Origin of Indian indentureship in Trinidad

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
June 06, 2022

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeOn the celebration of Indian Arrival Day, May 31, an Express editorial recounted: “On this day 177 years ago the Fatel Razack entered the Gulf of Paria with over 200 Indians aboard, the first of 143,939 citizens of India to be brought here under a British scheme to deal with a shortage of labour following the emancipation of enslaved Africans in 1834–38.”

On same day the Express made its claims, the Centre for Reparations Research (UWI) and the Indo-Caribbean Cultural Centre (ICC), in their call to attend a Zoom meeting on Indian reparations, offered a slightly different reason for Indian indentureship: “The Indian indenture system was a scheme of bonded servitude in which more than one million Indians were transported to labour in European colonies, as a substitute for slave labour, following the abolition of slavery in the early 19th century.”

While most elements of these statements are true, the rationale offered by the Express editorial and the ICC for the bringing of Indians to Trinidad and Guyana (formerly British Guiana) is not entirely correct. Indians were brought to these British territories to undercut the wages that enslaved people were expected to make once apprenticeship ended.

What is the origin of Indian indentureship to Guyana and Trinidad in 1838 and 1845, respectively?

On January 4, 1836, John Gladstone, an absentee sugar estate owner in Guyana and father of William Gladstone, future prime minister of England (1868–1894), wrote the following letter to Gillanders Arbuthnot and Company, a Kolkata shipping agency:

“You will probably be aware that we are very particularly situated with our negro apprentices in the West Indies, and that it is [a] matter of doubt and uncertainty, how far they may be induced to continue their services on the plantations after their apprenticeship expired in 1840… We are, therefore, most desirous to obtain and introduce labourers from other quarters, and particularly from climates similar in their nature.” (John Scoble, Hill Coolies: A Brief Exposure, 1840).

Gladstone was fearful of the “dangerous monopoly” that black workers would have when apprenticeship ended. He emphasised: “It is of great importance to us to endeavour to provide a portion of other labourers, whom we might use as a set-off, and, when the time for it comes, make us, as far as possible, independent of our negro population; and it has occurred to us that a moderate number of Bengalese, such as you were sending to the Isle of France [Mauritius]… might be suitable for our purposes.” (Gladstone’s italics.)

In 1835, William Burnley, the biggest slaveholder in Trinidad, was questioned by William Gladstone at a House of Commons Select Committee about how he intended to make apprenticeship work for him. He calmly and dispassionately explained to Gladstone: “I very naturally and anxiously turned my attention to the means by which we should be enabled to cultivate our estates when that period ended.” Burnley had corresponded with William Gladstone previously.

John Gladstone then ordered from Gillanders Arbuthnot and Company 100 “young active, able-bodied people… to be bound to labour for a period not less than five years, or more than seven years, the wages not to exceed four dollars per month”. It informed Gladstone it had already sent 200 Indians to Mauritius to work on plantations there, thus “there would not be any greater difficulty of sending Indian men to the West Indies”.

This was the origin of Indian indentureship in the West Indies or the “Coolie Slave Trade”, as John Scoble, an English anti-slavery leader, called it in 1840. It was meant to be used as “a set-off” or repulsion against the enslaved Africans when they became formally free.

In spite of the Trinidad planters’ rhetoric, production did not drop as dramatically as the planters expected; sugar production had declined from 19,837 hogshead in 1838 to 17,470 hogshead in 1839; molasses had increased from 2,337 barrels to 3,144 barrels in 1839; while cocoa had decreased from 2,294,936 pounds in 1838 to 2,282,108 pounds in 1839.

In fact, things had gone so well in 1839 that the Trinidad Standard could argue that while a turbulent future lay ahead for the colony after apprenticeship, “the labourers were not likely to disturb the order of society in their mode of enjoyment of the recent boom which had been conferred on them in that there was much, and perhaps more, safety for life and respect for property, than previous to emancipation”. (January 3, 1840.)

While indentureship was the policy of the British government, the scheme itself was carried out by individuals or companies that were owned by powerful men. These men always acted in their own best self-interest. They realised that emancipation was coming and the ex-slaves were not going to remain perpetual slaves on their plantations.

Once apprenticeship ended and the ex-slaves bargained for higher wages, the cost of labour increased, and these powerful slave owners such as Gladstone and Burnley had to find a cheaper source of labour. Of the 1,938 Indians who came to the island between May 30, 1845, and May 2, 1846, 90 settled on Burnley’s estates in Cedar Hill, Union Hall, Phoenix Park and Esperanza. Burnley had first suggested using Indian indentures in the island years earlier.

Slavery and indentureship were economic systems which responded to the laws of supply and demand and running their operations at the lowest cost. As far as these sugar owners were concerned, the emancipation of enslaved Africans meant an increase in their expenses and they acted accordingly.

Indians were brought to these lands to decrease the cost of sugar production after apprenticeship, and this is the point from which we ought to see their entrance into Trinidad and Tobago.

