Christopher L. Ballengee
Jaime Moreno-Tejada


The concept of “coolitude” provides a creative and discursive framework for remembering and comprehending the dislocation and transformation expressed in the literature, art, music, and other creative work of descendents of indentured workers enmeshed in a global scheme of contract labor. As explicated in the work of Mauritian poet Khal Torabully and elaborated by a range of scholars and artists in the decades since, coolitude discourse has come to inform an array of cultural and creative expression in former sites of indenture and their diasporas across the Global South.  Beginning in the 1820s and continuing to 1920, the system of indenture transported millions of workers from South and East Asia — “coolies” in colonial jargon — to far-flung territories across the Global South. As a creative practice, coolitude draws on traumatic memories of the past to inform post-indenture identities, importantly referencing the centrality of creolization and cultural mixing in present-day notions of self and community. As an analytical perspective, a coolitudian approach moreover provides poetic context that informs histories of indenture and post-indenture along creolized trajectories in multicultural, postcolonial societies.

Indenture: Impetus for a Global Diaspora

Nienke Boer defines indenture as “the practice of transporting workers to perform labor in a different part of the world for a fixed period of time in return for passage and wages” (2019). Various schemes of indentured labor were employed in the era of European colonization as both an alternative and corollary to chattel slavery. In the British Empire in particular, slavery was gradually phased out until near-universal emancipation in 1838.[1] At this point, demand for labor from plantation colonies helped drive one of the largest sustained schemes of indentured labor in history. The British (and French from the 1840s-1880s) settled on India as its most reliable and plentiful source of labor in this period largely because their control over government and infrastructure made the process of recruiting and exporting workers relatively easy.[2] By choice or deception, millions of men, women, and children signed indenture contracts and were transported to agricultural and industrial estates across the Global South.[3]

In the British Empire, the largest beneficiaries of Indian indentured labor were Mauritius (about 455,000), Guyana (about 239,000), Durban (about 153,000), and Trinidad (about 150,000) (Northrup 1995, 53). Significant numbers were also transported to Fiji (about 61,000); Jamaica and other British Caribbean islands (about 50,000); East Africa (about 40,000); and various other locales (ibid.). Related schemes of indenture additionally took Indians to non-British colonies including Réunion (about 75,000); Suriname (about 35,000); and the French Caribbean (about 80,000) (Northrup 2000; Hassankhan 2014). In virtually all cases, Indian migrants were regarded as temporary residents of the colonies, this despite most foregoing return passage after their contracts had been fulfilled. This outsider status carried forward intergenerationally, resulting in Indians’ marginalization and often outright exclusion in matters of national representation in the era of decolonization.

Beginning in the 1960s, ethnographers, historians, and other academics began centering research on Indian indentureship and its legacy (for example Laurence 1958; Klass 1961; Benedict 1961; Arya 1968; La Guerre 1974; Malik 1971; Mishra 1979; Quanda and Larbi 1979; Subramani 1979; Clarke 1986; Dabydeen and Samaroo 1987). This body of work in part resulted in greater recognition of Indian post-indenture culture and with it greater recognition of diasporic literature, visual art, music, dance, and other creative expression. It is from this context that the concept of coolitude emerged in the 1990s.

Coolitude’s foundations in Négritude and Créolité

Coolitude inherits much of its discursive impact from movements that preceded it, namely négritude and créolité. While négritude writers recognized the irrevocable imprint of Europeanness on Africa and the African diaspora, their work emphasized the common identity of all black people. In this sense, Aimé Césaire poignantly asks “Who am I? Who are we? What are we in this white world?” (translated in Diagne 2018). Négritude’s influence was widespread and remains relevant in critical discourse on race and postcolonialism.

From the 1960s onward, critiques of négritude emerged largely from diasporic writers weary of négritude’s Afrocentric politics, necessary in the period of decolonization yet conceptually limiting in the postcolonial era. One of the most structured and impactful critiques came in the Caribbean-centric concept of Antillanité (“Caribbeanness”) developed by a group of Martinican intellectuals at the Institut Martiniquais d'Etudes established and led by Édouard Glissant. Largely rejecting négritude’s emphasis on Africanisms as a basis of identity, Glissant and his compatriots instead emphasized the mixed ethnic and cultural foundations of the contemporary Caribbean. As the wellspring of intergenerational creole identities, the plantation was situated as a literal and metaphorical space where the “rhythms” of culture engage in an ongoing “pattern of encounter and synthesis” (Glissant 1999, 221–22).

