With Indian Arrival Day less than three weeks away we are reminded that between 1838 and 1917, 239,000 Indians were brought as “indentured labourers” for the sugar plantations of Guyana – and a like number to the West Indies. The question arises as to why these persons left their country when their custom forbade “crossing the “Black Waters” (Kala Pani)”. The short answer is structurally, it was ultimately and literally, a matter of life and death.
While indentured labour might be seen as a transitory passage of human labour from chattel slavery to the so called “free labour” of today, the conditions that herded Indians into that option were man made. The sugar planters had no faith that free Africans would sell their labour at a rate to make sugar profitable. They therefore actively sought a new supply that would guarantee such cheap labour on demand. But where would such rates that could not attract freed slaves be a “pull factor” for indentureship? The answer was British India.
The story begins in 1757 when the troops of the British East India Company captured Bengal from the Moguls and completed their inexorable conquest of the legendarily rich India within 50 years. Less than a decade later – between 1768 and 1771 from Bengal and Eastern Bihar (from where most Guyanese immigrants originated) – more than 10 million persons: one third of the population – died from a “famine”. Why? Two reasons. Firstly, the farmers that supplied the bulk of the population with foodstuffs were forced by the British into producing cash crops for export – even while they were forced to pay onerous taxes at the threat of death and violence.
We quote the words of then British Governor, Warren Hastings who boasted to the home office: “Notwithstanding the loss of at least one-third of the inhabitants of the province, and the consequent decrease of the cultivation, the nett collections of the year 1771 exceeded even those of I768… It was naturally to be expected that the diminution of the revenue should have kept an equal pace with the other consequences of so great a calamity. That it did not was owing to its being violently kept up to its former standard.”
The cash crops the farmers were forced to grow included cotton, poppy (for opium), indigo and, as described above, this was simply to keep paying off the extortionate demands of the British who exported rice and wheat even during the famines. Millions were also thrown out of work when the British forbade Indian weavers from producing cotton yarn and the cotton fabrics that had enthralled Europe. Henceforth, only cotton woven by British looms could be sold in India! Where were the weavers to get the money to buy food much less clothes? Incidentally, Britain became the largest drug dealers up to the present where the opium – up to 800 tons annually – were shipped to China so that the British could buy Chinese tea.
Between the Bengal famine of 1768 and the end of Indentureship in 1917, conservatively, over 54 million Indians perished from famine. In the book Late Victorian Holocausts (2001) Mike Davis describes how Viceroy Lord Lytton, insisted that wheat be exported to England. In 1877 and 1878, at the height of the famine when 10.3 million persons perished, grain merchants exported a record 800,000 tons of wheat and 1.9 million tons of rice. As the peasants began to starve, officials were ordered “to discourage relief works in every possible way”. And this is why the upsurge of indentured Indians correlated with the British-induced famines.