Tribute to the 19th Century Indentured Labourers – Makers of New Colonies
However much we belong to our time
And live in modern material comfort,
Something in us will always bring us round
To the melancholy of our ancestors...
--- Richard Millet
Migration has always been an important factor in human history and a central element in understanding how human beings adapt to a completely new environment and construct their social and cultural worlds.
The dimension and range of migration from India to the British colonies in the early 19th century, whether voluntary or forced, have been impressive.
Indian indentured labourers ventured long ago, to distant colonies, through a forbidden world - the sea, even while expressing their fears and suspicions of crossing the Kala Pani (black, cursed waters), ill-fated and infernal; its irreversible passageways, and its never-ending horizons.
Often recruited from rural provinces of India, the Indian indentured workers were led to the vast warehouses of commercial ports, known then as Depots.
There they awaited the imminent departure of ships bound for the Indian Ocean, the Pacific or the Caribbean.
Indian Emigration presented, in the 19th century, manifest servile characters.
Engaging in a multi-year contract with a master unknown to them, on a plantation that they could not choose, with a salary of which only the maximum was fixed, the fate of Indian labourers was in fact not much different from that of the Negro slaves of the earlier centuries. And yet, it was they who populated and enriched alternately the various colonies of the Caribbean, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. In 1834, it was Mauritius; Trinidad, Jamaica and Guyana in 1844; St. Lucia and St. Vincent around 1858, Natal in 1860; the French colonies of Reunion, Martinique and Guadeloupe the years after.
Towards Ceylon (today Shri Lanka) and to Malaysia streamed throughout the century a, steady pour out of Indian immigrants – hundreds of thousands of them to land in the British colonies in conditions similar to slavery because working conditions were often hardly better than those of the ex-slaves.
From the colonial times till today, it is migration which has so powerfully contributed to shape the demography of the British Colonies and to form social orders, which were original, multi-ethnic, made entirely from people arrived or imported from distant worlds.
After completion of their five-year indenture, many contracted labourers chose to return to India; but a significant number 'free labourers' opted to stay, especially when the option arose to exchange the return trip to India for a small plot of one’s own land. Those choosing to remain were given land - a bonus from the British Government - and special loans to help them get started as planters in their own right. Thus, from the 1890s onwards, hundreds of former indentured workers gradually became small planters and, consequently, citizens of most of the British Colonies.
Once settled in the newly adopted land, the struggle for maintenance of identity, for a sense of belonging, became a priority for the uprooted immigrant farmers. Progressively they moved to form the pattern of servile life in most of the colonies and employed measures to reconstruct, even to the smallest extent, ways of social and cultural life known from their ancestral land.
These unknown immigrant labourers need this tribute as a lasting legacy for the present and for the future generations, for they remain those who raised new colonial empires for Europe’s colonial expansion from 1820 to 1939.
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