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Hidden histories: Indenture to Windrush

Maria del Pilar Kaladeen's great-great-grandmother was one of thousands of migrants who left their homeland in India to work as indentured labourers on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. Here, she explores the ‘hidden history’ of indenture and the lives of Caribbean people of Indian heritage who migrated to Britain in the Windrush era.

I am the daughter of a Windrush-era migrant who arrived in the United Kingdom from Guyana (then British Guiana) in 1961. My father was one of almost 180,000 people who migrated from the Caribbean to the UK between 1948 and 1963. I refer to my father as an ‘invisible passenger’ because like many Caribbean people of Indian heritage he is unseen in the general picture of this migration, which is almost always represented as entirely African-Caribbean. The story of my family’s erasure from this history is related to the lack of awareness that surrounds the system of indenture in the British Empire that lasted from 1834 to 1917, and which brought my ancestors from India to the Caribbean.[1] This has caused the descendants of indentured labourers living in the United Kingdom to be, in the words of sociologist Steve Vertovec, ‘overlooked, miscategorized, misunderstood’.[2] For example, while many have read The Lonely Londoners, the defining literary classic of the Windrush era, few know that its author, Samuel Selvon, was of Indian-Caribbean heritage. Although the majority of indentured Indian labourers went to either Trinidad or British Guiana, smaller numbers were also brought to Jamaica, Grenada, St Lucia, St Vincent and St Kitts and Nevis. When I first saw a photograph of the Empire Windrush, including people who could only be descendants of indentured labourers from India and China, I was mesmerised. It was the first time I had seen someone who looked like my father pictured as part of the Windrush story.

Photograph of Empire Windrush passengers at Tilbury Docks

Photograph of passengers at Tilbury docks

'When I first saw a photograph of the Empire Windrush, including people who could only be descendants of indentured labourers from India and China, I was mesmerised'.

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In 1878, my great-great grandmother became one of thousands of migrants who left their homeland in India to work on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. Travelling with her young daughter, I have often wondered how she ended up in the ship and if she could have imagined, as the boat sailed out of the port of Calcutta, that she would never see India again. Like the majority of indentured labourers in the Caribbean and other colonies, she did not return. Her story is part of what I refer to as a ‘hidden history’. It is a history that is deliberately forgotten because the facts of the system of indenture challenge the narrative of imperial benevolence that dominates the abolition of slavery in British colonies.

What was the system of indenture?

Following the abolition of the slave trade (1807), the subsequent abolition of slavery (1834) and the end of the apprenticeship system (1838), British planters in the Caribbean desperately sought a means by which they could continue to profit from the manufacture and sale of sugar and its related products. Documentation from 1810 shows that in anticipation of the end of slavery, the plantocracy first considered bringing Chinese labourers to the Caribbean to replace enslaved Africans.[3] In fact before Indians arrived in the Caribbean in 1838, the British had already attempted to seek an alternative labour force by indenturing Africans and Portuguese from the island of Madeira.[4] Indian indentured labourers were also contracted to work for British and other European colonies, in Fiji, Guadeloupe, Mauritius, South Africa and Surinam. Today, a diaspora can be found in Commonwealth countries including Kenya, Malaysia and Sri Lanka.

The term ‘indenture’ defined an agreement that bound a person to work, for a specific number of years, for an employer. Where the ‘indent’ was employed to work overseas, their employer may have been responsible for paying their wages (which were typically low), the cost of their outward and return voyage and sometimes their food and lodgings. On the face of it, the system of indenture could appear advantageous to intending migrants. There is evidence that some migrants were able to prosper under the system, saving enough money to buy a portion of land or start a business of their own. My great-great grandmother was one of many who re-indentured, accepting a bounty to remain instead of a return voyage to India. However, the prosperity of a minority should not detract from the historical evidence that demonstrates that indenture was also liable to a series of abuses. On the whole, the system was largely more exploitative than beneficial.

The idea of using Indian indentured labourers to manufacture sugar in the Caribbean originated with Sir John Gladstone (1764–1851). Gladstone’s family had profited richly from the enslaved men, women and children compelled to labour on their plantations in British Guiana and Jamaica. In 1836, Gladstone wrote to the Calcutta firm Gillanders Arbuthnot & Co and asked them if, following their recruitment of indentured labourers to Mauritius, they might also engage indentured labourers to work on his plantations in the West Indies. In their response, the firm claimed that they anticipated no difficulty, declaring that the potential recruits had ‘few wants beyond eating, sleeping and drinking’, referring to the Adivasi, the indigenous people of India, as ‘more akin to the monkey than the man’. This dehumanisation of Indians was continually employed during indenture to justify denying Indians basic rights.

