More than a million Indian men and women took long, perilous voyages across the black waters to work as bonded labour in the sugar plantations of various British colonies between 1838 and 1916. However, narratives about their journeys, hardships and silenced voices are long forgotten.
In a period of 37 years, over 40 ships made 82 voyages transporting over 60,000 indentured labourers to Fiji, a nondescript island dotting the Pacific Ocean. Startling as it sounds, these are numbers relevant for Fiji, just one among the British colonies.
Many more steamers belonging to Nourse Line, British-India Steam Navigation Company, and others made similar trips from Calcutta and Madras, carrying scores of Indians (about a third of the size of the British slave trade) to various British colonies like Mauritius, Fiji, Jamaica, Guyana etc, from 1838 to 1916.
Crossing the kaala paani (sacred black waters) in the course of these unknown journeys were men, women and children largely belonging to the Gangetic plains. So, what’s the story of these ‘coolie’ migrants who heralded India’s earliest recorded large-scale labour movement? What were the circumstances that prompted them to leave, breaking barriers of caste, religion and Indian values? Why is their history and legacy less recognised while we celebrate the many success stories of the Indian migration story?
The early 1800s marked a particularly difficult period for the Northern belt across Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal, with widespread famines, poverty and unstable governments (that came after the end of Mughal rule) creating havoc. This misery was further exacerbated by large-scale opium cultivation that had rendered most of the fertile riverine fields unfit for cultivation.
On the other hand, scare labour on the Caribbean plantations coupled with an incessant demand for sugar in tropical setting and across the globe spelt trouble for the British Crown and her Colonial Sugar Refining (CSR) company.
And, thus, began an odyssey of indentured workers (bonded labour) who were allured by arkatis or middlemen to cross over boundaries and explore uncertain territories.
“The term ‘indenture’ meaning ‘contract of labour’ is in itself problematic. It was not agreement in the true sense; it was largely coercion,” says Tana Trivedi, who is doing her doctoral thesis in Indo-Fijian poetry.
Once hired by these middlemen, indentured labourers were largely docked in Calcutta for a week, where they were put in depots and made to undergo a series of medical examinations. “Once on board, the journey was traumatic for many labourers for various reasons. One, embarking a ship where everyone were on par broke and invaded into their rigid caste system. Two, the crossing of the black waters made them skeptical of having sinned, and lastly the instability of the sea took away a feeling of being grounded from them,” adds Tana, who is also currently a senior lecturer at Ahmedabad University.
Records suggest that with the native Fijians refusing to work on sugar plantations, the indentured labourers from India made up to half the population in Fiji at some point in the 1900s. Though they were guaranteed a free passage to India after 10 years, it was a life of dismal choices for many labourers who were struck in cramped coolie lines with limited rations.
The indentured labour agreement listed a daily payment of 12 annas (75 paisa) for every working man above 15 years and nine annas (around 54 paisa) for women working in the unforgiving conditions of tropical plantations. Hinting at the kind of exploitation that flourished in the British colonies, the agreement also reads: “children below that age (under 15) will receive wages proportionate to the amount of work done”. Historic accounts also chronicle escape and suicide attempts by many indentured labourers.
“The Indians in Fiji were a self-obsessed community. Though they mingled with the native Fijians on a micro level, there was no integration at a political level, with colonial policies discriminating against them. Since they were uneducated, their voices and discourses were conveniently ignored,” explains Tana.
Explaining about the kind of earliest recorded Girmitiya narratives in Fiji, Tana says,
“The initial writings were mostly religious in nature. There are records of the Ramleela being enacted among the labour communities in Fiji, for they mostly associated their indenture journeys to Rama’s exile in forest. For most of them it was sought of a banishment accompanied with a longing to return to homeland.”
But did the return happen eventually? Yes, but not for all the coolies. The indenture system was officially abolished in 1917 with the intervention of Indian nationalists, mainly Mahatma Gandhi, who adjudicated the process, comparing it to slavery.
Even as many labourers chose to return home, a few remained on the fertile Caribbean islands where they redefined family structures, established prosperous businesses and thrived to give rise to an a invigorating diaspora, that is winning us laurels today.
