Rescued from the footnotes of history: Lal Bihari Sharma’s “Holi Songs of Demerara”

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MY NAME RINGS no bell […]
but footnotes know me well
footnotes where history
shows its true colors
and passing reference is flesh

These lines, from John Agard’s poem “The Ascent of John Edmonstone,” give voice to an enslaved man, born in British Guiana, whose influence has been all but erased from history. Edmonstone taught Charles Darwin the taxidermy skills he deployed during his famous voyage on the H. M. S. Beagle, and his descriptions of the South American rainforests may have inspired Darwin to explore the tropics. Yet Edmonstone, muse and teacher, has gone unacknowledged.

In Agard’s poem, footnotes are where history shows its true colors: they reveal how power, held or withheld, has muted the contributions of people like Edmonstone. To be called a footnote to history is usually a put-down. I would, however, like to rehabilitate a footnoted existence, somewhat, in this essay. To be footnoted is to be cited, and to be cited is to be published. Lal Bihari Sharma, author of the 1915 songbook Damra Phag Bahar, or Holi Songs of Demerara, also could have declared: footnotes know me. First-person testimony, written by indentured immigrants, is rare: only three literary texts about the system that replaced slavery in the British Empire, by laborers who experienced it personally, are known to exist. Holi Songs of Demerara is the only one to emerge from the English-speaking Caribbean. The other two were memoirs by men from Fiji and Suriname.

It was in fact as a footnote that I first encountered Lal Bihari Sharma. I learned about him in June 2011, while reading a scholarly monograph during the final lap of research for my 2013 book Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. That book is partly a narrative history about indentured women in the Caribbean and partly a memoir about my attempts to uncover the mystery behind my great-grandmother’s exit from India, in 1903, as a “coolie” (or indentured laborer). She was born in the very same district of the very same region of the very same state in India as Sharma, and they came from the same caste background. The monograph’s author, a Delhi-based labor historian, described the songbook as rich with sensory details about life on a sugar plantation in British Guiana, told from the perspective of an indentured man.

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