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The Impact Of Indentured Labourers On Caribbean Society History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Indentureship is an economic system that controls every aspect of your life, even social. Indentured labourers were brought into the Caribbean to provide a work force that would replace the African slaves. These labourers were Chinese, Africans again, Whites, Portuguese, Syrians, Lebanese and East Indians, in chronological order. This impacted on Caribbean society demographically, economically and culturally. Places that had no immigration include Haiti, Santo Domingo, Barbados and Puerto Rico while Trinidad and Guyana were excellent for immigration.

The Chinese were the first indentured labourers to come to the Caribbean. They first came in 1806 because the abolition of slave trade was nearing (abolition of slave trade occurred in 1807) and the planters were afraid to lose their work force. Sugar was also on a decline and so, the Chinese were brought to grow tea as an alternative. Approximately 18,000 Chinese labourers from Canton were living in the Caribbean. The country that was the most successful with Chinese immigration was Cuba which had the largest group of immigrants (34,834 in 1861, which was 2.5% of the population and increased to 3% in 1871). From 1853 to 1879, there were 15,720 Chinese immigrants in British Guiana (now Guyana). In Jamaica, from 1860 to 1893, there were 4,845 Chinese labourers. There were also 500 in Martinique (1859) and 500 in Guadeloupe (1854 to 1887). Unfortunately, this kept failing because transport was very expensive and these immigrants were prone to illness which resulted in a high mortality rate. Also, the Chinese would leave the plantations as soon as possible, in order to establish businesses. However, the planters continued to import them because they wanted to displace the African slaves.

Africans were brought again into the Caribbean since immigration of the Chinese was not very successful. This was an epic failure since the Africans wouldn’t work because they thought that Indentureship was too similar to slavery. It was also obvious that after emancipation, slaves would not have wanted anything to do with the plantations, since they got the freedom that they long awaited. From the time period of 1835 to 1917, approximately 39,000 Africans from West Africa migrated to the Caribbean. Therefore, at this time, the countries would have still been predominantly black and Africans would merge with each other.

This did not sit well with the whites and so, more whites were brought into the Caribbean. From Europe, around 5,000 whites went to the Caribbean and 2,000 were from North America. This was in an attempt to create a predominantly white population and balance out the ratio of black to white. They probably feared that if there were more blacks than whites, the blacks would overpower and gain independence faster. Approximately 41,000 Portuguese from Madeira were also brought for this reason. Cross-breeding of the blacks and whites was forbidden but that did not inhibit these relations from occurring. It can be suspected that they got better contracts because of their race. After their contracts, they would venture out into business opportunities.

Less documented on were the Syrians and Lebanese, as they most likely migrated in insignificant amounts. All of the above peoples had to be coaxed to migrate to the Caribbean as indentured labourers. The only group that had certain push factors was the Indians and so, they had the largest group of immigrants.

The Indians came from Calcutta, Madras and Bombay and 430,000 migrated to the Caribbean. Factors such as the decline of industries, decline of agriculture, caste system, taxation, low wages and mutiny of 1857 were all push factors in India. The rural economy frequently fluctuated and the peasants lost their land or fell into debt or disaster. On the other side, there was the inbuilt hardships endured by some disadvantaged groups, and the inevitable occurrence of periodic drought or famine. The caste system was a very oppressive and inflexible social system. In Bihar, the poor sold their services and their children’s services, known as kamiuti. In South India, pariahs (untouchables), pannaiyals and padiyals (lower castes of agricultural labourers) commonly sold themselves and their children into lifelong debts.

Also prevalent were droughts and famines that would ruin harvests. Early migrants were driven into going overseas, by the severe 1840s famine in Upper India. The emigrants often originated from the most over-crowded districts where crop failure could reduce some villages to near-starvation. In times of drought, poor harvests and a succession of famines, there was intensified distress. Emigration from India depended more on the threat of starvation than on the attraction of higher wages in the colonies.

The impact of British colonial rule on Indian economy and society was variable, and remains controversial. One thing for certain would be the drastic change from an agrarian (agriculturally-centred) lifestyle to a competitive capitalist economy. Under new systems of taxation and land-holding, large local landowners and moneylenders gained legal claims on people to secure debt payments. This led to increased loss and disintegration of land and so, pauperization followed. There were official reports that the largest number of emigrants left Calcutta in 1858, following the Mutiny of 1857. Some of the rebel natives and civilians came to Trinidad.

