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New perspectives on indentured labour

‘Protector of Immigrants’ developed in Trinidad
Published: 
Sunday, March 4, 2012
Indentured-labourers-from-Mauritius.

Peter Hanoomansingh is a journalist employed with Guardian Media Ltd. At a conference at the University of Mauritius on December 5-7 2011, Hanoomansingh delivered an academic paper which compared the system of indentureship imposed in Trinidad to that used in Mauritius at a in that Indian Ocean country. Following is an excerpt of the paper.

 
In 1867, highly repressive labour legislation was installed in Mauritius aimed specifically at the free Indian population in the colony. Described as “a landmark in labour repression under British colonialism”, the legislation was intended to deal with what was termed the vagrancy problem in the sugar-dominated colony but gave license to the colonial state to invade and arrest ‘time-expired’ Indians in their homes or on the streets and impound them at vagrant depots which dotted the island. The contrast with what was taking place at virtually the same juncture in Trinidad is instructive: there, the colonial government installed and prosecuted a range of moral order offences but there were no new legislative or policing initiatives for regulating the movement of free labourers. The most noteworthy instance of colonial repression in Trinidad during this period was in the singular event of the so-called Hosay massacre where police were deployed to forcefully stop mass processions from entering the towns. This was an instance in the exercise of exemplary force, unlike the continuous policing required in a regime of containment as seen in Mauritius. In Trinidad ‘free populations’ became a subject of moralising discourses which sought to identify the inner disposition of subject populations. In this paper I will examine the contrasting discursive, institutional and spatial contexts which informed the different approaches to the “free Indians” in both colonies. Mauritius became the first of the British colonies to identify India as a source of labour as slavery came to an end in the early nineteenth century. Its role as pioneer in the new traffic out of the subcontinent set it apart from the other colonies that were soon to follow. For one thing, the proposal to import free labour into the colony came from private hands and remained so for a few years before the traffic was temporarily halted pending its closer regulation. Workers both slave and free had been transported to Mauritius from India since the eighteenth century and so it was perhaps one of the first options that G.C. Arbuthnot considered in 1834 when he contracted 75 Dhangar men to work in Mauritius for a period of five years on a sugar plantation. Other planters quickly took the cue and in very short order, vessels were sailing to Port Louis loaded with goods and labourers on deck. By the time the traffic was temporarily suspended some 22,791 men had already been privately contracted to the sugar plantations of Mauritius. 
 
The sudden intensity of the “coolie traffic” to Mauritius despite its temporary halting in the years 1838-1842 began an equally dramatic withdrawal and displacement of the ex-apprentices from the plantations. This in itself held tragic consequences with a striking decline in numbers from over 60,000 at emancipation to an estimated 48,330 by 1853. Mauritius “overcompensated in labour importation” which resulted in the complete displacement of ex-apprentices from the estates so that as early as 1846 Indian immigrants comprised 85 per cent of all agricultural labourers and 96 per cent of workers in the island’s sugar industry. What thereafter was absent in discourses on governance was any reference to the ex-apprentices or creole population many of whom had begun since the early 1840s to migrate to marginal districts. There rapidly emerges a radical spatial separation in settlement patterns as Indian immigrants come to monopolize work on the plantations. As these ex-apprentices became marginalised both socially and spatially one finds little concern that regulation of one group may impact on colonial relations with other groups. So that regulation and governance of labour and crime become directed implicitly and explicitly at Indians and not at a more general colonial subject. Planters continued to exert their influence on the recruitment of labourers through the use of returnees and this created the situation for aggressive competition for the services of Indian indentured workers. An unexpected outcome of this was that by the 1850s a majority of workers refused to sign contracts lasting more than one year. In the years 1860-64 less than 45 per cent of contractual workers re-engaged with the same employer. The situation continued to be unstable into the late 1870s as short term contracts accounted for more than 85 per cent of written agreements. This volatility in the terms of labour was one factor that brought to the forefront the question of the mobility of the Indians on the island and legislators introduced law to focus entirely on the movement of this population away from the plantations. This was manifest in the continued complaints from officials and planters about vagrancy, desertion and illegal absence of Indians beginning the late 1840s. It was also implicit in discourses on crime on the island and in this we can see clearly how the displacement of concern from apprentice to Indian took place in colonial discourse.
 
