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The Lingering Costs of Empire: A story of Replacing One Wrong with Another

A century ago, plantation workers in British colonies were in operation. Some of these workers were African slaves, while others were Indian indentured servants. Can one possibly distinguish them from one another? After slavery was abolished, Britain replaced its slaves with indentured servants, a cheaper alternative. Millions of people were forced to sign away their rights for five to ten years at a time under this new system. A system whose memories are still alive in the people who were subject to it. For the duration of their contracts, these employees were subjected to horrifying abuse and exploitation at the hands of their overseas employers. This is a system of hidden history, as it has been purposefully omitted from our national narrative. Nonetheless, it is important to note that the British colonisers took photographs of these labourers after transporting them from India to overseas colonies. Most never would return. Under an agreement between the indentured labourer and the employer regarding the length of their employment is signed, they lost a substantial amount of their freedom. They were transported around the world and were contractually bound to their employer for the duration of their contract. They were bought, sold, overworked, and mistreated in ways that resembled slavery far too closely.

Here's how it transpired: By the end of the 1800s, the British Empire had become the world's largest, and the natural resources of the colonies, such as sugar and cotton, brought the colonisers a great deal of wealth. But labour costs began to eat away at Britain's enormous profits. After the abolition of slavery, the British brought in indentured Indians. More than three million people were removed from their homes and placed on ships bound for British colonies. Nearly a quarter of the Atlantic slave trade was supplanted by the trade of these inexpensive labourers. What has occurred is a retelling of the history of the 19th century that focuses on the abolition of the slave trade and those involved in the abolition of the slave trade, but makes no mention of the fact that slavery was replaced by a brutal, cruel system that persisted into the 20th century. India accounted for the vast majority of indentured workers. As a result of indenture and additional migration, there are now pockets of the Indian community in nearly every region of the world.

Over 32 million Indians currently reside outside of India, constituting the world's largest diaspora. India could potentially serve as a substitute for Africa. Consider this from the perspective of the planters: they cannot conceive of a world that denies them access to cheap, malleable labour. In 1838, the first indentured Indian labourers arrived in Guyana, marking the beginning of the Indian indenture system. Others, especially during famines resulting from British colonial rule, signed up voluntarily. But the majority were unaware of what they were signing up for. Imagine low wages, an unfavourable class system, famine, and plagues: British-employed recruiters in the village brag about the opportunity of the indenture, which guarantees high wages in exchange for a five-year labour contract. They frequently lied about the terms of the indenture contract, the distance to the destination, and the nature of the work that the individuals would be required to perform. The contract provides round-trip passage to Calcutta, India, where one will perform light labour in exchange for great wealth to bring back to one's family.

Like more than 2 million other Indians, one accepted the deal by stamping one's finger. My great-grandfather was recruited in Gonda in 1886. He was taken to Pfizabad and then transported to Calcutta as an indentured servant. What they did not tell you is that you are not stopping at Calcutta; you are transferred from depots to shipyards, and you may have been told that your final destination would be Sri Lanka, but your ocean voyage continues indefinitely. One is crammed together with rice, wheat, and hundreds of other labourers on the ship's cargo deck, which reeks of decay. One's voyage could have been filled with cholera-related deaths, such as typhoid and dysentery. It would have been a harrowing experience for the immigrants. One is fortunate to have survived the diseases that have killed approximately one-fifth of your fellow passenger. One's peers bond over the traumatic experience and dub themselves "The Jahaji By" or "Brotherhood of the Boat." Someone informs one that one have arrived in British Guyana, a British colony thousands of miles away from your home, three months later.

Leaving Calcutta for Guyana and indentured for two five-year terms on two Demerara estates, this tale of arrival is all too familiar to the tens of millions of descendants of Indian servitude. Hundreds of thousands of people were abducted from China, Japan, and Polynesia, forming a community known as "Kulis," which is now a derogatory term. The workers were transported to 19 British colonies, including the Caribbean and South Africa. Dutch and French plantations also took advantage of the inexpensive labour. Indentured labour was used to cultivate sugar, cotton, and tea, as well as construct an endless network of train tracks. As early as the 1840s, British officials referred to this as a new slavery system. The vast majority would never return to India and would spend the remainder of their lives working in sugarcane fields on the opposite side of the globe. White authorities subjected indentured labourers to backbreaking labour and corporal punishment. Many of them even shared barracks with formerly enslaved individuals. White overseers sexually abused endangered women and occasionally assigned them to an Indian man as his housemate and sexual partner. There is a deliberate denial of anything that does not fit the description of a slave or a free person. These binaries are not useful for those attempting to describe or explain the indenture system. There are unfree labour conditions between these two states, and we must investigate them. They are essential to our understanding of our history and what transpired when their servitude contracts expired. You could then accept a return voyage to India, or you could accept additional bounties and remain in the colony. This is what the majority of individuals chose to do. However, why would someone choose to remain a slave even after years of labour?

