‘Coolie’ voices: oral history on a Sumatran tea estate

2017-02-09T02:33:10Z (GMT) by Lamb, Nicole
This study is a cross-cultural oral history which is based primarily on the life narratives of elderly plantation workers in the Regency of Kerinci in Sumatra. The community in question are Javanese who took up contracts to work on a Dutch-owned tea estate between 1926 and 1957. It is unusual to have the chance to explore attitudes towards the colonial relationship as seen by those on the lowest rungs of society. Oral history techniques and ethnographic fieldwork methods make it possible, however, to illuminate the lives of a category of colonial subjects whose voices are rarely heard, the so-called ‘coolies’. Careful analysis of individual life narratives is used here to test and unsettle the popular image, found in many literary and scholarly works, of the ‘coolie’ as a passive victim of the imperial machine. The primary aim of this study is to explore the remembered past of a community of people who experienced many of the traumatic events which gave rise to Indonesian independence, but whose situation and perspective left them outside the flow of what might be termed the ‘national narrative’. Rather than a tool of colonial oppression, the Dutch estate emerges in these life stories as a more benign source of ‘sufficiency’ (cukupan), the wherewithal to maintain life and health. Elderly narrators recalled their lives according to a pattern of oscillation between times of chaos and of comfort and this periodisation was intimately linked in their narratives to the presence or absence of their Dutch employers.