The 150th anniversary of Emancipation in Suriname has spurred a reckoning with, as the title of the comprehensive and engaging exhibition at the Tropen Museum suggests, “Our Colonial Inheritances.” It wasn’t until 1863 that the Dutch abolished slavery, at which point formerly enslaved people were subjected to a further ten years of “state supervision.”
Included in the flurry of activity is a strengthened focus on Indentureship, the British labour system that brought Asians to Suriname and other Dutch colonies to work plantations under similar, but not the same, conditions as slavery. The Rijks Museum makes a major contribution with the stunning exhibition of photographs from its archives “A Watchful Eye: Hindustani Female Indentured Labourers in Suriname,” on display at the museum from June 1 to November 27, 2023. Not relegated to the footnotes of Caribbean history as it has often been in similar kinds of presentations, here the story of this migration gets its own assured spotlight in a beautifully lit, spare room with dark grey painted walls, all choices that produce an air of seriousness and respect for the subject matter.
Co-curated by the museum’s Senior Conservator Eveline Sint Nicolaas and artist Sarojini Lewis, the exhibition takes the June 5, 1873, docking of the ship Lalla Rookh in Suriname as its starting point and gives special focus to the lives of women and girls under Indentureship. Of its surviving 399 (of 410) passengers, 70 were women and 18 were young girls and, as the well-researched exhibition text informs audiences, theirs was not as simple an experience as is sometimes told. “The plantation owners were mainly interested in strong male workers,” the exhibition’s main didactic reads, “but women are also needed for a stable community. Despite an obligatory quota for women, the ratio between the number of men and women remained unbalanced. The unequal relationships led to major social problems. At the same time, it also offered the Hindustani women opportunities.”
This awareness of the complicated truth of labourers’ experiences challenges both the oft-repeated valorization of India and Indianness and the flattened representation of Indian women in scholarly and literary texts as suffering victims (or, in another version, pillars of strength) that often characterize memorializations of Indentureship. Instead, what the impressive collection of images suggests through broad strokes and shrewd attention to small details, is that indentured workers navigated difficult choices and conditions as they contended with the violence(s) of colonization, and their abrupt and deliberate placement in Suriname at the moment of emancipation of enslaved Africans.
While the now familiar postcard images of “Coolie Belle” portraits of Indian indentured women that have received lengthy consideration and wide circulation are included in the Rijks exhibition, its highlight is the presentation of never-before-seen documentary photos and diaries from Théodore van Lelyveld (1867-1957) and Hendrik Doijer (1863-1925), two amateur photographers who both worked for the Dutch government. Their albums are displayed open-faced alongside notes and small images inside a large but shallow clear encasing at the centre of the room.
One of the exhibited photographs by Van Lelyveld is of then Dutch Governor Asch van Wijck with a small group that includes a young Hindustani woman in the late 1890s. The curatorial text speculates, “Was she spontaneously invited to be in the photograph? Would her mother have given her permission? …perhaps this girl is an orphan.” Another of his images features a young girl holding a parrot and informs audiences, through the photographer’s own notes, that “Kaboeterie” was only three years old when she was assigned to the Resolute plantation via contract number M/1031. “His emphasis on the women’s appearance,” the curators add, “conceals the hard labour on the plantations.”
Another image by van Lelyveld, of indentured labourers at a depot, is offered as evidence of diversity: “While most of the migrants are Hindu, there are occasional Muslims and Christians as well.” All castes are represented, the curators note, but “on the full ships, distinctions become less strict and lasting friendships develop between the men,” invoking the term commonly known in the Caribbean, jehaji bai (sic).
Perhaps the most moving archival find from the albums, an 1891 photo attributed to Gomez Burke, is of passengers sleeping on the deck of the ship Koloniale Vaartuigen. In this striking image, indentured workers are piled together and the only face visible is of a woman staring back at the photographer. The image presents the brutality of the system but through the woman’s return gaze, also the labourers’ simultaneous resistance to oppression.
There are numerous other photographs – all gorgeously composed and presented in wooden frames — that provide remarkable insight into this period, including a street scene from Paramaribo and a late 1890s classroom picture of young students at a Hindustani school organized by the labourers. A necklace made of coins (or “mohar mala”) borrowed from the Dutch Saranami Institute is also included. “The relatively small number of females…put Indian women in a strong bargaining position,” complementary text explains.
The focus on women’s experiences is consistent with other literary and artistic projects about Indentureship over the last decade (including my own) and, as in this exhibition, elicits important attention to questions about gender and patriarchy. But the sheer persistence of this framing also makes me wonder if it simultaneously produces for the colonial imagination what it anticipates: a different kind of objectification that is similarly exoticizing of Indian women.
In this exhibition, at least, the representation of indentured men is both visible and complex, human. But sometimes, leaps are made in the text that possibly restate assumptions than invite further reflection. The label next to the street scene in Paramaribo, for example, notes that “The woman in the doorway hides her face,” and concludes “Because of the prevailing gender roles, women often stay indoors.” But what we see in that very image is two other women, one sitting and another standing, among the men, outdoors. Even the woman “hiding her face” does not seem deliberate in that action, judging from her relaxed posture.
Perhaps the most aesthetically powerful and interesting political choice made by the curators is to make the exhibition’s central image that of a much-circulated 1883 image of Elisabeth Moendi by Friedrich Carel Hisgen. “At thirteen, she is registered as Indentured labourer B/978,” the accompanying text informs. “She marries a Carib and becomes part of his indigenous community. She and her daughter Henriette are exhibited as representatives of this group at the International Colonial Exhibition in Amsterdam in 1883.” In this one gesture, we are alerted not only to this history of violence and racialized objectification, but also the generation of the project of creolite to which Asian culture then becomes a formative, if often underrecognized, influence.
This exhibition is a major contribution that gives new heft to efforts to grapple with the history and legacy of indentureship. When leading the Canada-funded “Visual Arts of Indentureship” research project between 2014-2018, I approached every major and some less major museums and galleries in Toronto to engage in discussions about working toward an exhibition but a single and short dismissive meeting was as far as I got. Both the supportive team of curators inside the Rijks, and artist Sarojini Lewis’s whose relentless passion for this work was critical, have to be lauded for creating this ground-breaking space.
One hopes that this considerable undertaking by as major an actor as the Rijks will prompt other institutions to take a more serious look at the archives of Indentureship.
With special thanks to Wayne Modeste and the Center for Research on Material Culture, whose support of a Fellowship made my visit to this exhibition possible.