Indians arrival in the Caribbean evolved from the time Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas in October 1492. Within twenty years 80% of the native people Arawaks and Caribs were annihilated by slaughter and disease by the Spanish invaders. Slaves from Africa were brought in, in 1516 and after over 300 years slavery was abolished in 1834. To satisfy the greedy appetite of the European nations for cheap labour indentureship ‘another system of slavery’ was introduced in 1838.
PART TWO of Indian Arrival in the Caribbean will continue from the ‘docile coolies’ arrival in the Caribbean and how they fared over the eighty years of Indentureship.
After the arrival of the first batch of indentured labourers on the SS Hesperus and SS Whitby on 5
May 1838 in British Guiana the ‘coolie trade’ ceased for seven years until the Fatal Rozack landed in Trinidad on 30 May 1845. This cessation of migration came about because the authorities in India and London were concerned that the indentured labourers were being treated as harshly as the slaves they were replacing and that the death toll enroute was too high. Inspite of this concern, emigration of cheap labour from India continued unabated for the next eighty years to the Caribbean and other parts of the world.
Queen Victoria accession to the throne on 20 June 1837 was only months away from the beginning of indentured labourers to the Caribbean on 5 May 1838, she ruled for sixty four years until 22 January 1901, becoming the Empress of India in 1876. It was during her reign that Britain became ‘great’ shipping the cheap labour of Indians to several of her colonies and at the same time taking advantage of the great wealth of India accumulated during the reign of the Mughals to fuel the expansion of the British Empire.
The number of deaths during the long three to six months voyage continued to be at a high level and never during the entire period of eighty years was acceptable. Deceit and false promises of a better life when recruiting in India, was another area that never improved.
The Indians on arrival were living in conditions no better than that of the African slaves they were replacing, their health if they survived the long voyages deteriorated daily, many died on the roadside, women with babies often had to take them to work leaving the infants all day in nearby fields in the hot sun so as to complete their task, many young children perished in this way.
It is worth recording for the benefit of all concerned that after slavery was abolished and the former slaves refused to work on the plantation it was the indentured labourers who worked the sugar estates under a new system of slavery. The Caribbean would have deteriorated into poverty like so many other areas during this harsh self-centred European colonisation. It was the coolies sometimes 100% work force on the plantations whose sweat, blood, tears and lives saved what we today call the Caribbean.
India between the end of the Napoleonic war in 1814 and the beginning of the First World War in
1914 furnished a supply of cheap disposable labour that energized the British Empire.
Within twenty years of their arrival the once ‘docile coolie’ started to protest. The common denomination in the conflicts were long working hours low wages and continued breach of promises including reduction from 32 cents per ‘task’ to 24 cents. Disturbances occurred at Plantation Leonara
West Coast Demerara when the workers pay was withheld, because they could not complete a job on water-logged soil. The indentured labourers became violent when other labourers were paid to complete the task. They physically assaulted the deputy manager and confronted the police who were armed with Enfield Rifles, the workers weapon was a five foot long knotty stick called ‘hackia stick’. The leaders of this incident were arrested and sent to prison at Mazaruni penal settlement.
Workers unrest was becoming more regular. Workers were rebelling against poor housing and continued abuse of their women by overseers and poor wages which were after twenty years of indentureship in 1860’s 20 to 24 cents as against 32 cents per ‘task’ as was agreed. Sometimes workers were expected to stay on the job for up to twenty three hours without a shift change or extra pay.
Plantation Devonshire Castle on the Essequibo Coast saw one of the worst riots when five Indians died in confrontation with the police. Over fifty women came out to support their men folk saying ‘they would die with their husbands’. In a letter to The Times one reader stressed that under such an oppressive system revolts were inevitable even among people so willing and contented as the Indian immigrant.
By the 1880s the East Indian increasingly saw themselves as an integral part of the social and political landscape. The Hosea riots of 1884 in Trinidad which resulted in the death of sixteen labourers and injury to no less than a hundred more, announced the movement of Indian labourers away from an existence on the fringes of society to a more integral and full relationship.
Indians were permitted to exchange their right for return passages after ten years in the colonies into land-grant, as well as the right to purchase additional land at £1.00 an acre. Many went into paddy cultivation and so introducing several of the staple diets into the region like rice and mangoes the national fruit of India, not forgetting the curries and all its variations that the coolies introduced which today has become the most popular dish in the Caribbean. Less that one in four Indians returned to
India, while the mortality level on ships and working conditions on the plantation came in for criticism throughout the indentured period.
Exploitation and shortage of Women
Demand for sugar increased in Europe as the quality of life improved in the nineteenth century.
The plantation owners were demanding more profits to maintain their exorbitant lifestyle, which
meant the managers and overseers on the plantations were pushing their labourers in the cane fields and sugar factories of which any job that can be done by a labourer was exempted from mule or machine assistance. Out of every 1000 indentured labourer introduced in the Caribbean only 527 survived the harsh conditions. The coolie remained the all-purpose work animal.
The wage rate stagnated for over one hundred years. Work on the sugar estates was hardest of all, harder than that of the coffee estates, tea gardens or rubber plantations. The sugar industry which provided nothing for the workers by way of incentives, succeeded in keeping them hard at work by a system of penalties and punishments. The role of the task masters was grim and their capacity to exploit the coolies continually included exploitation of their women.
The watch-dogs – the Protectors and the magistrates identified with the planters not with the workers. Survival depended largely on their own powers of resilience, sometimes recreating some semblance of the lost India in festivals and feasts.
Too often their attempt to forget the cane fields ended up in jealous fighting over the women, (sometimes one woman to ten men) and drunken oblivion.
Although the indentured coolie could be held in legal bondage only for a period of years, the plantation held most of them for life. The only escape was to return to India worn out and impoverish in most cases. For almost a century after slavery the plantation imposed a total way of existence upon generations of bonded Indians.