A shining example would be the current vice president of Suriname, Ashwin Adhin who comes from a family of Indentured labourers who migrated from Allahabad. Several historians and artistes have sprung from this community as well .
In his well acclaimed essay, From Sugar to Masala, Indo-Fijian author and poet Sudesh Mishra divides the Indian diaspora into old and new categorising the former as those that flourished from the indentured labour in the Caribbean islands and the latter as those who were doubly displaced due to a postcolonial dispersal of families to countries like New Zealand, America, Australia etc.
One such doubly displaced author is Gaiutra Bahadur, who comes from a family of immigrants, twice over. Tracing the history of her great-grandmother Sujaria, who immigrated to Guyana, Gaiutra studied archives, oral histories, poems and academic texts that speak about indenture.
When asked what motivated her to chronicle the story of her great-grandmother who travelled to British Guyana as a single expectant mother, she says,
“Roughly 80 years after my great-grandmother landed in British Guiana as an indentured plantation worker, my parents, my sister and I moved from Guyana to the United States. So my understanding of migration was based in the sense that families move together. Sujaria’s story challenged that understanding.
“She had been torn from all family, except for the unborn child she was growing inside her. I pursued her story because I wanted to fill in the gaps that were husband-shaped, mother-shaped, father-shaped, and family-shaped,” she adds.
Gaiutra’s extensive research in the process of writing her book Coolie Women: The Odyssey of Indenture, made her realise that her great-grandmother’s story was no different from other women labourers who took audacious single voyages to the Caribbean, alone and unmoored from men.
“Two-thirds of women who left India indentured were categorised as ‘single,’ as my great-grandmother was. They had been uprooted from their homes and their kin. Indeed, indenture involved a re-creation and redefinition of family. This process began on the seas, during voyages to a new world, and continued in that new world,” says Gaiutra.
The extraordinary journeys of these men and women and their subsequent struggles, blending of cultures and fragmented identities gave birth to an Indo-Caribbean diaspora for whom “home” always remained a contested space.
The number of Indo-Caribbean diaspora today stands at an approximate two million people, who somewhere owe their existence to colonial legacy and history of indenture. While the achievements of these diasporic men and women are fondly cheered, the saga of their ancestors who worked labouriously on the sugar plantations are missed out from the larger narrative of large-scale migratory movements.
Is it because it’s not a celebrated story like how Indians migrated and triumphed in America? Hard to tell. Explaining the importance of recalling and remembering these coolie chronicles, Gaiutra says,
“It’s important to excavate and to tell the stories of indentured labourers because these migrants were the first Indians abroad in significant numbers. They were the vanguard of the diaspora. They had to recreate their lives, their identities, their families under punishing conditions---and for this feat of reinvention, they should have a place of honour in our memories”.
Moreover, the brazen history and brave voices of these indentured labourers might also be relevant to present times.
“Indian workers on exploitative contracts in the Gulf are labouring in the shadow of indenture. Indian tea plantations employ coolies today. The trafficking of South Asian women continues to sow sorrow, as does violence against South Asian women, to a degree that sometimes silences the soul. So, the experiences of indenture should not be forgotten because the past isn't past,” says Gaiutra.
Today, employment opportunities in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have provided occupations to almost nine million South Asians. People from Kerala and other southern states in India form the largest expatriate communities in these island nations and often work under exploitative conditions in the unskilled and semi-skilled sectors. The repeatedly reported cases of Indian maids and helpers being rescued from abusive conditions in the Gulf are a testament to the slave like conditions that still prevail.
Last year, when major construction conglomerate Saudi Ogler laid off hundreds of Indian migrants, they were left stranded, starving and broke in their confined labour camps for days together (bringing back a grim reminder of the indentured coolie lines again). Dipping oil process and unstable markets this year, have further added to the woes of Indians in the Gulf with the threat of unreliable jobs and pay cuts looming large.
Even as we celebrate 100 years of abolition of indentured labour, the learnings from this exploitative system of servitude remain pertinent. This one is an ode to all the sacrifices made by our coolie men and women in foreign lands.