Indentured labor in the British Empire

Abolishing slavery left Britain with a problem: How was it going to produce sugar without lowering profits? 

Because of the second part of that sentence, I don’t think paying a livable wage entered into the conversation. 

This was an issue for both planters and theBritish government itself, because sugar was a huge part of the economy. And the monied class that owned the plantations was a huge part of the government. You know the old saying, money talks? Well, it doesn’t have a physical voice, but it does this odd way of amplifying the voices of people with a lot of it.

Last week, if you’ll stretch your minds back to that distant time, now passing almost into myth we looked at the apprenticeship system that, for a while, replaced–and closely reproduced–slavery in the Caribbean colonies. This week, lucky us, we come to indentured labor, which replaced it more widely and for longer. 

Irrelevant photo: geranium

 

Indenture

Britain abolished slavery in 1833 and the first indentured laborers arrived in British Guiana in 1836. They were from India, and Indian indentured laborers were also sent to Fiji, Natal, Burma, Ceylon, Malaya, British Guiana, Jamaica, and Trinidad–to nineteen countries in all. Eventually indentured workers replaced enslaved Africans on plantations throughout the British Empire. 

Was I bullshitting you about the government being involved? Sorry, but no. According to the National Archives, the secretary of state for the colonies, Frederick Stanley, known as Lord Stanley by his nearest and dearest, ordered the scheme.

Scheme, in American English, has an unpleasant whiff of sneakiness, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t in British English. British governments introduce schemes all the time and are happy to brag about them, and this was very much a government project. British colonies–which is to say, plantation owners–had appealed to the government for help and it ordered and approved the plan. The whiff you’re picking up isn’t one of sneakiness but–forgive me if I use an old-fashioned word here–exploitation.

Initially, Guiana’s indentured workers were treated pretty much the way slaves had been–as they were elsewhere, but I happened onto a small stash of detail about Guiana. Their contracts were for five years, and during that time they couldn’t leave the plantations where they worked. They were paid 1 shilling a day. I can’t tell you what a shilling’s buying power was, but the National Archives calls it a pitiful sum. 

Those who didn’t work were left to starve.

If they were found to have breached their contract in any way, they faced automatic penalties: two months in prison and a £5 fine. 

How many shillings in a pound? Twenty. So the fine was more than three months’ pay. 

A special magistrate in British Guiana wrote that the laborers were “with few exceptions . . . treated with great and unjust severity, by overwork and by personal chastisement.” And historian Hugh Tinker wrote that, “the decaying remains of immigrants were frequently discovered in cane fields.” 

Importing contract labour from India was suspended in 1840. They tried importing Europeans but couldn’t find enough willing people, and the plantation owners pleaded with the government for a new supply of labor. Freddy Stanley tried recruiting Chinese workers from Malacca and African workers from Sierra Leone, but again they couldn’t round up enough people and turned back to India, this time under an new act setting out minimum standards for housing, food, clothing, and pay. 

How well those standards were enforced is–in the absence of a source I didn’t manage to find–anyone’s guess. The plantations were a long way from governmental supervision, and that’s assuming that the government officials had the will to enforce standards. 

A hefty proportion of indentured labor involved Indian workers and the sugar industry, but the Transvaal gold mines brought 64,000 indentured workers from China, and in Australia the indentured workers were Aboriginal and from the South Sea islands.

 

A nasty little bit of economic and political information

In 1846, Britain got rid of a tariff that had kept the domestic price of sugar up and prevented non-British colonies from selling sugar cheaper than the stuff produced in British colonies. That lowered the cost inside Britain, making it a popular move, but it also meant that British colonies were competing against sugar produced by slave labor, which put pressure on the indenture system to be more like slavery. Not, I suspect, that plantation owners needed much of a push, but it’s worth mentioning all the same.

Doesn’t studying history make you feel good about your fellow humans?

 

Recruitment in India

Until 1858, India was run by the British East India Company, making it a huge country governed by a corporation from a much smaller country. 

Give yourself a minute to take that in.

Between 1834 and the end of World War I, India was Britain’s recruiting ground for indentured laborers. To put that in human terms, my father would have fought in World War I if his parents had agreed to sign for him–which fortunately for me (and him) they didn’t. It’s not much more than a hundred years ago. 

This is not ancient history. It’s not all that far outside of living memory.

Why was India such a fertile recruiting ground? The simple answer is desperation, poverty, famine. Land that had been in Indian hands had, with the country under British control, miraculously, found itself in the hands of British owners. Famine was no longer uncommon. 

Most recruits were from the lower castes, but not all. 

By way of an example, take the people who worked on the indigo plantations. In the off season, they’d migrate to towns and cities looking for work, and recruiters would pick them up, lie to them about where they were going, the length of the trip, and the work they’d be doing, and get them to sign a contract. Or since most of them couldn’t read, put their thumb prints on one, with no idea what it really said. Then they’d be held in depots until a ship was ready. 

They were called coolies, and if the word didn’t start out as an insult it became one quickly enough. 

