Indian Labour in British Guiana
Emancipation in British Guiana brought an influx of indentured labourers from India, whose working and living conditions were destructive of caste and culture, and often as harsh as those of the slaves they replaced.
On May 5th 1838, the very year of final slave emancipation in the British West Indies, a small batch of 396 Indian immigrants popularly known as the 'Gladstone Coolies' landed in British Guiana (Guyana) from Calcutta. This was the beginning of the indenture system which was to continue for over three-quarters of a century and whose essential features were very reminiscent of slavery. Within a decade Indian immigration was largely responsible for changing the fortunes of the sugar industry, the mainstay of the economy, from the predicted 'ruin' to prosperity.
The importation of labour from the Indian sub-continent was part of a continuing search by Guianese planters for a labour force that was docile, reliable and amenable to discipline under harsh, tropical conditions. Emancipation had conferred on the Guianese labourers both physical and occupational mobility. They could withhold their labour temporarily or permanently and vacate the estates if living and working conditions did not satisfy them. In fact, a gradual exodus from the plantations began soon after emancipation. What the planters desired was an alternative and competitive labour force which would give them the same type of labour control they were accustomed to under slavery.
The planters, accustomed to a mentality of coerced labour, viewed this newly-acquired independence with trepidation. Initially they competed against each other for labour by paying higher wages, with the result that the labour force became volatile. Generally their policies were geared towards restricting the geographical and social mobility of the labourers through stringent laws and regulations which made land acquisition very difficult. Simultaneously, they experimented with new technology to reduce their dependence on wage labour and attempted to cut their wage bill through several arbitrary measures. When they realised that their policies were not succeeding they turned more and more to immigration as a means of reasserting their hegemony over labour. They saw immigration as the panacea for their problems.
The planters tapped a variety of sources in their effort to augment the labour supply – the over-populated West Indian islands, the southern United States, Europe, West Africa, the Portuguese Atlantic Islands, India and China. All these schemes were tried with varying degrees of success until India emerged as the main reservoir of manpower. India was a vast continent with a rapidly increasing population in already heavily congested areas. No substantial economic growth was taking place providing any significant outlets for employment. In fact her traditional economy was breaking down, throwing thousands out of employment. The new systems of land tenure introduced by the British accelerated the process of disintegration. Thus, despite the innate conservatism and non-migratory nature of the rural population there were people disposed to respond to the promises of better times.
The majority of Indian immigrants were drawn from North India with smaller batches coming from the Tamil and Telugu districts of South India. They were recruited, very often on spurious promises, by professional recruiters, largely assisted by paid local agents called Arkatis in North India and Maistris in South India. This system of recruitment by local agents formed the backbone of all recruiting operations from the inception of the system to its cessation in 1917. Intimidation, coercion and deception were very often used to recruit Indian labourers. Women, in particular, were very vulnerable. When labourers were difficult to enlist, the recruiters resorted to such illegal practices as kidnapping and forced detention.
Up to the early 1860s recruits in North India were drawn from in and around Calcutta and from the Chota Nagpur plateau, a sub-division of the Bengal Presidency about two to three hundred miles from Calcutta. Those from Chota Nagpur were the 'Hill Coolies' or Dhangars, semi-aboriginese outside the fold of Hinduism. They were active, robust workers but their numbers soon declined because of excessive mortality at sea and competition from the tea plantations in Assam and other tea districts. The Dhangars were in great demand by tea garden planters to clear the jungle for the expansion of tea cultivation. Consequently, recruiting operations were pushed further north- westwards and the North-Western Provinces and Oudh (Modern Uttar Pradesh) and Bihar became the main suppliers of colonial labour. In this vast region the Bhojpuri-speaking (a form of Hindi) districts of Western Bihar and Eastern Uttar Pradesh provided the bulk of the indentured work force. These were heavily congested districts with a population density in 1881 varying from 450.1 in Shahabad to 894.4 in Benares city.
