Indian Indentured Labour and Emancipation

Indian Indentured Labour and Emancipation

Photo : Ravi Dev

ROAR of Ravi Dev

It’s the run-up to Emancipation Day, and sure as the sun rises in the East  there will be the claim made by folks from the African Guyanese community that Indian indentured labourers “undercut” the bargaining power of the freed slaves after 1838 and that is what pushed them off the plantations. “It’s like déjà vu all over again” as Yogi Berra was alleged to have quipped.

In vain, I’ve pointed out over the years that it’s futile to play the “blame game” when, in the development of capitalism, after constructing its base on the back of African chattel slave labour (following genocidal extermination of the Indigenous Peoples), it went on to appropriate the very FORM of un-free labour they had used before slavery – indentured labour (of Europeans). That’s right…plantations here were developed first by indentured European labour, in Barbados, for instance. In fact, the first Slave Laws (in Barbados) of 1660 distinguished Africans Slaves from White workers on the basis of the latter being “Christian”, not their colour (negro).

There is no question the planters did intend to undercut the bargaining power of the freed slaves after Emancipation, because of the new dispensation of Free Trade. But the new 19th Century indentureds were also contributing to what Marx dismissed as “primitive accumulation” in the drive of capitalism to create what he called “doubly free labour”: free to sell their labour-power to anyone they choose, and (ironically) freed from any ownership over the means of production.

But I was just as unsuccessful in pointing out that the details of their claim of Indian perfidy were so blatantly incorrect, it suggested that more was at play than careless historiography. In 1998, I noted in my paper, “Aetiology of an ethnic riot”, and almost annually afterwards: “It was not Indian labour that broke the back of African attempts to wrest higher wages from the planters. Rather, if labour were to be “blamed”, it was more the Portuguese and, ironically, fellow Africans from both the WI and Africa, who played key roles.

After their successful strike of 1842, the ex-slaves called the strike of 1847 at a point of financial crisis for the planters who, encouraged by the indentureship of 15,747 Portuguese, 12,897 Africans from the WI and 6957 Africans from Africa – a total of 35,601 – compared with only 8692 Indians, held off the demands for higher wages. After 1848, by when more than half of them had moved into villages and towns, the unskilled ex-slaves, by and large, decided to make their living off the plantations because, even though Indian indenture was suspended between 1838-1845 and then again in 1849-50, there was no movement back to the plantation by the Africans, nor was there any increase in the wage scale.” Available land was the pull factor for the move in Guyana (and Trinidad).

What is also overlooked is that eventually there were more indentured Africans arriving from the Caribbean (40,783) than the Portuguese from Madeira (30,078) and from Africa (13,355). In fact between 1835 and 1838 exactly 5000 ex-African slaves had been brought from the smaller islands into Guyana. Somehow, these African indentured servants – mostly from Barbados – have been forgotten. Ironically, there were several instances recorded of Indian indentureds protesting that the West Indian indentureds were undercutting their wages!

I wrote to one interlocutor in 2004, “The point I have been making is that we are going against the analyses of history made by eminent West Indian historians such as Williams and Rodney (among others) when we lay blame to the immigrants – whether Portuguese, Indian, Chinese, West Indians or Africans who were all indentured. It was the working of the systems imposed on us by the British, whether political (imperialism), economic (pre-capitalist) or cultural (cultural hegemony), that kept us all in thrall. Today, we are still busy blaming each other for our mess and not questioning whether those bequeathed systems are not still contributing to our problems. And that we should get busy, as a first step, in modifying them to assist in leading to greater equity and justice for all of us.”

A decade after capitalism’s latest globalised financialised phase has imploded, the travails of “doubly free” labour continues as Britain, Europe and the US blame immigrants who “took away their jobs”. When will we ever stop blaming the Indian in Guyana?