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Forced Labour

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 Trinidad.

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'Hill Coolies' Landing in Mauritius
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Importing Chinese
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The Contract

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.

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The People

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.


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Controlling Indian
Emigration to
Jamaica, British
Guiana and Trinidad

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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 Glossary - opens new windowcoolies', 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 potential recruits.

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.


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'Emigrants Shall Be
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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.
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Emigrant Voyages
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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.

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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

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