II: Indentured Labor and the Indian Diaspora in the Caribbean
What is most Indian about the Indian Diaspora is, in some respects, the most characteristically un-Indian; moreover, the reaffirmation of ‘Indianness’ among diasporic Indian communities should not obscure the critical differences that obtain between them. First, Indians in the Caribbean, and in such places as Mauritius, Malaysia, and Fiji, have scarcely the same relationship to India as do Indians in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, or other countries in the post-industrial West. However much India might beckon to Indians in the Caribbean as the fount of their cultural and religious imagination, these Indians remain, almost without exception, citizens of the nation-states to which their ancestors migrated several generations ago. This is patently not true, for example, of Indians in the U.S. The much-feted NRI, the Non-Resident Indian, is a phenomenon entirely of diasporic Indian communities in the West. Indians in Caribbean nations have been settled so long there that they have no living memory of India, and the principal relations that these Indians have is, and perforce must be, with members of other communities, mainly Africans. There is no ‘Indian’, properly speaking, in Trinidad or Guyana: one can only speak of Trinidadians, Indo-Trinidadians, Indo-Guyanese, and even East Indians. These designations are not without their problem: thus the term “Trinidadians”, with its invocation of the unitary nation-state, obscures the racial divide between Afro-Trinidadians and Indo-Trinidadians, while “East Indians” renders the Indians into parochial figures, implicitly disloyal, at the same time as it makes the Africans the true inheritors of the “West Indian” legacy.
While India’s professional elite has left for the West in the latter half of the twentieth century of their own volition, under conditions of relative freedom and in the expectation of substantial economic gains, the Indian excursus to the Caribbean took place under entirely different, and altogether oppressive, conditions. The origins of what came to be known as the system of indentured labor owed everything to the abolition of slavery in 1838. Having been ’emancipated’, many African ex-slaves declared their unwillingness to work for the daily wage of one shilling (and often less) that their former employers, the owners of sugar plantations in European (mainly British) colonies in the Caribbean, offered. Since there was no longer an inexhaustible, reliable, and cheap supply of labor, the plantation owners turned, after a flirtative experiment of importing Chinese and Portuguese laborers, to India. By the 1830’s, the larger part of India had fallen under British rule, and it is the confluence of British interests, economic and political, in the Caribbean and India that explains the ease with which the British Government of India permitted the transplantation of Indians, drawn entirely from the peasantry, to alien lands thousands of miles away. Indentureship recruitment, the Indo-Trinidadian scholar Kenneth Permasad reminds us, “took place in an India reeling under the yoke of colonial oppression.” Colonialism induced massive transformations in Indian economy and society, and the increase in famines under colonial rule, the destruction of indigenous industries, and the proliferation of the unemployed all attest to the heartlessness of colonial rule.
While it is entirely reasonable to expect that a small fraction of the indentured emigrants left ‘voluntarily’, however one is to construe so absurd a notion considering the extraordinary economic hardships afflicting the vast majority of Indians, and with no other thought than that of escaping the wretchedness of their lives, most others left under duress, as victims of a system of deception and subterfuge. Peasants were lured to the city by agents who promised them relief from the misery of their lives and substantial pecuniary gain; and indubitably many were kidnapped or otherwise tricked. These “girmityas” (a corruption of the word ‘agreement’) were initially bound to serve five years, it being understood that the planters would pay for their passage, and at the end of this term the indentured laborers were to receive their freedom. If they wished to do so, they could return to India at the expense of their employer, or they could settle in their new homeland, and gain the rights accorded to free men, or at least such rights as colored people could expect. The Europeans almost never adhered to these agreements. From Calcutta and Madras Indian men, and a much smaller number of women, especially in the first few decades of indentured migration, were herded into “coolie” ships, confined to the lower deck, the women subject to the lustful advances of the European crew. Sometimes condemned to eat, sleep, and sit amidst their own waste, the indentureds were just as often without anything but the most elementary form of medical care. Many did not survive the long and brutal “middle passage”; the bodies of the dead were, quite unceremoniously, thrown overboard.
Harrowing as their three-month long passage was, more cruelties awaited the ‘coolies’ on their removal to the plantation. The working day was unduly long, the idea of a rest day inconceivable; the laborers found their movements severely curtailed, and indeed they were caged within the walls of the plantation. Discipline was enforced with an iron hand, and the whip cracked generously: as a number of Indian laborers in Surinam were to state in a complaint in 1883, “if any coolie fails to work for a single day of the week, he is sent to jail for two or four days, where he is forced to work while day and night kept under chains. We are tortured very much. For this reason two to three persons died by swallowing opium and drowning themselves.” Over the period 1834, when the first batch of indentured Indians arrived in Mauritius, to 1917, when the indentured system was brought to a halt, nearly 1.5 million Indians had sold themselves into debt-bondage. About 240,000 Indians had been sent to British Guiana (now Guyana), 36,000 to Jamaica, and nearly 144,000 to Trinidad, to mention only some of the Caribbean nations. As the Barbadian novelist George Lamming put it, “these Indian hands — whether in British Guiana or Trinidad — have fed all of us.” These hands were to contribute, as much as the hands of African slaves and their descendants, to the Caribbean experiment of giving shape to a unique expression of human civilisation, and as Lamming has recognized, “there can be no creative discovery of this civilisation without the central and informing influence of the Indian presence. There can be no history of Trinidad and Guyana that is not also a history of the humanisation of those landscapes by Indian labour.”
Indians are apt, like many other people, to associate the phenomenon of slavery solely with Africans, but it is not realized that indentured labor was only, in the words of Hugh Tinker, “a new form of slavery”. If what is most notable about slavery is the fact that it allows the master or the capitalist to extract labor without paying the price of labor, that is precisely what was achieved through the system of indentured servitude. There is, in this abominable exercise, a salutary lesson for those who have been the victims of European domination with its characteristically merciless, self-aggrandizing, and malign features, for when Europeans saw fit to bestow ‘freedom’ upon a certain people, they could only do so by chaining others. The history of the white race, in this respect, is no fundamentally different today than it was before. But there is also, in the history of Indian indentured migration, something that rekindles hope. From the ashes of the painful and degrading experience of indenture, Indians were able, over the course of the last 150 years, to build anew their lives, and to give themselves an inestimable and indispensable place in the countries to which they had been brought.