The sea voyage from India to Trinidad was long and took 3 to 4 months by sailing ship. There was a constant fear of fires at sea and a risk of hurricane, shipwreck, mutiny by the crew and suicide by the migrants. The outbreaks of illness and epidemics of contagious diseases were more prevalent. Since the vegetables and fruits would often spoil, they ate boiled rice which resulted in beri-beri disease, as on the Moy from Calcutta to British Guiana in 1904. There was also inadequate rooming for early immigrants, which had to be expanded in order to reduce the high mortality rates (25% would die).

The indentured labourers were under contract for 5 to 10 years. They were promised repatriation but as this was costly, they were permitted to own land after their term was over, as a persuasive method. They were entitled to a basic wage, accommodation and health care, which were to be provided by the estate owner. Labourers worked on sugar or cocoa estates for 45 hours per week and 54 hours during the crop season. Each day, they got 30 minutes for a break and were assigned to a particular estate. Their wages were supposed to be 30-40¢ per day but they were really paid 25¢ with deductions for food and sometimes they weren’t paid.

Employers were required to provide their indentured labourers with suitable dwellings, in satisfactory condition. The Immigration Ordinance of 1870 gave the Governor power to make regulations concerning the immigrants’ barracks to ensure satisfactory sanitation and cleanliness. Houses were to be properly drained, floored with wood and white-washed inside and out. The best barracks had two rooms (for one family or for three single men). One was a living room, part of an enclosed veranda for cooking, with an earthen fireplace (choolhaa). The floors were boarded, the roofs covered with galvanised sheeting from which rain water was collected. Other barracks were dilapidated and leaking. There were usually no latrines.

The individual estate owner was responsible for maintaining the regulations, but often lapsed. Events in 1910 revealed that the Government had failed to enforce its own regulations. The barrack system of housing on the estates contributed not only to unsanitary conditions, but to social abuses. Robert Guppy’s objections in 1888 remained applicable in 1897 when Alzacar quoted them:

… A family has a single room in which to bring up their boys and girls, if they have children. All noises and talking and smells pass through the open space from one end of the barrack to the other. There are few places for cooking, no latrines. The men, women, boys and girls go together into the canes or bush when nature requires. Comfort, privacy and decency are impossible under such conditions.

The needs of the sugar industry brought the Indians to Trinidad and other colonies. As a late-developed plantation colony, Trinidad lacked labour and population at the time of the Emancipation of African slaves. During the 1850s and 1860s, the Indians comprised one of several streams entering Trinidad. The number of British West Indians was equal in numbers to that of the Indians. In 1861, Trinidad’s immigrant population formed nearly one-half of the total, and its impact was important.

Firstly, the immigrants increased the labour supply to the estates. This, together with the inducement of improved market prices, contributed to the increased output of export staples. By 1859 the estate labour force had increased to 17,000 or 19,000. Productivity was higher, although the land used had not increased. Output which had declined markedly after Emancipation, now increased and then overtook the levels obtained during slavery. By 1860, recovery in sugar production could be attributed most directly to the input of Indian labour.

At this time, education would have been available only because there was an adequate labour supply and so, indentureship (mainly Indian) opened up job opportunities. Other immigrant groups were steadily withdrawing from agricultural labour. The Portuguese had become largely urban-based, as shopkeepers or shop assistants. Most Chinese were also small shopkeepers, many in rural areas, with a few engaged in market-gardening or provision growing. The educated West Indians provided a significant proportion of the professional, clerical and skilled working groups (the teachers, clergymen, public officers, druggists and nurses).

Another impact would be that the islands would become more culturally diverse, with Africans, whites, Portuguese, Chinese, Indians and other minorities. Every different race had its own lifestyle and language which merged to form our different dialects. The mixing of religion, races and cultural practice also took place. Another impact would include the introduction to rice growing, especially in Trinidad and British Guiana.

All of these impacts can be seen presently and were more positive than negative. Immigration and Indentureship, on the whole, helped races live and work together in order to create a more civilized society where all races can be treated as one.

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