To send content items to your account,
please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies.
If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account.
Find out more about sending content to .
To send content items to your Kindle, first ensure firstname.lastname@example.org
is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings
on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part
of your Kindle email address below.
Find out more about sending to your Kindle.
Note you can select to send to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations.
‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi.
‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.
As in all other plantation colonies, Indian labor migration to Malaya in the initial phase was primarily short-term and overwhelmingly male. It was clearly a period of “men moving,” a term used by Eric Hobsbawm in his study The Age of Capitalism to describe the nineteenth-century cross-regional bulk movement of men, primarily of the laboring class. This gendered migration to Malaya soon changed. Rising Indian nationalist movements highlighted the skewed gender ratio amongst laborers recruited from India, which they asserted was the cause of “immorality,” including a range of social and moral vices, among Indian coolies overseas. Based on this argument, some nationalists pushed for a complete ban on overseas labor migration from India while others argued for a more balanced gender ratio. Such nationalist voices led planters in Malaya to fear the loss of their regular labor source from India. British planters and administrators, therefore, promoted a gender-based strategy for labor recruitment, not merely to appease nationalists but, more significantly, to ensure a local means of reproducing labor in the future. Consequently, the fears of the planters led to an incentivized migration of coolie women and coolie families. Whilst the primary aim of this policy was to ensure a secure future labor supply, it was officially presented as establishing morality and ideal family life amongst overseas Indian laborers in plantation colonies, thus seeking to deprive nationalists of an emotive mobilizing issue by showing that their concerns were being addressed. Indian women wishing to migrate out of India for a myriad of socioeconomic and cultural reasons often capitalized on such gendered incentivization of coolie migration. Even though many planters throughout Malaya valued coolie women both as laborers and as the source of future labor reproduction, which would decrease the planters’ reliance on imported labor from India, plantation and migration lore has constantly celebrated coolie men and erased the narratives of coolie women.
This chapter investigates why colonial administrators and European planters in British Malaya promoted Indian coolie women's migration to Malaya and simultaneously reveals how coolie women themselves actively engaged with such opportunities. The chapter thus modifies the prevalent view presented in labor and migration histories concerning Indians in colonial Malaya, which presumes that the coolie women only migrated as dependents of migrating coolie men, thus discounting the choice of Indian women to migrate and become coolies.
We were real soldiers! I and many girls and women from the plantations joined the Rani Jhansi Regiment. I joined the Jan Baz Unit, the suicide unit. We trained well, I could shoot rifles, Bren guns, pistols, bigger guns, everything. I was not weak like you see me today. I was fit, strong and trained well for the fight. We were happy, fearless and full of energy.
—MeenachiPerumal,former soldier in the Rani of Jhansi Regiment
This is how Meenachi Perumal began her account of an exciting chapter in the lives of many coolie women—their service in the Rani of Jhansi Regiment (RJR), a regiment formed by Indian nationalist leader Subash Chandra Bose in 1943 across Japanese-occupied Southeast Asia, to fight for India's independence. Born in Bukit Keming estate, a rubber plantation in Malaya, Meenachi Perumal, like many other Indian women from the estates, joined the RJR in Japanese-occupied Malaya, between 1942 and 1945. Meenachi was sixteen years of age when she joined the regiment's suicide unit and was already a married woman.
Before carrying the story of Meenachi and the RJR forward, it is necessary to explain the context of this chapter and its place in this book. Between the 1920s and late 1930s, Indian coolie women in British Malaya found themselves central to power struggles between the British imperial governments and the Indian nationalists, as described in Chapter 4. These struggles were transformed by the entry of Japan into World War II in December 1941 and its rapid conquest of Singapore, British Malaya, and Burma in order to gain control of the region's rich resources of rubber and tin and deny their use to the Allies.
The loss of Singapore, renamed Syonan by the Japanese conquerors, was a humiliation for the British Empire and was later described by Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister at the time, as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British military history,” thus revealing the psychological impact of the world's most powerful empire being easily defeated by a much smaller Asian army. Eighty-five thousand British, Australian, and British Indian soldiers surrendered to a Japanese army of only 30,000 men. Whilst Churchill was “stupefied” and “stunned” by the scale and rapidity of the defeat, Indian nationalists were encouraged and the Indian Independence League (IIL) perceived an alliance with the Japanese to defeat the British as the surest route to Indian independence.
