Indian Indentureship: Afri-centric Analysis

By Dr. Kwame Nantambu
May 29, 2013

Dr. Kwame NantambuThe purpose of this article is to conduct an Afri-centric, linkage analysis of the Indian Indentureship system.

In his magnum opus titled Capitalism & Slavery (1944), Dr. Eric Williams postulates that: “The immediate successor of the Amerindians was not the African but ‘poor whites’. They were regarded as ‘indentured servants’ because before leaving England, they had to sign a contract binding them to service for a stipulated period for their passage. Others were criminals/convicts who were sent by the British government to serve for a specific time on plantations in the Caribbean.” (p.9).

In his book titled A Post Emancipation History of the West Indies (1975), Prof. Isaac Dookhan suggests that emigration to the Caribbean was very attractive to the Indians for the following reasons:

  1. The establishment of the British factory system in India had destroyed Indian domestic industries, such as home spinning of cloth and created a mobile population subject to emigration.
  2. The promise of higher wages in Trinidad and Guyana. In India, labourers were paid between 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 pence a day. In Trinidad, they could earn 2 shillings a day and in Guyana, 1 shilling and 8 pence a day.
  3. Criminals escaping from police and afraid of returning to the village as well as loafers could go to the colonies.
  4. Displaced workers in cottage industries and agriculture and labourers experiencing seasonal unemployment were forced to search for work; when they got no jobs, they were ready to listen to the recruiters’ propaganda.
  5. Some Indians were led to believe that they could find non-agricultural work as policemen, teachers, clerks, etc, in the Caribbean colonies.
  6. Contacts with returning relatives and friends who came back home with money encouraged Indians to want to emigrate. (pp. 51-53).

The religious breakdown of the Indians who came to Trinidad in May 1845 is as follows: 85.3% Hindus, 14% Muslims and .07% Christians. It must be stressed that their descendants, Indian-Trinbagonians, are still Hindus, Muslims and Christians in 2013.

In addition, Indians came to Trinidad with original, ancestral Indian names in 1845 and their descendants, Indian-Trinbagonians, still carry those names in 2013— location, location, location. This is totally different in the case of the Africans who were brought to Trinidad with their original, ancestral African names in 1516 but the vast majority of their descendants, African-Trinbagonians, now carry Euro-centric names in 2013— dislocation, dislocation, dislocation.

Moreover, the make-up of the Indians who came mostly voluntarily to Trinidad on 30 May 1845 consisted of men and women between the ages of 10-30 years; they were Shudras not Brahmins; they were agricultural workers; 40 women to 100 men were selected. This is totally different in the case of the Africans who were brought violently and involuntarily from Africa.

On the ships/vessels, single Indian men and women and married couples were separated and given separated cabins. This is totally different in the case of the Africans who were packed like sardines/animals with chains on their hands and feet.

The Indians came to the Caribbean from the following towns in India: Calcutta, Madras, Pondicherry, Punjab, Lahore, Karachi, Bihar, Hyderabad, Peshawar, Mardan and Kashmir. As of this writing, the umbilical, ancestral cord of this historic journey is forever etched in the names of streets in St. James— location, location, location.

The Indian “indentured labourers” were given 5 pounds and five acres of land to remain in the colonies after their contract ended; men received a five-year contract while women received a three-year contract.

In terms of Afri-centric linkage analysis, the salient, stark historic reality is that the Indian “indentured labourers” received the same treatment from the Euro-British government that was afforded to the British “poor whites” or “indentured servants.” Ten years after their contract ended, the Indian “indentured labourers” could return to India— free passage provided. This is totally different in the case of the Africans who received neither contract nor wages and never returned to Africa physically or ancestrally— dislocation, dislocation, dislocation.

In the colonies, the Indian “indentured labourers” were required to work only 280 days per year; pregnant women only worked part-time on the plantations while older women looked after their children.

In 1869, the Euro-colonial Trinidad government opened up Crown Lands for sale and thousands of ex-indentured Indians acquired ten-acre estates.

In 1884, the Euro-colonial British government established the Peasant Development Programme to assist in the economic development of Indians in Trinidad.

