Forgotten People

Colonialism and Indian Indenture ship during 19th Century

Chaman Lal

In Europe, while France under the Jacobins as First republic abolished slavery as early as in 1794, later reinstated by Napoleon in 1804, but finally abolished in 1848; Britain did it in 1834/38, USA under Abraham Lincoln abolished it in 1863; in Tibet, slavery could be abolished only after Dalai Lama left and Chinese Communist Government abolished it after 1949, ironically Arab countries are the last to abolish slavery, thus Saudi Arabia, Oman, Niger, UAE etc. abolished slavery only in sixties and Mauritania is the last country to abolish slavery as late as in 1981. Even if there could be a record of Black/African arrival in different countries, it is doubtful that they will ever be willing to ‘celebrate’ their ‘arrival’ as ‘slaves’!

Is the Indian arrival in these countries as ‘indentured labour’ during 1834-1923, an occasion for ‘celebration’? The conditions of ‘indentured labour’ in most of these countries were more like that of semi-slavery and Indian descent people everywhere went through most cruel sufferings at the hands of sugar planters and colonial authorities of the time.

Emancipation and Indentureship
As the emancipation act was promulgated from August 1, 1834, giving six years of a time called ‘apprenticeship’, meaning transition period for clear emancipation from slavery. On August 1,1834 Governor of Trinidad addressed few elderly Africans to mark the occasion at Government house, there were slogans raising—‘no six years, no six years’ and within four years, Trinidad became, in fact, the first British colony to be completely emancipated from slavery, other colonies followed. Although as per Trinidad historian Bridget Brereton, none of the 20,656 slaves emancipated, was given any compensation to start new life, whereas slave owners were given massive state funding.

As the emancipation act came into existence and thousands of slaves of African descent became free, large numbers of them refused to work at their ex-masters, mostly sugar planters, in many countries, colonised by British, French, Dutch and Spain and Portugal. In Caribbean region itself, Trinidad, Demerara(part of Guyana now), Jamaica etc were British colonies, French Guyana, Martinique, Guadalupe etc were French colonies, Dutch Guiana, now Suriname were Dutch colonies—all having sugar planters, now facing the lack of labour. Under the circumstances, India being a huge British colony with immense population, European colonialists looked towards Indian labour, then given name of ‘Indentured labour’.

British colonial Government in India made certain rules called Colonial Emigration Acts V and XXXII of 1837 regarding ‘indentured’ conditions. Five years was the minimum term of indentured labour, after which a labourer could return to India at his or her own expense. To earn a return ticket, he or she was to perform ten years indentured labour. Regulations differed somewhat in different countries. Though on paper some safeguards were created, in practice these were never followed, the real conditions of the indentured labourers were just close to the conditions of ex slaves. The masters and their agents used to treat them in most cruel manner, beating-thrashing in blue for little things, raping their women, making women work in most advanced pregnancies, sometime births taking place on work sites, making women work even if the new born or grown child died same morning.

Because of these cruelties, indentured labourers in Mauritius used to commit suicide from a particular hillock, which got the name of ‘suicide hill’, now turned into a monument. Hundreds of indentured Indian labour committed suicide by jumping down from this hill during the period, when indentured labour act was in force. The condition was no better in Fiji, though it may have been slightly less cruel in Caribbean countries. The first emigration from British India started to Mauritius as early as 1834, immediately after the abolition of slavery act was promulgated on August 1, 1834.

First ship Atlas from Calcutta, brought Indian labour to the shores of Mauritius on November 2, 1834. And till 1923, even after the indentured labour system was abolished from 1920 onwards, Mauritius received the maximum number of Indian indentured labour from the ports of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. A total of 453,063 Indians landed in Mauritius, during 1834-1923, maximum in any part of the world.

The second largest contingent of Indian indentured labour went to now called Guyana from 1838 to 1916. First ship Hesperus with Indian labour arrived in Demerara on May 5, 1838 and total of 238,909 Indians arrived in ships. Trinidad & Tobago was the third country to receive large numbers of Indian labour from May 30, 1845 onwards and here 147,596 Indians came as per Sat Balkaran Singh. First ship to arrive in Trinidad was Fatel Razack from Calcutta, a total of 154 ships undertook 320 voyages from Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, to bring Indian indentured labour up to 1917. Out of these only 20 per cent or so, went back to India after indentured system was abolished.

