The causes of Indian Indentureship

By Ravi Dev

Between 1838 and 1917, 239,909 Indians were brought as “indentured labourers” for the sugar plantations of British Guiana. The question arises as to why they left their country, when their custom forbade crossing the “Kala Pani” (Black Waters) on pain of “social death”. The short answer is that, for most, it was a choice between life and physical death.
One of the ironies of Indian indentureship was that the conditions that forced them into that option – which even some members of the then British Government dubbed “a new form of slavery” – were man-made; more precisely, British made. The “pull factor” from British Guiana was the planters’ refusal to accept the freed formerly enslaved Africans’ demand for a living wage. This convinced the Africans to decamp the plantations en masse, and thus fulfil the planters’ expectations. But where would wages that could not even attract freed slaves be a “pull factor” for indentureship? Yesterday we learnt of 50,000 newly freed African West Indians voluntarily coming because they did not have the alternative of purchasing abandoned plantations. Wages there and in India were even lower than in British Guiana.
The story of Indian immigration actually begins in 1757, when troops of the British East India Company captured Bengal from the Moguls, and inexorably 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 “lagaan” (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.” Between the Bengal famine of 1768 and the end of Indentureship in 1917, a conservative number of over 54 MILLION Indians perished from other famines.
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 of 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 for jobs within India because of Britain’s rape and plunder: British Guiana and other sugar colonies simply provided a vent. It is not a coincidence that Bihar and Uttar Pradesh provided most of our Indentureds, since they were plundered the longest, and still remain the most underdeveloped part of India.