Indentured Migration and Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies

“My Bahut Ajah planted sugarcane/ Down in the Caroni plain/ Ramlogan, Basdeo, Prakash and I, Jahaji Bhai/ Brotherhood of the boat, Jahaji Bhai/ Brotherhood of the boat, Jahaji Bhai” thus read some lines from the popular Indo-Trinidadian chutney soca lyrics of Brother Marvin’s famous song “Jahaji Bhai”. The song is about the siblinghood of the boat, i.e. the close knit ties that were formed between the people who went to the unseen, unknown lands in the same ship as indentured immigrants. Indentured immigration created a diaspora of Indians that is spread all over the world. That diaspora is different from the other Indians of the diaspora in many ways, mainly because they are “bound together by the common history of plantation economy and indentured servitude” (Maharaj). The process that had started in 1834 and continued till 1920 had resulted into the creation of a distinct set of people bonded with the force of adversity that they had faced together. The people who had crossed the seas and oceans together made the siblinghood of the boat and called one another jahaj bhais and bahens. In Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, the first part of the Ibis trilogy, it is Paulette who tells Deeti that they were “ship-siblings – jaházbhais and jaházbahens – to each other” (Ghosh 527). The idea struck Deeti with its force of simplicity. There were “no differences between… [them:] jahaz-bhai and jahazbahen to each other… children of the ship… [that was] a great wooden mái-báp, an adoptive ancestor and parent of dynasties yet to come” (Ghosh 528). The displacement of the indentured immigrants from their home countries resulted into the placement of seed into the foreign soils that gave the crop of the diaspora, as Lal tells, its second phase of outward flow from the Indian subcontinent. In his “Immigration Lecture” that he had delivered in Hague, Lal clearly chalks out the three phases of emigration from India: “First, in the era before the emergence of European dominance, was the ‘Age of Merchants,’ … The second phase was the ‘Age of Colonial Capital’ of the 19th and 20th centuries … the third phase, ‘The Age of Globalisation,’ is essentially a product of the post-World War II era” (9).


Ghosh said in an interview with BBC that he began the Ibis trilogy as a story of indentured immigrants fromBiharand eastern U. P. Its scope was later widened to include not onlyIndiabut also other parts of Asia, viz.ChinaandMauritius. It was no coincidence that a narrative grew organically and included so much around the central concern of the British Raj’s exploitation of its colonies and those it did business with. 1838 is the year around which the story of the novel is spun. In the article “Coolie” it is mentioned that up to that year more than twenty-five thousand Indian indentured labourers had reachedMauritius. When the news of how the coolies were treated on board and in the island reachedBritainthere was uproar in the parliament. The indentured immigration was projected and opposed as a new form of slavery and the Bengal government temporarily stopped the transport of coolies fromCalcutta. An inquiry into the matter reported that the coolies were severely mistreated on board, and many of them died. The reason behind this treatment is not very difficult to understand. The white man saw the coolies as something sub-human. The Report of the Truth and Justice Commission(TJC) mentions how these people were looked upon and treated in the white man’s view of the first immigrants: “The ‘Dhangars’ are always spoken of as more akin to the monkey than the man. They have no religion, no education, and, in their present state, no wants, beyond eating, drinking and sleeping; and to procure which, they are willing to labour” (152).



To understand the action in the novel that is set just before the opium war of 1839-42 it is important to look at its roots, i.e. the imperial exploitation of the people of its colonies or semi-colonies in various ways. As the novel deals with people being sent toMauritiuson board Ibis, one must look closely atMauritiusunder the control of the Europeans. The Dutch people were the first Europeans who came toMauritius. As the Report of the Truth and Justice Commission states, Vice-Admiral Wybrant Warwijck’s crew landed inMauritiuson 18 September 1598. “It was only in 1638 that the VOC decided to coloniseMauritiusowing to the decision to exploit the ebony forests for export and to the threat of British occupation” (59). They left after emptying the island of the dodos and its ebony forests. The French took control of the island in 1715. They brought in Asians, especially south Indians to work in their island. In 1810 the island went into the British dominion but the big landholders were all French.Mauritiussupplied sugar to the world and grew sugarcane over a large cultivable area. What made it possible were the cheap African slaves that did not remain cheap after the emancipation in 1833 that was a watershed year for theBritish Empire, as the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in this year. On 1 August 1834 the act came into force and slavery was abolished inBritain,Ireland,Scotlandand all the colonies of the Raj. The eisa website reports that it “became effective inMauritiuson 1 February 1835”. Although apprenticeship was an option, it was not viable given the conditions. The ill treated African slaves opted for a life away from the farms where they had lived a hellish life for so many years. Once the Africans were out of the equation, the simple laws of capital production warranted that the deficit labour is supplied through some other equally cheap means. Otherwise, the sugar economy would collapse. The ever innovative and enterprising capitalists of the empire came up with a novel solution: simple and brilliant. The idea was to substitute one kind of slavery for another, albeit, with an altered name. A modern correlative can be provided in the way the Nazis used euphemisms like the Final Solution instead of crudely mentioning words like genocide. The new name of the old slave was the indentured immigrant.


