Indian Indentureship and its causes

This Friday’s Indian Arrival Day holiday reminds us that between 1838 and 1917, 239,000 Indians were brought as “indentured labourers” for the sugar plantations of Guyana. The question arises as to why they left their country when their custom forbade “crossing the “Black Waters” (Kala Pani)” on pain of “social death”. The short answer is that for most, it was a choice between life and death.
While indentured labour might be seen as a transitory episode of human labour from chattel slavery to the so-called modern “free labour”, the conditions that herded Indians into that option were man-made. For the so-called “pull factors”, the Guyanese sugar planters were convinced the freed Africans would not sell their labour at a rate to make sugar profitable. Unlike islands such as Antigua and Barbados, available land could provide them with alternative sources of sustenance than the sites of their degradation.
That the planters would soon lose the preferential tariffs that made WI sugar more profitable than beet and slave-produced sugar from countries like Brazil, was the clinching argument. They therefore actively sought new supplies of labour that would guarantee cheap and disciplined bodies on demand, even before full freedom arrived with the end of Apprenticeship in 1838. They resuscitated indentureship, the form of labour that had preceded slavery, where workers were contractually bound for a number of years to work under specified conditions and low wages. But where would such rates – which could not even attract freed slaves – be a “pull factor” for indentureship?
The answer was famine-struck Madeira starting in 1835 (30,685 ), the smaller WI Islands especially Barbados, 1835 (42,512), “Liberated Africans”, 1838 (13,355), British India, 1838 (239,909) and China, 1853 (14,189). India provided the most indentureds due to enormous numbers of Indians thrown into destitution under British rule and, as in Barbados, the wages and conditions unacceptable to our freed slaves, were attractive to them.
The story of Indian immigration actually begins in 1757, when the troops of the British East India Company captured Bengal from the Moguls, and inexorable completed their conquest of the legendarily rich India within 50 years. Less than a decade later, between 1768 and 1771, in Bengal and Eastern Bihar (from where most Guyanese immigrants originated), more than 10 million persons – one third of the population – died from a “famine”. Why? Two reasons. Firstly, the farmers who supplied the bulk of the population with foodstuffs were forced by the British into producing cash crops for export – even while they were forced to pay onerous taxes at the threat of death and violence that left them penniless.
Of the food staples produced, at the height of the famine grain merchants exported a record 800,000 tons of wheat and 1.9 million tons of rice. As peasants starved and perished, officials were ordered “to discourage relief works in every possible way”. British Governor Warren Hastings, boasted to the Home Office: “Notwithstanding the loss of at least one-third of the inhabitants of the province, and the consequent decrease of the cultivation, the nett collections of the year 1771 exceeded even those of I768… It was naturally to be expected that the diminution of the revenue should have kept an equal pace with the other consequences of so great a calamity. That it did not was owing to its being violently kept up to its former standard.” Between the Bengal famine of 1768 and the end of Indentureship in 1917, conservatively, over 54 million Indians perished from famine.
The cash crops the farmers were forced to grow included cotton, poppy (for opium), and indigo and, as described above, staples like rice and wheat. This simply sufficed to pay the extortionate British tax demands or lose their lands, which many did. Millions also became jobless when the British forbade Indian weavers from producing cotton yarn and the cotton fabrics that had enthralled Europe. Henceforth, only cotton woven by British looms could be sold in India! Where were unemployed weavers to get the money to buy food, much less clothes? Incidentally, Britain became the largest drug dealers up to the present, with up to 800 tons opium shipped to China annually so that the British could buy Chinese tea.
Even before the start of indentureship, millions of Indians were migrants looking jobs within India: British Guiana and other colonies provided a vent.