Scientific Racism and the Commodification of Black Bodies

Asian Indentured Labour in the Caribbean

When European sugar planters realized that the end of African slavery was inevitable, they began casting around for another source of cheap labour and settled on Asia, particularly India. Recruiters set about trying to persuade men and women to leave their countries for what they were promised would be good wages and living conditions. Some who were sent on board the ships were kidnapped or sold themselves to pay off a debt. Others might have been captured by gangs and sold to brokers. Many signed on willingly, however, hoping for a better life or hoping to improve their circumstances.

Chinese workers were probably the first to arrive, being brought into Trinidad in 1806.

Indentured labourers in Trinidad
Indian indentured workers, Trinidad

The French colony of Reunion in the Indian Ocean was the first to come up with regulations to govern how the system would work with the workers to be paid eight rupees (about $4.00) per month and the indentureship lasting five years. Mauritius, a British colony, had received 25,000 labourers from India by 1838. That was the same year that The Whitby sailed from Calcutta to British Guiana carrying 249 men, women and children. Five died on the voyage. Those on The Hesperus which had set sail the same day as The Whitby fared somewhat worse; of the 165 passengers, 13 died during the journey.

John Gladstone, father of William, was one of those whose plantations received the immigrants. 

Only the men were given indenture contracts and their salaries varied with superintendents receiving the most at about 16 rupees per month while ordinary labourers were paid 5 rupees. (One rupee was equal to about 28 pence.) One rupee was deducted per month to help cover the cost of repatriation to India at the end of the indentureship period.

Chinese workers, Jamaica

Their weekly food allowance included rice, dried fish, onions, salt, pepper and ghee. Indenture contracts often included the amount of clothes and medical rations the labourer could expect as well as their working hours (often from six in the morning to six in the evening) and days off.

The system soon attracted critics, especially from those who had opposed slavery and who pointed to abuses of the system. A fact-finding visit by the Anti-Slavery Society uncovered reports of abuses on several plantations. Many of the emigrants were not being paid what they had been promised and, European overseers and estate managers, who had been accustomed to flogging their black slaves with relative impunity had found it hard to give up their brutality. Within less than a year of their arrival, 48 had died. By the end of their indenture in 1843, fifty more had died. It's no wonder that more than 200 of these first emigrants opted to return to India after their indentureship was over.

The system was halted and did not resume again in any substantial way until 1851. In 1853, the indentureship period was reduced to three years.

Several other countries followed the same pattern as Guyana with varying time periods for indenturereship and varying levels of pay. In Cuba, for example, the indentureship period was for eight years and the pay was $1.00 per week. (African enslavement did not end in Cuba until 1866, however.) In the French islands, the labourers might be paid 12 francs per month but losing a day of work meant they would lose two days pay so they were often paid much less given the high rates of sickness and disability.

The entrance to Chinatown, Havana. Cuba.

Between 1838 and 1917, when the system finally ended, more than half a million labourers had left India to work on the sugar plantations of 13 Caribbean countries, including Trinidad, Grenada, Jamaica, Guadeloupe, Guyana and Suriname. Twenty-five percent of those were women who had fled abusive husbands or who had left their homes to hide their pregnancies.

Dancers at a celebration of Indian Arrival Day, Grenada

Today, the legacy of these indentured workers has had a vibrant effect on the cultures of the various countries. The popularity of roti and curry and celebrations such as Diwali and Holi are all traceable to the indentured and their descendants. Their memory can still be read in place names such as Calcutta Settlement in Trinidad, Coolie Town in St Lucia, Place de L'Aurelie in Martinique and Chinatown in Cuba. Indian Arrival Day is celebrated in several countries, for example 1st May in Grenada, 10th May in Jamaica and 5th June in Suriname.

People of Indian heritage mark Indian Arrival Day in Guadeloupe

A Hindu temple in Jamaica