The intensive labour under worst working and living conditions was not easy. Therefore getting the substitutes for the hardworking African slave was going to be difficult.Indiahad been at the disposal of the imperial machinery since late eighteenth century. Its natural resources were exploited shamelessly by the company. The right occasion for exploiting its human resources had arrived. The time was ripe as recurrent drought and systemic poverty had increased the willingness of the dying masses to try there luck elsewhere. The White Man saw opportunity and started the Great Experiment of indentured labour that was to alter the lives of millions of people permanently. They were needed very badly in the monocropping plantation economies of the various colonies of the European imperial powers.Mauritiuswas one such economy. The indenture system was established inMauritiusto save its sugar industry. According to the website of the Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa: “Initially the recruits were individual young males who were bound for a period of five years under terms that, apart from the payment of wages, differed little from those of the apprentices; isolated and atomised on the sugar estates and under the control of far reaching powers of estate managers and state functionaries”. It was this very atomization on an alien land that the siblinghood developed while reaching there counteracted.


“Setting sail from Calcutta, Bombayor Madras, often in deplorable conditions, shiploads arrived in Mauritiusalmost on a daily basis. The journey took anywhere between eight and 10 weeks and several didn’t make it to their final destination” (Sivaraj ). More than 1 million men and women crossed the black waters and lost their purity in the eyes of those at home in order to reach various colonies where there was a requirement of intensive and low paid labour. Mauritiuswas to receive the largest proportion of the indentured labour for its sugarcane plantations in the next ninety years. By the time indentureship was finally halted altogether in 1917, Mauritius had received 453,063 laborers and Indians made up about two-thirds of the total population (Younger 22).People of Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were conspicuously present on the ships that left from only Calcutta in the beginning and later from Madras and Bombay. The website of the National Archives of UK makes it very clear: “According to CO 384/107, the North-Western provinces [i.e.Allahabad, Azimfhur, Mirzapore, Beneras, Gahazeepore, Goruckpore,Meerut, Cawnpor, Barielly,Agra, Jansie, Jounpore], Oudh, andBihar, furnished the largest number of recruits”. In fact, as Younger points out, seventy-five percent of them came from the Bhojpuri speakingNorth India.

Deeti is from Ghazipur(Gahazeepore) and is moving into Biharwhen she sees “hundreds of … impoverished transients, many of whom were willing to sweat themselves half to death for a few handfuls of rice. Many of these people had been driven from their villages by the flood of flowers that had washed over the countryside” (Ghosh 298). It is an en masse exodus that Deeti witnesses in the riverside town ofChhapra, while fleeing away from her in-laws. The popular treatment of postcolonial historians asserts, like Sharma, that Indians were fooled with false promises of decent pay and plenty of food. “Agents hunted out the most battered villages, drew contracts that were usually not honoured, and sometimes knavishly enlisted fed-up villagers”, writes Sivaraj. Yet the novel presents the case differently. Kalua is witness to a scene in which eight men sign the agreement not because they are fooled but because they want to avoid a sure death due to hunger. These people are not from lower castes only, as the duffadar tells Kalua: “Caste doesn’t matter… All kinds of men are eager to sign up – Brahmins, Ahirs, Chamars, Telis. What matters is that they be young and able-bodied and willing to work” (Ghosh 302). It is corroborated by Younger, who mentions that the ship records tell that nearly thirteen percent of them were the landowning thakurs ofIndia (31). Neither were they all poor to begin with. If we believe the website of the British National Archive, they represented a fair cross-section of the Indian society. It also asserts that “the significant number of Brahmins and high-caste persons in the mix testifies to the famine and economic distress convulsingIndia for many parts of the nineteenth century”. Nature was not the only force responsible. Man played a dominant and active part in the pauperization of Indian villages. Lal asserts that the rot was systemic and that it had hit a representative cross-section of the ruralIndia. The people were hit hard by not only the natural calamities but also by “the crippling effects of British revenue policy which caused crippling indebtedness, fragmented land holdings and scattered families… migration to the colonies was an extension of the process of displacement already underway on the subcontinent” (Lal 6).