5 thoughts on “Origin of Indian indentureship in Trinidad”

  1. The issue of indentureship was another form of slave labour. My ancestors came to Trinidad 5 generations ago. They settled in the Tenant sugar estate and there worked hard to build a future for us. Sugar was king as an example in the colony trade -exports of Trinidad Products for the Year 1918. Sugar— 35,104 tons value 811,068 £, Petroleum— crude gallons – 40, 865,298 value 400,610 £. From 1845 to the end of indentureship the value of sugar produce was over several billions of dollars. Of course my ancestors were robbed of their wages, I hope one to receive money I deserve from the Queen.

    Cockroaches have no business in fowl business. We see an online petition launch by a cockroach to remove a fowl. It made headlines today in a major newspaper whose modus operandi is always under suspect. Well the cockroach got upset after two fowl had a quarrel over who name is better than the other. One fowl crowed a few times calling the name of the other fowl… Kamla Soushilla Persad Bissessar. Then the other fowl responded crowing that she love her name and someone with a slave name should not be crowing her name. Well that made a cockroach real mad. She insisted that this factual comment is racist. And this fowl should cease laying any eggs. The cockroach is brave enough to launch an online petition against one fowl. Well Cudjoe I am sure you almost fell off your chair reading this!

    But that is how thin skin cockroaches could be. Fowl is waiting to devour that cockroach… Meanwhile the other fowl believes her name is better because it comes from massa country and Indian and African names are inferior. I have an Indian name and I am dam proud of it cockroach should stay out of fowl business.

  2. Indians came here to increase sugar production reaching 200,000 tonnes in the 1960’s and not to decrease the cost of sugar production as their wages/conditions were set. They were deceived into believing that they were coming to “chalay chinee”. We cannot be misled by Cudjoe’s Afro-centric lenses because the jahajees were already versed in sugar cultivation in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. What did the Indians think or have in their minds as they embarked from Kidderpore Docks in Calcutta bent to Trinidad after enduring the Indian Famine of 1850’s? They survived the “Kala pani” and the “pagal samundar” en route to create a better life for us. They worked for a mere pittance that was superior to what they left in UP and Bihar and did not come on their own to compromise the high wage demands of the apprentices. The “apprentices” were never even remotely in their cultured-impregnated minds of the Jahajees. They had a vision to change their fortunes by hard work isolated in sugar cane estates without thinking much of the host community who were now free to also gravitate to urban settlements and leave the Indians to toil in the hot sun and rain. They accepted the prevailing socio-economic conditions and strikes were few and far. They knew their ultimate life objective taught to them by the Ramcharitarmanas. I reject completely the thesis of Cudjoe that Indians had no say in their journey and settlement in Trinidad because they belonged to a higher almost ancient moral and religious order that made the visit to Trinidad a a dictat of karmic prescription. They transformed their liabilities into huge assets with their Koran and Ramcharitarmanas? Why does Cudjoe not stay out of fowl business and desist from trying to implicate our ‘pitris” ( Bhagwan bless their souls) for being strike breakers or low wage earners and fan Afro-Indian antagonism in the 177th Anniversary of the Indian occupation of the cane -fields and “apprenticeship abandoned barracks” in rural Trinidad and made huge astronomical success of it contributing to the GDP of T&T. No one with a beating human heart must seek to desecrate and obfuscate the innocent cherished memories of our loving devoted ancestors who toiled unremittingly to make a way for us their descendants and whose souls and spirit we incarnate and celebrate every Indian Arrival Day in a very emotional outpouring of love and deep appreciation of our jahajees and jahajins. They were not “strike breakers” nor “scab labour”. They were our loving nannies and nannas who we remember forever as shown below. Please do not desecrate their legacy that they bequeathed to the Indian Community of T&T just to sell Express newspapers.

  3. The African commentators appear to see “Indian Arrival Day” as exclusively an historical event. They use subjective history and intellectual dishonesty to interpret and position the celebrations because Indians are perceived to be dumb and intellectually challenged They will not find the time to get into the psyche of the Indian Arrival Day mindset and 30-year celebratory event to appreciate that it is not history-driven and conceptualised. That is why they refuse to use the word “Indian” because we all indeed arrived historically. It is indeed 90% a celebration of T&T ancestry-the “psycho-sociology of arrival” remembering the selfless love, missionary spirit, achievements, land-sense, thrift, maternal economics, conquest of adversities, mud huts, cow and bull carts, “bhajhee and bhat” and pure devotion of our “pitris” and the sacrifices they made and hardships they suffered while making the perilous journey to Calcutta and the “kala pani” crossing to Chinidad and Guyana. Indian Arrival that is unique to the Indian Community of T&T and Guyana is a celebration of what transpired and was achieved post- 1845 until May 30th 2022. Cudjoe must find time to appreciate this reality. It is in fact a celebration of “Indian gratitude” to all and sundry and how our “pitris” and “jahajees” dealt with the hostility and anger of the host community post-1845 without hatred for anyone including the purveyors of the indenture-ship system. It is time to extend real appreciation to diversity and not tolerance and try to take on board the diversified “Indian personality” that is almost 8,000 years in the making in the Indus Valley and the plains of Caroni planting katharee and bodi and baigan here quietly but focused on family cohesiveness. Have you seen how many have endorsed the position.? Thank you all for your support for we all have truly arrived and made “Chinidad” home. That is the germ of Indian Arrival Celebrations even before it was declared a public holiday.