A sensational trial captivated readers of a British Malayan newspaper in January 1910. Letchmee, a coolie woman, had left her “husband,” Deyal Singh, after a quarrel. She then went to live with Lal Singh, a police constable at Papan, Perak. Deyal Singh accused Letchmee of husband desertion, but Letchmee asserted that she had never been married to him. “I came with Deyal Singh from India as his mistress,” she claimed, and their relationship had been a non-binding union of convenience. Deyal Singh nevertheless considered Letchmee to be “his” woman and kidnapped her from Lal Singh's house with the help of friends. Lal Singh, with other police constables, managed to rescue Letchmee and filed a police complaint against Deyal Singh for trespassing on his domestic property with the intent of assaulting and kidnapping Letchmee. The case became a drawn-out affair in which witnesses changed their statements frequently. Marriage being unproven, Deyal Singh was fined fifty dollars for trespassing, and his friends who assisted him in his crime were fined five dollars each.
Letchmee's act of “husband” desertion was not uncommon amongst the coolie communities in Malaya or in any estate colony across the British Empire, which depended on overseas coolie labor. Continuing the discussion of domestic and familial relations begun in Chapter 3, this chapter ventures into various intimate relations in which coolie women were involved and explores the “moralities” colonial administrators used when describing or legally adjudicating cases concerning coolie intimacies. In so doing, it investigates how coolie women engaged with racialized and gendered understandings of morality and immorality in estate societies.
Colonial administrators and planters in various plantation colonies across the British Empire frequently voiced their outrage at coolie infidelities and “immoral” intimacies on estates, particularly with the act or threat of “wife-enticement,” which according to the administrators and planters caused nuisance, social violence, and deaths in estate societies. In 1914, James McNeill and Chimman Lal in their report on the conditions of Indian immigrants asserted that “there is no doubt that the morality of an estate population compares very unfavorably with that of an Indian village.”
We tapped, weeded and made rubber. We made this land the rubber king! But it is we who are forgotten.
—Pachaimmal, former coolie woman on Sungai Buaya estate, 2011
This is how Pachaimmal chooses to remember the contribution she and other coolie women made to the rubber industry in British Malaya. Sharing the pain of anonymity and lack of acknowledgment, Pachaimmal's words serve as a reminder of the experiences and crucial role of coolie women as laborers on rubber estates. Even a cursory glance at relevant administrative reports dealing with Indian labor in Malaya, including the annual reports of the Labor Department of the Malayan government, show that female coolies were counted and recorded as individuals whom the planters employed as laborers in their own right and not as parts of family units. Every coolie woman featured individually on estate payrolls with their own wages according to the labor they produced for the estates. But this crucial aspect of coolie women's identity usually remains silenced in both colonial and Indian nationalist discourses concerning estate labor in British Malaya. Rather, both planters’ memoirs and Indian nationalist literature, which have become primary sources for understanding coolie societies, highlighted only the victimhood of coolie women, whether in relation to abuse by coolie men or capitalist and colonial exploitation. While administrative records were accessed primarily by government officials, memoirs and other colonial literature, such as newspaper articles as well as nationalist literature, were accessible to the public, making them much more influential on public imaginations. Undeniably, these depictions portrayed certain realities of estate life, but in leaving out the agency of coolie women, they also left out many shades of these women's experiences and many dimensions of their identities.
Before progressing, it will be worthwhile to gauge a few examples of the representation of coolie women in popular colonial and nationalist discourses concerning British Malaya. Planters or plantation staff, in their memoirs and novels, often portrayed coolie women as dehumanized objects and, in other instances, described them as victims of coolie men or kanganies, who, according to the planters, treated coolie women ruthlessly. These narratives conveniently left out the role of planters in abusing and exploiting coolie women, but they also left out any explicit discussion about the importance of the active role of coolie women as laborers on estates.
