International Day for Remembrance of the Slave Trade and Abolition: how it tells stories of Indian indentured labourers

Neha Banka
In 1998, UNESCO designated August 23 as the International Day for Remembrance of the Slave Trade & Abolition to commemorate the tragedy of the slave trade in the memory of all peoples .(Representational Image)

The migration of indentured labour bonded labour is a lesser known part of the history of slavery and that of Indian migration. In 1998, UNESCO designated August 23 as the International Day for Remembrance of the Slave Trade & Abolition to commemorate the tragedy of the slave trade in the memory of all peoples . UNESCO also established an international, intercultural project called The Slave Route to document and conduct an analysis of the interactions to which it has given rise between Africa, Europe, the Americas and the Caribbean.

Indentured servitude from India started in 1834 and lasted up till 1922, despite having been officially banned in 1917 by British India s Imperial Legislative Council after pressure from freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi.

What was indentured migrant labour from India?

Between 1830-1860, the British, French and the Portuguese during the colonisation of India, prohibited slavery that was implemented by several acts under their inpidual domains. In Europe in the 1820s, there was a new kind of liberal humanism where slavery was considered inhuman, explained Amit Kumar Mishra, associate professor, School of Global Affairs, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar University, Delhi. It was following this ideology that the colonisers stopped slavery in India, only to replace it with another form of bonded servitude and euphemistically term it indentured labour .

This practice of indentured labour resulted in the growth of a large diaspora with Indo-Carribean, Indo-African and Indo-Malaysian heritage that continue to live in the Carribean, Fiji, R union, Natal, Mauritius, Malaysia, Sri Lanka etc.

Mishra, who has conducted extensive research on the subject of indentured labour, told in an interview that indentured migration started post the abolition of slavery to run sugar and rubber plantations that the British had set up in the West Indies. The British Empire was expanding to South America, Africa and Asia and they needed new labour, but slavery was considered inhuman. So they developed the concept of contract labour, explained Mishra. The British turned to India and China that had a large population and found the surplus labour they needed to run these plantations in the new colonies.

The abolition of slavery failed to change the mindset of the planters which remained that of slave owners . They were accustomed to a mentality of coerced labour and desired an alternative and competitive labour force which would give them same type of labour control that they were accustomed to under slavery , wrote Kapil Kumar in his academic paper titled Colonial Exploitation, Resistance and forced Migrations: The Indian scenario in the Era of Indenture Labour .

After ruining the agriculture business in India, they exploited the mass unemployment that had hit small farmers the hardest. The worst affected regions were the modern-day states of Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. They were poor farmers and the indenture lasted for 10 years. They were paid monthly wages and were living on the plantations in these colonies, said Mishra. Initially, single men were selected for indenture but the British Parliament decided to encourage family migration to provide stability .

Encouraging family migration hardly arose out of concern for the welfare of these bonded migrants. According to the terms of indentured labour, the migrants had the right to return after finishing their 10 year terms of indenture. The British were not interested in having them return to their homeland because it wouldn t be a good return on their investment. For every 100 males who were put on board the ships that transported the migrants, 40 were women, in an attempt to maintain the sex ratio. Due to the skewed sex ratios, many men went on to settle permanently in these colonies and have families.

Why was indentured labour called slavery?

Indentured labour was definitely slavery, said Mishra. The British attempted to disassociate indentured labour from slavery by calling it an agreement when recruiting Indians who would be willing to migrate, to try and hide the true nature of the practice. British historian Hugh Tinker, best known for his extensive research and writings on slavery in the British colonies, called indentured labour a new kind of slavery , explained Mishra.

The British recruited young, single men from regions that had witnessed a collapse of the local agriculture business and were facing shortages and severe famine. Widows who faced socio-cultural stigma wanted to migrate to these new lands to live life on their own terms. According to Mishra, many urban women who were single and employed in various professions also chose to travel to get a fresh start. Most aspiring migrants were misled about the work they would have to engage in, the wages they would receive, the living conditions and the places they were travelling to.

Archival photos of indentured migrants possibly taken before departure from India (Immigration Archives, Mahatma Gandhi Institute, Moka, Mauritius/ Courtesy Amit Mishra)

Although indentured labour involved contractual labour, many farmers had poor literacy and in lieu of signatures would provide thumbprints on contracts. Striking Women, a digital project that documents the struggles of South Asian workers highlighted one such incident. An Indian woman (who) belonged to Lucknow, met a man who told her that she would be able to get twenty-five rupees a month in a European family, by taking care of the baby of a lady who lived about 6 hours sea-journey from Calcutta; she went on board and, instead of taking her to the place proposed she was brought to Natal. (Indian Immigrants Commission Report, Natal, 1887, cited in Carter and Torabully, 2002, p. 20)

The system subjected poor, vulnerable Indians to long-term abuse and exploitation and the pain of these indentured migrants has been recorded through music, books, photographs and other forms of literature.