South Africa and other countries
South Africa also started receiving Indian labour, mostly Muslims from Gujarat 1860 onwards. Here the first ship Truro with Indian labour arrived from Madras on 16th November 1860. South Africa received 152,184 Indian labourers in indentured act period. French and Dutch colonisers also made agreements with British Indian Government to recruit Indian indentured labour with similar agreements as issued by British colonisers. Thus French colonialists recruited Indian indentured labour for French Guyana, Martinique, Guadalupe etc. Dutch colonisers got Indian indentured labour for Dutch Guyana, now named Suriname from 1873, the first ship Lala Rookh from India arrived here on 5th June 1873 and a total of 34,304 Indians arrived here till 1916.

Fiji under British regime was the last to recruit Indian indentured labour, where the first ship Leonidas arrived on 14th May 1879 and it got 60, 995 Indians till 1917. Other countries to receive Indian indentured labour in this period were, Jamaica-36, 412, East Africa, including Kenya and Uganda-32000, mostly Sikhs from Punjab, for building Uganda-Kenya rail link; Reunion-26, 507, Seychlles-6315, St Vincent-2472, St Kitts-337, St Lucia-4350, Grenada 3200 etc. A total of nearly 1.2 million or 12 lakh Indians travelled to different parts of the world during this period. In all countries, Indian indentured labour went through hell, a lot of sufferings and Indian newspapers reported about these cruelties on Indian labour.

Role of Mahatma Gandhi
Since Mahatma Gandhi was invited in South Africa as a lawyer to defend the rights of Indian businessmen there, the other countries also came into focus. In 1909, Mahatma Gandhi spent few days in Mauritius on his way back to India through sea journey. Dr Mani Lal, a young advocate, who was later, married to the daughter of Dr Mehta, a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi, was sent to Mauritius in 1907. Dr Mani Lal started a paper, Hindustani, from Mauritius in Gujarati and English, Hindi replaced Gujarati soon. Mani Lal spent few years till 1910 in Mauritius and defended Indians’ rights. Later Dr Mani Lal played a similar role in Fiji, where he went in 1912; he was treated very harshly by British colonial authorities in Fiji and was made to leave the country in 1920.

Documentation of Indentureship
Sufferings of Indian indentured labour are well documented in the creative Hindi literature of Mauritius and Fiji. Abhimanyu Anat is most celebrated Hindi writer of Mauritius and he through his many novels like Lal Pasina (Red Sweat), the introduction of its French translation was written by French Noble Laureate Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, depicted the horrible sufferings faced by Indian indentured labour at the hands of Sugar planters, mostly Europeans and their Indian agents, colonial police and other officials. Same way Joginder Singh Kanwal in his novels like Savera and Karvat depicted the hardships and struggles of Fiji Indian labour. Munshi Rehman Khan, writing in Hindi and Urdu, did it for Suriname Indian labour.

Unfortunately in Trinidad and Guyana Indian descent people lost their languages as well and their sufferings in these countries were depicted in English language much later, when their second or third generation became well versed in the language. Peter Jailall from Guyana wrote about Indian indentured labour’s sufferings in his English poetry collection of recent times under the title Sacrifice-Poems on the Indian Arrival in Guyana. V S Naipaul did not focus much on Indian indentured labour’s sufferings in Trinidad & Tobago, though he was born and brought up there, but had references to the sufferings in his classic autobiographical novel-A House for Mr Biswas.

In India also people like C F Andrews, who visited almost all countries, where Indian labour migrated, at the behest of Mahatma Gandhi, Benarsidas Chaturvedi, Hindi writer and journalist, Lakshman Singh, husband of celebrated Hindi writer Subhadra Kumari Chauhan and member of All India Congress Committee (AICC) wrote plays like Coolie in Hindi, basing on Indian labourers sufferings in Fiji, the play was immediately proscribed by British authorities. Tota Ram Shandilya , who returned from Fiji, wrote My Twenty One Years in Fiji, in Hindi, which is translated in English and now an important reference book in Fiji. In these countries freedom struggles against British colonialism started, which were mostly close to Indian National Congress in India, like movement by Shiv Sagar Ramgoolam in Mauritius, who became the first Prime Minister of independent Mauritius.

