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India Office Records

On the abolition of slavery in the early 19th century, owners of plantations in the British and French colonies of the Caribbean began to search for a new supply of labour. They found it in India. Workers were recruited, mainly from the Bengal and Madras areas, to work on the plantations for fixed periods.

The Government of India became responsible for regulating the emigration and for safeguarding workers' welfare during their stay, under a scheme that became known as the indentured labour system. From around 1860, the flow of emigrants increased. Jamaica, Trinidad and Demerara (later British Guiana) were the main destinations; labourers also went to Grenada, Tobago, St Lucia, St Vincent, Guadeloupe and Martinique. It gradually became apparent, however, that the plantation owners were continuing to exploit their workers; this caused public opinion in India and Britain to turn against the scheme. In 1920 the indentured labour system was abolished. Many Indians nonetheless remained in the Caribbean and the India Office and Government of India continued, until Indian Independence in 1947, to monitor their welfare.

In the extensive India Office Records collection, there are a number of records that show how the indentured labour system was run and that reveal the political and social problems it provoked. The relevant material is generally found embedded within departmental record series. It includes letters between administrators in India and London, copies of letters that circulated between administrators in India, official and unofficial reports, subject files, newspaper cuttings and records of parliamentary debates. Most documentation was created by British administrators and therefore presents the British, rather than the Indian, point of view.

What are these documents about? They provide a fascinating and detailed view, over the course of a hundred years, of the emigrants' working and living conditions and of their legal and social position in relation to the native inhabitants.

A 1914 Government of India report gives detailed information on the housing, wages, health and diet of Indian immigrants in Trinidad. Day workers shall be paid one shilling a day in the case of adult males, and nine pence in the case of minors and females. A 1939 Colonial Office report describes labour conditions throughout the West Indies. The Bahamas labourer is in most cases fairly well fed: rice, hominy, fish, mutton (goat), with yams and sweet potatoes, constitute a liberal diet. In describing the position of Indians, the administrators had naturally to explain the larger context, and this makes the records a valuable source for Caribbean studies generally.

An outline of the main record classes, with lists of some individual files, is contained in Timothy N. Thomas, Indians overseas: a guide to source materials in the India Office Records for the study of Indian emigration 1830-1950 (London, 1985).

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