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Violence des sociétés de plantations

Séminaire du 17 janvier 2012

Je m'intéresse aux coolies indiens migrant à l'intérieur de l'Asie même, au Sri Lanka (Ceylan), en Malaisie et en Indonésie. Un grand nombre de coolies tamouls furent importés à Ceylan, d'abord par les hollandais à Jaffna pour la culture du tabac, puis par les britanniques dans les plantations de café et de thé.

Mais les cas indiens et chinois sont indissociables.

Violence du Coolie Trade

Un livre de Arnold Meagher sur les coolies chinois place la violence et la tromperie en toile de fond du Coolie Trade.

Extraits d'un compte rendu de
Arnold J. Meagher, The Coolie Trade, the Traffic in
Chinese Labourers to Latin America 1847–1874
.
Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Corporation, 2008

(i) [The] demand for labour was derived from the land-related resource windfall obtained by European colonisers; (ii) labour shortage was thus predominantly in the low-skilled primary sector, and in plantations in particular, where the use of pre-modern technology was the norm; (iii) any able-bodied people were more than enough to fulfil the basic tasks; and (iv) consequently, the pay had to be at the subsistence level.

The author argues that before the 1840s, the only sizeable supply of low-skilled and low-paid labourers came from Africa. The trade in African slaves worked well neo-classically so to speak until the international ban on modern slavery after the European elite rediscovered their humanitarian conscience. But that came as a political shock to the global labour market. So the slave traders had to find an alternative labour source to keep the Europeans' colonial low-tech economies going. That alternative was found in East and South Asia: China and India. From the author's point of view, the same old slave trade continued in the guise of indentured/contracted labourers called coolies, a corrupt term from India. First, most Chinese (and Indians) were tricked into becoming indentured labourers, about 1.5 million of them. The methods commonly applied ranged from debt trapping (gambling in particular) and opium drugging to armed kidnapping. Very few Chinese went by their free will (probably less than 20 per cent).

The standard term of such a 'contract' was 8 years. Considering that the average life expectancy in Europe and China was about 35–40 years, this was the best part of the working life for an average adult male. So in real terms, this was a life sentence, a very raw deal for those who were forced into those 'contracts' as coolies. Third, the real horror began after coolie ships departed from European-controlled ports in China, mainly Macao and Hong Kong. From that point onwards, there was practically no enforcement or honouring of terms in the written contract on the European part. Chinese coolies were treated practically the same as African slaves. They were chained, regularly beaten, starved, and hot ironed. The percentage of coolies dying on ships was comparable with that of African slaves. After landing, they were also auctioned in the same way. Most tellingly, they were customarily sold and resold to the next coolie owners for their next 8-year term. If this is not enough, the author includes evidence that European plantation owners used their African slaves to drive Chinese coolies. So the coolies' social status was even lower than slaves. The result of this human rights abuse was a very high rate of suicide among Chinese coolies. Some justifiably mutinied against their coolie dealers and owners.

Violence au quotidien sur la plantation

E. Valentine Daniel est professeur au Département d'Anthropologie de Columbia University. Il s'est fait connaître par un livre classique qui n'a cessé d'inspirer les indianistes et de promouvoir les études sur Charles Sanders Peirce à l'interface de l'anthropologie, de la philosophie et de la sémiotique: Fluid Signs: Being a Person the Tamil Way. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. De ses enquêtes ensuite et de ses réflexions sur la violence et la guerre civile chez les tamouls du Sri Lanka est issu un nouveau livre important: Charred Lullabies: Chapters in an Anthropography of Violence. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. Ne cessant d'enquêter auprès des Coolies tamouls travaillant dans les plantations du Sri Lanka tout en approfondissant son intérêt pour les arts de parole, les récits et les chansons, le discours rapporté et l'ethnopoétique, il a sur le métier un grand poème épique dont un article publié en 2008 sous le titre The Coolie nous donne des échantillons.

E. Valentine Daniel, The Coolie, Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 23, Issue 2, pp. 254–278.

The Coolie est difficile à lire et souvent obscur. La forme versifiée rend le récit elliptique et les échantillons publiés sont trop brefs pour permettre les recoupements qui permettraient au lecteur de suivre le fil. On peut aussi rester perplexe devant le choix d'une écriture post-moderne et d'une approche subalterniste qu'on a pu reprocher, chez nous, aux Créolistes (Edouard Glissant, Patrick Chamoiseau, Raphaël Confiant). L'analyse qui en résulte est néanmoins très forte, comme aux pages 261–263 qui évoquent Rukmani, la belle coolie. Elle creuse un canal de drainage. Le chignon de ses longs cheveux noirs se défait, elle se redresse pour le renouer. Sous le regard du maître, Marvel Stark, saisi d'une bouffée de désir (He fancies you with your flowing hair…), qui pour s'arracher au sortilège (To foil her spell…) lui hurle de continuer à creuser. Mais sous le regard hostile de Ramu, Marvel jaloux devient violent et rêve d'étriper le compagnon de la belle coolie. Le Kankani (le porion) à dix mètres de là (Six fathoms away…) sent venir la bagarre et se précipite to broker peace. Violence éternellement recommencée des sociétés de plantations.