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"Coolie Belles" A poem by Maddy Ipema.

Updated: Jan 21, 2022


Thousands of miles away from their homeland, these Indo-Caribbean women were some of the 2 million

indentured laborers the British transported to their colonies between 1834 and 1917. In the Caribbean, they

signed contracts for five years or longer and worked on sugarcane fields on islands like Guyana, Trinidad,

Surinam and Jamaica after slavery had officially ended.

In the post card

She floats amongst the two worlds

That cage her inside

like an unprotected womb

Her mama kicked her out at just 16

When she saw the brown baby bump

Protesting from her stomach

Especially when she found out

That a divine feminine was trying to blossom

Inside, outside - a man’s world

“The scenes were entirely controlled by White European photographers -- one of whom was Felix Morin, a

French commercial photographer who owned a studio in Trinidad's capital, Port of Spain, from 1869 through

to late 1890”

The lens renders her in the margins

Clawing amongst the gray

the in-between

Of entrapment and freedom

Like the unrelenting vines

That stand behind her

The same sugar cubes

That once presented themselves

As nothing but pleasant and sweet

“Having grown up in a village that was once a sugar cane field, the desire for home was ‘a complicated

longing because it still represents the plantation.’”

Serpents rising

Her indian roots

Taunting her

She is forced to pull the

Weeds of her culture out herself

The photographer whispers to her

What he wants to see

or rather what he sees

What the world sees


“The images showed the women as "other," an idea further enforced by their arms and legs being on display”

Hot on the tongue, all she ever heard

About her existence was

A marveling at how

She even existed at all

Her un-traced, foreign beauty

Up against victorian white

“The exposure of hands and feet would have been shocking. (Their) white women counterparts would have

been completely covered”

You know what they say

About the violence that ensues

When folks don’t understand something


You can see it in the way her lips part the smile

Of the deepest tales of betrayal

The satin red opening curtain

to her monologue

The story they don’t want her to tell is still

Stalking the fields with every step

She took towards the falling horizon

Her child slung on her hip like a

Fashionable hand-bag

Coolie belles

Is what they were called

The woman who wore wealth

Amongst photos

But were told

Everyday in shouts and whispers

That they would never be worthy

Of the riches

That adorned them and

Rendered their male-colonists

Sovereignty and dominion

Over their own brown bodies

That they gawked at with both

Aching desire and disgust

Coolie belles carry a silenced

Worn-out carol deep

In their spirit

Like the soul of an owl

Who haunts the night

Please don’t look away

From the darkness

- Maddy Ipema


Sharma, Hena.

“Why Indian Women Became the Faces of These Victorian-Era Postcards.” CNN, Cable News, Sharma, Hena. “Why Indian Women Became the Faces of These Victorian-Era Postcards.” CNN, Cable News

Network, 21 Dec. 2020,

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