Cheddi Jagan
Dr Cheddi Jagan was one of the most important organisers and leaders of freedom struggle in British Guiana as leader of People’s Progressive Party, a party with Marxist ideas. His classic book-The West on Trial is study of British colonialism. In Kenya, Makhan Singh, a Communist, fought alongside Jomo Kenyatta and his other colleagues for the freedom of Kenya. Monuments of struggles by Indian indentured labourers, along with other communities are found in many countries. In Guyana, where Hesperus, first vessel from Calcutta brought 156 souls on 5th May 1838, out of 170 boarded, 14 died on the way by sickness and drowning.

Walter Rodney
There have been conflicts, rebellions in 1872, 1903 and 1912, 1913, 1924. Walter Rodney, one of the brilliant radical scholars of Guyana, depicted the conditions of Indians and other countries indentured labour emigration to Guyana in books like Lakshmi out of India, History of the Guyanese Working People. Rodney was assassinated in the young age on 13th June 1980 and Guyana national archives are now named after him. In Trinidad & Tobago, massacre of Jahazis, as the East Indian indentured labour were called, as they came on ships, took place in 1884 at the time of holy Eid.

CLR James
CLR James, the radical Marxist scholar-writer of Trinidad & Tobago had focused upon Black and East Indian indentured labour conditions in his writings and during March 1970 Black Power movement in Trinidad, there were banners and calls for Indo-African unity, though some people tried to scare Indians with rumours that Blacks would attack East Indians, to counter it Black Power movement took a massive march in Caroni sugar plantation area and home of large number of Indians, who did not join the march, but showed warm hospitality to the marchers, thus frustrating the designs of those, who wanted to turn this most progressive movement as a Black-Indian conflict.

Need for Monuments
Strangely Trinidad & Tobago has no monument in memory of Black and Indian sufferings in the country, whereas neighbouring Caribbean countries-Guyana and Suriname have a large number of monuments for both communities’ sufferings in their countries. In Suriname there is a monument in memory of 16 Indians and Indonesian indentured labourers, who were martyred at sugar factory site, struggling for better wages and living conditions. At suicide hill site in Mauritius, now stands a grand monument in memory of those poor indentured labourers, who died due to the worst cruelties inflicted upon them by colonial authorities and sugar barons. In Fiji, workers struggled in February 1920, even after the abolition of indentured labour system and Fijian authorities in revengeful manner crushed workers’ strike and forced Dr Mani Lal out of the country.

Deliverance Day
Struggles in these countries and pressure by the national movement in India in favour of this struggling migrated Indian labour, British Government had to finally abolish ‘indentured labour’ system in 1917, through legislation to this effect, as they had to do in case of slavery in 1834/38. Indentured system was also given lease/transition till the end of 1919 and from 1st January 1920, indentured Indian labour system came to a complete stop. So 1 January 1920 was hailed as Deliverance Day, as was end of slavery was hailed as Emancipation Day by Africans.

Irony is this that Indians in these countries never focused upon Deliverance Day, which is much more historic day of their life, particularly of present generation people of Indian descent in Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, Suriname and Fiji, than so- called Indian Arrival Day, which is the day to mark the beginning of untold sufferings, deceit, as most of Indians recruited for this scheme of indentured labour, were recruited by agents by telling all kinds of lies, like they are being taken to the countries of goldmines and they will become rich with gold, once they are there, or lies like Mauritius is a country of Ramayana character Marich, trapping innocent but poor, needy Indian rural folk into their trap of prolonged sufferings for them.

In fact the day to celebrate in these countries is 1st January uniformly as ‘Deliverance Day’, but what they celebrate is not their deliverance, but their semi-slavery status. And by pomp of word ‘Arrival’, they unwittingly give signs of the colonial mindset, as only colonialists had this pleasure of celebrating arrival in colonies, like that of Columbus, Vasco de Gama kind of Spanish colonialists, who became instruments of future colonial conquers in the world of Africa, Asia and smaller countries of Latin/South America, Caribbean!

