A New System of Slavery?
Following the emancipation
of slaves in 1833, and the period of unpaid apprenticeship
that followed, many liberated Africans left their former masters.
For the owners of sugar-cane plantations, who required a regular,
docile and low-waged labour force, this appeared to spell
economic disaster. Britain was forced to look elsewhere for
cheap labour and turned its attention for a brief period to
China, and then to India.
The solution came in the form of a new system of forced labour,
which in many ways resembled enslavement. Indians, under an
'indentured' or contract labour scheme, began to replace enslaved
Africans on plantations across the British empire, in Fiji,
Natal, Burma, Ceylon, Malaya, British Guiana, Jamaica and
'Hill Coolies' Landing in
In 1836, the first Indians arrived in British Guiana. Under
a scheme ordered by Lord Stanley, Secretary of State for the
Colonies, a civil contract between Britain and Indian workers
was drawn up for an initial period of five years. In the early
phase, Indians were treated as inhumanely as the enslaved
Africans had been. They were confined to their estates and
paid the pitiful sum of 1 shilling per day. Any breach of
contract brought automatic criminal penalties of two months'
imprisonment or a fine of £5.
In 1838 a special magistrate, Charles Anderson, wrote to
the Colonial Secretary declaring that 'with few exceptions
they [the Indians] are treated with great and unjust severity,
by overwork and by personal chastisement'. Plantation owners
enforced the regulations so harshly that, according to historian
Hugh Tinker, 'the decaying remains of immigrants were frequently
discovered in cane fields...'. If labourers did not work,
they were not paid or fed: they simply starved. Importing
contract labour from India was suspended in 1840.
After the supply of Indian contract labour was cut off, a
few Europeans were imported, but they were by no means sufficient
for the task: 105 European men landed in St Lucia in 1843.
At this point, the disgruntled plantation owners, deprived
of their enslaved workforce, pleaded with the colonial government
to find a fresh supply of labour.
Lord Stanley experimented with schemes for bringing in Chinese
people from British settlements in Malacca, and Africans from
Sierra Leone. These yielded few results, however, and Lord Stanley
reinstated immigration from India. This time an Act was passed
to protect the well-being of the Indian immigrants. Provision
was made for basic housing, food rations, clothing and wages,
on a task basis, for these immigrants.
Guiana and Trinidad
The colonial government, with authority from London, engaged
agents to recruit indentured labourers. The first recruiting
agents were described as 'generally people of bad character'.
They fully utilised the harsh economic and social conditions
in India to lure the dispossessed into their trap.
The recruiters selected so-called 'hill coolies',
who were generally employed as labourers on indigo plantations.
During the low season, they came into the towns to seek work.
From 1844, certain towns in the northern provinces - Delhi,
Bihar, Oudh and Bengawere - were recognised as magnets for
East Indian workers also came from other castes, and had
a wide variety of skills. A report investigating conditions
in the colonies listed arrivals as agricultural labourers,
weavers, cooks, dancers, musicians, priests and scribes. Some
were Indian landowners forced off their land when wealthy
Britons began to buy up smallholdings for nominal rates. In
desperation, Brahmans, high-caste people who rarely worked
the land, also enlisted as emigrants to the colonies.
'Emigrants Shall Be
Treated With Kindness' (154KB)
| As with Africans, who were held
in forts awaiting transportation, Indians were held in depots.
Often deceived about the work on offer, they were hustled aboard
the waiting ships, unprepared for the long and arduous four-month
sea journey. William Gladstone, briefly Secretary of State for
the Colonies, who also imported East Indian labourers for his
estate in British Guiana, was informed by officials that 'the
natives were perfectly ignorant of the place they agreed to
go to, or the length of the voyage they were undertaking'. In
an attempt to lessen malpractice, the Indian government insisted
that agents had to be licensed.
Men and Women Recruited
Recruitment to the islands of the West Indies began in earnest
in 1844. Hindu and, to a lesser extent, Muslim men were among
the emigrants. With time the numbers of female indentured
labourers rose. Plantation owners gradually became convinced
that they could be economically productive, and the British
government was keen to address the male-female ratio imbalance,
to prevent disorder among the male population in the colonies.
Despite the safeguards put in place by Parliament to prevent
indentured workers suffering a new form of enslavement, plantation
owners continued to abuse their Indian workers. At the end
of the 19th century, Mahatma Gandhi argued with the colonial
government in Natal, South Africa, for Indian rights. Through
Gandhi's efforts and intervention by the Indian government,
the indenture scheme finally came to an end in 1917. By then,
the number of East Indians shipped to British colonies around
the world is estimated to have reached 2.5 million.
As migrant workers, Indians were responsible for maintaining
the high profits of the bankers and merchants in London, Glasgow
and Liverpool. In later years, Indian labourers also built
the railways in Natal and Uganda.
References and Further Reading
Fryer, P., Black People in the British Empire, London
and Colorado, 1988
Laurence, K. O., A Question of Labour: Indentured Immigration
into Trinidad and British Guiana, New York, 1994
Tinker, H., A New System of Slavery, London, 1973