When a friend from Fiji broached the idea of commemorating the end of Indian Indentureship – and this is an academic with a PhD from New School for Social Research in NY – he was also trying to pin down the actual date it occurred. Indentureship in South Africa and Mauritius ended in 1911 and 1912, respectively, but not Fiji, Guyana, the rest of the British Caribbean and Suriname. There were several dates mentioned in literature and after tracking these down, we settled on March 12, 1917 when Governor General Hardinge of India passed an order prohibiting any further recruitment and shipping of Indian Indentureds. The official date from the British Parliament came on January 1, 1920.But in doing the research, I was struck that it had to be done in the first place: it was not a date that was stuck on the calendar over the years to be commemorated. I found this surprising in light of the significance of Emancipation Day for the descendants of enslaved Africans, since so much of the historiography of Indians in the Caribbean had been mapped on to that of the former group.On reflection, however, it is not that surprising: there was no way to shoehorn the two events into one historical box. Even though some historians have attempted to suggest that Indenture was “A new form of slavery” – following Hugh Tinker’s seminal work from 1974 with that same name, fundamentally they really were not. Emancipation Day arrived after centuries of struggle, including riots, uprisings, a humanitarian struggle in the British Parliament and behind it all, the inexorable development of the British economic order from Merchantalism to “Free Trade”. It was a day when human beings who had been classified as “chattel”, became free. It was not just a change in the status of their labour – from slave to “free labour” – but an acknowledgement of their humanity. That is an inaugural even that has to stand alone.For the Indentured Indians, however, even though in retrospect one could question how “voluntary” was a decision made to emigrate after their livelihoods had been destroyed by the British, the immigrants themselves took the contract seriously. In fact, in Fiji the “agreement” was rendered into Bhojpuri as “Girmit” and they defined themselves as “Girmitiya – people of the agreement.The “agreement” harked back to the indentured contract under which the majority of Europeans in the New World were brought as “bound” labourers. This started before and was coterminous with the beginning of African slavery. They had to work for a specified period for specified wages, after which they were usually given freedom and a plot of land.The Indian indenture contract was generally for five years and included a clause that gave them the right to a return passage to India, rather than a plot of land. And this was the seminal difference with the end of slavery versus the end of Indian indentureship. Each immigrant had his/her own “end of indentureship” and collectively, new immigrants were seen as workers who were undercutting their wage rates as “free labour”.While the conditions of labour were quite abysmal and transgressions of the contract were subject to criminal prosecutions, at no time were Indian indentureds legal chattel. The terms of the contract were invariably interpreted to favour the planters and at least on a dozen occasions the strikes by the indentureds to protest severe breaches were answered by bullets that killed dozens and wounded hundreds. But while there were several local Indian critics of indentured system, there was no organised effort to end it.In the end, it was the work of Gandhi in South Africa that brought the plight of the indentureds in the British colonies to the consciousness of the Indian nationalists in India. Promised if they cooperated with British rule in India, Indians eventually would be British citizens in the British Empire they were stung when the “free” Indian merchants and professionally were treated like the “coolies”.They forced the end of indentureship as much to salve their own pride, as ending the inequities of the system, which ended with a whimper and not with a bank here. It is time we interrogate indentureship from the perspective of the present with an eye to the future.
The end of Indentureship