Recruiting Indentured Indians

By Ravi Dev

As we saw with the first batches of Indentured Indians to British Guiana in 1838 on the Whitby and Hesperus, Mauritius was the model that was followed in terms of recruitment and shipment. But within a year, an inquiry into abuses on Gladstone’s Vreed-en-Hoop plantation led to a cessation of further shipments and several reforms, until it was resumed in 1845. One of the reforms starting in 1842 was to address abuses in the recruitment of emigrants by stipulating that intended emigrants had to appear in front of a magistrate and demonstrate a willingness to emigrate. Unfortunately, this was a process that would be repeated throughout the indentureship period to 1917, since the operators always devised ways to subvert the system.
From this point, emigration was controlled by the Government of India, which purported to protect Indian citizens’ interests so they were not deceived or coerced into leaving their homeland; that they knew their destination, and were conversant with their contractual obligations. The Government appointed a Protector of Emigrants, who was in charge of the entire emigration regime. But ultimately, this was invariably bent to satisfy Imperial Interests that coincided with the planters’ interests in the colonies. As exemplified by the instance of Gladstone, WI Planters had a powerful lobby in the English Parliament and the local legislatures.

Indian emigrants at Depot in Garden Reach, Calcutta

The sugar colonies soon created their own Emigration Agencies in the 1850s, headed by an Emigration Agent – frequently, they were retired Civil Servants – and established holding Depots near each other in the Garden Reach Dock area of Calcutta. This was replicated in Madras in South India. The complaints of abuse of the system however continued, and after a particularly scathing report from Mauritius, the Government responded by passing the Indian Emigration Act XIII of 1864, designed to consolidate the previous laws and regulations within one framework in order to repress abuses, regulate depot arrangements, and define the duties of the Protector.
With regard to recruitment, the Act required that recruiters be licensed, each licence was valid for one year, and could be cancelled for misconduct. The Act compelled the recruiter to appear with his recruits before the district magistrate, who would determine the circumstances of recruitment, ensure they were registered for the colony of their choice, and explain the contents of the contracts.
Following registration, the recruiter was required to provide adequate means of transportation and a competent subordinate to accompany the recruits to the main depot at Calcutta or Madras, where their emigration certificates would be examined by the Emigration Agent and countersigned by the Protector. Before embarkation, intending emigrants were to be medically examined and provided with descriptive passes, to be surrendered to the ship’s captain. The Act defined the duties of the Protector, whose appointment was now full-time.
One of the tip-offs that all was not above board was when prospective emigrants were moved to districts other than their residences for registration. Section 30 of the Act, however, stated that recruits were to be registered in the district in which they were engaged – which could be anywhere. This meant that magistrates could not refuse to register emigrants merely because they were not residents of the district. From the mid-1860s, the different colonial agencies of Europe engaged Indian subagents because of the vast areas from which recruits were trawled. These liaised with the agent at Calcutta to collect and dispatch batches of recruits expeditiously. They did not actually recruit labour, but arranged for registration and rail transport to Calcutta.
The actual Recruiters – called “arkatis” in North India and petty maistris in South India – were employed by sub-agents, and either resided in the district in which they operated or in some large town in the province. They lurked outside towns, particularly near bridges and wells, where travellers frequently stopped to rest or refresh themselves. Railway (stations), melas, bazaars, and places of worship. Since more money was paid for recruiting women, those were especially targeted.