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      Kala pani revisited: Indian labour migrants and the sea crossing



            This article examines the reconstruction and deconstruction of the concept of काला पानी or kālā pānā, meaning the ‘black waters’, which all Indians must cross when migrating overseas. From its origin as a Brahmanic text warning about the dangers of oceanic voyages, through its dissemination as a more generalised stricture against emigration and its use and abuse as a British colonial construction, to its recasting as a historical trope and a literary device, the ever-changing influence and meaning of kala pani is interrogated and assessed. Contextualising the kala pani trope against the setting of sepoy, convict and indentureship voyages, this study also evaluates its historical validity and importance in colonial and nationalist realities. Finally, the symbolic value of the kala pani and its reworking as a literary device are explored.


            Author and article information

            Journal of Indentureship and its Legacies
            Pluto Journals
            1 September 2021
            : 1
            : 1 ( doiID: 10.13169/jofstudindentleg.1.issue-1 )
            : 36-62
            Crispin Bates is professor of South Asian history, University of Edinburgh
            Marina Carter is honourary fellow, School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh
            © 2021 Pluto Journals

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            Literary studies,Arts,Social & Behavioral Sciences,History
            nationalism and migration India,kala pani as metaphor,kala pani and migration,caste and kala pani,sepoys,labour migration India,transportees


            1. Military rolls for the Indian troops who embarked for the expedition to the Mascarenes can be seen at India Office Records (IOR)/L/MIL/5/167–171 Prize Rolls Bourbon & Mauritius 1809–1810.

            2. The demand for cattle carriages refers to the need to carry heavy backpacks for the food they each transported to enable them to prepare their victuals while travelling.

            3. The classic expositions on the colonial imagining of Indian culture and religion are Inden 1990 and Cohn 1996. See also Singh 1996; Dirks 2001. On the influence of European ideas of race on British constructions of India see Bayly 1995; Bates 1995.

            4. India Public Proceedings, Major D. G. Pitcher, Judge, Small Cause Court, Lucknow to Secy to Govt NWP and Oudh, 17 June 1882, IOLR/P/257, paras 54–67.

            5. Grierson 1883, and Major D. G. Pitcher, ‘Report on System of Recruiting Labourer for the Colonies’, 17 June 1882, NAI, Revenue and Agriculture Department, Emigration branch, February 1883, Proceedings Nos. 1–12, appendix 6 (Notice to coolies intended to emigration to British Guiana, generally called Demarara), and Diary of Tour, entry for 16 March 1882 (interview with Ganga Din Misr of Adampur).

            6. Sen 2000. The very useful two-page preface discusses the enduring myth of the ‘kala pani’ – the notion that natives of India dreaded sea travel, and were concerned about loss of caste in these terms.

            7. Veer Savarkar's experiences in the Andamans jail were most recently retold in the epic Malayalam historical drama film Kaalapani (1996).

            8. The poetology of Coolitude was first expressed in the French-language works of Khal Torabully, particularly Cale d'Etoiles and latterly in Anglophone writings such as Torabully 1996; Carter and Torabully 2002.


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