Indian Heritage Month: Abolition of Indentureship

It’s an interesting footnote that the end of Indian Indentureship had its genesis in the politics of India rather than any struggle in the countries to which Indians had been shipped since 1834. The Governments of those colonies were all heavily influenced by their sugar planters, who desperately wanted an uninterrupted supply of indentureds to continue depressing wages. In fact, after immigration ended in Guyana in 1917, the Government and planters sent a delegation of Guyanese-Indian leaders to India to solicit support for a new scheme to supply cheap labour.
In India, the Indian National Congress (INC) had been formed in 1885 by British and Indian members of the Theosophical Society, to encourage “dialogue” between “educated” Indians and the Indian Government. According to an 1832 policy enunciated by Macaulay, the “education” promised to create “brown Englishmen”. The graduates assumed they would be treated like white Englishmen individually; and collectively, as members of the British Empire. Consequently, they soon argued for “Swaraj” for India along the lines accorded to Australia and South Africa.
The gap between the promise and the reality, however, precipitated a split of the INC in 1905, between “Moderates”, led by Gokhale – who continued to “believe” – and “Extremists”, led by Tilak, who didn’t. Indentured Indians entered the picture through the back door when Gandhi, who had gone as a lawyer to South Africa in 1893 in the employ of some Gujarati merchants, was unceremoniously kicked off a train for believing he was not seen as a “Coolie”, and could travel first class like whites.
It was only gradually, after indentureds had spontaneously joined Gandhi’s protest, that the latter’s eyes were opened up to the plight of the former: apart from not being treated like whites, their very humanity was denied. As racism was exposed through its extreme “apartheid” form a hundred years later, South Africa helped to make more “educated” Indians in India aware of their naïveté in aspiring to be “British”, through information supplied by Gandhi, who was in touch with Gokhale.
Ironically, Gandhi accepted a system in which white British persons were seen as being “better” than Indians, who were to be loyal “helpers”.
Gokhale initially saw Indentureship as hindering Indians from being accepted as British, because the “coolies” were not distinguished from “other” (read “educated”) Indians. He sought amelioration of the conditions under which the coolie laboured, and called for the abolition of Indentureship to Natal only as a tactical measure, after the Government of Natal had imposed restrictions on the movement of “free” Indians. Abolition there was achieved in 1911.
In 1912, Gokhale extended his call to the entire system of Indentureship, and other members of the Congress, such as Madan Mohan Malaviya, took up the cause. By this time, the harsh conditions in other colonies, especially in Fiji, were made known in India, and the “ban on Indentureship” became a nationwide cause célèbre. In fact, it was the one issue that brought together the two factions of Congress, and also the Muslim League under Mohamed Ali Jinnah, which had also withdrawn. For one brief historical moment, Indian Indentured labour brought modern Indians in India together.
On March 20, 1916, after Gokhale had passed away and Gandhi had returned to India (both in 1915), Malaviya introduced a motion in the Indian Legislature for the cessation of Indentureship. Governor General Harding agreed in principle, but the India Office back in Britain, under Chamberlain, balked. He insisted that a new method of supplying labour to the colonies had to be found. By this time, however, most ships ferrying indentureds had been commandeered to the (WWI) war effort, and the recruitment was also competing with enlistment efforts of the Indian army. Already under fire for a bungled campaign by the Indian-dominated army in Mesopotamia, Harding, now back in England as Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs Secretary of State Chamberlain, did not want to face further attacks from the Government of India. On March 12, 1917, he authorised the Government of India to issue orders under the Defence of India Act to stop recruitment, and the same day an order was made by Viceroy Chelmsford in the Legislative Council for no further recruitment or shipment of Indians for labour.
Four days earlier, the last ship, the SS Ganges, had sailed to British Guiana and Trinidad. On Jan 1, 1920, the system was abolished completely. Abolition had ended with not a bang, but a whimper. It had no impact in Guyana, because each Indian immigrant had his personal “abolition” at the end of his ‘Girmit”: five years