Caribbean vocabularies of Coolitude: Guyana

Mahadai Das's 'They Came In Ships'

Mahadai Das

One of the most important poets of the Indian Labor Diaspora is Mahadai Das (1954–2003). Born in Eccles, East Bank Demerara, Guyana, her poem “They Came In Ships” serves as an ancestor poem to all of the poetry written by Indo-Guyanese people today. According to Peepal Tree Press’s website,

Mahadai Das was, with Rajkumari Singh, one of the first Indo-Guyanese women writers to speak to both the ethnic and gender issues facing Indo-Caribbean women, though this is a gradual, and still not wholly reconciled movement in her work. Her first collection of poetry, I Want to be a Poetess of my People speaks of her Indian heritage within a Caribbean environment, yet speaks little of her experience as a woman in this environment. Her second work, My Finer Steel Will Grow, attempts to reconcile the individual with the political with regard to gender. She speaks out about the discrepancy in fighting with men for racial equality, only to be suppressed by those same men in regards to gender. Bones explores her changing individual female identity but only in two or three poems incorporates her Indian heritage within this identity. (Peepal Tree Press)

“They Came On Ships”

Necessary to illustrate the Coolitude poetics, Mahadai Das expands a national consciousness of longing, loss, and labor in her famous poem “They Came In Ships.” The main work of this poem is not one of lamentation; rather, it seeks to galvanize both Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese alike by making parallels of labor while acknowledging and respecting the differences in material conditions during the crossing of the Atlantic. The main work of this poem is national unity through its use of a poetic: separation as a new diasporic poetic. 

Das begins her poem on the ship that arrives to Guyana:


            They came in ships

            From far across the seas

            Britain colonising the East in India

            Transporting her chains from Chota Nagpur and the Ganges Plain.

            Westward came the Whitby

            Like the Hesperus

            Alike the island-bound Fatel Razack.


Here the Whitby, Hesperus, and Fatel Razack are metonymies for all of the ships that landed in Guyana that bore indentured laborers. Das charts the diverse areas in India from which the laborers were culled, mainly Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar — then the United Provinces.

She continues her unifying mission,

            I do not forget the past that has moulded the present.

            The present is a caterer for the future.

            I remember logies

            Barrack-room ranges


            My grandmother worked in the field.

            Honorable mention.


            Creole gang, child labour —


Through the enumeration of the past’s horrors: the materiality that caused upset and trauma, she is able to create a commonality, an imagined history in which her readers would have a nationalist stake. She says that the past creates the future in a way that historicizes “logies, barracks, nigga-yards, Creole gangs, and child labour.” This materiality is based in labor where Creoles and Indians, as read through the logies, can be seen working together against a common colonial master.

The effect is one where the national consciousness is propelled into considering itself, made up by critical assemblages of the past. Of this assemblage, hybridity as a model when compared to Creolization as a model show the extent through which cultural forms connect and inform one another. Through the more nuanced development of mimicry and cultural hybridity where cultures come into contact, though with a hegemonic difference of a dominant paradigm, diffusion occurs. In this poem, it’s clear that Das conflates the material reality of working conditions in Guyana that cross ethnic lines and unite people in a decolonizing national project; traces of Sharma’s original poetic can be seen here in his own concern for the material conditions of the cane field.

They Came In Ships

They came in ships
From far across the seas
Britain, colonising the East in India
Transporting her chains from Chota Nagpur and the Ganges plain.
Westwards came the Whitby,
Like the Hesperus
Alike the island-bound Fatel Rozack.

Wooden missions of imperialist design.
Human victims of Her Majesty’s victory.

They came in fleets of ships.
They came in droves
Like cattle.
Brown like cattle.
Eyes limpid, like cattle.

Some came with dreams of milk and honey riches.
Others came, fleeing famine
And death,
All alike, they came —
The dancing girls,
Rajput soldiers — tall and proud
Escaping the penalty of their pride.
The stolen wives — afraid and despondent.
All alike,
crossing black waters.
Brahmin and Chamar alike.
They came
At least with hope in their heart.
On the platter of the plantocracy
They were offered disease and death.

I saw them dying at street-corners
Alone and hungry, they died
Starving for the want of a crumb of British bread
And the touch of a healing hand.

Today, I remember my forefather’s gaunt gaze.
My mind’s eye sweeps over my children of yesterday
My children of tomorrow.
The piracy of innocence.
The loss of light in their eyes.

I stand between posterity’s horizon
And her history.
I, alone today, am alive,
Seeing beyond, looking ahead.

I do not forget the past that has moulded the present.
The present is a caterer for the future.
I remember logies
Barrack-room ranges
My grandmother worked in the field.
Honourable mention.

Creole gang, child-labour —
Second prize.
I recall Lallabhagie.
Can I forget how Enmore rose in arms
For the children of Leonora?

Remember one-third quota
Coolie woman.
Was your blood spilled so that I might reject my history?
Forget tears in shadow — paddy leaves.

Here, at the edge of the horizon
I hear voices crying in the wind.
Cuffy shouting — Remember 1763.
John Smith — If I am a man of God,
Let me join forces with black suffering.
Akkarra — I too had a vision
Before I lost it.
Atta — in the beginning, I was with the struggle.
And Des Voeux cried
I wrote the Queen a letter
For the whimpering of the coolies
In their logies would not let me rest.

Beaumont — Had the law been in my hands.
And the cry of coolies
Echoed around the land.
They came in droves
At the door of his office
Beseeching him to ease the yoke off their burden.
And Crosby struck in rage
Against the planters
In vain
He was stripped naked of his rights
And the cry of coolies continued.

The Commissioners came
Capital spectacles with British frames
Consulting managers
About the cost of immigration.
They forgot the purpose of their coming.
The commissioners left,
Fifty-dollar bounty remained.
Dreams of a cow and endless calves,
And endless reality, in chains.

Used with permission from Peepal Tree Press.

Das, Mahadai. A Leaf in His Ear: Collected Poems. Peepal Tree Press: Leeds, UK. 2010. 25–27. Print.

For more information about her works follow this link