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…