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  • Sherry-Ann Singh Department of History University of the West Indies St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago.

Indian workers arrival in the Caribbean

Between 1845 and 1917 a total of 143,939 Indians migrated to Trinidad under the system of Indian indenture. Most of these indentured labourers were drawn from the agricultural and laboring classes of the Uttar Pradesh and Bihar regions of north India, with a comparatively smaller number being recruited from Bengal and various areas in south India. Approximately 85% of the immigrants were Hindus, and 14% Muslims. Despite the trying conditions experienced under the indenture system, about 90% of the Indian immigrants chose, at the end of their contracted periods of indenture, to make Trinidad their permanent home. The predominant age group of the immigrants was 20-30 years and, while most came as unmarried individuals, there were those who came as small family units. The debate surrounding the nature and workings of the system of Indian indenture in India is multifaceted and relatively open-ended. A lot of ambiguity has marked the system, especially during it first three decades of operation. These include the recruitment process in India, British role in the impoverishment of 19th century India- a main push factor of Indian indenture, whether or not the Indians were fully cognizant of the real nature and details of what they were embarking on, and their level of awareness of the fact that they were leaving Indian soil. Initially, the journey from India to Trinidad averaged at about three months, but became substantially shorter and less turbulent with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Conditions on board the ships were cramped and depressing and there were frequent outbreaks of such diseases as cholera, typhoid, dysentery and measles which led to high mortality rates on some of the journeys. 

The first two decades of the system were highly experimental in nature, lacking in settled rules and conditions. However, there were two central and constant features of the system: immigrants were contracted for long periods with a single employer, and, there were penal sanctions for breaches of the contract. From the Immigration Ordinance of 1854 until 1917, the system remained relatively consistent with a few notable changes, a most significant of which, for Trinidad, was the granting of Crown land in lieu of the free return passage between 1869 and 1880. On arrival in Trinidad the indentured immigrants were quarantined on Nelson Island and then assigned to the various estates for the contracted three year period; this was followed by a two year period which completed the “industrial residence” of five years. At the end of this five year period, the Indian immigrant would be granted his Certificate of Industrial Residence, a sort of “freedom paper” certifying that the individual was no longer under indenture. However, in order to qualify for the free return passage back to India, the Indian had to re-indenture himself for a further five years, but was free to choose both employer and occupation. The only alternative for returning to India without completing the full ten years of labour in the colony was at one’s own expense. 

For the indentured immigrants, life on the estates was bound by the terms and conditions of the contract which they had signed; though most were illiterate in all of the three languages in which the contract was formulated. In effect, the Indians were not free during their periods of indenture. They could not demand higher wages, leave the estate without permission, live off the estates, or refuse the work assigned to them. The basic minimum wage as stipulated in the contract was 25 cents per day or task for adult males and 16 cents for adult females. Although this amount could not be reduced legally, the plantation often lengthened the task. Wages also varied according to type of work, season and the area. The contract stipulated a 45 hour work week but during crop time it could be six 9-hour days. Sunday was a holiday. 

A most troublesome feature of the system for the indentured labourers was the fact that they could be and were prosecuted as criminals for what were really civil offences; the slightest breach of contract and immigration laws. Indians leaving the boundaries of their respective estates were required to carry a pass stating that they had been granted permission to do so. Being found off the estate without such a pass or “Ticket of Leave” saw many Indians being imprisoned for vagrancy or being found “at large”. Such “unlawful” absence from the estate could result in a maximum sentence of seven days in jail. Absence from the estate for three or more days was termed “desertion” and could earn the immigrant a maximum of two months in prison. Official investigations revealed that the common occurrences of both absenteeism and desertion were deeply connected to the question of management on the estates, the harsh treatment of the immigrants, and unscrupulous employers actually conniving for desertion by unfit or unwanted persons. In an effort at dealing with the issues of absenteeism and desertion, Indians who had completed their periods of indenture were still required to carry on their persons their Certificates of Industrial Residence for both the purposes of proving that they were not deserters and when seeking employment; their word did not suffice. Other offences carrying sentences included willful disobedience, threatening or verbally insulting the employer and deception in performing work. The courts were heavily weighted against the Indians and excessive sentences were often unfairly imposed upon them. Very few Indians actually understood the Immigration Ordinances, could defend themselves or pay for legal aid. By the 1870s, Immigration Laws were becoming increasingly arbitrary and confusing for the immigrants. Also, each revision of the law saw penalties becoming more stringent and comprehensive.

While, in theory, there were a number of apparatus put in place for the well-being and protection of the immigrants, these were more often than not very ineffectual. The Immigration Department headed by the Protector of Immigrants/Agent General which was supposed to be seeking the interests of the Indians via its regulations and regular estate inspections, and even acting as a court of last appeal was extremely vulnerable to pressure from the planters. The various authorities often failed to discharge their duties of protecting the immigrants and inspection of the estates was too infrequent. Too few immigrants lodged complaints for fear of victimization and a general suspicion of the impartiality of the magistrate’s court, which was often inclined to accept the evidence of the estate authorities over that of the Indians. These, together with an all pervading influence of the planters, overarching administrative weaknesses and general complacency in the operation of reformed laws led to excessive exploitation being an integral aspect of the system of Indian indenture. However, the ultimate sanction against the maltreatment of the immigrants was the power of the Governor to remove even an entire gang from an estate. Two such instances occurring in Trinidad were on the Patna Estate for unhealthy conditions and on the La Gloria Estate where the Indians were not being treated properly. 

By the 1870s, Indians had proven themselves as the virtual backbone of the sugar industry in Trinidad. However, during the 1880s, competition from beet sugar and the full implementation of the 1946 Sugar Duties Act saw depression looming over the British West Indian sugar industry. Planters began shifting the burden of the resulting economic adjustment on the sugar workers. Though not as frequent as in British Guiana, this generated a notable level of strikes and disturbances on some of the estates in Trinidad, including the Cedar Hill Plantation and the Jordan Hill Plantation. Most of these were on account of the withholding or non-payment of wages, extending of tasks and harsh and unfair treatment on the estates. The 1884 “Muharram Massacre” provided a most palpable example of the gravely tense anti-Indian colonial mindset of the 1880s. For the Indian, estate life had become irrevocably unattractive. Indians now began moving off the estates in large numbers to become independent farmers, settling on and cultivating lands granted to them through the land commutation scheme or that they had purchased from the State. By 1902, more than half of the sugar cane in Trinidad was being produced by independent cane farmers; the majority of which were Indians. A significant number of Indians also went into cocoa and wet rice cultivation.

The arrival of the Indian indentured labourers into Trinidad seemed to provide the solution to the existent economic and labor related crisis of the time. It also saw the introduction of a new dimension to the social and cultural fabric of Trinidad society. The dynamism of the experience of Indian indenture is evident in the multifarious debates that it has spawned; debates that continuously reaffirm the global presence and contribution of the Indian indenture diaspora.

Catégorie : Waves of Colonization

Pour citer l'article : Singh, S.-A. (2013). "THE EXPERIENCE OF INDIAN INDENTURE IN TRINIDAD: ARRIVAL AND SETTLEMENT" in Cruse & Rhiney (Eds.), Caribbean Atlas, http://www.caribbean-atlas.com/en/themes/waves-of-colonization-and-control-in-the-caribbean/waves-of-colonization/the-experience-of-indian-indenture-in-trinidad-arrival-and-settlement.html.


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