A detail of an Emigration Certificate for a 14 year-old boy originally from the Auzimghur zillah (possibly modern-day Azamgarh,UP, India) (Immigration Archives, Mahatma Gandhi Institute, Moka, Mauritius/ Courtesy Amit Mishra)

Why was sea voyage perilous for indentured Indian migrants?

The British collected these migrants from through brokers and housed them in Calcutta harbour. Before the migrants left, they were offered incentives like food and shelter. About 35,000 of these migrants migrated to Suriname alone, said Gautam Jha, assistant professor, Center for Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, School of Languages, JNU. The main ports of departure for these migrants were Calcutta, Madras and Bombay and a for a few years, some departures occured from the port of Pondicherry too.

The migrants soon realised that the journey was not the image British had sold to them. The journey by sea was long and traumatic, with travel taking approximately 160 days to reach the Caribbean colonies. The comfort of the migrants was not even a consideration for the British and the travellers were loaded onto cargo cargo ships that were not meant to carry passengers. Many of these migrants had never even left their small villages, let alone engaged in travel to such distant lands. On board the ships, there were cramped quarters and little space. Many migrants were forced to sit on open decks that left them vulnerable to direct, harsh weather at sea. Sanitation was poor and there was little access to food and medication. These conditions were particularly difficult for small children and there was high mortality. Those who died on board were simply thrown off the ships into the sea.

A folio with photographs of male migrants, along with their first names (Immigration Archives, Mahatma Gandhi Institute, Moka, Mauritius/ Courtesy Amit Mishra)

The migrants also faced physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the European ship captains and there was no means of escape except jumping off the ship into the water. The migrants called it crossing the kala pani . Indians were not familiar with the sea and the (cultural) association with sea journeys was that crossing the sea would mean breaking free from attachments in the homeland, said Mishra.

One of the unique characteristics of the system of indentured labour was that it was surprisingly well-documented from the onset, where the British recorded the departure, arrival and death of these migrants. Several archival records show the names and details of the journeys that these migrants took.

What happened once indentured migrants reached far-flung colonies?

The migrants took their culture with them through their language, food and music and the meagre belongings that they were permitted to carry. Once they reached these colonies, they created their unique socio-cultural ecosystems while they were limited to living in the confines of these large plantations. Locals in the Mauritius, Suriname and Fiji opposed the presence of these migrants because they were so hardworking, said Jha. The migrants faced difficult conditions on the plantations because there was paucity of adequate food, clean water, sanitation and healthcare. This labour system was very different from what had been projected to them.

According to Jha, 500,000 people migrated to Malaysia to work on plantations where many died of snake bites, hunger, diarrhea but no authorities paid attention to the difficulties that migrants faced in these colonies.

After their terms of indenture were over, some migrants returned to India while many stayed back. Those who did stay back did so because they had rebuilt their lives and families in these colonies and were poor and had not been able to maintain contact or connections with their families and country. Many migrants also believed that they had nothing to return to. In Mauritius, many migrants who had saved their monthly wages purchased small plots of land after their terms ended and became landowners themselves. Some migrants came back from colonies in East Africa but were not welcome. Their families had forgotten them and there was a cultural gap that had resulted due to the years the migrants had spent overseas, said Mishra. For some others, however, the cultural stigma of having a significant amount of time overseas and untouchability associated with the journey, resulted in a denial of acceptance once they returned to India.

How is indentured labour of Indian migrants commemorated around the world?

Along with UNESCO designating August 23 as the International Day for Remembrance of the Slave Trade & Abolition, several memorials exist around the world in commemoration of Indian indentured labour.

One section of landing steps at Aapravasi ghat in Mauritius (Amit Mishra)

In Mauritius, the Immigration Depot or the Aapravasi Ghat in Port Louis was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006 to mark its importance in world history. Mauritius was the first British colony to receive indentured migrants and records indicate that approximately half a million indentured Indians arrived at the Immigration Depot between 1849 to 1923.

In 2011, a plaque was unveiled at the Kidderpore docks in Kolkata in memory of indentured labourers who passed through the city s port. On the banks of the Hooghly near the Port of Kolkata, the Suriname Ghat is named after one of the colonies to where ships would depart from Kolkata. At the Suriname Ghat, the Mai-Baap Memorial is an unassuming metal structure that was unveiled by India s former Minister for External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj in 2015. The statue is a replica of the Baba and Mai monument in Paramaribo , Suriname, that marks the first Indian migrants in Suriname.