Thus the Report of the Procureur General in 1851 noted that larceny was the most prevalent form of crime in the colony, contributing to 4036 out of 6098 offences between the years 1841 and 1850. But the Procureur General would go on to point out that “the crimes and other offences are relatively more frequent among the Indian laborers than the other labouring classes”. So the policing and control over crime in Mauritius became a question of how to manage a population that in short order had become the largest group in the colony. But the fact of sheer numbers does not by itself explain the pattern of crime in those years. The crimes committed were those of a mobile and unsettled population that was largely outside the realm of urban centres. In the 1850s for example a concern was registered with the use of stramonium  a plant, the derivatives of which could be used to “stupefy its victims”. Stramonium appeared to symbolize the hidden, lurking dangers produced in the minds of colonials by the presence of an unsettled and spatially diffuse immigrant population. The problem of stramonium was interpreted as derived from a deeper problem of vagrancy. Along with desertion, vagrancy became identified as both the symptom and cause of undesirable behaviour amongst the island’s Indian population. In turn, vagrancy was a feature of innate tendencies of Indian labourers such as their “idle and unsettled habits” and their “erratic character”. Vagrancy increased markedly in mid-century and this coincided with the increase in numbers of time-expired Indians who had begun to settle and establish themselves beyond the confines of the plantations. Villages which made a visible appearance by the 1860s were also considered harbingers of vagrants and other criminal elements by planters who sought measures to force these independent elements back to field labour. This prompted Mauritian administrators to consider significant institutional changes in order to manage and control what was effectively the growing numbers of Old Immigrants Indians on the island. In mid-century the police force was reorganised to include a corps of Indian constables who it was believed, would understand the “peculiarities of the Indian mind” and thus be in a better position to detect vagrants and deserters. Police stations were also erected in the country districts, closer in proximity to where purported vagrants wandered. In 1864, prison sentences for deserters were lengthened while vagrant depots were established for the detention and separation of persons not claimed by a planter. 
 
The most repressive action taken by Mauritian legislators was the notorious Ordinance 31 of 1867 the workings of which came under scrutiny in 1872. Ordinance 31 extended and deepened the repressive practices of the 1850s by installing a new pass system which required time-expired immigrants to obtain “tickets of discharge” as proof of having completed the five year industrial residence. These tickets would not be issued unless immigrants were deemed to have a recognized place of residence as well as bona fide occupations. The Ordinance also empowered police with the right to detain any Indian found outside his or her district of residence as well as the power of entry into their huts and camps. 
Ordinance 31 of 1867 was an attempt to place ‘old immigrants’ under the same regime of surveillance and discipline as their indentured counterparts on the plantations. During the expansion of the sugar industry in the 1850s there were more than 19,000 Indian males who had made their living as artisans or traders while some 73,000 were still indentured on the estates. However, as another crisis hit the sugar industry planters sought to reverse the pattern of  the 1850s when the continuous recruitment of ‘new immigrant’ bands was employed to check the demands for higher wages from ‘old immigrants’. North-Coombs argues that these ‘old immigrants’ were allowed to exist as a reserve army during the period of expansion. Once crisis hit the industry however, the bonded labour on the estates came to be viewed as liability and the only option perceived by planters was to force the reserve army as it were back to the plantations. By the 1880s the complaints about vagrancy diminish then being displaced by concerns over “idleness”. This was a charge which Allen concludes suggested a more settled agricultural workforce. As we will see with Trinidad, “idleness” was a more persistent complaint particularly over the behaviour of free Indians.    
 