As we passed by one of the Indian coolie lines I had another shock, for I saw a young Tamil woman tied by her long hair to one of the uprights of their house and being beaten with a stout cane, while she uttered the most blood-curdling yells and moans as each cut of the cane made its great weal on her soft skin. Sick and appalled at the sight, I made haste to set about the man using the cane, but my friend grabbed me and held me back, assuring me that it was the custom amongst the Tamils and all Orientals to beat their womenfolk when they had done wrong, and that any interference on my part would be resented by both the man and his wife and would be likely to cause great trouble.
—Leopold Ainsworth, British planter in British Malaya (1933)
It is with these lines that the author Leopold Ainsworth, a European planter in British Malaya in the 1930s, described his first impressions of Indian coolies and their intimate relations on the estate of which he had recently become the manager. In the process, he also creates a generalized and yet vivid impression of the everyday intimacies of coolie couples for his readers. Such records were not unique to British Malaya. Colonial plantations across the British Empire, which employed Indian immigrant coolies, have dutifully recorded cases of spousal or domestic violence occurring in coolie lines—whether in planters’ memoirs, local criminal records, or even in parliamentary discussions concerning coolies. For instance, in 1902, following a rise in violent “domestic” incidents amongst coolies on plantations in Fiji, the local Immigration Department was moved by the Colonial Office in Britain to investigate the quality of social life for the indentured laborers in Fiji. W. E. Russell, one of the Immigration Inspectors, argued, apparently based on his findings, that each congregation of Indian coolies in Fiji was “a veritable hotbed of murder.” Similarly, a Colonial Office Commission sent to British Guiana in 1871 to study the condition of Indian laborers there asserted that Indian men killed their partners at a rate “142 times greater than in India's provinces.”
Examining the past experiences of coolie women in colonial histories illuminates connections and entanglements between past and present histories. I close this volume with a brief excursion into the present-day experiences of coolie women on estates of Malaysia, suggesting how certain trends in gendered dynamics in migration and labor politics echo past colonial designs.
Today, many ex-coolies, who toiled through the colonial period on estates, have escaped estate life and are proud of the socioeconomic mobility they have achieved. Here, I once again return to Pachaimmal's story. Pachaimmal was first a child coolie, then graduated to becoming a coolie woman at Sungai Buaya estate, Selangor. At the age of eighty-four years, Pachaimmal narrated to me how she had migrated to Malaya with her parents as an infant in the 1930s. She insists, “Life was good but difficult on the estates. It will always have a place in me, which I cannot explain. I have spent most of my life on the estates.” Gesturing around her large and well-decorated living room in a double-storied house in Kelana Jaya, she said:
All this is new. My sons and daughter insist. We are accustomed to simpler ways of life. But, I am happy. You know, when you see your children not having to labor through the day in the hot sun, in the rain, under the fear of being fined, it gives you happiness. It makes you feel you have done your best and I can now go in peace.
Selvaraju Sandrakasi (Raju), who was born in Perak in 1985, hails from a family of ex-estate coolies. Today he is well-known for his role as a midfielder in the Malaysian Hockey League. While playing hockey, Raju also earned an engineering degree from Universiti Kuala Lumpur Malaysia France Institute. Many hockey clubs in India, Australia, and Europe have sought to recruit him. Currently, he lives in Malaysia, but travels to Italy every year to play for the Pistoia Hockey club, which he refers to as his “second home.” Unlike many others who try to ignore their family histories of laboring on the estates of Malaysia, he takes pride in acknowledging the hard work and persistence through daily struggle that got him and his family where they are now.
