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«Man In India, 92 (2) : 195-213 © Serials Publications INDIAN INDENTURE: SPEAKING ACROSS THE OCEANS Goolam Vahed and Ashwin Desai This article argues ...»

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Man In India, 92 (2) : 195-213 © Serials Publications


Goolam Vahed and Ashwin Desai

This article argues that research on Indian indentured labour needs to move beyond the conceptual

limitations imposed by the neo-slavery / Tinkerian paradigm, which has focused excessively on

the extent to which the indentured experience was (or was not) little more than “a new system of slavery” in which indentured labourers were often portrayed as mere victims of this system.

There is a need transcend the basically descriptive nature of much of the work on the indentured experience, and carefully analyse topics and issues under consideration in this volume, such as emotions, culture, and religion. Further, pre-occupation with the indentured experience in individual colonies/countries/nation-states has imposed severe limitations and there is a pressing need for truly comparative studies of the indentured experience, as has been the case in slave / Atlantic studies. In short, we argue for the need to examine the indentured experience in all of its complexity, including intra- and inter-community relations in the plural societies created by indentured immigration, immigrant life away from the plantation, gender issues, racial and ethnic identities, as well as the impact of ‘free’ immigrants.

The story of Indian indenture has generally been told within the confines of the various nation-states in which the indentured found themselves. This is understandable, given that history is often written from immediate circumstances and challenges. One can see this in South Africa, for example. The country was on the international radar in the second half of the twentieth century for its policy of apartheid. In this racist state, the ruling white minority National Party (NP) defined Indians as alien and sought to repatriate them. Textbooks and academic works that represented the NP perspective portrayed Indians as a “problem”. In this context, many historians of Indian South Africans highlighted their long struggle to counteract racist exclusion and their South African-ness. This thread continued into the post-apartheid period with a continuing attempt to counteract divisions created by apartheid by re-thinking history as part of a national narrative. Our own history of indenture was sub-titled ‘A South African Story’ (Desai and Vahed, 2010).

Beginning in the 1830s, around 1.3 million Indian contract labourers were exported to Mauritius, Jamaica, British Guiana, French Guiana, Trinidad, Fiji, St.

Lucia, Dutch Guiana (Suriname), Guadeloupe, Martinique, Granada and Natal in what Madhavi Kale (1998: 5) has termed ‘an imperial reallocation of labor’ to satisfy the demand for cheap and docile workers. Despite occasional criticism from colonial officials,medical officers, travellers, participants in the system, and numerous official commissions of enquiry that investigated indentured workers’ Address for communication: Goolam Vahed is an Associate Professor of History, University of KwaZuluNatal, E-mail: vahedg@ukzn.ac.za and Ashwin Desai is the Director, Centre for Sociological Research, University of Johannesburg, E-mail: ashdesai1@gmail.com 196 MAN IN INDIA living and working conditions, the British government in India allowed the system to continue. The call to end indenture was given fresh impetus when the Indian nationalist movement began agitating against indenture from the early years of the twentieth century. Following the First World War, pressure began to mount on the British, and in 1920 the Imperial Government abolished the system of indentured labour.

The predominantly national focus does not mean that there have been no attempts to write a global story of indenture. Most notable are C. Kondapi’s Indians Overseas and Hugh Tinker’s A New System of Slavery. But generally the story of indenture is place-specific, especially as the colonies to which the indentured went became independent from direct (mainly British) colonial tutelage. But, as the essays in this Special Issue collectively show, we need to begin thinking once more about indenture as a system, and more specifically as a global system, that invites us to pose a series of often interrelated questions: How did Indian indenture tie in with other forms of mobilization of Asian and African labour by Westerners during this period? What are the similarities (and differences) between indenture and slavery? Was there a relationship between Indian indenture and Britain’s Asian convict labour regime during the nineteenth century? What kinds of constraints did workers under the different labour systems face? What was the form and nature of resistance among workers? What were the perceptions of the labour migrants themselves and how did these evolve? What was the particular evolution of caste, ethnic, ‘race’, and gender relations in the colonies? How did North and South Indians relate to each other? How did the indentured view India? Why did the aftermath of indenture have different outcomes in different colonies?

The Local and the Global These are all questions that cry out to be approached from a comparative perspective.

After all, indentured Indians are seen to constitute a labour diaspora and are spoken of in homogeneous terms mainly because of common origins. Under colonialism, Europeans settled in various colonies and the subsequent economic exploitation of these areas required labour, which locals could not or refused to provide. After slavery was outlawed, large numbers of people from India met this need in many colonies across the globe. They shared certain of the common characteristics that William Safren defines as constituting a diaspora, such as originating from a common centre; retaining a collective memory about their original homeland (physical location, history, or achievements); believing that they were not totally accepted by their host society; and continuing to relate to their homeland in certain ways (Safren, 1993: 53). Given this, the pre-occupation with the indentured experience in individual colonies/countries/nation-states imposes various limitations and there is a pressing need for truly comparative studies of the indentured experience.


