The End of Indian Arrival in Trinidad and the Caribbean The Centennial Anniversary of the Abolition of Indian Indenture Migration 1917 - 2017

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of Indian arrival to this area, that is the export of Indian labour under the system of indenture. An Indian Diaspora Council (IDC)was formed in the United States and initiated programmes in observance of the historic event through the Indian Diaspora Council of Trinidad and Tobago.

The End of Indian Arrival in Trinidad and the Caribbean The Centennial Anniversary of the Abolition of Indian Indenture Migration 1917 - 2017

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of Indian arrival to this area, that is the export of Indian labour under the system of indenture.  An Indian Diaspora Council (IDC)was formed in the United States and initiated programmes in observance of the historic event  through the Indian Diaspora Council of Trinidad and Tobago. Several prominent organisations such as the Sanatana Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS) and the National Council of Indian Culture (NCIC) et al were involved in the Indian Diaspora World Convention 2017.

There was a successful academic conference held between 17th and 18th March, 2017. We were informed that this was just but one academic exercise marking the event. Another was held between March 28 and 29th at the University of Leeds, England (Newsday April 17, 2017 pp 23-24). In India an International Conference to Commemorate the Centenary of the Abolition of the Indenture System was held between April 20-22, 2017 under the aegis of the Indian Council for International Co-operation.

In Trinidad a commemorative plaque was installed in Chaguanas in “commemoration of the centennial anniversary of the abolition of Indentureship.”  Professor Bridget Brereton suggests that the “new Chaguanas plaque is the local counterpart of the Kolkata Memorial to the indentured immigrants.” There were several articles in the press and the promise that a publication of selected academic papers would be done.

One must observe that the activities marking the milestone event very much resembled activities marking the annual India Arrival Day commemoration.  There was a focus on the Indian presence, historically and on areas on contemporary life. The wording of the commemorative plaque can also apply to Indian Arrival more so than the end of Indian labour migration. The restaging of the play Jahaaaji by Wahid Baksh to mark the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Indians in 1995 is restaged. The report in the Trinidad Guardian stated “now to mark the centenary of the end of indenture the play is being re-staged on Saturday May 27.” This is an indication that Indian Arrival Day would incorporate remembrance of the centennial of the end of the export of Indian labour from India

Clearly, in the minds of organisers of these activities there is no difference between Indian Arrival and the end of Indian arrival, that is, the abolition of the export of Indian labour from India under a system of contract or indenture.  Therein lay the confusion among Indians – they are suggesting that there is no difference between Indian arrival and the end of Indian arrival.  The reality is that there is a vast difference between both historic events and the historical developments which followed both events. There is also the ignoring of the historical reality surrounding both events and hence historical lessons to be drawn are muddled since both are seen as the same. There is the added failure of ignoring the Indian-Caribbean position on this event and this is a major blunder.

The origins of Indian indenture lay in the demand for labour by the sugar interests in Trinidad and Guyana following the emancipation of African slavery (1834-38). Emancipation per se was not the cause of Indian Arrival but the shortage of labour because the freedmen availed themselves of opportunities outside the sugar plantations to make a life.  For example, Barbados did not require any labour because the freedmen had no access to free land and employment opportunities.  Trinidad was a newly acquired British colony captured in 1797 as a direct result of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. It was a “low density” colony.  The planter interests tried several sources to obtain labour to save their plantations: Europeans, Chinese, West Africans and West Indians from West Indian colonies. Finally they followed the example of Mauritius, also conquered by the British at this time, and began the importation of Indian labour under the indenture system with a well organised system of recruitment.  The Sugar Duties Act (1846) which ended the system of mercantilism and protection for sugar caused the British government to organise a loan to assist sugar planters to import immigrant labour In Trinidad.  The administration of Lord Harris was crucial in making the indenture scheme successful in its operation – without his input it would have failed.  In India there were workers who were prepared to leave their homeland for employment overseas largely due to extreme poverty and famine.

In Guyana between 1838 and 1917, 238,909 Indians immigrants were introduced while in Trinidad between May, 30th to April, 22nd 1845 to 1917, 147,592 Indians arrived under the indenture system. The export of Indian labour was brought to an end because of a convergence of events.