The East India Company had enforced opium cultivation on large areas and had taken away the means of subsistence from the cultivator whose holding was typically small or marginal. It was a part of their overall policy of the exploitation of their colonies. The East India Company converted India from the workshop of the world to the producer of raw materials for English factories and the consumer of their products within fifty years of their control, and “about £ 100 million was drained in Britain from India between 1757 and 1815” (Raychoudhary 68). After killing the industries, they turned their eyes towards agriculture. Majority of the ruralIndiadepended on the subsistence kind of life and cultivation. The company ensured that it was no more possible. The commercially profitable crops that they forced the Indian farmers to grow were not suitable for the health of land in the long term. Moreover, the subtle crop cycle that had developed through ages was broken and farmers were forced to grow poppy and indigo. The age old barter system of fulfilling needs through locally available material was not possible any more. The burden of debt escalated. The marginal farmer became landless as the payment of various dues to the Company had snatched his land away. Now his only way out was to get wages for his labour which was not possible in a market that was facing a cyclic depression and a nearly artificial famine. Thus he was forced to leave his country in order to survive. An interesting fact is that the majority of these people were from the Gangetic plains of Eastern U.P. andBihar.


How had it happened that when choosing the men and women who were to be torn from this subjugated plain, the hand of destiny had strayed so far inland, away from the busy coastlines, to alight on the people who were, of all, the most stubbornly rooted in the silt of the Ganga, in a soil that had to be sown with suffering to yield its crop of story and song? (Ghosh 592)


It was not an accident. These states were the worst hit by the creation of a political vacuum and absence of any proper administrative system. They were hit in regular cycles by droughts and famines. There was no gainful employment for the skilled labours of various industries that had been effectively destroyed by the combination of laissez faire and governmental involvement in ruiningIndia. “The labour market prevailing  at a particular time, the price of rice on the market, the harvest times, existence of large-scale public works and density of population in a particular area, also influenced departure from a particular district” (TJC 158).


The schooner Ibis acted as a microcosm and provided suitable condition for the development of what was later to function as a full fledged social system in the islandof Mauritius. It was a representative sample that contained members from a diverse set of castes, professions, regions and classes. More like the various species of Noah’s Arkwhose selection was made keeping the future fresh start in mind; these people were destined for a fresh start, away from the ancient, rigid and stifling monolithic caste and class systems of India. One major difference of the coolie population of Ibis from the population of the Biblical ark was that the male to female ratio was not at all equal. Women were rare, both on Ibis and in Mauritiusin the first few years of the lives of the indentured immigrants. This turned the men folk towards high levels of possessiveness and protectiveness. Maharaj asserts that it resulted into high incidences of domestic violence and the legacy was passed on to the generations of men to come. The main characters in the novel are all aboard the ship. There’s Deeti, who gives herself a new identity and name with her ship siblings: Aditi. She is running away from a sure death in hands of his exploitative and greedy in laws. There’s the dalit Kalua, who is rechristened Maddow Colver, running alongside who had saved her and from a forced satee. There’s Paulette impersonating the gomasta Baboo Nob Kissin’s niece Putlishwari. She is running away from a rigidly defined and divided European community in India. There’s also he tantima’s son Jodu, who calls himself Azad, on board, running away from the stifling land. There’s Zacchary Reid, running away from the American racial discrimination. There’s Serang Ali, running alongside Zacchary whom he calls Zikri Malum. They are running away from what would normally be called their home and homeland. Probably unknown to them, Mauritius is to function as a strange kind of utopia for them: a utopia that would force them to face all kinds of adversity. Emigration is not portrayed simplistically as a mode of coercive and collective submission of will to a forced exile in the novel. It is shown that the protagonists opt for being there, at least willingly, if not happily. All the people whom Ibis binds in a jahaji nata are tied to one another as their destiny is one.


