In Mauritius, my tribute to the "hill coolies" or Dhangars on November 2nd For the untainted memory and dignity of the first 36 indentured (30 men, 6 women) who came to Mauritius on board the Atlas on November 2nd. Callachaund, Dhookun, Bhomarah, Bhoodoo, Champah ... They signed (with their thumbs or an X) a contract of indenture with George Charles Arbuthnot on September 10, 1834, for a period of 5 years beyond the seas. The contract was written in Bengali. They were called hill coolies or Dhangars. Theirs is the first legal document launching the Great Experiment or coolie trade, attesting, without possible refutation, the prevalence of the term coolie (kuli meaning primarily employee or salaried person, which must defuse the shame or stigma that some seem to attach to this noble word to extirpate it from History for questionable ends) in the first days of indenture, to eventually give the name coolie (and not girmit or indentured or aapravasi) trade to this contractual migration which was to upset cultural anthropology around the world.
November 2 2017… I think of these pioneers, these « hill coolies » or Dhangars, who would spearhead the arrival of the 455,000 indentured persons in Mauritius, between 1835 and 1910. To them, to them, I dedicate this prose of the « broken breakers » … As it is for them that I have been writing since 1989 to this day, still traveling towards their limitless potential for humanism.
Broken prose of the breakers, November 2, 2017
Cursed be the coolies, said the last reflection
Of the shadow on the kala pani of the words.
Cursed is this word that the modern slave made of my name!
So proclaim those who denominate the names and the memoirs,
Thus proclaims the new Humpty Dumpty of History,
As the Entente of those who read/in fracture of light/within their generous memory:
Broken prose of the sea breakers, cursed be the coolie… //
By this day, in the name of the new contract-without-agreement //
We’ll erase the coolie: « Okay, that makes me feel ashamed » // We’ll delete the coolie that’s not on my side, // Okay, blot out coolie who does not suit my cleaner version of memory” // Erase the coolie trade, whether it is a close combat with death // Or rather, with the Word that I decided to attach to my corpus, // “We’ll delete the coolie // Only to say plowman, migrant, girmit, maharajah-coolie // Master-coolie without coolie, only the position of the master counts // Bloody coolie, it’s a colonial slur, a wound you remind me of”. // I’m not creative enough to go beyond a word // I’m not made to create with the dark part of my Story. // “We must erase the coolie, curse it, bind it to your neck, // Condemn it because it is important to hide the true face of History. // Dhangar, vile coolie of the hills; you shame the clean odyssey committed // to rename, defame, denominate, deform, whatever, it is necessary // Reengage the engaged coolie to coin the hot rupees of the moment. //
On this day of the arrival of the engaged and indentured, it is a question of disengaging from the truth, // To flee towards the back of the scenery, to take from the other’s hates again //
And deny the power of burning dictionaries. // Yes, we must burn the name and all those who were named by that name. // It’s like that, all coolies in autodafé, because one must not be ashamed of their past … //
Let’s pretend to pretend to destroy everything under the pretext // Of decolonizing the stories, all the stories, big and small. // Even if they knew, those who were engaged; plowed, girmitied, they knew they were // First and foremost coolies. // If they knew we were ashamed of them, that very day, they would return to their coolie graves. Their coolie ships.
By throwing their skin-akin name to the rubbish dump of history, they will be given gold ribbons sewn with gold thread. // Here, they are in the migrant’s trade, in the girmit’s trade, in the plowman’s trade // Never in the coolie trade, o no, coolie, this word never existed. // “I’m the master of the vocabulary of the contract…” // How many times, o coolie, we erased your name // It’s as if we changed the word slave into the enclave-word of the new rich, // In Slavs at the gates of Greek power, because this word degrades, this word shrinks, stinks, brings diseases // We must change « slave » into a chained passenger, a traveler without freedom, a chained unchained // Coolie as girmitied person, disindentured, in sublimated caste of hero without ocean crossing. // Let’s erase, erase, I do not mind coolie trade, call it the girmit-labourer trade, burn // The history books, the books that sound the firecrackers of the masters of history. // I say gossip, « We can change the name of the rose, it will always smell as good », // We can put all the words in the cellar, the texts will be archives beyond fire…
These are indeed coolie labourers, girmit coolies, indentured coolies, aapravasi coolies who took coolie ships for the coolie trade. // “There is only the shame of the other in us, of the one // Who names the seas, who names the lands, who has seized our brains, our hearts, // Our imaginaries, Here he is, raging a second time”. // One wants to fade within, without accepting oneself, because the other wants it so. The other took hold of us. // Seaman, listen: “We call a slave by name in History, // We can call him hero or master in our fantasy to rewrite History, // But we will always talk about slavery as a hard fact”. // We will delete « coolie » for sure // To be Maharaja or Rajkumari of the boats. // But we call a serf a serf and not the noble peasant of the new times // Ah, who wants to erase the past to embroider the false tapestry of Bayeux // Is it for the reconquest of meaning, // Is this the motive of the disindenture with indentured?
To make sense is not to erase the text of History, not to erase the contract of coolie, // It is always as such he/she will be known in indenture girmit aapravasi. // Give another name to big bazaar or small bazaar in Port-Louis, the original name will resist from memory to memories. // Change coolie, caste coolie, communalize coolie, for me coolie was white, brown, black… // He was Tamil, Hindu, Muslim, Christian Taoist or Buddhist … // I’m not ashamed to sing his clear and clean name among the labyrinths of complex memories // In recomposed stories, torn or instrumentalized contracts //
Take care, silencer of memories // Do not engage the dhangars in deadly drifts or amnesiac agendas // The coolie commitment is no pretext for tearing up the social contract or the humanism of our differences // Is coolie not the insulted imprisoned one in the fetters of prejudice // Is coolie the one who resists in the name of the integrity of stories that have outnumbered the shame // Of old or new executioners … // Such is the fraternity of coolie, from the depths of History // To overcome the words, the insults and manipulations of the thirst for power. // To say coolie is to say the name of his truth; it is to create with him and her, to make them nobler in our memory.
Happy the committed coolie who recognizes the slave, the migrant, the refugee as his brother and sister // Happy the coolie who knows that History will not distort his presence // Happy the coolie who is plowman, girmit, aapravasi, who does not reject the other nor oneself // Happy the one who is not ashamed of his ancestor or of himself or of his genealogy // Happy the coolie who is jahaji bhai or behen // Brother and sister of boats of all the Damned over the lands or seas // Because the coolie does not deny his humanity or his solidarity even less his originality // He does not lock himself in the word in which the other has locked him // The coolie draws the visions of our journeys to the humanities. // Honored is my sister coolie who raised the cane with humility and hope // In Mauritius, Guadeloupe, Trinidad, Reunion, South Africa, USA, Cuba, Chile, Guyana, Fiji, Martinique, Australia, in Malaysia, in all the earths of our Earth / It is to you, brother and sister Dhangar, without sweetening your truth, your human nobility, that I pay tribute on this November 2nd, day of your arrival at my native island, at the perron of my future worlds …
Greetings to you, brother and sister coolie, employee/salaried nomad of the new worlds, brother of the hills, sister of the coral.
My ancestor Dhangar, it is here that you made me noble within your history without padlock or traps, without the hatred of my own kind. You are the source of our coral humanism. And it is you who will remain at the sixteen steps of my elevation to otherness, to the broken prose of all sea breakers.
© Khal Torabully, 2 November 2017