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The Aftermath of Slavery - Coolie Labour

First Indians Shipped - High Mortality - Flogging - French Colonies - The Recruiters - Fines - 'Half Free' -'A Machine for sending Men to Prison' - 'Protectors' - The India Office - Coolie Labour Abolished.
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Africa being closed to them, the planters now looked to India. The origin of Indian Coolie labour, as it is commonly called, is described in the Report of the Committee set up in 1909 under the Chairmanship of Lord Sanderson, to enquire into 'Emigration from India to the Crown Colonies and Protectorates.' The Report states:

In the early years of the 19th century certain sporadic attempts appear to have been made to engage labourers in Bengal to serve for a term of years in Mauritius and Reunion, but it was the abolition of slavery in the British Colonies in 1834 which gave the first great impetus to emigration.

On January 4, 1836, Mr. John Gladstone, Liverpool merchant, West Indian proprietor, and father of the rising young member for Newark, wrote as follows to a Calcutta firm with which his family were connected: We are in doubt.., how far our negro apprentices in the West Indies may be induced to continue their services in the plantations after then- apprenticeship expires in 1840.

We are therefore most desirous to obtain and introduce labourers from other quarters.

After giving a glowing account of the colony, the light labour, comfortable dwellings, abundance of good food, schools and religious instruction, he summed up by saying: 'It may fairly be said they pass their time agreeably and happily.' The Calcutta firm to whom he had addressed himself replied in encouraging terms that they had already sent several hundreds of men to the Mauritius, and added: 'We are not aware that any greater difficulty would present itself in sending men to the West Indies, the natives being perfectly ignorant of the place they go to or the length of voyage they are undertaking.'

Several large consignments of coolies were accordingly shipped, and John Gladstone obtained an Order in Council sanctioning labour contracts for five years, commencing on the arrival of the coolies in Demerara. This Order was issued on July 10, 1837, but it was not until January 3, 1838, that the public became aware of its existence, when it was denounced in the British Emancipator, an Anti-Slavery organ, as giving birth to a new slave trade.

The Calcutta Press stigmatised the so-called voluntary recruitment of the 'emigrants' as kidnapping. Private letters corroborated the fact that the coolies 'had to be forced on board,' that their treatment on the voyage was often extremely bad, and that the insanitary conditions resulted in a high mortality.

Scoble, Secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society, visited British Guiana, to which many of the coolies had been sent. He found a high death-rate, much sickness, bad housing conditions, insufficient food, much flogging, many runaways, and no legal provision for restoring the coolies to their own country. All of which was confirmed by a Government enquiry into John Gladstone's estate in that colony. Although he and other wealthy absentee proprietors regarded the complaints as the fabrications of agitators, there is no doubt that grave abuses existed, and after Buxton (in his last Parliamentary speech, July, 1837) had raised the question in the House of Commons and Brougham in the House of Lords, emigration was suspended by the Government and a Committee appointed in Calcutta to enquire into the whole matter.

In the words of Lord Sanderson's Report: 'Their report, which was submitted in 1840, showed clearly that abuses did undoubtedly exist with respect to recruitment in India.' Three of the members were altogether opposed to further emigration, but the fourth member, Sir J. P. Grant, recommended the reopening of emigration under certain safeguards. When the Committee's Report was presented to Parliament, in 1842, Grant's views won the day and emigration to Mauritius was resumed under safeguards. In 1844 it was permitted to Jamaica, British Guiana and Trinidad, in 1856 to Grenada, in 1858 to St. Lucia, and in 1860 to Natal. 'Between the years 1842 to 1870, operations were on a considerable scale. The total number of emigrants during these years was 533,595.' (Sanderson Report, Cd. 5192.) Of these, 351,401 went to Mauritius, 79,691 to British Guiana, 42,519 to Trinidad, 15,169 to Jamaica, 7,021 to other West Indian Islands, 6,488 to Natal and 31,346 to French Colonies.