The jahaji nata, that Singh says in his interview was very important in the lives of the immigrants of his grandfather’s generation, was a kind of kinship tie that was developed in order to fill the vacuum created by the uprooting of the people and loss of their ties with family, clan or tribe and village. An analogy, much weaker and probably in its last stage, can be given in the rakhi sibling relationships that are developed even today in the Hindi speaking India of which Eastern U. P. and Bihar are parts. On the day of Rakhi Purnima sisters tie sacred thread called Rakhi on their brother’s wrists and it necessitated for the brother that he protected the sister for as long as either of them lived. When a girl tied the rakhi on the wrists of man who was not her brother, he was bound with the same tie and became her rakhi brother for life. Although the tie was invented, its force did not decrease. Similarly, the jahaji nata too was a very strong kind of bonding between people of the same boat. Deeti becomes the dabusa’s bhauji as the time passes. People accept her willingly on a position of familial authority and give her the respectful title that means elder brother’s wife. It happens naturally, as she takes responsibility and speaks for truth and justice. She takes Munia under her protection and extends the same to the women on Ibis. Their caste, class or origin is washed away by the very black water that they have dared to cross. The kala pani wipes away their pasts and gives them a new slate of life, to be written upon on Mareech deep.


How people connected with the nata filled in for the loved ones left back home is evident in the way Heeru’s hand was asked for. Ecka Naik kept the social decorum by asking the bhauji for permission. Once the permission is granted, it is the jahajis that arrange everything. Kalua performs the function of the head of the bride’s side. All the women on the ship are naturally with the bride. Men on the groom’s side arrange the traditional songs and dances and they improvise and innovate in order to make their life an image of the same back home. They were to do the same in their habitations inMauritius. After having crossed the seas, the nascent indentured immigrant society faced many problems, physical, social and psychological, but the biggest problem was of reviving and maintaining the old structure nd functions of the fundamental unit of any society: the family. The male to female ratio was totally skewed towards men and it was very difficult for them to get a mate. Thus even Heeru has heard a lot: “they say in Mareech, a woman on her own will be torn apart … devoured … so many men and so few women … can you think what it would be like, Bhauji, to be alone there” (Ghosh 653). She assents to the proposal for practical reasons as the survival of a single woman on an alien and hostile island would be impossible without a protector. What was to happen on the island was, in a way, being perfected on Ibis.


Emigration from India reports that the coolies were shipped in crowded vessels, just as the case in the dabusa of Ibis. They were not treated as human beings and the medical attendance was either inadequate or virtually absent (6). This resulted into many of them dying during their transportation that took around ten weeks from Calcutta to Mauritius. The novel presents somewhat simplistic view of the caste dynamics. In fact, it tries to show that all such differences were immaterial once the relationship of ship, i.e. the jahaji nata was developed. Reports from the past prove something else. The letter of Emigration Agent Laird to Colonial Secretary of Mauritius, reported in TJC, mentions that even the jahaji nata could not break the caste barriers. It asserts, quite against what is projected in the novel, that people belonging to “the same caste flocked together. … jahaji (or Zahazi) brotherhood did not cut across caste divisions. Groups continued being constituted at the depot, at the time of embarkation and on board. Even in the face of adversity, unity did not cross caste barriers. It was perpetuated when they were already there” (187-8). The same caste segregation was continued on land too. There are reports that prove that people from higher castes were granted their request of being located away from the settlements of the low caste animal eating populations. The relation of roti and beti, i.e. eating together and intermarriage, too were determiners of caste segregation on the island, as it used to be back home. The jahaji nata could not cut through the caste boundaries as effectively as the novel would have us believe. The euphoric acceptance of a member of one of the lowest Indian castes, Deeti, by Paulette who is impersonating a Brahmin is very non-characteristic.