This book explores the lives of socially, politically, economically, and archivally marginalized Indian “coolie” women who migrated from British India, particularly south India, to British Malaya during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to labor on Malaya's rubber plantations, especially in the Federated Malay States (FMS). The conventional historical narrative of South Asian labor migration under the British Empire emphasizes the experiences of coolie men and their instrumental role in the success of plantation colonies. This study, in contrast, traces coolie women's experiences and their crucial contributions to the plantation colony in British Malaya. Fleeting Agencies goes beyond the add-and-stir approach, however. It does not merely append the history of coolie women to existing labor migration histories. Rather, in exploring the gendered everyday experiences of coolie women in spaces of work and home and in their social, political, and intimate relations, the book exposes how gender was used in shaping colonial policies regarding migration, labor production, and reproduction, and also reveals the gendered spaces and strategies of nationalist movements. It explores the relationships and experiences of coolie women across plantation societies. In so doing, it also shows how coolie women capitalized on gendered understandings of labor, morality, and patriotism to carve out channels within which they could negotiate for their own interests.
As might be expected, plantation societies, colonial politics, and nationalist movements were all designed and conceptualized largely by men in positions of authority, and consequently often favored men's roles and voices over those of women, especially women laborers. Fleeting Agencies shows how colonial administrators, planters, managerial staff on estates, and Indian nationalists all deployed racialized and stereotyped images of South Asian coolie women in support of their own political agendas and the complex ways in which women responded to such stereotypes. As the chapters in this book show, women laborers actively engaged with, adapted, negotiated, rejected, and sometimes indirectly influenced stereotypes produced in these male-dominated spaces and institutions, and used them to form relations and find channels to make their voices heard in a world divided by political interests, to ensure their ability to make choices, and at times to ensure their daily survival. Fleeting Agencies is the first study to interrogate how coolie women in Malaya experienced and responded to colonial and nationalist efforts to categorize and control their identities.
The critical task of this book has been to consider the importance of the everyday experiences of migrant women laborers in national histories, transnational histories, and colonial migration histories. The work has shown that much of the scholarship on coolie communities has uncritically accepted stereotypes of coolies and of coolie women which have their origins in colonialism but were also propagated by elite nationalist opponents of British imperialism. This study has shown that real identities are more complex, situational, and changeable than such stereotypical categories suggest. Importantly, this work has shown, through the everyday histories of coolie women, that identities ranging from “innocent victim” or “abused worker” to “entrepreneur,” “moral Indian woman,” or “anti-imperialist soldier” could be strategically adopted as and when they were useful to improve an individual's situation and, in some cases, to ensure their survival. I have shown that the enaction of such identities involved complex and fluid forms of “agency” and, in so doing, I have sought to democratize understandings of agency in extremely oppressive situations. Furthermore, I have shown how re-evaluation of coolie women's history can help the rewriting and re-visioning of migration histories along with the histories of South Asia and Malaysia.
In thinking about agency in oppressive situations, this book has broadened the definition and understanding of the architecture and mechanics of agential acts, in order to make the definition of agency more inclusive. It has achieved this by accepting situational and fleeting actions, maneuvers, or strategies implemented by vulnerable and oppressed subjects as acts of agency in their own right. By analyzing coolie women's everyday encounters with colonial infrastructures of power, patriarchy, and gendered forms of Indian nationalism, I have demonstrated that in extreme situations of constraint and oppression, agency cannot be expressed in conventional ways; rather, the subjugated individuals perform their agential acts through modified acts of choice, preference, and self-determination, which may or may not appear as a pronounced and visible form of “free action.” Thus, in understanding the agency of subjugated individuals in such situations, we must modify conceptions of what count as agential acts to include the implicit, the covert, and the non-oppositional as well as open and defiant acts of resistance.
Fleeting Agencies disrupts the male-dominated narratives by focusing on gendered patterns of migration and showing how South Asian women labour migrants engaged with the process of migration, interacted with other migrants and negotiated colonial laws. This is the first study of Indian coolie women in British Malaya to date. In exploring the politicization of labour migration trends and gender relations in the colonial plantation society in British Malaya, the author foregrounds how the migrant Indian 'coolie' women manipulated colonial legal and administrative perceptions of Indian women; their gender-prescriptive roles, relations within patriarchal marriage institutions, and even the emerging Indian national independence movement in India and Malaya. All this, to ensure their survival, escape from unfavourable relations and situations, and improve their lives. The book also introduces the concept of situational or fleeting agency, which contributes to further a nuanced understanding of agency in the lives of Indian coolie women.