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Commonwealth Writers gather in Colombo

Commonwealth Writers gather in Colombo to mark 100 years since the abolition of indenture




By  Leo Kiss

( November 14, 2018, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) This year marks the centenary of the abolition of indentureship – a system which saw individuals entered, or coerced, into working in a British colony in return for a fixed period of labour.

A lively, intergenerational crowd of 80 people gathered at the Barefoot Garden Cafe last week to hear live readings and discuss the impact of indenture.

The event, organised by Commonwealth Writers, launched a new book marking 100 years since the abolition of indentureship. We Mark Your Memory is a groundbreaking anthology bringing together writings by descendants of indentured labourers from across the Commonwealth. Through poetry, short stories and essays, it explores the buried histories and continuing legacies of this system of labour.

 

Indentureship in the British Empire started with the end of slavery in 1824 after which labourers were brought to work on tea, coffee, sugar and rubber plantations across the British Empire, and specifically coffee and tea in Sri Lanka.

By the time indenture was abolished (1917-20), over three million Indians had been contracted under this system of labour.

The event created a much-needed platform to discuss the diverse narratives of indenture, including readings from contributing authors Deirdre Jonklaas Cadiramen (a planter’s daughter from Sri Lanka) and Athol Williams (South African descendant of an Indian indentured worker), alongside P. Muthulingam, Director of the Institute of the Social Development in Sri Lanka.

Many attendees took to the floor to share their experiences of indenture, stories that too often go untold. Many people in attendance admitted that this was the first time they had heard the phrase ‘indentured labour’ or understood what it meant. One audience member said:

‘Some descendants of indenture still have a long hard fight to get basic rights. In order for those rights to be attained, it has to start somewhere… People need to get together and talk and build empathy.’

Athol Williams, a South African writer and social philosopher, read his poem, ‘Erased’, a powerful piece reflecting on his family’s struggle with history and Indian Identity in apartheid South Africa. Speaking at the event, he said:

‘We owe it to our younger generations to make sure the stories of our indentureship are remembered. Through poetry and storytelling, we can honour the histories of indentured workers, whose bonded labour gave the world tea, coffee, sugar, rubber and many other staples of modern life.’

Deirdre Jonklaas Cadiramen, a Sri Lankan writer and contributor to We Mark Your Memory, read excerpts from her story ‘The Heist’.

Speaking at the event, she said:

‘My story was directly influenced by my childhood experiences, as the daughter of an estate superintendent in the plantation sector. From birth to age 12,  we lived in a bungalow of a remote hill-country rubber estate. The event in Barefoot Bookshop made me realise that our knowledge of Indentured Labour is possibly minimal or non-existent.’

The conversation unearthed the stories of those forced to work on plantations and the large number of the descendants still living and working on those estates.

  1. Muthulingam, who is also Director of the Tea Plantation Worker’s Museum and Archive in Sri Lanka, added:


 

‘Plantations are still a physical and economic feature of Sri Lanka, as they are in many other parts of the Commonwealth.

‘Over the decades, oral testimony of the first indentured labourers has been passed down through the generations. The history of those who entered the indentured workforce must be explored if we are to heal the divides still prevalent in our society.’



Despite the heavy rain that evening, the lively discussion continued for hours, proving that storytelling can be a valuable way to frame these challenging and necessary conversations.

A hundred years since indenture’s abolition, We Mark Your Memory shared the hitherto unexplored stories of the system’s legacies and the continued effect on the lives of the descendants of indenture.

Visit commonwealthwriters.org/we-mark-your-memory to learn more about the book: We Mark Your Memory: writings from the descendants of indenture.

 

The event was organised by Commonwealth Writers, the cultural initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation - an international organisation established by the Commonwealth Heads of Government to support people’s participation in democracy and development.



Set up by the Commonwealth Foundation in 2012, the mission of Commonwealth Writers is to inspire, support and connect storytellers across the Commonwealth. Through this work, Commonwealth Writers creates new platforms for the less-heard voices in civil society.

 

 

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