The Other Side of Indo-Caribbean Indenture: Landownership, Remittances and Re-migration 1838–1920
The following article examines the under-researched side of the Indo-Caribbean indentured experience, that is, the ability of indentured servants to use the indenture system to acquire land and savings as well as to escape caste prejudice in India. The article acknowledges that indentured servitude was an exploitative system which controlled and restricted the time, labour and mobility of indentured workers. Moreover, it does not underestimate or under-rate the powerful nature of the indentured colonial system in executing and maintaining its objectives. Indentured servants worked on the sugar plantations under a barrage of subversive labour laws that protected and profited their capitalist employers. The general welfare of East Indian indentured servants was not a great concern to their employers and, as a consequence, there was a perfect divorce between power and responsibility. Nevertheless, it is argued that within the ambit of power and control, some indentured servants benefited from the indenture system. Of the 350,000 who stayed in the Caribbean, the majority were able to acquire savings and a piece of land to start a new life in a new environment that was free from caste prejudice. They were able to recreate and reconstruct lost India in the Caribbean and subsequently lived a fairly comfortable life. And even among the 175,000 or so indentured servants who returned to India, the majority took with them enough savings to buy a piece of land and settle down.1 Some were treated like zemindars (or zamindars: feudal landlords) on their return. Others, however, were not treated so kindly and were driven out from their native villages. This article maintains that there are two sides to the indenture system: negative and positive. Both sides have to be examined in order to have a balanced view of Indo-Caribbean indentured servitude.