  4. The shaming of Olokun Igbaro et al
    Linda Capildeo St James 14 hrs ago Comments

    It was 1964, when the G.O.A.T. (the greatest of all time), Muhammad Ali, remonstrated with Howard Cosell for calling him “Cassius Clay”, when as he affirmed, that was the name given to him by his slavemaster and he wanted nothing to do with it, so don’t call him that anymore.

    While this was in the country most known for civil rights discord, Muhammad Ali was lampooned by the Caucasian class, but hailed and respected worldwide for his decision.

    This was also a similar posit advanced by the late brother Malcolm X. He submitted to his kith and kin that to maintain your African name was to remain connected to your heritage, defy slavery of the body, but be liberated in the mind and not lose sight of your identity, even though you were brought into this new land naked and in chains and had to watch your newborns sold out from under you.

    Hell on Earth, I tell you.

    Fast forward to the Caribbean where this kind of loyalty does not exist, despite great examples.

    I highlight our late president, Arthur Napoleon Raymond Robinson, who was recognised a prince in Nigeria when he visited the country in the late 1980s as the NAR prime minister.

    He was crowned Chief Olokun Igbaro.

    But sadly, when he returned to Trinidad and Tobago, this poor man was so humiliated and terrorised, by the same PNM that is chasing down Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s heritage and appearance.

    They pilloried and demeaned this son of the Tobago, so that when he became President, he emphasised the name Arthur Napoleon Raymond Robinson: no Africanner there.

    And this is the cultural paralysis of Trinidad and Tobago.

    The minute you have an Indian name, there is a problem.

    The Anglo-Saxon minded ones can’t spell your name or pronounce it.

    They are ashamed of their names of Koongebeharry, Omatie and Sumintra, because it connects you to your ancestry.

    So the Camilles and the Keiths and Nobrigas (name belonging to the slave master class of yesteryear) et al, try to humiliate you like they do with the Chinese.

    Everything is a joke for them, starting with your name and then your hair and then your shoes…until it goes too far.

    How many persons of African decent gave their children African names: for the girls—Mpule and for the boys Ayegoro or Obika?

    Few recognise the greatness of Kwesi and Makandaal, warriors I tell you in the Masai world.

    These children would come home crying like many East Indian children who went to school with long Indian names, and say, “mammy, why did you give me such a stupid name?”

    This is the primitive, tribal provocation and bullying that Camille Robinson-Regis is conjuring up.

    They talk about Yoruba, but outside of Emancipation Day, none would dare put an African name on their birth paper.

    They prefer the Anglo-Saxon names given to them: Earl, Llewellyn, Alexander, etc.

    And nothing is wrong with that, but if someone maintains a name that has ancestral or religious connotations, please do not take it to the political platform for ridicule and odium, and pull it down like monkeys when they see a yellow sari.

    I applaud the Opposition Leader.

    While the clique of Rabindra Moonan, Vasant, and Bhoendradatt, (all deep-seated Indian names) will try to lampoon her for standing up for her Indianness, they will fail since she is a symbol to Indian women who have struggled and continue to do so.

  5. “…Indians were brought to these lands to decrease the cost of sugar production after apprenticeship, and this is the point from which we ought to see their entrance into Trinidad and Tobago…”

    This is the damaging, antagonistic and anti-_Indian label that Cudjoe who had written this stereotyping indictment somewhere else before imposed on the Indian and T&T Community on the occasion of the celebration of the 177th Anniversary of the arrival of the Fath Al Razack ferrying 200 Indian souls into sugar- producing Trinidad. We are to be seen first and foremost and remembered that Indians came to do sugar cultivation and harvesting as “scab labour/strike breakers”. We were hurdles imposed by the plantocracy in the path of the “apprentices” to negotiate higher wages post apprenticeship and no one must forget that fabrication of a prejudiced mind 177 years after 1845. That is the incubated hatred to be mounted against the Indian presence in 2022.
    The indentures came to work exclusively in back-breaking “sugar cultivation and harvesting.” By 1845 the “apprentices” had largely left this aspect of the sugar industry, abandoned the barracks and gravitated to the urban centres or had taken up less physically demanding and onerous but more lucrative jobs in other more skill- demanding jobs of the sugar industry. The indentures were not competing with the “apprentices” in sugar “cultivation and harvesting” where they were almost entirely present confined to the barrack system of accommodation. This statement above is pure unadulterated fallacy, propagandistic and a figment of a polluted mind upon which I will elaborate on in my next week’s posting on this site. I am not yet finished with this purveyor of anti Indian dignity and humanity.

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