Lord Sanderson's Report states that 'methods of recruitment in India were gradually improved,' but much of the evidence received by the Committee proved the grave need for reform. Mr. J. A. Brown, an Indian civil servant of large experience, who appeared before the Committee at the request of the Indian Government, said:

The recruiters are the worst kind of men they could possibly, have. They are generally very low-class men, and as far as I understand, they are paid by the results, by the number of emigrants that they get. The consequence is that they very often try to entice married women away from their husbands.

It may be noted here that only 3 per cent, of the emigrants were women, and what that meant on the voyage and in the plantations may be imagined. Much evidence was given to show the deceptions practised upon the coolies to get them to sign an indenture.

The Sanderson Report states that 'when emigration was first opened to the West Indies, there was a very high death-rate both on the long sea journey and during the process of acclimatization.' 'A frightful mortality among the coolies' due to 'the neglect of proper sanitary precautions at a quarantine station in Mauritius' in 1856 is also described.

The Report remarks on the desire of the planters to retain their hold upon the coolies after the expiry of their period of indenture:

The planters and the colonial governments, in which the planting interest is generally powerful, did not at first appreciate the fact that Indians make excellent settlers, and that it was to the advantage of the colony to encourage them to settle down as free citizens and so contribute to the general prosperity. The aim of the planters, who had suffered so severely from the entire discontinuance of slave labour, was too often to acquire complete control over the labour market by means of regulations and administrative measures which aimed at compelling the coolie to re-enage himself on the expiry of his indenture, rather than encouraging free settlers.

Thus, in Natal, Wages were paid only every two months and were subject to severe reductions in the shape of fines for absence. After the expiry of the indenture, immigrants were expected to reindenture. If they did not do so and worked for wages, they came under an ordinance applicable to native African labour, under which a servant was liable to whipping for neglect of work.

'Gross abuses' of a similar character were reported from British Guiana in 1870, and from Mauritius in 1867, and the Government of India appointed Commissions of Inquiry into these two colonies and Natal. One witness revealed frankly the desire nearest the heart of the planters: 'Anything which would tend to keep in the Colony able-bodied efficient labourers who are already acclimatised, in my opinion, would be good.' Accordingly, various devices were employed to extend the duration of the contracts for which the coolies had indentured themselves. For instance, the contracts for Fiji were for five years, but the labourer had to work for another five years before being allowed a 'free pass' back to India. In Jamaica a still more extraordinary contract was imposed. After the expiry of the initial indenture of five years, the coolie was known as a 'half free' for another term of five years. After completing ten years, he was allowed to embark for his home in India, provided that he paid one-third of the fare for his women relatives and half of his own. The same conditions prevailed in British Guiana, and after 1895 the screw was tightened upon the unfortunate coolies. While it is true that some attained to a position of some wealth in the Colonies, to the great majority this was impossible, and to ask them to pay sums quite beyond their powers for their return passages was, in fact, to compel them to exile for life. Recruitment should have been limited to five years, and full passage money granted at the end of that period.

The same attempt to use vagrancy laws as an instrument of constraint was made in respect of the Indian coolies, as we have already noticed in its application to the negro apprentices. Lord Sanderson's Report refers to 'the tendency, once again appearing in Mauritius, to treat Indian immigrants, when absent from their work, as vagrants, the Ordinance of 1889 being so framed as to allow of their arrest without warrant.'

The Report says of British Guiana: 'There is, however, one unsatisfactory feature of indentured immigration which is at least as prominent in this as in any of the other colonies, and that is the extent to which the employers resort to the criminal courts in order to enforce the fulfilment by the immigrants of their statutory obligations.' And, indeed, the returns for 1907-8 showed the extraordinary predilection of estate managers for the criminal courts. In British Guiana, with an indentured population of 9,784 persons, no less than 3,835 charges were preferred against the coolies under labour laws. In Trinidad, out of 11,506 coolies under indenture, 1,869 were convicted, and in Fiji, with 11,689 coolies, 2,291 were charged in the criminal courts.

