‘We are here because you were there’, declare black words on a yellow banner hanging from the ceiling at the Migration Museum in Lambeth, London – the location of the launch of We Mark Your Memory: Writing from the Descendants of Indenture to which I’m delighted to be a contributor. The words of A. Sivanandan – the late, great novelist and director emeritus of the Institute of Race Relations – could not be more poignant to the times we are living in and to the stories collected in the anthology. We Mark Your Memory is edited by David Dabydeen, Maria del Pilar Kaladeen and Tina K. Ramnarine, and is published by the School of Advanced Study in conjunction with Commonwealth Writers.
The Museum was the perfect location for the launch – a hidden gem filled with relics and memories of the extraordinary migratory journeys that humans have made across the world, and the racism and discrimination they have experienced. There are miniature models of multicoloured boats and ships symbolising journeys mad; there are records of the Rock Against Racism rallies and gigs; there is wonderful artwork and painting expressing migration.
It was against this fitting backdrop that speeches about the anthology from its editors and the Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation, and six readings from the anthology, took place.
‘A collective act of resistance across time and space against having to explain to people their own British history’ and ‘a claiming of our identities internationally’, is how Maria del Pilar Kaladeen described the anthology. We Mark Your Memory commemorates the centenary of the abolition of the system in the British Empire (2017–20) by gathering, for the first time, new writing from across the Commonwealth that explores indentured heritage through fiction, essays and poetry.
‘What exactly is indenture?’, I am often asked by those brave enough to ask at all; others stare blankly when I mention the word indenture, assuming it’s something to do with teeth. And so I must explain the little-known system of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Indian migration under the British Empire. Thankfully, I can now hand curious people a copy of the anthology. The abolition of slavery was the catalyst for the arrival of the first indentured labourers into the sugar colonies of Mauritius (1834), Guyana (1838) and Trinidad (1845), followed by the inception of the system in South Africa (1860) and Fiji (1879). Indenture, whereby individuals entered, or were coerced, into an agreement to work in a colony in return for a fixed period of labour, was open to abuse from recruitment to plantation. Often-harrowing stories of exploited and unfree workers their descendants are captured between the covers of the book. These include indentured histories from Madeira to the Caribbean, from West Africa to the Caribbean, and from China to the Caribbean, Mauritius and South Africa.
By the time indenture was abolished in the British Empire (1917–20), over one million Indians had been contracted, the overwhelming majority of whom never returned to India. Today, an Indian indentured labour diaspora is found in Commonwealth countries including Belize, Kenya, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the Seychelles. There was a wide variety of geographical backgrounds represented in the six contributors who read: Prithiraj R. Dullay read from ‘My Father the Teacher’, myself from ‘Escape from El Dorado: A Bittersweet Journey through my Guyanese History’; Fawzia Muradali Kane from ‘I go sen’ for you’; Gitan Djeli from ‘Mother Wounds’; Eddie Bruce-Jones from ‘india has left us’; and Priya N Hein from ‘Paradise Island’.
Finishing the readings, we were treated to a recital by acclaimed poet and writer David Dabydeen of his first published poem in 23 years, ‘Pot-Bellied Sardar’, dedicated to his fellow editors. Amongst those celebrating the launch was esteemed poet John Agard.
All in all, it was a most moving and memorable evening launching into the world an important book which sheds light on why we are here.
Anita Sethi is an award-winning journalist, writer and critic who has written for many publications including The Guardian and Observer, Sunday Times, Telegraph, FT Life & Arts, Independent, i paper, Times Literary Supplement, Granta and New Statesman and appeared on BBC radio. Her writing has been published in several anthologies and she is currently completing a book. Website: www.anitasethi.co.uk. Twitter: @anitasethi. Instagram: @anitasethi