Descendants of Indian Immigrants: A Case for Reparatory Justice!

Descendants of Indian Immigrants: A Case for Reparatory Justice!

Dr Tara Singh

the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the abolition of recruitment in the indentureship system, we feel that it’s appropriate to advance a case for reparatory justice for the descendants of Indian immigrants so as to neutralize or even eliminate the lingering pain of indentureship, as part of a process of healing and reconciliation. While the dominant thrust in the Caribbean is for reparatory justice for descendants of slaves and to a lesser degree indigenous peoples, we feel that the indentureship system which was the immediate successor to the slave system, also has a valid claim to reparatory justice.

If indentureship was a “New Form of Slavery” (Tinker: 1953); if Chief Justice Joseph Beaumont’s description of it as "The New Slavery" (Beaumont: 1871) characterized as "a monstrous, rotten system, rooted upon slavery;” (Quoted in Mangru: 1999 p 28); if John Scoble, Secretary of the Anti-slavery Society asserted; “to detail the whole of the iniquities practiced on the wretched coolies….would fill a volume;” (Mangru:1999, p 22); and if the Black immigrants from the Southern United States to Guyana believed that “plantation agriculture was similar to slavery;” (Mangru: 1999, p 12); why didn’t CARICOM include the descendants of immigrants in their terms of reference for reparatory justice, despite these and other compelling statements that identify some common elements between slavery and indentureship? Mangru stated that during the 1860s, “the planting interests had so tightened their control over the immigrant population that the indenture system replicated several features of slavery.” (Mangru: 2017 p 37).

While Indians were not part of that iniquitous system of slavery, they (Indians) nevertheless inherited much of the miserable conditions of slave society. Chief Justice Joseph Beaumont tried valiantly to correct or mitigate much of the evils such as neglect and tyranny, squalid housing conditions, illicit sexual relations, and defective immigration laws (Mangru: 2017 p2), but his pro-immigrants’ position on these issues brought him into perpetual conflict with Governor Francis Hincks, who was part of an oligarchy founded on domination and control. Beaumont noted; "the system of government is not only that of a highly organized oligarchy but a mercantile oligarchy, an irresponsible oligarchy founded in the traditions of slavery and an absentee oligarchy which rules by deputy." (Beaumont: 1871 p 29).

Another strong advocate for immigrants was the indomitable James Crossby, who, along with Magistrate George William Des Voeux, fought valiantly to lessen the evils of the indentureship system, but in the process, also met stiff resistance from the Governor and the planter class (plantocracy). James Crosby was appointed Immigration Agent General (IAG), having served initially as Stipendiary Magistrate on the East Coast of Demerara. His constant intervention through which he sought relief for immigrants, had persistently incurred the wrath of the Governor and the plantocracy who retaliated by curtailing his powers. However, those powers were eventually restored to Crossby. Before the Royal Commission of 1870 Crossby made another damning indictment of the indentureship system; “the contracts made in India that guaranteed a minimum wage of 10 annas (an anna was equivalent to 1/16 rupee) to 2 rupees were not honored in Guyana.” (Mangru: 2017 p 15).

The CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC) as constituted in 2013, is to advance the cause of reparatory justice for descendants of slaves and indigenous peoples of the Caribbean region. Each member state of CARICOM has set up its own Reparations Committee that is required to report back to the CRC with their findings and recommendations. Both the Trinidad & Tobago National Committee on Reparations (TTNCR) and the Guyana Reparations Committee (GRC) have not included Indian and other immigrants for reparatory justice. 

The PPP’s position on reparation was provided by their Parliamentary Chief Whip, Gail Texeira. “We support the CARICOM in opening up constructive dialogue with the former European colonizers and their present day governments on reparations and compensation for slavery, indigenous genocide and indentureship. Head of GRC has now changed the objective and mandate of the Committee.” (Texeira: 2016). Gail was probably referring to the removal of indentureship from the GRC’s terms of reference!

not including indentureship in the national reparation committees, does CARICOM believe that the question of reparation for descendants of indentured immigrants should be pursued separately? Or does CARICOM feel that reparation for descendants of Indian immigrants should not be at the same level as that of slavery? Does CARICOM believe that the contribution and sacrifice as well as evils of indentureship do not meet the level of reparatory justice that they have established? Despite the multitude of indescribable abuses, Indians have played a central role, for example, in keeping the sugar industry alive. Governor Henry Barkley of Guyana in 1848 admitted; “without Indian labor the sugar industry would have collapsed,” while William Russell, Attorney and Proprietor, described Indian immigration as “a matter of life and death importance to the colony.” James Crosby, Immigration Agent General wrote: “To the thews and sinews of the East Indian coolies, Demerara owes its present leading position as a sugar producing colony.” (Mangru:1999, p 86).

These crucial statements are also supported by evidence from Trinidad and Tobago where Kamal Persaud writes; ”the historical evidence is that Indian indentured workers were the catalyst in the economic recovery of Trinidad from a state of virtual bankruptcy following emancipation in 1838 and free trade in 1846. This recovery also contributed to the economic progress of Africans in Trinidad.” (Kamal Persaud: Sunday Express, 6/3/2017, 21/5/2017). Kamal also quoted from IM Cumpston (1953); “by 1854 coolies from India had been largely responsible for the restoration of prosperity in Trinidad.”