African-Indian relations
Another sad part of this whole anti-slavery and anti-indentured system movements and freedom from these, is that the integration between East (wrong term, given by colonialists) Indians and Blacks have not taken place at the level, it was desirable. Blacks and Indians both communities were brought to these far off countries by colonial masters. Technically they were free to go back to their root countries after their emancipation/deliverance, some Indians returned to their bitter experiences back home, where rather than being welcomed, they were treated with much contempt and misbehaviour due to caste system and orthodox beliefs of crossing impure ‘kala pani’ (black waters of the sea) , so many had to get back to their indentured countries.

Blacks had a more tragic past; their connection to their roots was completely lost due to centuries’ gap in between. Blacks even lost the memory of the place from where they came! Under the circumstances both communities became the naturalised citizens of these countries along with small communities of natives like Amerindians and in the process they all became nationals of new nations after freedom from colonialism.

It would have been natural for these nationals to merge and mingle with each other through inter- racial marriages, bringing into existence the new community of mixed race communities, which did not happen. Such was the cultural resistance to such efforts that first feature film-‘Wan Pipel’ (One People) by Pim de la Parra, made in Suriname in 1976, brings this reality into focus. In the film Hindi speaking Indian descent girl Rubia dares to fall in love with black Surinamese Roy, she is out- casted and harassed by her family, while Roy, who was in love with Dutch white girl in Holland, while studying, and was supposed to go back to Holland to complete his studies; as he came only to see her dying mother, decides to stay back with Rubia. Roy’s father is as opposed to this relation, as are Rubia’s family. After more than three decades of this film, conditions have not changed much.

La Divina Pastora
In Trinidad & Tobago, there is a black statue in Siparia town Catholic church, which is claimed as ‘Divina Pastora’ by Catholics and they believe the statue coming from neighbouring Venezuela, but Hindus claim here it to be ‘Siparee ki Mai’, a folk image, which later day Hindu religious fundamentalists distorted it to as ‘Durga’ or ‘Kali’! Chinese Buddhists claim it to be Chinese girl statue, while some believe in the myth of Kampuchean priests bringing it from Kampuchea! The good part of it is that though the statue is part of a Church, Hindus visit the statue for worship or offerings on every Friday, with happy arrangements with Church, though some sectarian trends among Hindus in Trinidad try to whip up ‘Temple’ phenomenon here, like that in ‘Ayodhya-Babri Masjid’ dispute in India. But they cannot whip up hysteria like India; in Trinidad & Tobago, as many Christian and Muslims priests and commoners are of Indian descent and they generally live in harmony in Trinidad.

Hindus and Christians of East Indian descent claim Jahazy revolt of 1884 in Trinidad, as part of Indian tradition and not just Muslim revolt, it is called ‘Jallianwala Bagh’ of Trinidad here, though the numbers of killings in state attack were nowhere near Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, where on 13th April, 1919, hundreds of people were shot dead by the notorious General Dyer’s forces, while attending a peaceful protest meeting.

Interesting part of indentured labour immigration to different countries is that in Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, Suriname and Fiji; large number of people went from east Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar, though some from Bengal and south India also went. In South Africa and East Africa, more people from Gujarat and Punjab and South India went. Later in the early twentieth century, Punjabis went as free labour to USA, Canada and UK. While only Mauritius has been able to preserve its Indian demographic and cultural structure, most of the other countries of the Indian Diaspora are now getting mixed and mingled with other Diasporas in terms of language use. Mauritius is still able to preserve Indian languages—Bhojpuri, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi and Urdu, where a full-fledged department of Indian languages functions in the Mahatma Gandhi Institute, as part of University of Mauritius to teach these languages, apart from Sanskrit. South Indian temples exist as much as other temples in Mauritius and Fiji.

Fiji and Suriname are able to preserve Hindi as a common language of all people of Indian descent, but other countries have mostly lost the existence of Indian languages in public life and these may be just surviving in some homes and some religious gatherings. Though large number of Indian indentured laborers returned to India after completion of their term, but more than that stayed back and now after three generations are more, they have become most prosperous in these countries.

