I know that word probably made you cringe and you’re thinking, ‘how dare she?’ Wait…is it “Cooly” or “Coolie”? Quite frankly the spelling of the word is irrelevant – the connotation remains the same. The word made me cringe too.
I, like a lot of Trinidadian and Caribbean women, have been searching for information on my ancestors, and in my case, my great-grandmother. She was on board the SS Ganges when it docked in Trinidad on October 10th, 1907. She travelled alone, and pregnant with my grandfather who was born on April 4th, 1908. Some of the records from 1906-1908 from the national archives have been destroyed by fire, so to this day, I don’t know my great-grandmother’s real name.
In my search to find any clue, I stumbled on a form with the heading “Woman’s Emigration Pass” with a similar last name to my grandfather’s. I gasped when I saw the word on an actual form that read: “Occupation in India: Cooly.” This was the form that was filled out for people who were looking to leave India in search of a better way of life.
Instantly, my eyes blurred with tears. Who decided on that label? What kind of human being decides the life of another human is “less than?” I got up, walked around my studio, wiping some tears, then I went back and read the form again and again. Every-single-word. Over and over.
Father’s Name: ……..
Bodily Marks: A raised scar on left shoulder; A scar on right shin
Occupation in India: Cooly
The last signature on form was signed by: Protector of Emigrants
I knew in my heart the women whose names were written on these forms could not read nor write. They had little awareness of where they were going. They were most likely told that
they were going to a new land full of opportunities and bright, golden futures. No one had their best interest when they left India, and no one protected them. They had no idea of the horrors that awaited them during the three to four-month journey to the West Indies across the Pacific. They had no idea what conditions awaited them if they survived the journey.
Last year, I was told by a relative, “why you digging up that sh#*?” Some of us want to know and some of us don’t. Some of us want to believe we came from royalty in India and some of us know deep down in our souls that our descendants were most likely lower caste.
I thought I was adventurous and brave. When I was fifteen years old, my grandfather said I would cross seven oceans, and in truth I’ve lived in seven countries, but at least I knew exactly where I was going. I knew what awaited me. I had goals and dreams and a sense of adventure. I had a plan.
That ‘Cooly Woman’ had no one. Not a sense of adventure – but of survival. Her dream was simply to live. She was traveling alone and most likely came from a lower caste family, from the poorest and most uneducated background - and she couldn’t read. The only thing she owned was the clothes on her back and a baby in her belly. She probably had a few possessions but the most valuable thing she had was guts. It takes pure, PURE guts, survival skills and a certain type of bravery to get on a ship – going to God only knows where - in search of a better life for herself and her baby. I can’t begin to fathom what she must have endured.
It’s easy to cast blame elsewhere but in truth we were betrayed by our own people. Indians were segregated according to caste and level of education. The more educated - the ‘Kanganis’ - were recruited as middlemen and sent across South India to persuade villagers to move to this new land of opportunity – the Sugar Colonies. South Indians were targeted because they were compliant, docile and ‘easy to manage'. They were promised fair wage and passage back to India.
On May 30th, 1845, and approximately 8 years after the abolition of slavery, “The Fatel Razack” sailed into the Gulf of Paria, bringing the first Indian indentured labourers from India to Trinidad. The Indians travelled along the Ganges River via Calcutta, and although most were of Hindu faith, a significant number were Muslims.
“The SS Ganges” made its last trip from India to Trinidad on April 22, 1917. On board there were 274 men, 115 women, 12 boys, 10 girls and 10 infants – 7 persons died during the voyage.
It was never my intent to create controversial art, but I felt compelled because I know that I would be non-existent if it weren’t for this courageous, ‘Cooly Woman.’
Vidya Birkhoff is a painter and writer born in Trinidad and Tobago. A fine-art graduate from the Ani Art Academies, her studies focused on Trompe L’oeil - the Language of Drawing and the Language of Painting. Vidya shares her experiences through her paintings, with a composition of hyper-realism, while pushing color and contrast, to bring viewers into a distinct West Indian style. Vidya’s work can be found in galleries and private collections in Trinidad and Tobago, the US, Canada and throughout the Caribbean. She is the owner of the Yellow Butterfly Studios & Art Gallery, on the Scarborough Waterfront, Tobago, West Indies.