Conditions at sea were bad enough that in 1856-57, 17% of the Indian workers travelling to the Caribbean died on the way. In 1870, 12% died on the way to Jamaica and to Mauritius. 

To understand the mindset of the people who established, ran, and profited from the system, consider what the recruitment firm Gillanders Arbuthnot & Co wrote to a planter who was considering using it. Its recruits, it said, had “few wants beyond eating, sleeping and drinking.” It said the Adivasi, the indigenous people of India, were “‘more akin to the monkey than the man.”

In the fifty years between 1860 and 1910, 150,000 indentured Indian laborers went to Natal–now part of South Africa–to work on the sugar plantations. So many indentured laborers went to Mauritius that the Indian community now accounts for two-thirds of the population.

They were promised pay, sometimes land at the end of their contract, and in some cases passage home. What their contracts promised would have varied over time, but one source says that the promises often weren’t met. 

 

Australia

Australia’s history is different but it borrowed the indenture system. Starting in 1863, it brought in some 62,000 South Sea Islanders to work on sugar plantations. Some went by choice and others were kidnapped, coerced, or lied to. Their conditions weren’t particularly different from slaves’. They were kept apart from the rest of the population and their languages were banned. Between malnutrition and exposure to European diseases, some 15,000 died within a year. 

The practice continued for forty years. Then in 1901 most of them were deported–and their deportation was funded by their own pay, which the Queensland government had appropriated.

 

The Kenya-Uganda Railway

Indian indentured laborers built the Kenya-Uganda Railway, and 7% died before their contract was up. Many tried to escape but were recaptured and imprisoned, and some had their contracts doubled to ten years.

Many contracts specified that workers would be returned home, and the majority did return, but some stayed, especially women who–according to one article–had left home after a disagreement with their parents and might not be welcomed back into the family.

 

The end of indentured labor

Throughout its history, the indenture system was under attack by the same people–or the same sorts of people–who’d campaigned against slavery and defended by the same sorts of people who’d defended slavery (including the write the novelist Anthony Trollope, for whatever that shippet of information’s worth). And it was under attack from indentured workers themselves, who went on strike, who fled, who–sorry, what’s the verb for staging an uprising? Uprose? They resisted in whatever ways they could. Unfortunately, although I can find references to all that, they’re light on the specifics.

It also came under attack by Indians from higher castes and classes, who found that in the colonies they were swept into the same category as indentured workers. 

Toward the system’s end, opinion in India was turning against it, and one reason it was ended was to improve Britain’s image there.

Of course–she added cynically–another factor was the sugar industry’s increased reliance on sugar beets instead of cane.

Britain formally abolished indentured labor in 1917, although it carried on for some years after that. The last ship carrying indentured laborers left for Mauritius in 1924.

By then, over a million Indians had been sucked into the system.

17 thoughts on “Indentured labor in the British Empire

  1. Well, this explains how the Indian diaspora came about. Thank you for that info. These long-term schemes of slavery and indenture contracts for cheap or free labor say a lot about the 21st century attitude toward paying a living wage. As a side note, the U.S. Constitution euphemistically refers to the slave trade here as “the Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit …” to explain the tax that will be imposed per person and that Congress can’t prohibit the slave trade before 1808. Centuries later, we’re still living with the impacts from all that wheeling and dealing over labor. Ugh.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s a bit of the Constitution I didn’t know about. Thanks. And yes, that history does still permeate everything.

      The drive for cheaper and cheaper labor is built into capitalism, I think. For a while–probably from the end of World War II into the sixties, it looked like the US and large parts of Europe had managed to build a floor under people’s pay and create what looked like stability, at least for a large segment of the population, but it didn’t include pay in poorer countries and I’m old enough to have watch more and more US jobs migrate to low-wage countries, leaving the angry, economically hollowed-out country we now know.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. And similar horrors continue today. I worked on a cruise ship that docked in Morroco. There was an excursion to a carpet factory and when the mostly American passengers returned they were in shock because these factories had children working on the carpets. A passenger questioned the Morrocan tour guide about this and he said that they used child labor because they had small hands and could tie the knots. I found out later that the real reason was that poor families sold their children to these factories as slaves. They had no school and slept in the factories! There are many more examples of forced, slave, prison, and indentured slavery still going on around the world today! The past history does need recognition to bring forth the current slavery of today!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Somehow, I had thought of the indentured servants who came to The Colonies as Europeans. But obviously a great deal of them were – shall we say – easily picked out from the non-indentured servants by visual cues.

    One of Bob Dylan’s songs includes the line “Money doesn’t talk. It swears.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • In the 13 colonies that became the US, the initial indentured servants were European–I believe, mostly British, quite possibly English. I’m winging it on their countries of origin. Kids, I believe, were sometimes kidnapped and indentured. Then there’s a time gap during which slavery was substituted and the indenture system faded away. When slavery was abolished, they turned back to the indenture system, but now we’re talking about other British colonies, not the US.

      Did I just confuse the situation or does that help?

      I like the Dylan quote, and it reminds me of a song about inflation that says, “Grandpa says that money talks but now it only whispers.”

      Liked by 1 person

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