According to Professor Isaac Dookhan, the Caribbean indentureship dispersal of Indians is as follows: Trinidad, 143,939(1845-1917); Jamaica, 36,412 (1845-1885); Guyana, 238,909(1847-1917); St. Lucia, 4,354; Grenada, 3,200; St. Vincent, 2,472 and St. Kitts, 337 (p.51). Indian ‘indentured labourers’ also went to Fiji, Belize, Mauritius, Martinique and Guadeloupe. In total, 1.5 million Indians were involved in this labour-intensive exercise.

On 21 March 1916, the Euro-colonial British government abolished the Indian indentureship system with effect from 21 March 1917.

In the final analysis, the crucial, poignant, historical differences in these two experiences are (i) Africans were brought as slaves to work on European plantations in the Caribbean while the Indians came as “indentured labourers” to work on British plantations (ii) Europeans sent guns and muskets, inter alia, to Africa while the British sent human beings (recruiters) to India and (iii) in terms of Afri-centric, linkage analysis, both Dr. Williams’ findings and Professor Dookhan’s suggestions clearly prove that the Euro-British government not only assigned the same title/status of their kith and kin to the Indians but most importantly, they also afforded the Indians the same treatment they gave their kith and kin, period. This is totally different in the case of the Africans in terms of title/status and treatment— not even close!.

Shem Hotep (“I go in peace”).

Dr. Kwame Nantambu is a part-time lecturer at Cipriani College of Labour and Co-operative Studies.

7 thoughts on “Indian Indentureship: Afri-centric Analysis”

  1. Good article. This offers a perspective from which we can better understand not just history as to where we came from but also offers an insight into our behaviour and why we behave the way we do. An important note is that the Indians brought belonged exclusively to the working class and not the majestic class like the Brahmins. Give the context of this history I believe there is a lot to take note of and be enlightened about.

  2. “Moreover, the make-up of the Indians who came mostly voluntarily to Trinidad on 30 May 1845 consisted of men and women between the ages of 10-30 years; they were Shudras not Brahmins; they were agricultural workers; 40 women to 100 men were selected.”

    Although this statement by the mostly accurate, historical records complied by numerous researchers have shown that:

    “The laborers who came to West Indies reflected the entire strata of a typical Indian village. Although the colonial authorities branded all of them laborers or coolies they were actually from various castes and were practiced in various traditional occupations.There were Brahmins or priests, weavers, potters, oil makers, leather workers, army men, boatmen, land owners, palanquin bearers, potters, entertainers, artists, musicians and cultivators.”

  3. Indian Arrival was born from the resisting womb of African Emancipation, but conceived through the criminal rapine by Rule Britannia.


  4. Good article, the indentureship experience was challenging. The land was inhospitable filled with snakes, alligators and other predatory life form. Indentured labourers where treated no better than slaves in the fields, working incredible hours in the hot sun. There was a “slave driver” who exacted the most out of these labourers.

    There is much that can be said but indentureship was not an “easy walk” in the park, it was blood sweat and tears. Today, we salute those who came before us and remember their sacrifices in making TnT the leader in the Caribbean. Cheers.

  5. No one argues that Indentureship was easy. But on a comparative basis, if Indentureship was “hard’, what word is there to categorize enslavement?

    Further, the extent of a people’s contribution to any society must include the entirety of their experience in that society. Africans have had to walk a journey, live out an experience that can only be understood by, maybe, the indigenous peoples of this geography who also were compelled to walk that same journey. That we have come forth with no hateful and revengeful pathological feelings for those who engineered the adversities that littered the trail of our journey speaks to the wholeness of our character, unchanged from the time we first appeared on the face of the earth as humans.

    The good Doctor has eloquently put the knife to the silly and self absorbed postulations of many in T&T that African Enslavement and Indentureship were the same in terms of the forms of oppression employed. Whites and Portuguese were brought into indentureship in T&T and Guyana, and the terms of their contracts were no different than that of Indians.

    As a measure of sacrifice and contributions to T&T development, there are none that can legitimately match what was provided by Africans. If T&T was a corporation, it would have had centuries of free labor cost and agricultural and other techical expertise at the initial stage of its growth and development. That cost when quantified in financial and human terms dwarfs any other contribution of investment in the development T&T.

  6. Thank you for this article
    I was looking for discussion on/if there are protests by other nationals who are not celebrated for their arrival

    I am not from Tnt. I was stunned to know of a TnT National Holiday excluding all other peoples– this is accepted in your country? Well enough if each has their day.

    Where is there discussion for equality of recognition?

    Thank you

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