrush event. This was our oral history symposium on the memories of those who were both descendants of indentured labourers and Windrush era migrants from the Caribbean to the UK. A few people at that event had read the article and attended in the hope of learning more about ancestors from India and China. An elderly woman from Jamaica told us about her Indian grandmother and her desire to learn more about how this woman had come to the Caribbean. So the event really worked as a catalyst for unearthing these silenced histories.
MK: What was surprising and moving was the way that the speakers on the oral history panel connected with one-another through their shared history and entered a process of co-remembering in such a live way. The warmth from the audience and the tone established by Trevor Phillips and Mike Phillips (chairs) meant that the panel proceeded with real fluidity, even though many of the participants were meeting for the first time.
There was a moment when Rod Westmaas (of Guyana Speaks) mentioned a friend inviting him to his house to look at his personal archive of photos and papers. The friend had said, ‘Rod, come and have a look at my grip’. You could see from the audience and other panelists’ that this was a word they hadn’t heard in some time! Rod explained to the youngsters among us that ‘grip’ was a Windrush era word for a suitcase.
Heidi Safia Mirza said something that resonated with me personally because, like her, I am the daughter of a Windrush era migrant. She spoke about how her father’s literal Windrush journey had contributed to her intellectual journey as a scholar. I was struck by her comment: ‘my father’s journey made me who I am’ as it expressed something I had felt strongly regarding my own motivation for pursuing a doctorate in Caribbean Studies.
The novelist and poet Professor David Dabydeen (University of Warwick) is in the process of writing a poem to commemorate the centenary of the abolition of indenture. He read out some of this work-in-progress as part of his contribution to the evening. There was a magical moment when he started the poem and it felt like the audience all leant forward at the same time. That was very special.
CICR: Speaking of literature, you have quite an exciting panel planned in October as part of the conference, is that right?
MK: We’re really pleased to be working with the Commonwealth Writers organisation on a panel featuring writers from five countries that used indentured labour – Fiji, Guyana, Mauritius, Trinidad and South Africa. We’re delighted that Mary Rokanadravu, Ananda Devi and Moses Nagamootoo (a novelist, but also the Prime Minister of Guyana) have confirmed that they will be participating in this panel.
CICR: You mentioned the Commonwealth Writers organisation. You’re also working on an anthology with them to commemorate the centenary aren’t you?
MK: Yes, Prof. David Dabydeen, Prof. Tina K. Ramnarine and myself will be editing a literary anthology to commemorate the centenary, due out in 2018.
CICR: As a descendant of indentured labourers, what’s it like to be involved in the organisation of centenary events?
MK: Well it’s a huge privilege. At the moment I’m drafting the panels for the conference. The quality of work of a number of young scholars who have submitted papers, and who will consequently be presenting their work at Senate House in October, overwhelms me. There are so many motivated, intelligent and creative early career researchers – from all over the world – conducting exciting work on indenture and its legacies. This can only be a good thing in terms of ultimately increasing awareness about the system.
Maria will be producing short feature broadcasts via Periscope once a week in the build-up to the conference.
Watch her first broadcast here.
To keep up with centenary events follow the Centre for Postcolonial Studies on Twitter @PoCoSaS.