‘Life on a plantation’

July 16, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (4)



This 19th century cartoon is from Edward Jenkin’s, The Coolie: His Rights and Wrongs, (New York, 1871, pp.12-13).



This is Jenkin’s explanation of it:

The picture is a tolerably fair representation of a manager’s house on its brick pillars. To the left, at the bottom of the picture, is a free Coolie driving his cattle. To the right a rural constable is seizing an unhappy pigtail to convey him to the lock- up, being absent, as we see, from the band just above him, with his arms unbound. This indicates that he is trying to avoid the restraints of his indenture, and for this he is liable -to punishment. Above him, on the right of the picture, is a group of Chinese, and on the left of the steps a group of Indians, represented with their arms bound, an emblem of indentureship. They always speak of themselves as “bound” when under indenture. At the foot of the steps, on either side, is a Chinaman and a Coolie, from whose breasts two drivers are drawing blood with a knife, the life fluid being caught by boys in the swizzle-glasses of the colony. A boy is carrying the glasses up the steps to the attorney and the manager, who sit on the left of the verandah, and who are obviously fattening at the expense of the bound people below them. A fat wife and children look out of the windows. Behind, through a break in the wall, are represented the happy and healthy owners in England; to the right, under the tree, through a gap in the fence, are aged Chinese, weeping over their unfortunate relatives. In the right-hand corner of the verandah is the pay- table, with the overseers discussing and arranging stoppages of wages. The smoking chimney of the kitchen and the horse eating his provender seem to be intended to contrast with the scene in front. This, then, gives a picturesquely sentimental and satirical aspect of the grievances likely to arise under the Coolie system.


I was sent the cartoon by Ashutosh Kumar, a brilliant young research student in Delhi University’s history department. Ashutosh’s  principal interest is in the migration of indentured workers (‘coolies’) from U.P. and Bihar in the 19th century. Being a Bhojpuri-speaker who is deeply immersed in the culture of the region he brings to this subject a very special perspective: I have no doubt that his research, when it is completed, will be a major contribution to subject.

Ashutosh believes that the reference to ‘drawing blood with a knife’ harks back to a rumour which was widely circulated in the 19th century. This is how I described it in Sea of Poppies:

The most frightening of the rumours was centred upon the question of why the white men were so insistent on procuring the young and the juvenile, rather than those who were wise, knowing, and rich in experience: it was because they were after an oil that was to be found only in the human brain – the coveted mimiái-ka-tel, which was known to be most plentiful among people who had recently reached maturity. The method employed in extracting this substance was to hang the victims upside down, by their ankles, with small holes bored into their skulls: this allowed the oil to drip slowly into a pan.’ [Sea of Poppies, p. 340, Indian ed.; 314, UK ed.].

The rumour is mentioned by George Grierson in his Report on Colonial Emigration from the Bengal Presidency, 1883. ( p.19): ‘I hear complaints that the uneducated (the phrase used is always the same jo log nahi jante hain) abused the coolies for leaving their fatherland, and repeated the ridiculous tales quoted by Major Pitcher about mimiai ka tel, or the oil extracted from a coolie’s head.’

[The above reference is to Major D.G. Pitcher who also wrote a report about emigration(Government of India, Department of Revenue and Agriculture, prog. no. 1-12, February 1883.): ‘the feeling of the native community on the subject of emigration is, for the most part, either nil , or a ludicrous distorted image, in which the coolie hangs with his head downwards like a flying-fox, or is ground in mills for oil or is otherwise oppressed by the Briton.’]

4 Responses to “‘Life on a plantation’”

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  1. Comment by Payoshni — July 22, 2011 at 9:23 am   Reply

    Thanks for the blog post. Also, glad to see your words of appreciation for Ashutosh. I met him at the British Library last year. A very interesting young man. I am sure your words of encouragement will inspire him to do even better.

  2. Comment by Sangeeta Ray — July 23, 2011 at 12:03 am   Reply

    Dear Amitav: i am always impressed by your citation of sources and your generosity in giving everyone due credit. The cartoon is fascinating. I just rec’d your copy of River of Smoke from England and have dived right in. Thank you for continuing to write such marvelouslycrafted and huge novels. In these days of the cult of the sparse I marvel at the largesse of your words and vocabulary and the expansiveness of your canvas. Having spent some time in the late 70s in Mauritius (a bit young to remember a lot but some things linger) I look forward to reading your depiction of the island.

  3. Comment by Preeti Rawat — July 23, 2011 at 11:10 pm   Reply

    Sir I ve read ur Sea of Poppies and dont ve words to describe how much I liked it.Recently in your blog you wrote about a Delhi University Student Ashutosh Kumar’s work on migration of indentured workers from UP and Bihar in 19th century.I am also a delhi university pass out. I happened to meet this person twice and was very sure he has a lot of potential in him.Your words of praise will certainly boost his confidence and also of other university students.

  4. Comment by Tara Sherwood (Ramotar) — September 20, 2020 at 4:08 pm   Reply

    sir, I am trying to trace my Indian ancestors who travelled on British Ships as Indentured Labourers to work in the sugar plantations in British Guiana.
    My grandfather, I am told, came from the Punjab. Can you please direct me to where I can find the “Passenger List” of people on the ships. The first ship arrived circa 1838 in Demerara. I would very much appreciate your help . I have been trying for a long time but it is so difficult to get hold of such list. Thank you. Tara

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