After slavery was abolished in the British empire, the British found another way of getting free labor: indentured workers from India.
When I heard Kanye West saying that 400 years of slavery sounded like a "choice,” I was outraged. I couldn’t believe a person of color with his level of influence would suggest that people chose to be oppressed, treated like property, and be restricted from all their rights during those centuries. He clearly doesn’t know about history, and he probably missed the fact that slavery continued for many more years by other names like “indentured service.” Kanye also reminded me of something: that we should never forget the unjustified and cruel acts of oppressive labor systems that forced many ethnic groups to work under inhumane conditions. And not just Africans, who were snatched away from their homelands; or Native Americans, who were killed and displaced on their own land; there were other groups who are often forgotten by history and who also suffered from the horrors of forced labor. I’m talking about the more than 140,000 Indians who from 1834 to 1917 were cheated into becoming slaves for the British empire in the Caribbean colonies – even after slavery had been abolished.
After reading this, Kanye might say “see, I told you it was a choice,” since the Indians who were taken to the Caribbean colonies signed a contract to work on rail construction projects and sugar, tea, and cotton plantations as indentured servants. But the truth is that they were tricked into agreeing to a system that served as a loophole to the Slavery Abolishment Act of 1833. How? Well, after slavery had been abolished by the British Parliament, more than 800,000 people of African descent were now free and very unwilling to work for plantation owners in low-paid jobs. This lead to the recruitment of "workers" from East Asia, most of them illiterate peasants, which led to the relocation of about 2 million Indians to 19 British colonies. There they worked under inhumane conditions, long working hours, and had few to no benefits – it was clearly a form of legal slavery that lasted for almost 90 years.
Guyanese woman talks about Indentured Servitude under the British Empire
Recruitment and Contract
The contracts were signed in their home country, India, and recruiters targeted rural areas where farmers suffered from poverty and the famines that took place during those years; in other words, they had nothing to lose. The contracts were confusing, and the laborers didn’t understand them, mainly because they didn’t know how to read. In fact, since some didn’t even have a signature, they would simply sing the contracts by placing their thumb on the contract's paper. The details of where they were going and how much they would get paid were not respected. The only thing that was clear to them was the length of time that they were supposed to work for: 5 years, but in reality, it became a never-ending nightmare that felt like an eternity to them.
"Lower Caste Coolies" (Port of Spain, 1897) by J. Murray Jordan
Arrival and working conditions
Those Indians who made it alive to the Caribbean experienced the worst months of their lives on the ships that transported them there. The conditions in which they traveled were similar to those in which Africans were transported to America, and due to diseases like cholera, 17% of the Indians traveling to the Caribbean didn’t make it alive. Once they got there, they were quickly put to work or sometimes placed under quarantine; the long voyage weakened their strength and caused many of them to die years after. Many were in their 20s and 30s and single, but if they had children with them, they were expected to work alongside them as soon as they reached the age of 5. According to the Caribbean Atlas, minimum wages as stipulated in the contract were "25 cents per day or task for adult males and 16 cents for adult females.” This amount was non-negotiable, but many plantations did alter the length of the tasks: “the contract stipulated a 45-hour work week, but during crop time it could be six 9-hour days.”
A never-ending contract
Indian indentured laborers lived under many restrictions, like being unable to leave a state without a pass. Even after they had completed their 5 years of service, they were granted a Certificate of Industrial Residence, which was sort of their freedom certificate. However, the contract didn’t cover the trip back to India, and they often didn’t have enough money to return home. If they wished to return, then they had to sign another 5-year contract that would pay for their transportation back to India. In the end, when the system was finally abolished by the British government in 1917, after decades of oppression and unpaid extra labor, many Indians decided to stay and live in the Caribbean, away from their families, and forced to start from scratch after signing the contract that enslaved them.
"Coolies, Trinidad" (circa 1890) by Felix Morin
Indian indentured work saved the economy of the British empire, but at a very high cost and under inhumane circumstances. If they would have provided the workers with fair wages and working hours, and a paid trip back home, this would have been another story. Instead, they were treated like slaves; despite the euphemisms used to describe them, it’s still exploitation. Remembering these chapters of history is important, and we can't forget them because the lives of these workers echo in our history today, even when it's a famous celebrity saying that slavery was a choice.
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Cover image: "A Family in the Coolie Village" (Trinidad, 1897) by J. Murray Jordan