When people are in control of their history, they are able to build community, wealth and stability. At the very least, they have control over their identity. But when that sense of your own culture and history is lost, it takes generations to control and solidify that identity again.
– Andrew Voogel
When granny and grandfather were stolen from the islands, all island practice and tradition was stolen too. Our people were made to speak English and even call their children English names. Our culture is a combination of island traditions fused with culture inherited by the plantation owners.
– Jasmine Togo-Brisby
Throughout history, external forces have disrupted and re-routed the trajectory of unsuspecting lives being lived in far off lands. Sugar production — the foundation for much of the British Empire and an insidious driver of slave labour — has been one of the most violent influences. From the Spanish and Portuguese impact in the Atlantic Islands to the arrival of the British and French in the Caribbean in the early seventeenth century, the expansion of sugar plantations and the laborious task of sugar cane cultivation drove an insatiable demand for labour, in turn accelerating the trade of African bodies.
With the gradual emancipation of African slaves from the early 1800s, plantation owners looked for alternative sources for cheap, or free, labour. John Gladstone, a British Statesman and sugar plantation owner living in British Guyana, turned his thirst to India. He arranged for hundreds of Indians to be brought over to work in his fields. Many followed his lead, including European Colonial plantation owners in the Caribbean islands, such as Trinidad and Jamaica, and South American mainland countries, Guyana and Suriname. Over the next 80 years, hundred of thousands of Indians would be deceived, coerced and forced onto boats to cross the seas and satisfy the desire for cheap labour.
One of the Indian individuals deceived into indentured labour was Sita, a 22 year-old married woman with a daughter named Kwaria. In January 1911, Sita was offered overtime at the factory where she worked assembling dolls for a British company. She accepted, leaving Kwaria with a neighbour. When Sita arrived at work, she, along with other factory workers, were forced to walk to the Port of Calcutta, a trek that took nearly a week. Along the way, hundreds of other Indians were collected. These individuals, uprooted from their homes to work on the sugar plantations in the Caribbean, along with the numerous others hoarded then herded onto ships, would collectively come to be known as the Jahajis: ship travellers. Sita would never see her daughter again.
Andrew Voogel, a descendent of the Jahajis of Guyana and Sita’s great-grandson, recalls this moment of violent departure. The title of his installation — Kalapani: The Jahaji’s Middle Passage — co-opts the phrase ‘The Middle Passage’, which refers to the ‘triangle’ trade route between Britain, Africa and the West Indies, traversed to ship trading goods from England to Africa, slaves from Africa to the Caribbean, and processed harvests back from the Caribbean to England. The Middle Passage, however, doesn’t fully account for the experience of Indian indentured labourers. Kalapani: The Jahaji’s Middle Passage names the lesser-known sea voyage that those captured were forced to undertake. Kalapani, which translates into English as ‘black
water’, also references a traditional Hindu taboo on crossing the sea, which could result in an individual losing their caste status. The passage to the Caribbean was therefore doubly-violent, not only uprooting a person from their family and home, but also from an observance of their own self-determined ways of living and belief systems.
Voogel’s installation includes video focussed on a single point in the ocean, projected in a darkened room. The work invites contemplation of the vast waters. The artist’s intention is that a viewer, plunged into darkness, will gradually perceive the image. Asked to occupy an empathetic moment of uncertainty, the viewer can grasp their own understanding of the sea. Might it be as a site of trauma, an archive for history, a possible place of healing?
Displayed alongside Voogel’s video projection are the passage papers that record the arrival of the artist’s great grandparents, Sita and Bhoja, to Guyana as indentured labourers. These documents, known as Colonial Form No. 44, reduced individuals to a series of details that assessed their suitability for labour. The juxtaposition of the video and documents reflect two different ways of thinking about history: through its formal, bare documentation that are the end result of a power imbalance, or through something more speculative that allows room to imagine the experience and feelings of the people who lived through them.
In an adjacent gallery space, a mass of skulls cast in resin and sugar sparkle eerily in gallery lights. This installation bonds together motifs of death, sugar and anonymity. Despite the horror of the skulls, the sugar crystals glint seductively. The effect is unnerving, calling to mind the fact sugar, like tobacco and rum, was never a basic necessity. Rather, slave economies were supported by the consumer’s desire for a leisure product; a recreational sweetener that distracted from the atrocities.
