“The word cooly would probably make you cringe and you’re thinking, ‘how dare she?’ Wait…is it “Cooly” or “Coolie”? Quite frankly, the spelling of the word is irrelevant – the connotation remains the same,” expressed Vidya Birkhoff, fine-artist and writer born in Trinidad and Tobago.

“The word made me cringe too. I, like a lot of Trinidadian and Caribbean women, have been searching for information on my ancestors; in my case, my great-grandmother. She was on board the SS Ganges when it docked in Trinidad on October 10th 1907. She travelled alone, pregnant with my grandfather who was born on April 4th 1908,” Birkhoff recalled.


The search for records: more questions than answers:

She journeyed back to records from 1906-1908 from the national archives that were said to have been destroyed by fire, so to this day, she doesn’t know her great-grandmother’s real name, but in her search to find any clue, she stumbled on a form with the heading “Woman’s Emigration Pass” with a similar last name to her grandfather’s.

Indian Woman's Emigration Card dated October 10, 1907 with artwork of woman by Vidya Birkhoff.

“I gasped when I saw the word on an actual form that read: ‘Occupation in India: Cooly’, which was the form that was filled out for people who were looking to leave India in search of a better way of life. Instantly, my eyes blurred with tears. Who decided on that label? What kind of human being decides the life of another human is less than? I got up, walked around my studio, wiping some tears, then I went back and read the form again and again. Every-single-word. Over and over Father’s Name: …….. Caste: …….. Bodily Marks: A raised scar on left shoulder; A scar on right shin Occupation in India: Cooly.”

Protection vs Horrors:

 She recalled the last signature on form. “It was signed by: Protector of Emigrants. I knew in my heart the women whose names were written on these forms could not read nor write. They had little awareness of where they were going. They were most likely told that they were going to a new land full of opportunities and bright, golden futures. No one had their best interest when they left India, and no one protected them.”

  Birkhoff said she eventually got to learn that the women had no idea of the horrors that awaited them during the three to four-month journey to the West Indies across the Pacific. They had no idea what conditions awaited them if they survived the journey, and many people have simply closed their eyes, turned their back and will pretend that everything was, and is okay.


Accepting reality squarely:

“Quite recently, I was asked, ‘why you digging up that sh#*?’

  Some of us want to know and some of us don’t. Some of us want to believe we came from royalty in India and some of us know deep down in our souls that our descendants were most likely lower caste. I thought I was adventurous and brave. When I was 15, my grandfather said I would cross seven oceans, and in truth I’ve lived in seven countries, but at least I knew exactly where I was going. I knew what awaited me. I had goals and dreams and a sense of adventure. I had a plan. That ‘Cooly’ woman had no one. Not a sense of adventure – but of survival. Her dream was simply to live.”

Betrayal and caste:

Birkhoff sketched the picture that that cooly woman was traveling alone and most likely came from a lower caste family, from the poorest and most uneducated background – and she couldn’t read. The only thing she owned was the clothes on her back and a baby in her belly. She probably had a few possessions but the most valuable thing she had was guts. It takes grits, survival skills and a high intensity of bravery to get on a ship – going to God along knows where in search of a better life for herself and her baby. “I can’t begin to fathom what she must have endured. It’s easy to cast blame elsewhere, but in truth, we were betrayed by our own people. Indians were segregated according to caste and level of education.


The Kanganis:

Birkhoff drew upon other history. The more educated – the ‘Kanganis’ – were recruited as middlemen and sent across South India to persuade villagers to move to this new land of opportunity – the Sugar Colonies. South Indians were targeted because they were compliant, docile and easy to manage. They were promised fair wage and passage back to India.

Vidya Birkhoff

The Fatel Razack sail:

On May 30th, 1845, and approximately eight years after the abolition of slavery, the Fatel Razack sailed into the Gulf of Paria, bringing the first Indian indentured labourers from India to Trinidad. The Indians travelled along the Ganges River via Calcutta, and although most were of Hindu faith, a significant number were Muslims. The SS Ganges made its last trip from India to Trinidad on April 22, 1917. On board: 274 men, 115 women, 12 boys, 10 girls and 10 infants. Seven persons died during the voyage.


Controversial art:

Birkhoff said it was never her intent to create controversial art, but she felt compelled because she knows that she would be non-existent if it weren’t for this courageous, Cooly Woman.

Who is Vidya Birkhoff?

Vidya Birkhoff is a graduate from the Ani Art Academies, said her studies focused on Trompe L’oeil – the Language of Drawing and the Language of Painting, and she shares her experiences through her paintings, with a composition of hyper-realism, while pushing color and contrast, to bring viewers into a distinct West Indian style.

  Owner of the Yellow Butterfly Studios Art Gallery, on the Scarborough Waterfront, Tobago, her work can be found in galleries and private collections in Trinidad and Tobago, the US, Canada and throughout the Caribbean.