Antillanité gained some currency among poets and academics, yet ultimately gave way to the broader concept of créolité in the 1990s. In their Éloge de La Créolité, Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Raphaël Confiant famously declared: “ni Européens, ni Africains, ni Asiatiques, nous nous proclamons Créoles” (“Not Europeans, nor Africans, nor Asians, we proclaim ourselves to be Creoles”) (1993, 13). Essentially an elaboration of Antillanité yet moving beyond it in important ways, créolité provides a theoretical frame for understanding creolization wherever and whenever. With its emphasis on métissage (cultural mixing) as a font of identity, créolité figured an important influence in Torabully’s explication of coolitude.

Emergence of Coolitude

Torabully first laid out the fundamentals of coolitude in his book of poetry Cale d’étoiles: Coolitude (1992) (reissued by Seagull Books in English as Cargo Hold of Stars [2021],  translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson). In this volume, Torabully both coins the term “coolitude” and poetically establishes the foundational coolitudian symbols of the ship, the voyage, and the plantation as central to an ever-disorienting yet ever-familiar “coolie”-centric oceanic memory. Torabully makes clear that this collective memory spans time and place. The ancestral trauma of dislocation, the treacherous journey across the sea, hardships upon arrival, and ongoing processes of creolization have direct impact on the present experience of post-indenture Indians around the world.

Torabully suggests this traumatic dislocation prompts a “repli identitaire,” that is “an inward-looking identity” shaped by a ruptured orientation toward an increasingly distant and idealized India and progressively rooted orientations toward hostlands frequently ambivalent to Indian presence (Carter and Torabully 2002, 192). This therefore provides the impetus for creativities that give rise to rearticulated, reconstructed, and newly composed expressions of Indianness, creolization, and national identity. Moreover, this cultural memory finds new relevance in large secondary diasporas in North America and Europe where descendants of indenture face a sense of cultural invisibility (Malhi 2020). Speaking about her time growing up Indian Trinidadian in London, for example, Chandani Persaud laments, “You’re never Indian enough to be considered Indian, and you’re never Caribbean enough to be considered Caribbean” (Sivathasan 2019). Persaud’s experience highlights the kinds of assumptions encountered by those in the secondary diaspora whose creolized heritage fails to fit neat definitions of race and ethnicity, even in multicultural, cosmopolitan metropoles. As a way of grounding individual and collective identity, many descendants of indenture look to their ancestors’ journey into indentureship as methphorical of their own lived experience in the Global North where the history and legacy of indentureship is virtually unkown (Sankar 2020).

In a similar way, Cale d’étoiles represents a very personal journey through Torabully’s own heritage and sense of self. While his mother was Indian Mauritian, Torabully’s father was an Indian Trinidadian sailor who was shipwrecked and eventually settled in Mauritius. As such, his parentage connects to India via a circuitous path indicative of the multivalent trajectories of the Indian labor diaspora. Indeed, Torabully brings his personal experience to bear in an overarching metaphor that focuses on the centrality of the ocean as home for indentureds and their descendants. The title of the book itself is a play on words: “cale” (“cargo hold”) and “Khal” are homophones, making an implicit connection between the author’s name and the memory of “coolies” as human cargo on ships bound for plantation colonies.

In an introductory statement to Cale d’étoiles Torabully writes that his exploration of coolitude is “to lay the first stone of my memory among all memories, my language among all tongues, my share of the unknown that numerous bodies and numerous stories have lodged over time in my genes and my islands” (2021, 10). He positions the practice of remembering, of plumbing the depths of his creole identity, both as an inward journey (one “lodged” in his “genes”) and an outward one (“my memory among all memories”). Importantly, the vehicle for this multivalent voyage of remembering is the ship. In Torabully’s poetics, the body metaphorically becomes the ship, a vessel that signifies the ancestral voyage while also carrying the memory of indenture into the present and future:

"Coolitude: because I am Creole by my rigging, Indian by my mast, European by my spar, Mauritian by my quest and French by my exile. I will always be elsewhere only within myself because I can only imagine my native land. My native lands?" (2021, 132)

Torabully’s methodology recalls tenets of both négritude and créolité. In its insistence on remembering as a way of making sense of the present, Cale d’étoiles reflects Césaire’s epic poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land), one of the foundational texts of négritude first published in 1939. Both feature an extended narrative, dwell on the necessity of the voyage, cultivate memories of “home,” are written in French with some references to Krèyol, and explore the multivalent trajectories of the colonial experience.

