Today marks 100 years since the Viceroy of India announced that the recruitment of labourers in India was suspended temporarily. Not soon after, on March 27, 1917, he made another grand announcement; “No native of India shall depart by sea out of British India for the purpose of or with the intention of labouring for hire in any country beyond the limits of India.” This end to the shipping of Indian labourers set the stage for the complete abolition of the indentureship system. Today, the Sunday Guardian starts a three-part series on the end of the system.
On April 22, 1917, Laltee arrived in Trinidad on board the SS Ganges. She was three years old and she had immigrated with her parents. Upon arrival, the family were sent to the Union Hall estate in the south of the island. There were 115 Indian women on board that ship. There were also 274 male labourers, and Laltee was one of 32 children.
This ship became famous as the last ship to bring Indian indentured labourers to our country. Its arrival signalled the end of the shipping of labourers under the indentureship scheme; a labour system which lasted for 72 years and saw the immigration of approximately 147,500 labourers. Under this scheme, labourers were transported from one part of the British Empire (India) to another part (Trinidad). It was regulated and controlled by the British imperial government and labourers worked on the sugar estates for an average of 25 cents a days for males, and 18 cents for females. The system was beneficial to sugar planters whose desire was to flood the market with labourers and thereby decrease the bargaining power of African labourers.
So, why was such a valuable system abolished?
The decision to stop the shipping of labourers to Trinidad came from outside of the island. The Trinidad planters had little or no involvement in the entire abolition process. This was actually the result of massive protests against the labour scheme which started in the late 1800s by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in Natal. Gandhi had migrated to Natal as a free, professional Indian. However, the South African laws discriminated against people who were not white. Non-whites were treated as inferior and were subjected to very harsh discriminatory laws such as high taxes, restrictions on where they could live, and so on. As a matter of fact, Gandhi was physically thrown out of a train for travelling in the first-class compartment which was reserved for whites only. After that incident, he organised a series of protest s against the discrimination against Indians in that country. This was the genesis of an anti-indenture campaign that eventually led to the end of indentureship in T&T.
By 1910, Gandhi’s struggles had gained the interest of a growing class of Indian professionals in India who had started questioning British rule in India. This Indian middle class comprised nationalists who were openly calling for self-rule in India.
They used the poor conditions of Indian indentured labourers in various colonies, Trinidad included, to show that although India was a British colony, Britain was unable to take care of those Indians who were living outside of India.
This group led a massive campaign highlighting the extent to which Indian labourers in the Caribbean, Fiji, and Mauritius were ill-treated, their state of impoverishment, and the punishment and abuse of Indian women that had become the norm in some of those colonies.
They held numerous public meetings; wrote a barrage of articles in Indian newspapers; petitioned both the Government of India and the British imperial government, and passed many resolutions pertaining to Indian indentured labourers.
By 1915, their campaign had developed to an all-India level and when it was seen as a real threat to British rule in India, the British imperial government decided to act.
As a result, on March 12, 1917, exactly one hundred years ago, the Viceroy of India announced that the recruitment of labourers in India was suspended temporarily. Not soon after, on March 27, 1917, he made another grand announcement: “No native of India shall depart by sea out of British India for the purpose of or with the intention of labouring for hire in any country beyond the limits of India.” This end to the shipping of Indian labourers set the stage for the complete abolition of the system.
The Trinidad planters were very unhappy with the termination of recruitment and shipping of labourers as they anticipated that the next step would be complete abolition.
In 1917, planters in Trinidad held meetings with planters from Jamaica and Guyana to discuss alternative ways of obtaining a labour supply. They petitioned the British imperial government to devise a new system which would guarantee them a regular and relatively cheap supply of labourers. Later, they sent a delegation to India to examine available options.
However, all of their efforts proved to be unsuccessful as Gandhi and the Indian nationalists were adamant that Indian emigration was detrimental to India.
They called for the end of all indenture contracts on all plantations and Gandhi threatened to go on a hunger strike if indentureship was not abolished completely. As a result, on January 1, 1920, all indentured contracts were terminated and the entire Indian indentureship system was abolished completely in Trinidad and other colonies. No other scheme was devised to replace it.
Laltee’s family remained in Trinidad and continued to work.
Her descendants continue to live in Union Hall up to today.
DR RADICA MAHASE
Senior lecturer, History, Costaatt