Indian Heritage Month 2024: Indentured labour

By Ravi Dev

While today is “Labour Day”, and also the beginning of Indian Heritage Month, it is sometimes forgotten that when men and women provide their labour, their bodies are inevitably deployed even when the labour was mental. As such labour always poses questions of ethics and morality in the relationship between those who labour and those who use the labour. The earliest relationship came out of conquests when the conquered were enslaved and became property (chattel) of the conquerors, forced to provide their labour on pain of death. In Europe, slavery evolved into “serfdom” where the serfs were bound to the land but had a modicum of freedom.
After the European discovery of the “New World”, this created a demand for labour in mining and agriculture that was performed by enslaving the native peoples. The British, introduced the institution of “indentured labour” in the 17th century where persons agreed to exchange their labour for the cost of their passage to their American colonies or the West Indian islands like Barbados plus their food, housing and clothing for five to seven years and then they would be given a plot of land on which they could be free to make their living. The agreement would be written and signed twice on a piece of paper that would be torn in two, thus forming indentations – hence “indenture contract” – and each party would keep a part that could be fitted together at the end of the indentureship agreement in exchange for their land.
Gradually, they were replaced by enslaved Africans with whom they worked alongside for a while. So it is rather ironic that when African slavery was abolished in the British colonies, the system of indentureship was reintroduced because the planters believed the freed Africans would not work in the regimented manner that sugar production demanded. As early as 1806, the year before the slave trade was abolished, and 32 years before the abolition of slavery, there was an indenture experiment with 192 Chinese introduced in Trinidad. It failed but highlighted to the planters what was necessary for a successful system.
With slavery slated to end in 1838 after a four-year period of “apprenticeship”, they started by introducing Portuguese in 1835 from the island of Maderia that was experiencing a famine. Between 1835-1882, 31,628 indentured Portuguese from Madeira, the Azores and Cape Verde Islands arrived. They also tried small numbers of English, Irish, Scots, Germans and Maltese all on two to four-year indentured contracts but apart from the Portuguese, they all proved unsuitable because of the high mortality rate. While the Portuguese also died in droves, conditions in Maderia forced them to continue coming, but they quickly left the plantations after their apprenticeship to enter business.
By now it is trite knowledge that Indian indentured labourers were brought from – obviously – India after the first experiment of 1838 by John Gladstone to his plantation at Vreed-en-Hoop along with the Davson plantations at Highbury in East Bank Berbice and Waterloo in West Coast Berbice. Eventually 239,909 arrived. Chinese indentured were first brought in 1853 with most going to Windsor Forest and Pouderoyen. Between 1853 and 1879 a total of 13,541 Chinese arrived.
But what is not-so-trite knowledge is that there were significant numbers of indentured Africans arriving primarily from Barbados and some small islands (40,783 from 1835) and so-called “Liberated Africans” from Africa (13,355 from 1838-1865) compared to the 82,000 local enslaved Africans who had been freed in 1838.