Several factors militated against Indian emigration on a large scale. Among them the social conservatism and prejudices of the Hindus, especially the upper castes, posed a major deterrent. Crossing the 'kala pani' (black water), a term associated with the Andamans, the convict settlement in the Indian ocean, meant caste defilement and consequently severe social ostracism. To be readmitted into his caste an Indian had to spend substantial sums of money in caste dinners to feast his guru (spiritual leader), relatives and friends. Besides, he had to undergo a purification ceremony which involved drinking the five 'substances' or products of the cow – a mixture of the dung, urine, milk, curd and ghee (clarified butter).
There were other factors as well – the fear of being forced to eat beef or pork and of being converted to Christianity; the fear, widely circulated in Bihar of mimiai ka tel or the extraction of oil from the immigrant's head suspended downwards; the fear of confiscation of the holy thread of the Brahmins (priests) and the beads of the Hindus. Intending emigrants were also reluctant to subject their wives to a searching medical examination at the depot for venereal diseases and to be detained for considerable periods prior to embarkation. Many became suspicious of the whole emigration scheme because of paucity of news from the recipient colonies and the failure of emigrants to return in substantial numbers. Their strong attachment to their ancestral rights in land also served to deter emigration.
Despite these strong obstacles to emigration large batches did board emigrant vessels. This was mainly due to the impact of British rule in India which resulted in a steady deterioration of the social and economic conditions of the people in the principal recruiting areas. Thousands lost their traditional livelihood and, in the absence of alternative avenues of employment, they were compelled to turn to agriculture. But agriculture only provided seasonal employment and was subject to seasonal fluctuations. At one time the country could be deluged by rain, at another parched for months. Pressure on agriculture resulted in land fragmentation and uneconomic holdings which in turn led to unemployment or underemployment. The capacity of the land to support the rural population began to diminish. These were the economic 'push' factors which led peasants and landless labourers to travel during the 'off season' to the industrial centres in search of employment to supplement their income. Those who failed to find immediate employment became helpless, and very often penniless. It was at this psychological moment that they were approached by recruiters with promises too tempting to resist. To give visible effect to such promises the recruiter advanced a few rupees and took the Indian to the emigration depot where he was housed, clothed and fed.
To people living in a state of poverty and indebtedness, famine or scarcity which occurred with increasing frequency during the 1860s and 70s in India constituted the best recruiting agent. Famines broke the morale of the villages and reduced them to a state of complete disorganisation. Landless labourers were quickly thrown out of employment and made destitute. Peasants were very often forced to dispose of their cattle, sell or mortgage their lands. Caste prejudices or religious sanctions were ignored or forgotten as villagers flocked to the emigration depots to avoid starvation. Indeed, there was a strong correlation between famines and heavy recruitment and good harvests and recruiting difficulties.
The enlistment of Indian labour for the sugar colonies could not be explained purely by the economic pressures prevailing in the recruiting districts. There were some, particularly from the Bhojpuri-speaking districts of Shahabad in Bihar, who were adventurous and always prepared to carve their fortunes abroad. The Bhojpuris were a martial race of men who were largely recruited in the armies of the Mughals and, up to 1857, in the British. They were accustomed to travel considerable distances to seek employment in industrial centres. Many had migrated to Mauritius and returned with small fortunes. There were others who emigrated on account of domestic quarrels or were fleeing from justice or from their creditors. Many perhaps embarked because they had lost caste or found the caste system intolerable.
A fallacy prevalent in Guyana today is that Indian immigrants were drawn exclusively from the lowest and least desirable classes of Indian society. It is argued that caste prejudices were so strong among Brahmins and others that they would not risk losing caste by crossing the sea. Hence Brahmins in the society were often described as 'pseudo-Brahmins' or 'ship Brahmins', the implication being that they assumed such high caste status during the voyage. While it is true that some emigrants changed their identity on embarkation or on arrival, the available evidence refutes this assertion. The reports of the Protector of Emigrants and other Indian officials showed that emigrants comprised a variety of caste groups at different levels of the Indian caste hierarchy and that the high castes comprised a sizeable proportion.