A system open to abuses

Accounts from the plantocracy, Colonial Office and British writers such as Anthony Trollope and Charles Kingsley insisted that indenture was positive for migrants and that workers were treated fairly.[5] Yet from the start of indenture up to the decade of its termination, the system was marked by official enquires that challenged such representations. In 1839, a representative from the Anti-Slavery Society visited British Guiana and recorded incidents where Indians were beaten on the plantations. Testimonies from indentured migrants and verified reports of recruiters kidnapping Indians all led to a ban on indenture by the colonial Indian government from 1839 to 1843. In 1839, The Friend of India predicted that if indenture were permitted to continue, it would exist as a race ‘between abuses and legislation’ with ‘legislation always in the rear’.[6] There is certainly accuracy in this claim, as the opening years of indenture initiated a pattern that was to continue for the duration of the system.

How did these ‘abuses’ manifest themselves? Examples of malpractice included the indentured being beaten on voyages, sailors and plantation overseers using their power to sexually assault women and children, overwork and confined, unsanitary living conditions. Mortality could be high, both on the plantations and on the ships carrying migrants to the colonies. Restrictions on the movement of Indians beyond the plantations, and the use of the court system to enforce labour laws rendered indenture closer to penal servitude than voluntary labour. This inevitably led to resistance from Indians on the plantations who protested by withholding their labour, organising strikes and rioting against the British colonial authorities. The Indians and the Chinese, who were also part of the indenture system from 1853 to 1866, found allies among some members of the white elite who intervened on their behalf in order to secure better treatment.

In 1869, George William Des Voeux, a magistrate for the colonial government of British Guiana, wrote a letter to the colonial Secretary of State that prompted an inquiry into the indenture system in the colony.[7] The Anti-Slavery Society sent a barrister named John Edward Jenkins to observe the inquiry, and he subsequently wrote two books through which he hoped to highlight to British readers the negative aspects of indenture.[8] From 1890 onwards, physical protests on plantations were matched by written indictments against indenture by Indians on and off the plantations. Perhaps the most famous of these was a man called Bechu, who testified to the Royal Commission of Inquiry and wrote lengthy letters to the colonial press publicly exposing conditions on sugar estates and the routine violation of child labour laws.[9] In the final two decades of the system of indenture, concern in India was building over the treatment of Indian workers on colonial sugar plantations. Historians generally agree that the system of indenture was abolished in an effort to secure a better opinion of British rule in India. However, there is currently a lack of research into the abolition of indenture, and it is important to understand how far protests and uprisings by indentured workers, as well as the increase in the production of beet sugar in Europe, contributed to the termination of the system. By the time that indentureship was abolished in the British Empire, over one million Indians had been contracted under this system of labour.

The end of indenture did not signal the end of plantation servitude. In British Guiana, for example, the ownership of sugar plantations by private individuals was superseded at the start of the 20th century by the company Bookers, who held enormous control over the economic and political fortunes of the country. Guyanese referred to British Guiana as ‘Booker’s Guiana’, and in his novel Hendree’s Cure, the writer Moses Nagamootoo records the efforts of Indian-Guianese of the 1940s and 1950s to exist away from the plantation and out of the shadow of ‘the colonial vampire’.[10]

Indian-Caribbean migration to the UK

From the early 20th century, the Indian-Caribbean community largely realised that in order for their children to avoid the sugar plantations they must invest in their education. This education took place in colonial schools where my father and his generation would have studied poets such as Shakespeare and Tennyson and used text books like The Royal Reader. It is therefore not surprising that when Britain began to encourage people from the Caribbean to come to the United Kingdom, some may have felt a sense of ‘homecoming’. They were, after all, British citizens. Yet this sense of belonging to the United Kingdom was continually challenged by the racism and prejudice that they encountered when they arrived in the country during the Windrush period and beyond. Indian-Caribbean migrants during this period existed as a minority within a minority; their presence as part of Windrush caused consternation amongst those who were unaware of the colonial history of indenture.

Typescript by Shiva Naipaul on the ritual of 'going away' and his earliest impressions of England

Shiva Naipaul typescript

This essay by Shiva Naipaul, who is of Indian-Trinidadian heritage, was written sometime after his arrival in Britain in 1964 and describes the ritual of leave-taking. Assembling at the docks time and again to wave off family members bound for England, Naipaul’s image of the ‘mother country’ became imbued with magic and fantasy.

