Following the emancipation of slavery in the Caribbean, the West Indian Plantocracy wanted to continue building their wealth on an affordable and easily exploitable source of labour. The former slaves were aware of the abhorrent conditions in the cane fields and sugar factories, and had little desire to remain there longer than legally required. The plantocracy realized that their best option was to import workers who were ignorant to the indignities typical of plantation labour in the early nineteenth century. Additionally, there needed to be mechanisms in place, to prevent these workers from leaving the sugar estates. With their needs identified, the planter merchant class began to lobby the British parliament for access to indentured labourers, even as abolitionists and early critics of indentureship took to calling the system “a new form of slavery”.
Meanwhile in India, the economy of the entire subcontinent was essentially under the control of the East India Company. Prior to company rule, India was a major supplier of premium fabrics, and food insecurity was practically non-existent. By the early 1800s however, industry was now refocused on providing cheap goods for British consumption, and many Indians who were previously involved in the fabric industry were now seeking work elsewhere. According to Gaiutra Bahadur; “A wide array of social and economic deprivations drove villagers from home. The practice of Imperial capitalism destroyed traditional livelihoods, plunging weavers into unemployment by flooding India with factory-made textiles from England.”
In addition to the recently unemployed, indentureship offered an opportunity to those who faced oppression due to the caste they were born into. Ashutosh Kumar says that such people used migration as a means “to circumvent the constraints and calamities of life in nineteenth-century north India or as a means to escape from the perennial bondage experienced by peasants in a hierarchical and often repressive rural society.” Kumar cautions however, that it should not be assumed that people simply entered into indentureship on their own free will. Recruiters were often dishonest, making claims that the work in the West Indies involved simple tasks like sifting sugar, and guiding ploughs. Additionally, once they began making the journey towards the holding stations at the coast, they often had no way to return home even if they wanted to.
In December of 1837, the Hesperus and Whitby both sailed upriver into Calcutta to collect the first Indian Indentured laborers destined for the Caribbean. British Parliamentarian and member of the West Indian Plantocracy John Gladstone wanted them for his estates in West Demerara, and he used his political power to ensure that he would have free labour for the foreseeable future. Both vessels departed from India in January of the next year and arrived in British Guiana on the fifth of May. Many ships began the journey at the beginning of the year to avoid the Monsoon weather. This is part of the reason why the anniversary for Indian arrival in much of the Caribbean occurs in May and early June. The earliest of these ships were often merchant vessels of the East India Company and private vessels that also saw service transporting convicts from England to Australia. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, larger steam vessels were increasingly used. The use of these more modern ships as well as better legislation governing the treatment of the Indians onboard, lead to reductions in the mortality rate over time.
By 1880, over 400,000 people had already left India to become Indentured labourers. More than half of them went to Mauritius. Of the ones that journeyed to the West Indies, Trinidad and Guyana received the most, but Jamaica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Suriname received significant numbers. On arrival to the West Indies, indentured labourers realized that they were going to receive almost none of what was due. Planters often reneged on the promise of a parcel of land or passage back to India. Additionally, they were punished harshly, underfeed, and prevented from leaving the sugar estates. As Radica Mahase put it; “Planters and the colonial authorities in general, ensured that they had control over their labourers without appearing with whips and chains in hand.” As such, early indentureship has been described as slavery in all but name.
From early on, there was resistance from the Indians against this system of forced labour. This included cultural resistance to the European values of the dominant society, as well as labour strikes and refusals to complete tasks. By the early 1900s, Indian nationalists became outspoken about the second class status of the Indian diaspora across the British Empire. They became critical of the Indentureship system, with Ghandi referring to it in 1915 as “semi-slavery”. At the same time in the Caribbean, East Indians were also becoming increasingly involved in the West Indian struggle for workers’ rights. This burgeoning resistance, combined with falling sugar prices and the outbreak of the first World War finally resulted in the end of Indian Indentureship.
East Indians have made invaluable contributions to Caribbean culture. Most well known is Indo-Caribbean cuisine, which is present all across the West Indies. There is also less obvious evidence of their influence. For example, some traditions of Hindu ascetics live on within Rastafarianism, and minstrels who sang bhojpuri folk songs were a major influence on soca music.