After the abolition of slavery, newly free men and women refused to work for the low wages on offer on the sugar farms in British colonies in the West Indies. Indentured labour was a system of bonded labour that was instituted following the abolition of slavery. Indentured labour were recruited to work on sugar, cotton and tea plantations, and rail construction projects in British colonies in West Indies, Africa and South East Asia. From 1834 to the end of the WWI, Britain had transported about 2 million Indian indentured workers to 19 colonies including Fiji, Mauritius, Ceylon, Trinidad, Guyana, Malaysia, Uganda, Kenya and South Africa.
The indentured workers (known derogatively as ‘coolies’) were recruited from India, China and from the Pacific and signed a contract in their own countries to work abroad for a period of 5 years or more. They were meant to receive wages, a small amount of land and in some cases, promise of a return passage once their contract was over. In reality, this seldom happened, and the conditions were harsh and their wages low.
Why did they leave?
The indentured workers sought to escape poverty and famines that were a frequent occurrence during the period of British colonial rule in India. But given the high levels of illiteracy, few workers understood the terms of the contract they put their thumb imprint to (in lieu of a signature, as they could not write). Many were commonly misled about where they were departing for and the wages they would receive. Through testimonies of the migrants we now know that many workers were recruited from rural India to work in cities like Calcutta, but once there were tricked or persuaded to sign the contract which took them to the emigration depot and to the plantations overseas.
In other cases, they were lied to about the length of the journey: “An Indian woman (who)… belonged to Lucknow, … met a man who told her that she would be able to get twenty-five rupees a month in a European family, by taking care of the baby of a lady who lived about 6 hours’ sea-journey from Calcutta; she went on board and, instead of taking her to the place proposed she was brought to Natal” (Indian Immigrants Commission Report, Natal, 1887, cited in Carter and Torabully, 2002, p. 20).
Conditions on the ships
The journey took between 10 and 20 weeks, depending on the destination. Conditions on the ships were similar to those on slave ships. In 1856-57, the average death rate for Indians travelling to the Caribbean was 17% due to diseases like dysentery, cholera and measles. After they disembarked, there were further deaths in the holding depot and during the process of acclimatisation in the colonies (Tinker, 1993).
Working Conditions in the plantations
The conditions at work were harsh, with long working hours and low wages. Given the weak physical condition of the labourers after the long voyage, this took its toll. Available records indicate that the annual mortality rate for Jamaica in 1870 was 12%, and little changed over the years, as thirty years later the same figure was common for Mauritius. Children were expected to work alongside their parents from the time they were 5 years old.
In an interview he gave to Fiji Sun, Hausildar, an ex-indentured worker remembered: “We were whipped for small mistakes. If you woke up late, i.e. later than 3am, you got whipped. No matter what happened, whether there was rain or thunder you had to work - we were here to work and work we had to do, otherwise we were abused and beaten up” (Fiji Sun, 1979, cited in Carter and Torabully, 2002: 90-91).
Between 1895 and 1902, several thousand Indian indentured labourers helped build the Kenya-Uganda Railway, and rail construction projects also brought Indian 'coolies' to Kenya and to Natal (South Africa). An estimated seven percent of the indentured workers who built the Kenya-Uganda Railways died during their contract, according to historian Hugh Tinker (1993). Man-eating lions also attacked the rail construction brigades on several occasions, killing around one hundred workers.
Many workers tried to escape their harsh life but were recaptured, and imprisoned. Sometimes their initial five year contract was doubled to ten years for attempted desertion. At the end of the contract, while some workers chose to return, others decided to stay where they were, particularly women who had left home following a disagreement with their parents because they were unlikely to be accepted back into their family after several years away in a distant country. Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of those who worked on the Kenya-Uganda railways returned to India after the end of their contract.
Resistance to the indenture system
Migrant workers did try to oppose the abuses of the indentured labour system, but this was difficult. Some sent petitions to the agents of the colonial government who administered the indenture system. According to historical records, indentured workers carried out acts of sabotage and revenge against the plantation owners on numerous occasions, but this just resulted in increased repression.
To the voices of the indentured workers was added the dissenting voice of the growing Indian nationalist movement. Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian freedom movement, saw first hand the plight of Asian indentured labourers in South Africa and campaigned on this issue during the first decade of the 20th century. The system of indentured labour was officially abolished by British government in 1917.
Over the following century, the descendents of those who stayed back became significant parts of the population of a number of countries including like Guyana, Surinam, Trinidad, Jamaica, Malaysia and South Africa, and, to a lesser extent, in the East African countries of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Many of these Asian people later migrated to the UK in the 1950s and thereafter.