The charges brought against the coolies were mainly under labour Ordinances for so-called 'malingering.' Mr. Edward Bateson, a magistrate of wide experience in the West and East Indies, informed the Committee: Sometimes people were brought before me either as vagrants or deserters, but the great majority of cases were idleness and alleged idleness, and it was impossible for me to ascertain really the merits of the case.

And again: complaints by masters or mistresses of insulting conduct, or words or gestures, and trumpery cases which ought not to have been brought into court, and which would not be brought in any other country before a criminal court.

To quote Bateson again: 'It is a very painful sight to see people being taken in batches to prison, handcuffed as if they were criminals, when they are not criminals in any sense.' The Government of India insisted that the Colonial Governments should appoint 'Protectors' for the coolies, but some of these protectors had an amazing conception of their duties. One of them, Commander W. H. Coombs of Trinidad, had estates of his own, and his point of view was solely that of the planters. He told the coolies that he would not 'stand any nonsense. You will either work for your pay on the estate, or you will work for Government for nothing in the gaol.' With such a 'Protector,' the position of indentured coolies in the courts was hopeless. Well might Sir George Robertson, a member of the Sanderson Committee, say to Bateson: 'It seems to me from what you have said that the coolie is absolutely defenceless,' to which Bateson replied: 'Absolutely,' and he added that he appeared to be placed in his position as stipendiary magistrate for the convenience of the employers: 'It resolved itself into that: I was a machine for sending men to prison.'

It is important to realise that the Government of India was at no time in favour of the immigration of coolie labourers and only agreed to it under pressure from force majeure, and even then only upon assurances of the acceptance of two principles of great importance concerning land and citizenship.

With regard to land, the Report states that the Government of India have constantly urged on the colonies the importance of making Crown lands easily available for the settlement of time-expired coolies. It is evident that the ultimate conversion of a large proportion of the indentured immigrants into an independent, prosperous and contented peasantry provides the best reply to a criticism of the system of indentured labour.

The principle regarding citizenship is expressed in Lord Salisbury's despatch of March 24, 1875: Above all things we must confidently expect, as an indispensable condition of the proposed arrangements, that the Colonial laws and their administration will be such that Indian settlers who have completed the terms of service to which they agreed, as the return for the expense of bringing them to the Colonies, will be in all respects free men, with privileges no whit inferior to those of any other class of Her Majesty's subjects resident in the Colonies. (Italics mine. - J. H.)

Not all the support of public opinion was able to get these two principles invariably applied, but the constant pressure that was maintained for the improvement of the system, and finally the Great War, put a stop to Indian immigration into all British Colonies as from January 1, 1920, and thus ended a not very creditable or satisfactory chapter in our colonial history.

It is true that the indentured labour system enabled a good many coolies to earn more than in their own country and to become successful colonists, but it was capable of degenerating into something closely akin to slavery. The intention of its originators was simply to substitute cheap Indian labour for slave labour, and in spite of the watchfulness of the Government of India, it afforded only too much scope for the exploitation and often oppressive treatment of ignorant and helpless people far removed from their own country, and it is no wonder that it has often aroused justifiable resentment amongst their fellow countrymen in India.

The Government of India deserves credit for its frequent protests, but the planters, like the Bourbons, had learnt nothing and forgotten nothing and they opposed reforms suggested by the Indian Government with the same tenacity that their predecessors had displayed in opposing the reforms and ameliorations of slavery suggested by the Colonial Office. As with slavery, so with indentured labour, the only solution for its evils was abolition. But it took many years to secure this. Buxton began the struggle in 1837, but it took his successors in the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines' Protection Society nearly eighty years to reform it out of existence. Aided by the political consequences of the Great War, its abolition was at last achieved.

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