Moreover, just as négritude writers appropriated the derogatory term nègre as an emblem of bondage to embody and overcome, so too does Torabully similarly aim to recuperate the insulting epithet “coolie” (Carter and Torabully 2002, 214–15).[4] Torabully therefore adapts the semiological and discursive methodologies explicated by Césaire, Glissant, and the créolitistes in analyses of creative expression arising from a global, archipelagic post-indenture diaspora.

Despite the apparent Indo-centricity of coolitude’s subjects and symbols, Torabully takes great care to clarify that his use of the term “coolie,” an identifier historically linked with Asian laborers within the European colonial system, is meant to encompass all people and their descendants, regardless of ethnicity, who were or remain enmeshed in systems of exploitative labor (Torabully 2020).

"The term coolie like that of negro, has been used in the past, and continues even today to be used as an insult to the descendants of the overseas indentured labourers. I chose this word because the coolie was essentially the one who replaced the slave in the plantocratic society. The coolie’s life-history, albeit in somewhat modified historical circumstances, resembled, in many aspects, that of the slave. The word dignifies this condition and aims to illuminate the plight of, to quote Cale d’Etoiles-Coolitude, ‘les oubliés du voyage, ceux qui n’ont pas eu le livre de leur traversée’ (the forgotten travelers, those who have no logbook to record their voyage)" (Carter and Torabully 2002, 144).

In other words, Torabully’s methodology aims to enfold the symbolic, semantic, and poetic legacies of slavery and indenture under the rubric of coolitude. The term “coolie,” he argues, at first indicated “an economic status” not an ethnic identity (2002, 144). Indeed, Torabully reminds that “coolies” were recruited from “China, Ethiopia, Brittany, even from Africa” and other places before colonialists settled on India as a primary source of indentured labor (ibid.). Essentially, Torabully looks to recast the concept of “coolie” as an encapsulation of creolization where European, African, Asian, and other places of origin collapse into one another complicating discrete ancestral origins while situating the voyage of becoming creole — or becoming “coolie” — as the central aspect of personal and collective identification.

Applications of Coolitude

While coolitude offers a methodology for framing studies of a range of cultural practices, it has been slow to gain widespread traction outside the burgeoning realm of indentureship studies. In this regard, coolitudian analyses have for the most part been employed in readings of Indian post-indenture literature, largely works written by descendents of indenture but also including literature that engages and responds to indenture in some way, for example Amitav Ghosh’s novel Sea of Poppies (Lionnet 2015; Mulla 2019). In recent years, coolitude has also been applied to analyses of visual art (Carter and Flynn 2017) and other areas of creative expression including performance art, music, and film (Ballengee and Baksh 2020).

Véronique Bragard was among the first scholars to apply coolitude to readings of post-indenture literature. She highlights, for example, how writers of the 1950s and 1960s like V.S. Naipaul and Sam Selvon express “interest in their Indian heritage” but, like négritude writers of the same generation, largely focus on “their journey to the metropolis, the immigration experience” (1998, 99–10). Bragard suggests Selvon more than any other “should be read… as the precursor of coolitude in the Caribbean” since “his novels offer the reader a comprehensive picture of the life of second generation Indians coming to terms with themselves, acknowledging the past while considering the future in terms of creolization” (2008, 45–46). Selvon’s nuanced portrait of Indian Trinidadian identities is evident throughout his oeuvre. Like in his first novel, A Brighter Sun (1952), some of his narratives are set in rural Trinidad and focus on the inner struggle between a distant India and rootedness in Caribbean creole society. Meanwhile, other works, like Selvon’s most celebrated novel The Lonely Londoners (1956), narrate the experience of the West Indian diaspora abroad, in this way sublimating Indian Caribbean identity within the broader West Indian migrant experience. As Torabully’s poetics suggests, it is this recognition of the sometimes antithetical but often comfortable duality of Indian and creole identities that is fundamental to reading post-indenture creative expression from a coolitudian perspective.