In the late 1800s, the lure of sugar spread to Australia, where the Queensland government encouraged the establishment of sugar cane plantations. Lacking the once steady stream of labour from incoming convicts, the government and plantation owners turned to the Pacific. 62,000 recorded — and many more unrecorded — islanders were kidnapped and enslaved on these plantations from 1863 through to 1904. This history of is often referred to as blackbirding, a widely used but euphemistic term that romanticises a Pacific slave trade.
The peoples that were forcibly migrated to Queensland to work on plantations became known collectively as South Sea Islanders. In the early 1900s, a White Australia policy prompted the deportation of South Sea Islanders who were still alive in Queensland. Many, however, stayed, and a small community exists to this day. Jasmine Togo-Brisby, an Australian South Sea Islander, has an arts practice that is personally
motivated: like Voogel, her great-grandparents were among those coerced into indentured labour. Her great grandmother was only eight years old when she was stolen from Vanuatu. Togo-Brisby’s work considers how to create spaces for healing by acknowledging this recent and still raw yet largely under-recognised past. Bitter Sweet, made from 2012 to 2013, was prompted by the unmarked mass graves being
unearthed by Queensland farmers. Much of the history around indentured labour privileges documentation: the numbers of labourers taken to Queensland, quoted in the vast majority of texts, are based on the number of extant documents. Bitter Sweet points to the undocumented labourers, the voiceless who are unaccounted for in history.
As a meticulous process, casting is one that has a particular duration. Though the cast skulls are multiples, each has been individually handmade, going through a process from finding the right liquid ratio of raw sugar and epoxy resin, to pouring, then solidying, and then prising open, and finally to maintaining the integrity of the objects. There is a intimacy that the artist shares with the works, that counters the disregard for human life expressed by plantation owners and slave traders.
The wounds of the recent past are still being peeled back, with new information being
unearthed and fuller recognition still being sought.4 The importance of recalling these
specific histories — which for both artists is still very much present in their families, traceable to a specific person only a few generations removed —seems self evident. The contemporary condition of their respective cultural communities are inextricably linked to histories of indentured labour. Notably, the terms South Sea Islander and Jahiji are used to describe a group of otherwise diverse peoples, formed by the process of forced migration.
Speaking within the context of Aotearoa New Zealand, a country very much shaped by
histories of colonisation and migration, curator and artist Ahilapalapa Rands considers how we grapple with confronting histories. She writes:
We can’t move forward until we know where we are right now, and where we have been. But there is an emphasis on care that I think is important. How do you acknowledge the painful shared histories we have, especially in spaces like Aotearoa that have been shaped so heavily by colonisation and imperialism? And within that acknowledgement, how do we empower through challenging and recontextualising the archive’s narrative, while avoiding reproducing that trauma?
This question of how to remember but not re-enact trauma is central in the work of Voogel and Togo-Brisby. Drawing upon oral traditions as the primary archive, both Voogel and Togo-Brisby instill an emphasis on ‘care’ in their works. As stories surface and are passed down the family line, these works require from the artists a degree of care as guardians for their familial memories. But the works also look forward, thinking about what role they may have in opening a space where their communities can feel recognised, to have their stories told in a public place.
Yet when we turn to remember the past, we often rely on records. Voogel’s work notes that indenture documents, which reduce a person to their biological markers, are all that might be recorded of his grandparents. Similarly, texts on South Sea Islanders use the records on contracts to estimate the number of indentured labourers. Even in writing this essay, it seemed inescapable to begin with a skimmed history that focused on macro shifts rather than humanising those who have been historically treated economically.
It seems to me that part of approaching traumatic histories with care is to recognise and create archives that exist beyond the practices of recording that were in themselves tools of exploitation; reductive and deadening, using documentation to speak of history like a fixed, finished moment. Kalapani: The Jahaji’s Middle Passage and Bitter Sweet are both marked by an absence. What we are asked to encounter are the silent passing of waves and presence of unnamed skulls. The works are emotive, promoting a response rather than dictating historical data. In this space, there is room to reclaim histories that cannot be recorded beyond what can be held in a real or imagined memory.