The strategic role of immigration to the plantation society was also captured by William Green of the British Slave Emancipation body; "without Indian immigration, scores of planters in Trinidad and British Guiana would have ceased cultivation." Green continued; “the civic institutions and physical infrastructure of British Guiana and Trinidad as well as the material well-being of a substantial portion of the inhabitants, Whites and non-Whites, were enhanced by the effects of immigration. Without it, Trinidad and Tobago might have assumed the impoverished aspect of the Windward colonies, and whole districts of British Guiana would likely be reclaimed by the sea." (Kamal Persaud: Express, 3/28/2017pg 13).

While no one should ever deny the brutal conditions (man’s inhumanity to fellow man) of slavery and the major contribution of Blacks towards infrastructural developments, Indians have not had a smooth sailing either. Notes Ramdin: “these [work] schedules comprised two major tasks: first the physically demanding job of digging canals and ‘throwing back six-foot parapets from above 72 feet, in nine hours.” (Ramdin: 2000, p 51). We note that every succeeding generation benefits from the foundation set by the previous generation. This is almost a law of nature. Thus, Indians have built upon the foundations set by Blacks and gone beyond that to reclaim lands for agricultural development and laid the basis for a viable agriculture sector, outside of sugar, in Guyana as well as in Trinidad & Tobago. There is the classic case of Penal/Debe, along with Couva, Chaguanas, etc. in Trinidad and Tobago (Gooptar: 2015 p 36) and of settlements on the banks of the Mahaicony and Mahaica Rivers, Canals Polder area, Bonasika, and elsewhere in Guyana.

Indians did not only save the sugar industry from collapse at great social cost to themselves, but also pioneered the rice industry as well as livestock and other agricultural crops. Not all Indians who decided to remain in the Caribbean continued to work on the sugar estates. In the 1880s in Guyana, for example, a substantial amount that had moderate levels of savings branched off to begin the rice industry and other agriculture crops. The crisis in the sugar industry in the 1880s and 1890s precipitated the move away from the sugar estates. About 1 in every 3 Indians (35,668 out of 107,439) had left the sugar estates by 1891. This push helped to lay the basis for the movement later of Indians into the private sector.

It is conceivable that Indians might have been better off financially compared with their situation in India, and perhaps might have felt less socially deficient in the sense that they were largely relieved from the punishing burden of caste restrictions (Lomarsh: 2009), but these “improved conditions” did not obliterate the other evils of the system. For example, with respect to living conditions in logies on sugar estates, Rev J.K. Andrews relative to Skeldon; “Some of them must be 50 years old, and the filth that has been continually thrown outside the door (where no drain existed) must have accumulated in such layers that the ground in front of the lines were almost like cesspit” (Mangru: 1999, p 42]. Beaumont described immigrants’ existence as harsh and cruel, a concept which he also applied to the Supreme Court in the delivery of justice.  

There was the pugnacious practice of having Indians carry “passes," so that if they wandered beyond 2 miles of the estate boundaries, they would be subject to criminal penalties. The labor and vagrancy laws severely restricted Indians’ work and social activities. Beaumont reported that, having been isolated on sugar plantations (of which there were about 150 in 1870s), bouts of depression and hopelessness were common. In speaking about mortality, Beaumont described that as a ‘waste of life, flagrant disgrace’ and indicated that between 1864 and 1868 the number of deaths ranged between 1200 and 1300 per annum, which represented a rate of 4% (Beaumont: 1871 pp 61-62). He argued if that that rate persisted the immigrant population would be decimated. When the significance of these and other abuses is fully grasped, the tremendous sacrifice made by Indian immigrants would also be fully recognized and appreciated.

A powerful demographic force that worked against Indians was the huge disparity in sex ratio [43:100] (43 females to every 100 males) throughout the immigration period (1838-1917) which led to high rates of wife murders (74 reported cases between 1859 and 1917), as well as suicides. Colonial Magistrate Henry Kirke in 1888 observed; "one prevailing cause of crime amongst our East Indian immigrants is the scarcity of women causing jealousy, assaults, and frequently murders to arise." Reverend KJ Grant wrote; "Wife murders form the foulest blot on our whole immigration system …...this crime would unquestionably be reduced if more women were introduced into the colony" (Singh: 1982 p 1). Hugh Tinker stated that disputes over women formed the main cause of murders as of suicides. This pathology of plantation life has been transmitted to subsequent generations. Today, Indians still have the highest rate of suicide and attempts in Guyana, and probably in the world.