A new generation of artists and scholars have embraced coolitude as an approach to their creative and academic work. Among others, Rajiv Mohabir has been at the forefront of this movement as both a poet and scholar. In his poetry collections Acoustic Trauma (2015), The Taxidermist’s Cut (2016), and The Cowherd’s Son (2017), Mohabir interrogates his ancestors’ experience of indenture as foundational to his own post-indenture identity. Reflecting on his creative practice, Mohabir recounts in the essay “Coolitude Manifesto” (2018) how his encounter with coolitude helped give voice to concepts that run throughout his creative and scholarly work:

"When I first read Coolitude: An Anthology of the Indian Labor Diaspora, I was transformed. I accepted the trauma of my history as a dreamscape that shades my daily life… What was it like for my own ancestors Latchman and Sant Ram Mahraj to leave their homes, beset by economic dependence on a colonial system? When they landed in Guyana in 1891 and 1885 what did they see? What colors were the ocean? What songs did they sing aboard the ship? What of all my women ancestors that are not recorded in familial lore — what did they survive? What survives in us because of all of these people’s strains and triumphs?"

Mohabir works to answer some of these questions in I Even Regret Night: Holi Songs of Demerara (2019), his translation of Lalbihari Sharma’s Damra Phag Bahar, a book of original Bhojpuri- and Awadhi-language poems meant to be sung during Holi (or Phagwa). First published in 1916 once Sharma had returned to India, Damra Phag Bahar remains the only known work of literature written by an Indian indentured laborer in the Anglophone Caribbean. In I Even Regret Night, Mohabir edits, translates, and provides commentary on what amounts to a vivid recollection of indentureship in colonial British Guiana.

Critiques of Coolitude

Some scholars have been critical of coolitude’s usefulness as a broad-reaching analytical and discursive frame. This perhaps extends from coolitude’s parallels with Negritude and créolité. Brinda Mehta, for example, writes that coolitude is simply “an Indianized version” of négritude that lacks the political dimension so integral to the négritude movement of the late colonial period (2004, 56). Others have also suggested that, just as négritude’s Afrocentricity worked to alienate other ethnicities, so too does coolitude’s favoring of Indocentric semiology have the potential to alienate non-Indians (Puri 2004, 266; n39), this in turn perpetuating colonial-era racial divides rather than heal them as Torabully claims is an aim of his methodology (Carter and Torabully 2002, 150).

To the contrary, Torabully has taken many opportunities to explain that, despite its orientation toward the Indain labor diaspora, coolitude should be applicable to a much broader range of cultural expression. He argues, for example, that “the coolie symbolizes… the possibility of building a composite identity,” one both free of specific ethnic identifications yet simultaneously emblematic of the cultural inclusivity intimated through the processes of creolization (Carter and Torabully 2002, 144). However, if this were indeed the case, there would be very little to separate the tenets of coolitude from those of créolité. In practice, Torabully’s claim to coolitude’s breadth is difficult to parse when the weight of the epithet “coolie” is so inextricably linked with the Indian (and to a significant extent Chinese [Jung 2006]) labor diaspora. Indeed, as discussed above, much of the creative and scholarly work of coolitude is clearly centered on ideas central to the cultural memory and lived experience of indentured Indians and their descendants. While Torabully can rightly claim the initial explication of coolitude, it is this wider and more focused body of work that has come to define coolitude as a method for reflecting on post-indenture identities as well as a framework indebted to négritude and créolité that is useful in such analyses of the Indian indenture diaspora.

Relevance for the Global South

Torabully’s work is written mainly in French, including numerous scholarly essays and twenty volumes of poetry. In turn, there is an important body of francophone literature engaging with Torabully and with coolitude more generally, this largely centered on texts emerging from Mauritius, Réunion, and their diasporas. However, an increasingly broad range of creative and scholarly writing on coolitude has been done in English, including two coolitude anthologies (Carter and Torabully 2002; Torabully and Carter 2021). The majority of this English-language commentary is centered on Indian Caribbean texts. However, an important strand of creative and scholarly work on indenture is focused on the Indian diaspora in Fiji. Historian Brij V. Lal was a key figure in initiating serious study of Indian indenture in Fiji, which helped spur interest in the history and legacy of Indian Fijian culture. From this context comes Vijay Mishra’s concept of “girmit ideology,” a notion that closely parallels coolitude but departs from it in important ways.[5] Mishra first outlined the tenets of girmit ideology in 1977, after which it gained some currency in studies of Fijian indenture as well as that of indenture elsewhere. Mishra has since further developed this framework in analyses of Indian diasporic literature (1992; 2007).

