In helping to bring about the end of one form of slavery, the Abolition Act of 1807 gave birth to anotherby Aarathi Prasad / April 29, 2007 / Leave a comment
Two hundred years ago, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed. British captains caught continuing the trade were fined £100 for every slave found aboard their ships. It was not a particularly effective piece of legislation: many slavers who found themselves under a naval frigate’s guns found it more economical simply to throw their cargo overboard. But even the risk of that wasn’t high—after 1807 at least 82,000 slaves left the coast of Africa and most of those made it to the Caribbean. As its name suggests, the act didn’t abolish the owning of slaves, merely their trade. It would take another act, 27 years later, to initiate emancipation by making slavery illegal. All this is well known. And yet the act certainly did mark the beginning of the end for African slavery. As such, it is right that we remember it. In doing so, however, we should not forget that in hastening the demise of one form of slavery, the act gave birth to another.
Emancipation caused an acute labour shortage on plantations throughout the British colonies—unsurprisingly, ex-slaves showed little inclination to work for their former masters. A new labour force was required, and one was found—in Asia. Between 1834 and 1917, 2.5m Indians and thousands of Chinese were used to replace slave labour in the West Indies, South America, Mauritius, Fiji, South Africa, east Africa and the Seychelles. These labourers were not slaves but rather “indentured”; that is, they were contracted to work on the plantations for a certain number of years, typically five, after which they could stay and farm independently, or else return home, their fares paid.
It seemed like a civilised solution to a pressing economic problem. But it was not. Edolphus Swinton, wife to the captain of the coolie ship The Salsette, recorded in 1859 that 99 per cent of the Indians being transported on that voyage from Calcutta to Trinidad knew neither their destination nor why they were being taken there. It seems many were simply kidnapped by emigration agents scouring the alleys of Calcutta. Herded into detention centres, and thence on to coolie ships, they embarked on a voyage that could take as long as 200 days. They were not shackled, but the conditions under which they were transported were otherwise little better than those of the old African slavers. Confined to the lower deck, they ate, sat and slept in unsanitary conditions; if they died en route—and due to cholera, typhoid, dysentery, measles, venereal diseases, putrid food and lack of milk for infants, around 17 per cent did—their remains were unceremoniously thrown overboard. It was their own “middle passage.”
Just as the “inferiority” of Africans was used as a justification for their enslavement, in 1836, the Calcutta merchants Gillanders, Arbuthnot & Co referred to the Indians who replaced them as “more akin to the monkey than the man. They have no religion, no education, and, in their present state, no wants, beyond eating, drinking and sleeping; and to procure which, they are willing to labour.”
And just as African slaves would have found, the new world was no promised land. Indentured labourers were often treated no better than their wholly owned predecessors. The contracts that they signed, with clause following clause, were incomprehensible to the illiterate labourers, but ensured that they worked for next to nothing. Other problems were rife. The society in which they found themselves was almost entirely male. Six years after the trafficking of Indian labourers had begun, only 205 women had been transported compared with 18,845 men. (Old folk in the West Indies still speak with shame of polyandrous alliances in their family histories). Ships’ reports tell us that such women that there were fell victim to sexual assaults from both Indian men and the ship’s male crew. Once in the colonies, they then became, all too often, the sexual property of the plantation owners. A particularly sad, but no means unique, account from Mauritius was reported in 1838 by the special magistrate Justice Coleman. He recounted how a ten-year-old girl who was reported dead, had “perished from the dreadful effects resulting from the forcible violation of her person.” Other contemporary reports describe how Indians who committed petty “offences” were made to work in chains or were brutally flogged. Some committed suicide. Others tried to find their own way home. In 1840, John Scoble, an abolitionist who turned his attention to indentureship, recorded how “with tears and clasped hands, and in broken English, [the Indians] entreat to be sent back to their native country and to their kindred from whom they have been wantonly separated. On one occasion… upwards of 20 of them cut their way, due east, for many miles through the bush, in the hope of reaching Bengal!”
All this is mostly forgotten. Perhaps this is because it is believed that unlike slavery, indenture was a system of voluntary migrant labour undertaken to escape the poverty of the subcontinent and the inequities of the caste system; that the Indians were simply the Poles of their day. This, at least, is the history that I was taught as a schoolgirl in Trinidad—and that was in 1989. True, I later learned another version of this history, but that was from my grandfather. According to him, a pleasant Englishman had invited him to visit his ship, moored by a Calcutta quay. That was the last he saw of his family, indeed India, for the next dry land under his feet was a quarantine station off the coast of Port of Spain. The year was 1903 and he was nine years old.
On 25th March, like everyone else, I shall remember the horrors of the African slave trade and celebrate its demise. Indentured emigration officially ended in 1917, largely due to the efforts of Mahatma Ghandi and George Curzon. How shall we celebrate in 2017? Will we?