The Campaign Against Indian Indenture In India

Hugh Tinker in his A New System of Slavery dealt in detail with the end of Indian indenture.  He wrote that “indenture died, one of the casualties of the Great War.”  It was dangerous to transport Indians overseas at the height of the German submarine campaign.  In addition,” there was a shortage of ships which seemed likely to bring England to the verge of starvation.”  The British requisitioned several of Nourse ships for the war effort leaving only the SS Ganges to transport Indian labour. Indians were required to work “behind the lines “in Europe and the Middle East, hence  plantation labour requirements was secondary

It was the return of M. K. Gandhi to India in January, 1915 that began a campaign to stop the export of Indians overseas that brought pressure on the British Government to abolish the system. Gandhi has spent many years in South Africa where he became very familiar with the system of Indian indenture.  His first encounter with an Indian indentured worker was Balasundaram who appeared before him “in tattered clothes, head-gear in hand, two front broken and his mouth bleeding, trembling and weeping.  He had been heavily belaboured by his master.”  Gandhi attended to this issue and got Balasundaram released from his indenture of the abusive master and transferred to another.  This case “reached the ears of every indentured labourer, and I came to be regarded as their friend.  A regular stream of indentured labourers began to pour into my office and I got the opportunity of learning their joys and sorrows.”  The news even spread to Madras.  Gandhi had made up his mind that Indian indenture amounted to semi-servitude and was determined to abolish the export of Indian overseas on his return to India.

By 28th October, 1915 Gandhi began his India campaign with a speech at Bombay.  “He made emigration the substance of his first big political campaign in India.” Massive meetings were held throughout India calling for the end of the indenture scheme.  From 1915 to 1917 when the system was abolished, Indian indenture was the single political issue consuming Indian public attention. In the Imperial Indian Legislative Council Gopal Krishna Gokhale was a constant critic of the system of Indian indenture and had moved several resolutions to have the system abolished. When Gokhale died on 19th February, 1915 his place was taken up by Madan Mohan Malaviya who in March, 20, 1916 tabled a motion for the abolition of indenture which was accepted.

The India campaign to abolish the export of Indian labour was largely an urban one led by   urban professional class. It was an aspect of the growing Indian nationalism in India and Indian indenture was viewed as an affront to Indian self-esteem and pride    

The Black Campaign Against Indian Indenture In The Caribbean

Opposition to Indian immigration emanated from blacks in the main.  In Guyana as early as 1868 “a petition supported by several respectable creoles especially by the villages of East Coast Demerara, sought to check the continuous inflow of immigrants.” Another petition in 1880 came from people who were not directly involved in the sugar industry, from “mechanics, artisans, peddlers and shopkeepers.”  In 1884 “a group of Berbice residents wrote to the Court of Policy: “They were critical of the subsidy to Indian immigration.” K. O. Laurence in his book A question Of Labour noted that in the 1880s “in British Guiana as in Trinidad opposition came from radical newspapers editors and some professional men, both usually Creoles. In 1897 Dr J.M. Rohlehr was critical of India immigration.

The main arguments against Indian immigration had to do with the subsidy to Indian immigration, that Indian immigration was depriving Creoles from employment or that where there was a need for labour this should be sourced from the West Indian colonies  On the issue of subsidy Gerad Tikasingh in his Trinidad During The 19th Century: The Indian Experience noted that “later in the century, when Indian immigration was in full swing, objection to this immigration was raised on the grounds that public funds were used to finance this immigration  Yet when public funds were used to finance the immigration of Negro labourers from the nearly islands during the early period, no one had anything negative to say about the use of public funds. Public financing of West Indian immigration at the time seemed to have been a perfectly acceptable action.”  He further added “How can one escape the thought that the objection was based on race, that Indians represented a different ethnic group?”

In Trinidad the attack on Indian immigration was more intense.  Eric Williams in his semi-official The History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago quotes opponents to the Indian immigration system at length in Chapter 9 – The Contribution of the Indians, a misnomer since he did not deal with the Indian contribution to Trinidad.  Significantly, he introduced the race factor when he listed the names of three opponents to Indian indentured labour, namely , Mr Lechere Guppy, Mayor of San Fernando, Henry Alcasar, and Dr de Boissiere who “were all white men, directly engaged or connected through their families with agriculture”  He further added that “it is necessary to emphasise that not one single argument was based on racial consideration” He did identify Negro lawyer Prudhomme David, a nominated member of the Crown Colony Legislative Council.  Williams quoted at length, over three pages, a contribution of Prudhomme David against Indian immigrant labour.

Added to Prudhomme David was the San Fernando Gasette, like the People of Guyana, “devoted much ink to the cause.”  It added other grounds in its attack against Indian immigrant labour: the Indian were non-Christians and differences in dress and culture.  Two labour organisations, The Working Men’ s Reform Club and the Trinidad Working Men’s Association led by Alfred Richards, both urban based consisting of urban based skilled workers. K O Laurence observed that “they marked the dawn of organised opposition to Indian immigration among skilled and even unskilled Creole working men.  Such men were well aware that quite apart from the existing state of labour market, continuing Indian immigration posed an economic threat as Indians  penetrated into new activities and yet willing to work for wages which Creoles would not accept.”