Having been recruited and registered, the emigrant was taken to the depot where he immediately began the process of 'seasoning' for the long, monotonous voyage to the West Indies. At embarkation certain precautions were taken to ensure health and safety en route. Social intercourse between crew and emigrant women as well as the carrying of firearms or inflammable material were strictly prohibited. Besides the officers and crew, each emigrant vessel was provided with compounders, interpreters and topazes. The compounders dispensed medicine and often acted as interpreters; the topazes or sweepers ensured that the deck and water closets were kept clean.
In the early phase of emigration, especially the late 1850s, mortality on Calcutta ships was heavy, sometimes excessive. This was due principally to cursory depôt medical examination, polluted drinking water, unhygienic habits of emigrants, particularly the Dhangars, and indiscriminate recruitment of surgeons, many of whom displayed gross professional incompetence. As emigration progressed and technology improved, new innovations were introduced into the system with the result that mortality was progressively reduced. The voyage, however, had a profound moral and physical effect on the Indian emigrant, especially if it was his first sea voyage. By crossing the 'kala pani' he had not only broken caste but had relegated himself to the status of a Pariah (outcast). Depression set in as he witnessed the gradual destruction or modification of traditional customs. Physically it was difficult to adjust to the unfamiliar life on board so that he preferred to remain below deck. There was, nevertheless, one redeeming feature of the voyage. There developed a strong bond of friendship or 'jehazi' among emigrants which was cemented on the sugar plantations.
On arrival in British Guiana the indentured worker quickly came under the regularity and discipline of the plantation system. The plantation under slavery has been described as an economic unit producing agricultural commodities for export. It employed a relatively large body of unskilled labour and had a rigidly stratified social structure based on occupational status and divided along race and colour lines. Decision- making was centralised, orders emanating from the master were issued to the slaves through the driver (headman). With emancipation the social structure was somewhat adjusted but the basic feature of plantation society remained similar to that of slavery. In fact, many of the characteristics survived well into the twentieth century. The white planter class continued to monopolise the means of production and consequently to maintain their dominant position. It was into this system that Indian immigrants, like Chinese, Portuguese and others, were introduced.
Indentured immigrants on arrival were allotted to the various sugar estates by the Governor, often with- out any adequate period of acclimatisation. They comprised principally Indians and, to a small extent, Portuguese and Chinese. On the termination of their contract, the majority of Portuguese abandoned plantation agriculture and became hucksters, pedlars or petty shopkeepers. They quickly monopolised the retail trade and began to amass small fortunes. Chinese labourers, first imported in 1853 from Canton and Amoy, were generally considered 'worthless, idle and troublesome'. Besides gambling and opium smoking, the Chinese became notorious for their nocturnal expeditions and systematic theft of feathered stock. Watchmen on farms were terrified not only of wild beasts which roamed the dark but also by these two-footed predators. On one occasion a Chinese trying to evade apprehension for attempted theft of poultry jumped, in desperation, into a cesspit but on emerging from 'his delectable place of concealment' he was in 'such an excessive odorous condition' that the pursuers became the pursued.
From the 1860s to the abolition of identure in 1917 Indians comprised the hulk of the immigrant work force. They were indentured for five years but were required to serve for ten before being entitled to a free return passage to India. Indenture as it evolved and developed in British Guiana was basically a system of social and industrial control. The colony's labour and vagrancy laws were designed towards these ends. The labour law required the indentured worker to complete five tasks (scale of work set by an estate subordinate) each week for which he was paid five shillings, a level of pay which remained static for nearly a century. To complete a stipulated task the labourer was expected to work for seven hours a day in the field or ten in the factory. But the task was judged by what stalwart, negro labourers could perform in the given time. This high output level of the task placed the indentured workers at a grave disadvantage, for failure to complete it meant breach of contract. An official report in 1871 disclosed that over one-half of the indentured work force could not complete five tasks a week. This meant that the employer could obtain a conviction against an indentured labourer 'every or any week in the year'. Whether the labourer would be sent to prison depended largely on his behaviour or on his relationship with the driver, but certainly his wages would be stopped.