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Held by © The Estate of Shiva Naipaul

In spite of these challenges, Indian-Caribbean migrants of the Windrush era achieved a great deal. The Nobel Laureate V S Naipaul was a Windrush-era migrant of Indian-Trinidadian heritage, as is the novelist Lakshmi Persaud, who wrote a semi-auto-biographical account of her experiences as a university student in Northern Ireland in the 1950s. Indian-Caribbean people fought in solidarity with the African-Caribbean community against the racial injustices of the period. Rudy Narayan, a famous barrister of Indian-Guyanese heritage, became a legendary figure amongst equality activists, and the BBC series Black Silk was inspired by his career. Scholars of indenture owe a debt of gratitude to Arif Ali, the Indian-Guyanese founder of Hansib Publications, who in 1970 started his business in Finsbury Park in response to the lack of publishers producing work by writers of colour. Hansib have been responsible for publishing some of the most important books on indenture, such as India in the Caribbean (1987, edited by David Dabydeen and Brinsley Samaroo). The activist spirit ignited by the first generation of migrants is still evident in the UK. An example of this is the feminist scholar Heidi Safia Mirza, who is the daughter of an Indian-Trinidadian Windrush-era migrant. Mirza has devoted her academic career to pioneering work on challenging the structural inequalities faced by women of colour.

The Lonely Londoners by Samuel Selvon

The Lonely Londoners by Samuel Selvon

This short biography, printed on the back of the first edition of The Lonely Londoners (1956), acknowledges that 'Samuel Selvon was born in Trinidad of Indian parents'. His novel is considered an exceptional example of late modernist literature.

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Usage terms Samuel Selvon (front cover and text): © By permission of the Estate of Sam Selvon. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence. Photograph of Samuel Selvon by Robin Adler: © Robin Adler. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.

2017–20 marks 100 years since the abolition of indenture in the British Empire. With funding from the Gafoor family of Guyana, the Yesu Persaud Centre for Caribbean Studies at the University of Warwick recently initiated the annual Gafoor Lecture in Indentureship Studies. It is hoped that this annual lecture, as well as the events inspired by it, will go some way to advancing knowledge in the United Kingdom about the hidden history of indenture and the presence of the Indian-Caribbean community in the UK. I was pleased to hear recently that the government have pledged funding for the annual observance of ‘Windrush Day’ on 22 June. It is important that the stories of those who were part of the Caribbean’s indentured labour diaspora are also included as part of this remarkable migration history.

Footnotes

[1] Although indenture was abolished in 1917, some contracts continued up to 1920.

[2] Steve Vertovec, ‘Indo-Caribbean Experience in Britain: Overlooked, Miscategorized, Misunderstood’, in Inside Babylon: The Caribbean Diaspora in Britain, ed by Winston James and Clive Harris (London: Verso, 1993),  pp. 165–78.

[3] Parliamentary Papers, 1810–1811, Vol. II, pp. 409–12.

[4] You can learn more about indenture from Africa in Monica Schuler’s book Alas, Alas Kongo, and from Madeira in the work of Portuguese-Guyanese historian Sr. Mary Noel Menezes.

[5] Anthony Trollope, The West Indies and the Spanish Main (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1860), p. 152, and Charles Kingsley At Last: A Christmas in the West Indies (London: Macmillan, 1871), p. 9.

[6] Friend of India (3 August 1839).

[7] Parliamentary Papers, Vol. XX, 1871, William Des Voeux to Earl Granville, 25 December 1869, pp. 1–14.


[8] Edward Jenkins, The Coolie: His Rights and Wrongs (New York: George Routledge and Sons, 1871) and Lutchmee and Dilloo: A Study of West Indian Life (London: William Mullan and Son, 1877).

[9] Clem Seecharan,  Bechu: Bound Coolie Radical in British Guiana 1894–1901 (Barbados: University of the West Indies Press, 1999).

[10] Moses Nagamootoo, Hendree’s Cure (Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2001), p. 39.


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  • Maria del Pilar Kaladeen
  • Maria del Pilar Kaladeen is an Associate Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. She specialises in the history of the system of indenture in the Caribbean and is particularly interested in the historical use of literature as a means to promote and protest indenture. Her monograph, With Eyes of Wonder: Colonial Writing on Indentured Indians in British Guiana, 1838-1917 is forthcoming with University of Liverpool Press. Maria is one of the editors of, We Mark Your Memory the first anthology on indenture in the British Empire. Published by the University of London and the Commonwealth Writers organisation, the anthology features writing from the descendants of indentured labourers across the Commonwealth.