Both coolitude and girmit ideology grasp the voyage and the plantation as central icons of Indian diasporic identity. Coolitude seizes upon these as critical metaphors for the ongoing processes of creolization that began when Indians first entered into indenture. Girmit ideology similarly centers these iconic moments yet does so by highlighting the diaspora’s continuities with India (or perhaps cultural survivals), its intergenerational trauma of dislocation, and its unending longing to return. In this sense, girmit ideology engages with the general notion of diaspora in a rather peculiar way. Mishra writes, “all diasporas are unhappy,” comprising “people who do not feel comfortable with their non-hyphenated identities” (2007, 1). By contrast, coolitude is premised on the idea that those in diaspora can indeed find a sense of anchorage in the complex web of identities engendered by the intertwined legacies of colonization, indentureship, and creolization.

Artists and scholars throughout the Indian post-indenture diaspora have evoked coolitude in their creative practice and scholarly research. In this way, coolitude has become an increasingly relevant frame of reference for the Global South. Indeed, coolitude will likely be engaged more frequently by a new generation of interdisciplinary scholars working to map the trajectories of bound labor, especially in the Indian Ocean. For example, coolitude may prove useful for examining new kinds of inter-Asian migrant labor including Indian labor in the Persian Gulf region.

Just as négritude’s critics argue that it over-simplifies and homogenizes the experience of blackness in different regions of the world, there is a similar danger associated with coolitude. The circumstances of indenture around the globe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were similar but not the same. Moreover, the lived experience of individual post-indenture communities are diverse, separated as they are by geography and differentiated political and social developments. Despite its limitations, coolitude nonethless provides a compelling and far-reaching coherency to the experiences of indentured laborers and their descendants across the globe. This is evidenced by the central icons of coolitude—the ship and the plantation—emerging as common tropes of post-indenture identities in popular and academic discourse, simultaneously representing the perilous middle passage, signaling a celebration of arrival, and serving as a powerful metaphor for the forging of new lives and new identities in diaspora.



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Additional Resources

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[1] This emancipation did not apply to territories under control of the East India Company. Emancipation would come later to other European colonies: French, Dutch, and Spanish territories in 1848, 1863, and 1886 respectively. Some territories declared emancipation earlier than these dates. For example, Puerto Rico outlawed slavery in 1873, more than a decade before Cuba. And many nations newly independent from European powers tended to outlaw slavery earlier. Haiti abolished slavery in 1793, while many central American nations, for example, gained independence in the 1820s with emancipation coming shortly thereafter.

[2] Except where noted, mentions of “India” in this article refer to the period prior to the partition of British India, which took place in 1947.

[3] While the globalized export of Indian labor was immense, the localized and somewhat informal use of indentured labor was vaster still. Many indentured Indians worked in Ceylon, Burma, and Malaya. From the 1830s to the 1920s, more than five million Indians were enmeshed in these schemes. 

[4] The word “coolie” likely derives from the Tamil kuli, a word used to refer to manual laboers. During the indentureship period beginning in the 1830s, the British used the term “coolie” to refer specifically to Indian and Chinese laborers recruited into the system. By the late 19th century, the term had taken on racialized significance such that anyone present in the colonies who was Indian or Chinese, regardless of their status as indentured or not, came to be recognized by European elites as “coolies.” In the post-indenture era, the term has remained as an ethnic slur for generations. For a more detailed and nuanced history of “the c-word,” see Bahadur (2014), xix-xxi.

[5] “Girmit” is derived from the English word “agreement,” this referring to the indenture contract. The term girmit is common in Fiji and to some extent in South Africa in reference to the “girmitya,” those who signed indenture contracts.

Published: September 30, 2021. 

How to Cite: 

Ballengee, Christopher L. September 30, 2021. "Coolitude." Global South Studies: A Collective Publication with The Global South. Accessed date.