Sea of Poppies presents the life of the girmitiyas on their wooden mai-baap Ibis. The novel portrays their life very vividly and in its fullest detail. Hugon’s report quoted in TJC is a very close indicator of the kind of life the inhabitants of dabusa had. They were “put under hatches and guards—robbed and pillaged of the advances made to them by the Mauritian agents in Calcutta — shipped in large numbers on board vessels, without the requisite accommodation, food, or medical attendance”(152). Their sub-human plight and the mechanism of their double jeopardy in the presence of a clear-cut two tiered structure of authority over them find place in it. The white man controls the ship and runs it, but the immediate control is in the hands of the brown sahibs. Said’s theory of the generation of the Orient and the Oriental as a construct by the White man is expanded in the context of indentured immigration. Not only does the white man see the coolies in essentialistic and derogatory manner, but also do the brown sahibs like Bhyro Singh. His position is affirmed by the Captain of the ship who tells the coolies: “While you are on her[Ibis], you must obey Subedar Bhyro Singh as you would your own zemindars, and as he obeys me. It is he who knows your ways and traditions, and while we are at sea he will be your mái-báp, just as I am his” (Ghosh 599).In the intricate hierarchy of the ship Singh asserts his superiority to the coolies of his own skin colour and nationality by distancing himself successfully from them. Not only the Subedar but also the other members of his group do the same. Moreover, the non white lascars and even Neel see the coolies as some kind of abomination coming straight from hell. There were Indians on the ship that wielded power and also the weapons that showed tangibly who had the power. They looked at the girmitiyas as if they were animals and used their power arbitrarily and selfishly. Subedar Bhyro Singh’s treatment of the coolies, specially the way he abuses Ah Fatt and Neel is only one of many such instances. He is an active collaborator with the empire. Such persons played central role in maintaining the rule of the Empire. “These collaborators were used by the colonialists but also made use of their rulers to serve their own interests. … the periphery did not accept passively what the centre imposed on it but shaped the imperial impact to a large extent” (Rothermund  23). He does everything to benefit and satisfy himself. His power over the other men of his race is recognized by his white masters because doing so benefits them. he has created personal space and laws for those under his power and his personal vendetta is as important to him as his hatred for the vermin called the coolies. He demands for the strictest possible punishment for Kalua because that pariah had dared to run away with a high caste woman, and Captain Chillingworth grants it. When Zachary protests that what Kalua had done on land can’t be accounted for on the sea, and even then it was his business if he chose a higher caste wife, the Captain comes back with his vehement protest. His protest shows the ideology working behind the exploitation of non-white races in the Empire. It was the same ideology that saw the brown indentured immigrant as the right substitute for the black slaves: one sub-human for another. Moreover, he has to keep the “unspoken pact between the white man and the natives who sustain his power in Hindoosthan – it is that in matters of marriage and procreation, like must be with like, and each must keep to their own” (Ghosh 718). Non-involvement and non-intervention were the keys to maintaining the status quo, which was tacitly agreed upon by those in power on either side of the race divide. Kalua was to be punished; not because he was the reason behind the death of one of subedar’s men, but because he had violated the social code of the system that had clear cut compartmentalization of human beings on the basis of their caste by birth.



In his interview with Sheela Reddy, Ghosh talks about “the moment of departure”. These people belonged to places far away from the sea and were connected to their land and milieu very strongly. It was not at all easy to make one’s mind strong enough to withstand the cutting away from one’s roots. In the novel, Deeti is given the choice in Chhapra. She is actually in need of a way to save her life and that of her husband and going away will be the best choice. Yet, she’ll have to abandon her daughter Kabutri forever. There is also the fear of the unseen and unnamed: “How could he conceive that she would go to a place which was, for all she knew, inhabited by demons and pishaches, not to speak of all kinds of unnameable beasts? How could he, Kalua, or anyone else, know that it wasn’t true that the recruits were being fattened for the slaughter? ” (Ghosh 303). It is not just in Deeti that the fear based on meager or even no information is strong and conspicuous. In dabusa, when Jhagru tells people about the ferocious wild animals and serpents of Mauritius, Paulette’s telling them that it was false as there were no snakes there only makes them more suspicious and provokes Jhagroo’s direct assault. There were many more such fear inducing myths associated with the unknown island among the coolies. One such myth was the mimiai ka tel myth according to which labourers were hung upside down to extract oil from their head in the French colonies. Moreover, TJC quotes Grierson as the source reporting that the kala pani taboo and eating all kinds of things on the ship were two strong factors that prevented emigration. Another strong factor was the longing for one’s janambhoomi. When the coolies in the novel reach Ganga-Sagar they feel the pull of their land the most. It is the point of no return that forces them to act irrationally and even risk their lives in their attempt to return. But return was not going to be easy. Although the term of their indenture was five years, a large number was to perish before the completion of that term, as the Subedar tells Deeti that her jora was destined for a farm on which his death was certain. Those who survived theoretically had the option of returning home, but even they were not free to do so. Their return did not benefit the plantation economy. So the magnets of the island contrived many effective ways to prevent the return of the machine who worked on their plantations. It was only the fortunate few who returned to their janambhoomi.





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