Atlantic space
There had been little notice in England of the newly emerging traffic in Indian indentured labour to Mauritius apart from officials at the Colonial Office. Cumpston observes that the proximity of Mauritius to India was one reason behind the lack of real opposition in England to the traffic. The early traffic of contracted Indian labour was therefore subject to minimal imperial intervention. It was however another matter when Indians were to be transported to the West Indies. Then the middle passage continued to haunt the discourse on labour of the “coloured races” on sugar plantations. I’ve termed it an “Atlantic space” to signal a shift in the terms of discourse on labour and migration of coloured races. For, when it came to consideration on the transport of Indian workers to the West Indies, a number of other issues came to the fore which were all premised on the distance and separation that workers would have to endure. The separation suggested a degree of permanence that hinted at a condition of enslavement and the proposed duration of contracts further added to this fear among humanitarians and abolitionists some who then held key positions at the Colonial Office. The proposal for indentured workers from India then entered an Atlantic discourse in which the vindication of emancipation hovered over the terms and conditions by which a new system of immigrant labour would be inserted in the West Indies. In real terms it meant that the migration of Indian workers across the Atlantic became subject to imperial policy almost from the outset. The reports of the fate of “Gladstone’s coolies” in British Guiana impelled the Colonial Office to play an active role in the traffic.
 
However, what is also to be noted is that unlike the Mauritian experience where India rapidly became the only source of immigrant workers, there was an equally significant flow of labour from neighbouring islands into Trinidad. The experience with each group informed how the Colonial Office regulated and treated with new entrants. It was in assuming its paternal role as protector of ex-slaves migrating from other West Indian islands that the Colonial Office introduced the Order in Council of 1838 which required that contracts be concluded in the receiving colony and additionally, that these contracts were to be limited to a single year’s duration. This legislation had the effect of strongly discouraging planters from importing labour privately since workers would have been under no obligation to work for these employers once they had landed in the colony. Ultimately what this spelt for West Indian colonies was that any immigration from distant lands would have to be financed from public funds but that meant that planters themselves would have less direct involvement in the recruitment of labour in Trinidad than they did in Mauritius. In Trinidad government had discretionary power to allot or withhold labour to any estate based on criteria premised on colonial policy. This of course placed considerable power in the hands of colonial authorities in particular, the Surgeon General and Protector of Immigrants. These two officials were accorded roles as legislators since they were both members of the Executive Council. The authority granted medicine in Trinidad is unrivalled in any of the colonies I have studied; neither was the Protector of Immigrants so patently paternalistic as it was in Trinidad. 
 
The role of Protector of Immigrants arguably was developed first in Trinidad. It was in that “isle of experimente” that was first proposed the Protector of Slaves in 1812. In contrast, the attempts to impose similar official positions in Mauritius were met with near violent resistance by colonial elites and planters in that island. Trinidad however could be regarded as unique in terms of how paternalism was constituted through discourse and administrative structure. The Protector was an appointed ex officio in the Legislative Council and was required to submit an annual report on the condition of the immigrants to the Secretary of State for the Colonies. He also advised on the annual requirements of indentured labourers for the colony and had the power to deny allotments to estates contravening certain regulations. He had the right of entry to all plantations which employed indentured workers and thereby make inspections of estate hospitals, the homes and surroundings of immigrants. Medical supervision also developed into a critical function in the system of indentureship providing a mechanism for the imperial intervention between employer and labourer. Ordinance 13 of 1870 restricted the allotment of indentured immigrants only to those estates which had provisions for hospital accommodation. Government Medical Officers were required to pay regular visits to the estate hospitals. Governor Gordon who presided in both colonies in sequential terms noted that whilst it was unlawful in Trinidad to indenture an immigrant to an estate without a proper hospital, in Mauritius there was no such provision. The institutional position accorded paternalist figures in Trinidad widened the terms of discourse on immigrant workers. Paternal discourses were routinized means of legitimizing indentureship: in so doing what was needed to be shown was not only the success of the new system of labour for the plantations but some demonstration that Indians had themselves been improved in their moral disposition , cultural habits and state of mind. 

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