The Suspicious Death of Depot Baby 7480: ‘Maternal Negligence’ in Colonial Fiji

Health

What should we make of the unnamed Indian infant from the Nukulau Island Depot in Fiji who rouses the attention of the colonial record-keepers on 17 July 1889, as a consequence of the ‘suspicious circumstances’ surrounding her death (CSO, ‘Reporting the Death’)? How much do we really know about the mother of depot baby 7480 and how did her indentured status and interlocking variables such as ethnicity, caste and colonialism trickle down to her daughter? What response should we offer to the allegation by British Colonial Secretary A. R. Coates that the infant’s death was the result of neglect, ‘probably intentional on the mother’s part’ (CSO, ‘Reporting the Death’)? This article grapples with these questions as it sets out to recover a series of anecdotal fragments for history. These comprise birth and death records, emigration passes, annual reports, witness testimonies and minute papers from The National Archives of Fiji. When these forgotten relics are retrieved and reevaluated, a discursive pattern emerges; one that exposes how the transference of blame onto indentured women for ‘maternal negligence’ was strategic and not accidental. Thus, it becomes possible to argue that ‘doublespeak’ or the process of distorting language for political purposes, originating from George Orwell’s ‘doublethink’ (Orwell), was used by colonial and patriarchal authorities in Fiji to obfuscate the ‘truth’. Political economist and media analyst Edward Herman elaborates on the function of this term: ‘What is really important in the world of doublespeak is the ability to lie, whether knowingly or unconsciously and to get away with it; and the ability to use lies to choose and shape facts selectively, blocking out those that don’t fit an agenda or program’ (3). Following Herman, this article will scrutinise how the British colonisers employed techniques such as repetition, exaggeration and omission to portray indentured women like Bachni as irresponsible, detached and uncaring mothers. By placing women under a spotlight and exaggerating or even fabricating their ‘failure’ as mothers, the authorities were able to conveniently distance themselves from the social and moral consequences of the indenture experience. In other examples of ‘maternal neglect’ (see CSO, ‘With Reference to a Coolie Girl’), the mother was singled out as the cause of child abuse and death even when contradictory evidence was presented alongside the concluding remarks. The case of the death of Bachni’s infant is striking because it highlights how discursively constructed signifiers of ‘maternal neglect’, intended to evoke distrust and shock towards indentured Indian mothers, rested largely on wobbly allegations designed to camouflage the flaws of the indentured system and protect the interests of the colonisers. The purpose of this article, therefore, is to undo the charge of maternal neglect inflicted upon Bachni and her sisters.

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Submitted by Margaret Mishra
April 1, 2021
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