In the latest column by Prof. Selwyn Cudjoe regarding the “Origin of Indian indentureship in Trinidad”, the good doctor makes a series of claims that seriously conflict with known historical accounts in an attempt to present his own explanation and theory of East Indian arrival in this country, and it is clear that his intentions are best summed up in the final paragraph of his thesis statement, where he explains “Indians were brought to these lands to decrease the cost of sugar production after apprenticeship, and this is the point from which we ought to see their entrance into Trinidad and Tobago.” And putting aside the fact that this is categorically untrue, I have to ask, what is the motive for revealing this information at this time?
Let’s just assume that everything leading up to that statement in his column was factually accurate, it isn’t but let’s just assume that it was, what message is Prof. Cudjoe trying to convey? What is the point of reevaluating the entrance of East Indians into the Trinidadian population one hundred and five years after indentureship has concluded? Is the point that he is attempting to make to East Indian descendants at the time that they are celebrating their arrival to make them feel inferior in some way to the Africans? Because there has never been a more brazen statement embodying the notion of “know your place” than what Prof. Cudjoe is implying here. Thankfully, as was stated earlier, absolutely nothing that was stated in his column bore even a passing resemblance to the truth of East Indian indentureship, which I am more than happy to clarify.
First of all, conspicuously absent from Prof. Cudjoe’s assessment is the fact that East Indians were not the first indentured servants brought to Trinidad to work on the plantations. The first indentured workers approved by the British government and conscripted by the local plantation owners were in fact Africans, made up of both former slaves who were fully emancipated following the end of the apprenticeship period, and new immigrants who were brought in from the African continent. In fact, between 1841 and 1861, over 8,000 African indentured workers were brought to Trinidad from Sierra Leone and St. Helena, whereas 517 indentured Africans migrated to Tobago from St. Helena between 1851 to 1861, all of them consigned to work on the plantations. So the obvious first question posed to Prof. Cudjoe’s column would be to figure out whether these African indentured workers were also used to stifle wage negotiations for other African workers.
Speaking of wages, and probably the most perplexing thing to me in regards to how this article was approved for publication by the editors of the Express, is the notion that East Indians would have been earning less than the rates being negotiated by the African workers. Because another absence from his column is an actual sum of money, or even an estimate, to back up his ridiculous claims. Because at the time East Indian labor was brought to Trinidad, they were being paid one of the highest salaries of any non-caucasian workers in the British Empire, earning two shillings per day, a rate even high than those East Indians who were sent to British Guiana, who was being paid one shilling and nine pence for the same amount of work as their Trini counterparts. This isn’t even to mention the fact that in England during the same time period, the average monthly salary for an ordinary unskilled worker was 40 shillings, which worked out less than the East Indian indentured worker in Trinidad, for comparable work. So without placing a price tag on these supposed negotiations, which would have had to have been among the highest rate for any plantation worker in any British colony, his entire thesis is speculative conjecture at best, and at worst becomes nothing more than delusional rambling.
But where it really gets egregious, and where I believe Prof. Cudjoe makes his most fatal mistake, is in his penultimate paragraph where he states “Slavery and indentureship were economic systems which responded to the laws of supply and demand and running their operations at the lowest cost. As far as these sugar owners were concerned, the emancipation of enslaved Africans meant an increase in their expenses and they acted accordingly.” Because anyone with even a passing knowledge of colonial history during that era would be aware that the entire indentureship exercise was the costliest method of hiring workers for plantations that the British have ever engaged in. In 1845, the import of East Indian labor to Trinidad meant that the colonies would have to bear the burden and fees associated with the transport, for which a tax was set up on the sale of rum to offset the cost, whereas each plantation owner was charged a fee of £25 per hogshead of sugar cultivated by the indentured workers. By 1857 however, the increase in demand for the East Indian workers had doubled the cost to the plantation owner, which they were more than happy to meet given that production had also risen to heights not even achieved during slavery.
For the sake of brevity, I am not going into the details surrounding the fact that post-apprenticeship African workers did not even seek to capitalize on their monopoly as they opted to merely work for subsistence rather than profit, as explained to the plantation owners, they only required thirty pence per week to cover their expenses. That said, the notion that the British and plantation owners would have ever capitulated to any demand of the African workers had East Indian indentured workers not been introduced can be easily assuaged by the following statement of Earl Henry George Grey from 1832:
“The great problem to be solved in drawing up any plan for the emancipation of the Slaves in our Colonies is to devise some mode of inducing them when relieved from the fear of the Driver and his whip, to undergo the regular and continuous labour which is indispensable in carrying on the production of Sugar… Their (the planters) inability…. to pay liberal wages seems beyond all question: but even if this were otherwise, the experience of other countries warrants the belief, that while the land is so easily obtainable as it is at this moment, even liberal wages would fail to purchase the sort of labour which is required for the cultivation and manufacture of Sugar…. The examples of the western States of America, Canada, the Cape of Good Hope, and the Australian Colonies, may all be cited in order to show that even amongst a population a much higher state of civilization than that which the slaves in the West Indies have attained, the facility of obtaining land effectually prevents the prosecution by voluntary labour of any enterprise requiring the co-operation of many hands. It is impossible therefore to suppose that the slaves (who, though as I believe not more given to idleness than other men are certainly not less so) would if freed from control be induced even by high wages to continue to submit to a drudgery which they detest, while without doing so they could obtain land sufficient for their support…. I think that it would be great for the real happiness of the Negroes themselves, if the facility of acquiring land could be so far restrained as to prevent them, on the abolition of slavery, from abandoning their habits of regular industry… Accordingly, it is to the imposition of a considerable tax upon land that I chiefly look for the means of enabling the planter to continue his business when emancipation shall have taken place.”