Besides, the employer could prosecute an immigrant for refusing to commence work or leaving unfinished work, absenting from work without leave, for disorderly behaviour, threatening, abusive or insulting words or gestures and for desertion. For such offences fines were inordinately high. Frequently employers would institute formal charges against indentured workers and then withdraw them on a promise of good behaviour and on payment of the cost of the summons. The aim was to foster a feeling of helplessness and dependence peculiar to slavery.
The provisions of the vagrancy law were equally coercive. They were designed primarily to localise labour and to place arbitrary restraints on the workers' personal liberty'. The law empowered a police officer or rural constable to apprehend an indentured worker if found two miles away from his plantation without a 'pass' signed by his employer. In fact, any person whose physical features resembled that of an Indian immigrant could be stopped and compelled to give an account of himself. No other group in the society was required to carry documents to establish their identity.
Assuming that such arbitrary police regulations were necessary, there was no provision in the law to compel employers to issue 'passes'. In fact, estate managers used the 'pass' system as an effective control device, to ensure docility in the immigrant camp as 'passes' were only issued to those who 'behaved well'. The system was also used to prevent immigrants from knowing the variation of wages on other estates and to deny them legitimate access to the Immigration Agent-General, the officer appointed to uphold their interests. Some planters who regarded themselves as strict disciplinarians boasted publicly that indentured workers on their estates must be 'at work, or in hospital or in gaol' during working hours. This stipulation meant that pregnant and nursing mothers as well as convalescents discharged from hospital and physically unable to resume work were liable to be prosecuted.
While the law armed employers with wide powers of prosecution it provided the immigrant with practically no form of redress. Nowhere was this more evident than at magistrates' courts. The immigrant was not only ignorant of the English language but was also unacquainted with the technicalities of the law. Besides, he was regarded as a criminal even in civil matters and debarred from giving evidence in his own defence. His efforts to include co-workers to testify on his own behalf were often frustrated by the varied instruments of prosecution at the disposal of the employer. Joseph Beaumont, the colony's Chief Justice in the 1860s, cited the case of an indentured immigrant who, summoned to testify for a fellow worker against his employer, was arrested and gaoled without giving evidence, for leaving the estate without a 'pass'.
Under these disabilities the immigrant was induced to overact his case in court and supplement his ignorance with falsehood. According to Stipendiary Magistrate William Des Voeux they 'indicated such fertility of imagination and invention of pictorial detail as almost to amount to a fine art'.
The duty of upholding the law and dispensing justice impartially devolved on the Stipendiary Magistrate. Generally his life was physically taxing. In terms of association and geography a magistrate in such a colonial society tended to spend his leisure with the very people against whom he occasionally had to report for abuses of the law. In the absence of inns or hotels he was frequently induced to accept the comforts of a manager's house before attending court the next morning, thereby impairing the impartiality of even conscientious magistrates. Against such managers and in the courts of such magistrates the immigrant was by no means certain of obtaining justice. One magistrate was directly accused, 'you breakfast with the manager, and of course you are going to decide in his favour'. To the immigrant this situation was evidently a case of authority upholding authority. Hence their general loss of confidence in the administration of justice in magistrates' courts.
The immigrants suffered from various other disabilities. While legislation compelled them to fulfil their contractual obligations under heavy penalty it made no provision for the recovery of wages arbitrarily withheld by employers. Wages were often stopped for unsatisfactory or incomplete work, absence from work, insubordination and for damaged or lost tools. Moreover, employers were under no obligation to explain the reasons for such stoppages. A Chinese immigrant, Yeang-a-tsing, reportedly committed suicide in protest against frequent stoppage of his wages. Although colonial legislation guaranteed indentured workers the same rate of wages as non-indentured negro labourers this stipulation was honoured more in the breach than the observance and openly broken. Employers skilfully evaded the law by assigning indentured and non- indentured labourers different tasks or placing them in different fields. This provision turned out to be no more than a piece of window-dressing to appease the British and Indian Governments.
There was very little direct verbal evidence of how Indian immigrants actually felt about the system. Apart from a gang of labourers who pleaded with Des Voeux to redress their grievances, the only immigrant to testify before the 1870 Royal Commission which investigated the system was one called Hulloman. His evidence related specifically to his bitter experience at the hands of his employer for failure to reindenture or prolong his contract. It was towards the end of the century that Bechu, an educated Bengali, articulated the indentured workers grievances.
