By: Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth, Esq.
An Overview of Indian Indentured Servitude
West Indian history, for the Indo-Caribbean group, began in India. India’s rich history dates back 30,000 years. Around 4,500 BCE, the Indus Valley emerged with the first urban culture in South Asia. The Indus Valley civilization then declined because of a lack of monsoons. The Indian continent would later go on to flourish. Emperors and kings reigned over distinct regions. Nevertheless, there was still a sense of belonging to the motherland. With time, the Indian culture began to share certain commonalities.
In the 16th century, the Mughal Empire ruled. The emperors were direct descendants of the infamous Ghengis Khan. They did not impose Islam and the locals were free to continue their native practices. The relatively peaceful empire allowed the arts to flourish with a mix of Persian and Indian aspects.
Modern India began when the British defeated the Mughals and ended the golden age of art and co-existence. One benefit was that the British presented India with a map. The map helped to alter the Indians’ perception of themselves from competing subgroups to a unified continent. However, the poverty rate during the British’s colonization contributed to Indians seeking employment under the indentured servitude system. Some Indians accepted the job offer to work overseas for five years and then return home to India. Others were deceived and thought that they were only going to work in another part of India.
They were placed in crowded holding areas and then faced three tough months at sea (or the kala pani) en route to the Caribbean. The Indians ate rationed food and shared communal spaces. The ship’s docking was probably welcomed by the Indians to end the difficult and isolating conditions on board. The Indians were eventually taken to their assigned plantations, which included communal barracks. They were forced into hard labor cultivating sugar, cocoa, and rice in exchange for low wages. Moreover, like slavery, indentured servitude was condemned for its oppressive, violent, unhealthy, and depressing nature.
From 1834 to 1917, Britain transported approximately 2 million Indians to 19 colonies around the world.
The Indian indentured workers faced essentially three fates: (a) returning to India, (b) journeying back and forth from India to the Caribbean, and (c) remaining in the Caribbean.
Some returned to India as soon as they could. The return voyages were always promised during the early years of indentured servitude. Many were so eager to return to India after facing unbearable hard labour in the Caribbean. Upon return, they were often no longer accepted in India. India’s strict caste system and beliefs marred the returning labourers as tainted. They were scorned from ever being part of Indian society because they left India and crossed the sea. Certain accounts reveal a silver lining in which a few indentured workers returned to India and re-assimilated. The oppressive system even drove some Indians to try to escape plantations in hopes of returning to India. For example, there are accounts of groups in Guyana believing that they could run away all the way back to India. They unfortunately died in their escape efforts, or were captured and placed back on the plantations.
The reality was that return voyages were often contingent upon the costs of transport, the value of the sugar markets, and the whims of those responsible for the transport of Indian workers. The governing parties would refuse to transport workers back to India if they believed that the transport cost was overshadowed by the agricultural profits. There was a period, though, where large ships did transport Indians in the Caribbean regularly to and from India. As described, some who returned to India eventually returned to the Caribbean because they became outcasts in India. Others were also forced to return to the West Indies because they literally could not locate their previous homes and villages. It was not feasible for them to find their previous lives in India.
The back and forth ended forever in 1955 with The M.V. Resurgent-- the last ship to transport Indians back to India. The Resurgent sailed from Georgetown, Guyana to Calcutta. 2,000 spectators gathered to see the ship, with only 250 people aboard, sail away forty years after the official end of indentured servitude. They returned to chase promising opportunities, to go back to a life they once knew, or to pass away and have their ashes spread in the Ganges. As the ship pulled away, one man changed his mind, jumped off, and swam back to shore.
Altogether, the majority of Indian indentured workers ended up remaining in the foreign colonies like Trinidad and Guyana. They stayed because ships were not available to take them back. They stayed because the plantation owners refused to allow them to leave. They stayed because they started new families. They stayed because they did not want to endure the journey across the ocean. They stayed because the certainties of the life they became to know were more assuring that the uncertainties they faced upon return.
Fortunately, the tale of the India diaspora is not all grim. There is much sadness for those who left the motherland, never returned, and who faced hard labour. However, a positive aspect is that a West Indian and Caribbean culture emerged to support their new home and feeling of home. It is a blend of “in betweenity” anchored in the Caribbean, that extends to India, and now to the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Thankfully, younger generations are more likely to enjoy their parents and grandparents without the imminent threat of relocation for better opportunities. The current stability has also afforded promotion and preservation of Caribbean culture with increased references in books, articles, and social media.
Improved access to Caribbean history and news is also warranted to highlight the value of the Caribbean, especially when international investors are vying for Trinidad and Guyana’s natural resources.
Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth, Esq.
MDGR Law, P.A.
Trademark & Civil Law
PO Box 101794
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33310-1794
Office: (754) 800-4481