Indian Arrival Day
The celebration of Indian Arrival day started in these countries, after Indian descent people became prosperous and started sharing political power as part of ruling classes. Mauritius, from the very beginning had Indian descent people in political power. After Shiv Sagar Ramgoolam, Dr. Anerood Jugannath and Dr. Naveen Chander Ramgoolam (son of Shiv Sagar Ramgoolam) are sharing power, though being in different parties. These days Pravind Jugannath son of Aniruddh Jugananth is Prime Minister since 2017. In Trinidad & Tobago, after Basdeo Pandey remained Prime Minister in 1997 period, Kamla Prasad Bissesar of Indian descent remained Prime Minister during 2010-15.These days Keith Rowley is Prime Minister. In Guyana Dr Cheddi Jagan, a Marxist of Indian descent had been most popular leader of the country, remaining Prime Minister and President for many years. Bharat Jagdeo of Indian descent, from Cheddi Jagan’s People’s Progressive Party (PPP) remained President of the country since last almost a dozen years and his successor is again of Indian descent, Donald Ramoutar of the same party, who won the elections held in November, 2011. Nowadays Mark Philip is Prime Minister of Guyana since 2020.In Fiji, Mahendra Chaudhary from Rohtak background family was the fourth Prime Minister of the country for short period. Suriname also had Indian descent Presidents of the country like Fred Ramdutt Misier during 1982-88 and Ramsewak Shankar during 1988-90. Jules Ajodhia had been Vice President during 1991 and 2000-2005, while Pretaap Radhakishun remained Vice President during 1996-2000, Ramdin Sarjue remained Vice President during 2005-2010. Surinamese Vice- President is equal to Prime Minister’s position and chairs the Cabinet meetings; the post was created after the abolition of Prime Minister’s post in 1987. Pretaap Radhakaishun remained Prime Minister of Suriname, the only Indian descent person to hold the post, for a brief period during 1986-87. However it was in Jaggernath Lachmon, a former speaker of National Assembly or Parliament with 50 members, Suriname had a strong leader of Indian descent people, whose statue finds a pride place in Independent square of Paramaribo, capital of Suriname. New Zealand had its Governor General Anand Satyanand from Indo-Fijian background. There have been ministers in many countries from Indian descent people in South Africa, Malaysia, Singapore, Tanzania, Zambia etc.

Since Indian descent people after becoming prosperous and part of ruling classes, holding political power, it has created a sense of suspicion in other communities in these countries, particularly when this event of Indian arrival is not marked as somber event and celebrated with certain sobriety, with remembrance of the past sufferings gone through by Indian indentured labour in these place, a century or more ago. At most of the places the event is celebrated with pomp and show, like a happy festival, which is supported by Indian Government official as part of their official diplomatic duties in many ways. When Africans celebrate Emancipation day, they bring into focus the horrible days of slavery through films, exhibitions, lectures, songs and make it an event to remember their ancestors for their sacrifices for the prosperity of present generation; but Indian arrival day rarely focuses upon the sufferings gone through by their ancestors, except in some seminar papers; sadly present generation does not have much knowledge about these suffering of their ancestors, they are too much engrossed in the pleasures of consumerism brought by the prosperity.

It is only after Emancipation and freedom from colonial yoke, that some of the Africans have prospered, but not all. So are with Indian descent people in these countries, some or little more of them, than Africans have prospered in these countries, but only after Deliverance and not before. So Indian descent people in these countries need to learn from history and review their days of celebrations. It is 1st January as ‘Deliverance Day’, which should be celebrated in all these countries, like ‘Emancipation Day’. Arrival day may be marked, like a day of penitence, by way of fasting, in memory of sufferings of those ancestors, who suffered during their Indentured labour bondage period!

[Chaman Lal is Retired Professor & Former Chairperson at the Centre of Indian Languages, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. In 2011 he was visiting Professor at Hindi Chair in The University of the West Indies, St Augustine. Presently he is honorary advisor to Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre New Delhi. A part of this article was published in Daily Trinidad Guardian of Port of Spain. ]]

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Vol 55, No. 23, Dec 4 - 10, 2022