K. O. Laurence further observation on the black opposition to Indian immigrant labour was that “local opposition to the immigration system in Trinidad was in no way directed against the principle of the importation of labour but against the sort of labourers imported or the manner which the system was financed. He further added that “the demographic question implicit in the continuing Indian immigration  became imbued with political importance. The Creoles thus objected to continuing immigration for fear that the political system they hoped to capture might soon be filled by a population of Indian immigrants which might outnumber them.”  He concluded that “the agitation against  immigration was the work of a small minority consisting of mostly urban people of African origin who know nothing of the subject but considered the increasing settlement of Indians was depriving the Creoles of its own heritage.”  This directly contradicts the position of Eric Williams who would have known about  black opposition and its basis on black fear of the settled Indian presence.

The Indian Caribbean Position on Indian Indenture

There was clear dichotomy between the India nationalist position personified by M. K. Gandhi and leaders of Indian opinion in the Caribbean.  With the abolition of Indian indenture scheme leaders of Indian opinion were interested in a continuation of immigration. In Guyana two delegations went to India in 1919/20 and 1924 with the agenda of reviving Indian immigration to Guyana.  Clearly, they did not agreed with the abolition of Indian immigrant labour to Guyana. Even before the system was brought to an end two Indians- F. E. M. Hosein and Alvin Fitspatrick- from Trinidad in London appeared before the Sanderson Commission (1910). Fitspatrick argued for the continuation of Indian indenture to Trinidad and that the scheme had benefitted the entire colony. In Trinidad F. E. M. Hosein speech at the inauguration of the Indian National Congress in 1913, East Indians In Trinidad: A Sociological Study, clearly expected the continuation of Indian indenture.  There was no campaign among Indians to stop the Indian indenture scheme

It was through this scheme that Indians were brought to the Caribbean and by 1880s Indians had moved to become permanent settlers.  Two processes were at work: Indian indenture arrival and return at the end of their contracts, or join the increasing numbers of Indians in settlement. Hence Indian indenture added to the numbers of Indian settlers.  An Indian diaspora was created. This was lost in the Indian nationalist campaign which painted a dismal picture of the life and experience of Indians overseas, an image which was not accurate.


The Indian nationalist position in India on the export of Indian indenture overseas was similar to the black opposition to Indian indenture immigration in Guyana and Trinidad.  Both positions converge but for different reasons. The successful campaign to abolish Indian indenture in India was to the advantage of blacks who wanted the scheme abolished but were not influential to achieve their objective because of the position of the sugar barons and interest in these colonies.  M. K. Gandhi and the Indian nationalists achieved their black Caribbean objective.  The abolition of Indian indenture was not to the advantage of Indians in the Caribbean. 

The similarity of the Gandhian Indian nationalist position and the black Caribbean position is referred to by Brinsley Samaroo in his essay Two Abolitions: African Slavery and East Indian Indentureship in the publication India In The Caribbean. In this comparative essay of historical irrationality Samaroo wrote that “the case against continued Indian immigration was taken up by black leaders in the islands of British Guyana using whatever platform that was available: colonial legislature, the press, petitions to the Colonial Office followed by question in  Parliament as well as evidence before the Sanderson Commission in 1909. It is significant that the arguments put forward by these leaders were cited in the Indian legislature during the 1912 debate on indentureship.”  No mention was made of the positions of F E M Hosein and Alvin Fitpatrick.

Indians in the Caribbean mark the arrival of Indians to the Caribbean as the historical event worthy of remembrance and recognition, not the end of arrival in 1917 with the abolition of the Indian indenture scheme. There are Indians, a minority, who share a different position in that they argue that the end of Indian indenture as the event worthy of commemoration.  In the debate in the Trinidad House of Representatives members of the then National Alliance of Reconstruction (NAR) government in the mid-1980s stated this position with chief spokesman in Dr Brinsley Samaroo with other Indian members and blacks, in support.  Their position has been rejected   

Indians in the Caribbean have to work out their own position on issues and cannot accept unquestioningly any India position. The Indian Caribbean position has to be informed by the experience in the Caribbean. While India remain one’s historical and ancestral Motherland, the Caribbean is Homeland and the two do not necessarily converge. While the centennial commemoration of the abolition of Indian indenture is worthy of recognition and provides an opportunity for reflection on all areas of the Indian presence, this reflection must be guided by a proper interpretation of history and our own interests.