In this, the twenty-first century, where in David Harvey’s evocative phrase, time and space are compressed (1990), where globalization has accelerated, and satellite television cuts across borders, the historians of indenture are scrambling to make their research speak across the oceans. This volume not only brings work on different locations together but seeks to illustrate what it will require if we are to understand indenture across social, economic, political, and cultural systems and boundaries in much more profound ways. In this respect, work on slavery has led the way. Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic and Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s The Many-Headed Hydra, which refused to confine history within the limits of the nation-state, are valuable signposts for what is possible for those who seek to develop comparative studies of indenture.

The field of Atlantic history has taken on a life of its own over the past decade and there is now an extensive body of work on the Atlantic “world”, which raises important conceptual issues. The Atlantic world since the fifteenth century is viewed as not simply a physical fact but a zone of ‘exchange and interchange, circulation, and transmission’, with the various component parts, Europeans, Africans, and Americans, “additives” to the making of this world. Trade, ships, piracy, and port cities are crucial to this history, as are the making of empires, the rise of capitalism, links to other oceanic systems, migration and diasporas; multiple cross-cultural connections, and the formation of such identities as ‘race’, gender, religion, and class (see Appleby, 2010; Bailyn, 2009; Baucom, 2005; and Morgan and Greene, 2009; Christopher et al., 2007; amongst others).

British colonialism and capitalism were global processes. Indentured workers, and the slaves who preceded them, were crucial to processes of capitalist accumulation globally. They produced sugar, an addictive luxury item that became an indispensable part of European diets. Indian indentured workers who were transported to ‘King Sugar’ colonies were thus linked in fundamental ways in this global system, as they were to indentured labourers who were used in other kinds of plantations, such as tea plantations in Ceylon and Assam, and rubber in Malaya (see Amrith, 2011: 1-89). Establishing linkages across disciplines and perspectives and national borders will contribute to a richer understanding of the system of indentured labour within the capitalist system, as well as of the indentured peoples themselves.

But we need to go beyond focusing on just Indian indenture and place this migration within the context of labour systems. After all, there was an umbilical link between indenture and slavery in some colonies where African slavery replaced the indenture of Western Europeans, while Indian indenture replaced slavery to address the problem of the so-called labour shortage in the colonies. Colonies like Fiji and Natal, of course, did not experience either European indenture or African slavery prior to the introduction of Indian indentured workers. In some places, indenture was a “life sentence”, a virtual imprisonment without parole, while in 198 MAN IN INDIA others it was a limited duration of five or ten years. Such distinctions are important.

Our understanding and comprehension of these labour systems will be enriched by a comparative perspective. For example, Sharma (2009) has examined the ways in which an Indian indentured ‘coolie’ migrant labour workforce from Central and South India was created for the Assam tea industry, a predominantly colonial enterprise manned by white British planters, when they found indigenous peoples to be ‘lazy natives’ and unreliable, and failed to attract Chinese workers in sizeable numbers. From the 1860s, according to Sharma, the British colonial government worked in tandem with Assam planters to attract indentured workers and establish a labour regime buttressed by penal legislation. Around 750,000 workers (men, women, and children) were brought to Assam between 1870 and 1900, and in time they came to constitute a racialized labouring class.

Amrith (2009, 2010) and Chanderbali examine the processes by which migration between India and South-East Asia came to be carefully regulated over the course of the second half of the nineteenth century with the establishment of new structures of government. What was unique about Indian indentured labour migration to South-East Asia (in what is now Malaysia) is that labourers’ passage was paid and they were given a cash advance in return for which they were contracted to work for a specified length of time or until they paid off their debt.

This kind of debt bondage was unique to Indian indenture in Malaysia. Peebles (2001) has examined the procurement of Indian labour under the kangani system to Ceylon when the coffee plantations were being established in the 1830s and during the rapid expansion of the tea plantations from the 1840s. Indenture was found to be unfeasible in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) because it was difficult to control movement between Ceylon and India.The kangani system involved short-term contracts coordinated by the kangani or headman, who operated as both recruiter and field foreman. The kangani, sent by an employer or association of employers, usually brought back friends, neighbours, and relatives from his home district and took responsibility for their food, clothing and transit overseas. This was a patriarchal system, as it was through the kangani that all advances (monetary and otherwise) were made. As the kangani was often the sole intermediary between employees and employer, the employees often found themselves indebted to him.

Anderson’s (2009) provocative study calls for a change in the frame of analysis of Indian indentured migration. She argues that the discourses and practices of Indian indenture should be examined within the context of innovations in colonial methods of incarceration and confinement during the nineteenth century rather than in relation to ‘a new system of slavery’ framework. Existing literature on Indian indenture ignores enslavement within South Asia itself and its relationship to indentured labour, including recruitment and shipment. Crucial too is the practice from the late eighteenth century of the East India Company shipping convicts to work as forced penal labour in overseas colonial settlements. Yang (2003: 180)


points out that in the course of the nineteenth century, approximately 4,000–6,000 Indian convicts were sent to Bengkulen; 15,000 to the Straits Settlements; and several thousand were sent to Burma, Mauritius and the Andaman Islands, which was established as a penal colony after the 1857 revolt.There were many connections between these labour regimes. According to Anderson (2009: 104), ‘there was a close connection between convict transportation and indentured migration,

discursively, institutionally, and imaginatively.’ She goes on to say that:

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