By the late 1860s discontent in the indentured camp was so rife that a number of disturbances rocked the sugar belt. By this time strikes and riots seemed the only avenues of protest available to the workers. These disturbances destroyed the myth of the Indian immigrants' docility and demonstrated forcibly that they were capable of violent demonstrations when pressed too hard. The common denominator in the conflicts was long hours of work and insufficient pay.
The disturbances which attracted considerable attention both in British Guiana and England occurred in September 1872 at Plantation Devonshire Castle in the county of Essequibo. In the confrontation with the police five Indians died from gunshot wounds. The troubles started following complaints about low wages. At the enquiry the workers refused to appear, but headed for the manager's house. According to the manager, 'They were more intoxicated by excitement than by liquor'. Indian women played an active part in the disturbances. A magistrate described the scene after the Riot Act was read and the crowd told to disperse:
During the interval about 50 women came to the front of the rioters, and screamed and cursed in a most diabolical manner. One woman in particular, apparently the leader, went through the most extraordinary gesticulations I ever beheld.... I sent the interpreter to request them to retire and leave the affray to the men. The reply was a coolie curse too horrible to mention. They said they would kill us or die with their husbands.
Strikes, violent demonstrations, beating of managers and overseers coupled with such passive resistance as malingering, self-mutilation to remain in hospital and deliberately doing poor work became part and parcel of the immigrants' protest against the system.
The disturbances on estates had little chance of success. While the indenture system was geared to restrict geographical mobility, the physical isolation of estate population rendered impossible any form of organised agitation. Not only was there little contact between the work force of different sugar estates but road transportation was slow and time-consuming and this hindered quick dissemination of information. Effective leadership was also not forthcoming since potential leaders in the immigrant camp identified them selves with estate management in their capacity as drivers. There was also division within the ranks of the work force as unindentured workers kept aloof from the disturbances. Furthermore, the planters quickly suppressed the upheavals through the arrest and incarceration of the leaders.
From the early 1860s indenture seemed to replicate the actual conditions of slavery. When in 1840 William Russell, the Colonial Secretary, coined the phrase 'a new system of slavery' he was perhaps predicting the outcome of the system. Commenting on the Devonshire Castle riots, The Times emphasised: '... if it be not slavery, [it] is certainly very tar from freedom'. Beaumont described the system at its peak '... a monstrous, rotten system, rooted upon slavery, grown in its stale soil, emulating its worst abuses...'.
Indeed, slavery and indenture showed remarkable similarities. Both the slave and the indentured worker were subjected to laws over which they had no control and no part in their formulation. The power of control was exercised by a minority white élite, principally comprised of planters and merchants, who dominated the political institutions in the colony. Both systems were designed to restrict the mobility of labour, to anchor the work force on the estate so that labour would be readily available. It was on the employer's property that he lived, cultivated his provision grounds (small plots of land for the growing of root crops), raised feathered stock or sought medical attention when sick. The right to collective bargaining or even to strike was non- existent under slavery and indenture.
There were, nevertheless, two basic differences but these were over- shadowed by their similarities. The slave was private property and slavery implied permanence. The indentured worker, in contrast, was an instrument of production, one whose freedom was temporarily frozen by his contractua1 obligations. But these differences were nullified by the provisions in the law which made rein- denture possible. Cases were found of immigrants re-indenturing so often that they remained under contract for more than thirty years. Indenture implied paid labour, slavery non-paid labour. But the price of labour was not subject to negotiation; it was fixed arbitrarily by the planter or by an estate subordinate. In such circumstances the sanctity of the contract was liable to be breached.
To the Victorians slavery was immoral as it was incompatible with personal liberty. Indenture was expedient because it prevented freedom from degenerating into vagrancy and idleness. Theoretically, indenture was a compromise designed to provide the planter with the labour he desired and the Indian immigrant with certain rights. In practice, such rights hardly ever existed. Behind the facade of care and protection an indentured worker was exploited and degraded between the levers of arbitrary wage stoppages and summary imprisonment.
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