There is an illusion or a massive distortion that Indians accumulated much money and were rewarded with generous gifts of land. How could they amass much wealth when wages were so depressed? The Sanderson Commission of 1907 reported, for example, that wages in Trinidad were 17 pence per week per capita, and for Guyana wages ranged between 20 to 25 pence, per week, per capita. Returning to India with great wealth was grossly exaggerated. Nearly 1/3 of the repatriates were destitute while the remainder had savings averaging a meager £4.9 per annum per capita (Tinker: 1974). Beaumont referred to immigrants’ savings as ‘trifling’ but suggested that the savings of drivers and headmen were higher. Deferred gratification accounted for the modest savings of 2/3 of the repatriated Indians, as well as those who remained in Guyana.

Most Indians bought, rented or leased lands with their own resources. They did not get grants of land from the planters as is commonly assumed. Professor Lomarsh Roopnarine states that between 1882 and 1903 (when land grants were terminated) only 28,229 acres of land were given out to Indians (Roopnarine: Guyana Times, 6/6/2017). It was less expensive to give Indians land, estimated at £12 per capita than to repatriate them, estimated at £15 per capita (Tortello: 2003). Out of a population of about 107,000 during that period, only 2,711 (or 2.5%) Indians were given lands. This means that over 97% of Indians were not given grants of lands. The total acreage of land grants was less than 0.1% of the land mass of Guyana. Those who were given lands had to forgo their return passages, and before they could even be entitled to return passage after 1854, they had to re-indenture and serve a minimum of 10 years under indentureship. The lands given to Indians were not free.

  1. there were some similarities between indentureship and slavery, we are not equating the two systems. Our main purpose is to show that Indians had it very hard on the plantation system. Had it not been for their religion and cultural practices, the social life of the Indian population would have been in disarray. In fighting for reparation, Indians have been inspired by the formation of the CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC) as were the National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC), and the European Reparations Commission (ERC).

Not much is known about the work and progress of the Guyana and the Trinidad and Tobago Reparations Committees. Indian scholars are skeptical if the current Chair of the Guyana Reparations Committee will include Indians in their case for reparatory justice. But the Chair of the Caricom Reparations Commission, Sir Hillary Beckles, seems to be unequivocal on this matter. In a speech on reparatory justice to the House of Commons in 2014, Sir Hillary noted. “Governments of Great Britain and other European States must pay reparation for the enslavement of African people, the genocide of the indigenous communities and the deceptive breach of contract and trust in respect of East Indians and other Asians brought to the plantations under indenture.” (Trinidad & Tobago “Newsday” 8/1/2017).

Nevertheless, knowing the attitude of the GRC leadership, Indians believe that they should advance their own cause for reparation. Furthermore, in seeking reparatory justice, Indians are not looking for handouts. Rather, they want an apology from their former European colonizers as well as, development assistance for the initiation of programs to improve their health, culture, social services, and alternative job creation, especially in the sugar industry. A special development fund could be set up for these purposes.

While we recognize and appreciate the immeasurable contributions of Blacks, at great sacrifice, we should not at the same time, deny the significant contribution and sacrifice made by Indians, and other ethnic groups. The legacy of plantation life has left Indians with multiple wounds such as a high rate of suicide, depression, dependency syndrome (on sugar), and chronic diseases like diabetes, asthma, and hypertension. The 100th anniversary of the end of recruitment of labor under the indentureship system, provides a powerful platform to advance the Indians’ case for reparation. From now onwards we must resolve to move the process forward.




  1. Beaumont, Joseph: The New Slavery: An Account of the Indian and Chinese Immigrants in British Guiana, London 1871.
  2. Beckles, Hillary: “Speech on Reparatory Justice,” quoted in Trinidad & Tobago’s Newsday, August 1, 2017.
  3. 3. Gooptar, Primnath: Cultural Persistence, NCIC Heritage Publications, 2015.
  4. Karran, Kampta: “Offerings, Race and Ethnic Studies in Guyana Vol 1,” Guyana, 1994.
  5. Mangru, Basdeo: Champions of Indo-Guyanese Welfare 1838-1938, Adams Press, Chicago, 2017.
  6. Mangru, Basdeo: Indians in Guyana, Adam Press, Chicago, 1999.
  7. Persaud, Kamal: “Article in Sunday Express, 6/3/2017, 21/5/2017,” Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago.
  8. Persaud, Kamal: “Article in Express Newspaper, 3/28/2017,” Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago.
  9. Ramdin, Ron: A History of the Indo-Caribbean People, NYU Press, 2000.
  10. Roopnarine, Lomarsh: "The Reparation, Readjustment and Second-Term Migration of Ex-Indentured Laborers from British Guiana and Trinidad to India, 1838/1955,” New West Indian Guide, 2009.
  11. Roopnarine, Lomarsh. “The Origins of Indian Land Ownership in British Guiana (Part 2),” Guyana Times, June 6, 2017.
  12. Singh, Tara: Race, Crime and Culture, PhD 1978.
  13. Singh, Tara: “Suicide and Homicide: Aspects of Indian Family Pathology,” Manuscript, UG, 1982.
  14. Tinker, Hugh: A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labor Overseas 1830-1920, Oxford University Press, 1953.
  15. Tortello, Rebecca: “Out of Many Cultures, The People who Came: The Arrival of the Indians,” Jamaica Gleaner, 11/3/2003.


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