Professor Bahadur says that she feels 'a sense of recover stories that haven't been told'Professor Gaiutra Bahadur with permission for Varsity

In September 2022, Cambridge University made a big step in investigating its links with Empire and exploitation with the publication of the Legacies of Enslavement report. Colleges have had varied reactions to studying their links with Empire, from Jesus returning a Benin Bronze in 2021 to certain fellows at Gonville and Caius trying to block the publication of a College-specific investigation in 2022. Selwyn College has taken another step, seeking to shed light on indentureship, an exploitative and under-researched labour system entangled in Empire in the aftermath of abolition.

The first Ramesh and Leela Narain visiting bye-fellow in Indentureship Studies is Professor Gaiutra Bahadur, a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard and associate professor of journalism at Rutgers University in Newark, who rose to prominence in the field with her 2013 book, Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. This book, shortlisted for the Orwell Prize, studies the experience of female indentured labourers, who Bahadur characterises as “the forgotten within the forgotten.”

“It started for me as just a genuine search for who I am”

Meeting Professor Bahadur outside Selwyn bar on the final day of her eight-week fellowship at Cambridge, I ask why she chose to study indentureship. She corrects me: “it’s a story that led me rather than the other way around.” Born in Guyana, and moving to New Jersey, USA when she was almost seven years old at a time when US immigration laws were being liberalised, she recounts the “swift demographic change” and the “anti-immigrant backlash because of it.” She tells me that “in terms of identity and belonging I felt rather fragile.” Consequently, “in the beginning it started for me as just a genuine search for who I am; what it meant to be Indian looking, but not Indian as well.”

Bahadur’s ground-breaking 2013 book Coolie Woman explores her family history. It is a collective biography of female indentured workers, centring on the life of her great-grandmother, Sujaria, an upper caste Indian woman who travelled to Guyana to become an indentured labourer in 1903. Women made up a third of those who travelled – two-thirds of whom went without husbands by their sides. Bahadur tells me that she writes her history with the intention of “seeing or shattering” the archive that “stereotyped both of them, the women as loose and the men as violent and jealous.” She explains her desire to give women a sense of agency that has previously been taken away: “even if there are these world historical forces affecting their intimate lives, there is also a great deal of strength and courage, and I wanted to highlight that.”

As her book explores an under-researched history focusing on those often written out of it (the subaltern, the indentured and women), I ask if she expected her book to be this successful: “I was very pleasantly surprised”, she replies. She tells me how “many people doubted me, and my family didn’t quite understand what I was doing”. She laughs as she recounts how they “chose my brother-in-law to do an intervention after maybe the twelfth rejection from a publisher.” Candidly confessing that “I didn’t expect to be public in the way that I have been”, she tells me that she feels “a sense of mission” and “fire” to tell and recover “stories that haven’t been told”.

Throughout her career, Bahadur has always sought to give a voice to the unheard. After studying at Yale and Columbia, she started work as a journalist in the mid-1990s for The Philadelphia Inquirer, focusing on immigration. In a climate where this issue was deemed “optional by most newsrooms”, Bahadur sought to “humanise” the debate through telling individual stories.

Briefly working as a foreign correspondent in Iraq for three months in 2005, she tells me that her journalistic desire was “to embed only with the Iraqis to tell their side of the story.” Her reporting focused on Iraqis working for US organisations, seeking to obtain visas to the USA, but she confesses that “I felt very much part of a system of foreign reporting.” She explains that her Indo-Caribbean-American identity helped her: “for them that meant that I came with a certain kind of historical subjectivity and understanding about their own position.”

Professor Bahadur giving a lecture at Selwyn CollegeThisath Ranawaka with permission for Varsity

Consequently, she reflects: “I guess that is a natural progression: stories of immigrants from the United States to this global history of migration.” I ask her opinion on the increasingly politicised state of the media, but she faithfully affirms: “I like to think that journalism is still full of missionaries for the public good.”

“I like to think that journalism is still full of missionaries for the public good”

Turning to the fellowship at Selwyn, she immediately describes it as “extraordinary”, both in terms of funding and recognition. It is estimated that there were around two million Indian indentured workers from 1834 to 1917 who were sent across the globe, so why did it take so long to establish this position? Referring to a lecture she gave the week before at Selwyn, she explains that it is because of “the shame that the colonised hold and the shame that the coloniser holds. One is a form of guilt or fear of reckoning with oneself as exploited. The other is connected to the hard national conversation here about empire, and indenture was one aspect of it. There’s a narrative of abolition that we’ve freed the enslaved, but then to acknowledge that in the aftermath there was this other system that was fairly exploitative as well disrupts this narrative.” She points out that even the demerara sugar she is using for her coffee originally came to Britain from sugar plantations in Guyana like those where her ancestors worked.

She tells me that when she started researching indentureship fifteen years ago, she, like many others, had to be self-funded. She states that the fellowship at Selwyn is “phenomenal to just have not only the financial support to do it, but also the moral support.” However, she is keen to highlight that despite being the first fellow, “I didn’t emerge from a vacuum”. “This conversation is already happening. It doesn’t need a fellowship to spur it. It’s happening more organically really […] the institution is catching up.”


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As Fellow, she has been working on her next project, tentatively called The Woman from America. She reveals that she will explore “five different American figures or institutions that have interacted with Guyana in the 20th and early 21st centuries”. She describes this project as studying “the idea of America” and “how the US’s relationship with Guyana questions that.”

Before we leave, she recounts watching a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest at St John’s College Gardens the previous night. She explains why it is her favourite Shakespeare play: “it’s an exploration of different forms of unfreedom.” She hopes that this fellowship will “create a public platform for people to have a conversation about these various forms of unfreedom” that often exist in a “middle space”. She stresses the need for institutions such as Cambridge to get involved and “lead a conversation about Britain and its role in Empire and how that affects both the coloniser and the colonised.”