Some individuals did not earn sufficient funds to return home. Others feared they would be shunned and accused of abandoning their families if they returned to India, so they were transported to Mauritius, Trinidad, Guyana, Fiji, St. Lucia, Grenada, South Africa, and Malaysia. Over 2 million people were a part of the system, and it has left an enormous diaspora because the majority of people did not return to their homes. They are remarkable people because their history of indenture is one of survival against all odds and great sacrifice. In British Guyana, the trauma lasted for decades. It took generations for descendants of the first indentured labourers to leave the plantation, find employment, and acquire their own property. The British colonists did not stop there, however. In Trinidad, British Guyana, and South Africa, the British inflamed tensions between formerly enslaved Africans and Indians, sowing the seeds of divisions that plagued former colonies for decades. Thus, we can still observe the legacies of colonialism to the extent that they remain a part of the politics in these nations.

The indenture system did not last forever. Indians in British colonies resisted their colonial oppressors for decades, although they were unaware of their actions. In the early 1900s, resistance efforts throughout the Indian diaspora culminated almost simultaneously. Individual plantation workers in South Africa rebelled through desertion or suicide. In 1913, Mahatma Gandhi joined the Indian South African resistance movement and led a major strike. As a form of resistance, indentured workers had the highest suicide rates in Fiji. Collective organising in British Guyana, including demonstrations and resistance literature, shook the nation. Some indentured labourers took to Guyanese newspapers to protest their mistreatment. There is a very violent way of erasing someone's history without it appearing violent, and that is simply not discussing or acknowledging it. In 1917, Britain abolished indentureship, but the system left a monumental legacy. In a multigenerational Indian diaspora, millions of South Asians were dispersed to distant corners of the globe. In Suriname, Mauritius, British Guyana, and Trinidad, descendants of indenture cultivated a thriving Indo-Caribbean community. Indian South Africans formed their own political parties and joined black South Africans in anti-apartheid efforts. Durban, South Africa's coastal city, is home to the largest Indian population outside of India and is renowned for its Indian cuisine. The process of assimilation was bittersweet for Indian immigrants. In some locations, colonial policies made it more difficult for them to maintain their cultural heritage. In some areas, speaking Hindi was illegal, and in others, Indians were not permitted to attend a school or obtain employment without first converting to Christianity. I am certain that every indentured family has a story similar to mine, and I wish that we could just get a sense of the tragedy and the extraordinary nature of those who survived. Today, the history of indentured servitude may be forgotten or even buried, but tens of millions of descendants want us to know about it. Bibliography:

  1. "Indentured Labor, Caribbean Sugar: Chinese and Indian Migrants to the British West Indies, 1838-1918" by Walton Look Lai

  2. "Emancipation and Emigration: Indian Indentured Labor, 1834-1917" by Gaiutra Bahadur

  3. "A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas, 1830-1920" by Peter Richardson

  4. "The Coolie Trade: The Traffic in Chinese Laborers to Latin America, 1847-1874" by Robert East

  5. "The Indian Diaspora: The Indo-Caribbean Experience" by Brinsley Samaroo

  6. "The Coolie Trade: The Traffic in Indian Laborers to the British Guiana, 1838-1917" by Verene Shepherd

  7. "Slavery, Abolition and the Transition to Colonial Indentured Labour in the British Caribbean" by Hilary Beckles

  8. "The Making of the Indo-Caribbean Diaspora" by Bridget Brereton

  9. "The Indian Emigrant: A Study of the History of Indian Emigration to the British Colonies" by W.H. Morris-Jones

  10. "The Coolie Emigration: A Study of the System of Indentured Labour" by G.A. Oddie.


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