Trials And Triumph Of The Early 'Pravasis': How Indian Indentured Labourers Survived and Thrived In Alien Lands

Trials And Triumph Of The Early 'Pravasis': How Indian Indentured Labourers Survived and Thrived In Alien Lands

by Somdatta Majumdar - Tuesday, January 10, 2023 07:03 PM IST
Trials And Triumph Of The Early 'Pravasis': How Indian Indentured Labourers Survived and Thrived In Alien LandsPainting of Indians in Trinidad during the late 19th century. (Wikimedia Commons)
  • The Girmitiyas of Mauritius, British Guiana (Guyana), Natal (South Africa), Trinidad, Fiji, Jamaica, Suriname and Reunion Islands, not only found ways to survive but eventually thrived in their new homes.

    This is their story.

The year is 1840. Devi Singh, an erstwhile watchman from Calcutta, watches from the slit that passes as a window in the crowded underdeck of a ship, as the shores of his homeland quickly recedes from view.

But that’s alright; the taciturn agent who had recruited him had assured him that the land he was going to — Fiji — was a mere 700 miles away, and he would have to serve just five years, earn a lot of money and make his way home a rich man.

But Devi Singh would soon realise this was an abject lie. Fiji was in fact 7,000 miles away, he would be nearly whipped to death working in sugarcane plantations for his European masters, and he would never come back home.

Devi Singh was just one of 1.5 million Indian indentured labourers who were lured away to distant lands with promises of a better life, and one of hundreds of thousands who never made it back home.

Newly arrived Indian indentured workers in Trinidad.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Newly arrived Indian indentured workers in Trinidad. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Start Of The Indentured Labour Trade

In 1834, African slaves were liberated and the British empire abolished slavery. But the vast empire had been built on the blood, sweat and tears of slave labour, and the abrupt halt of the supply of dirt-cheap labour hurt the business interests of European businessmen deeply — especially plantation owners who required intensive labour capital.

So, they came up with a system of indentured servitude, in which the labourer would sign a nominal contract for a fixed period and get a pittance as wages. This was enough to circumvent the ban, and soon the business of indentured labour supply flourished across the Empire. The main victims were Indians and Chinese.

In 1793, Lord Cornwallis instituted the Permanent Settlement Act in Bengal, Odisha and Bihar.

They instituted hereditary Zamindars who officially owned a specified amount of land and thus, the fortunes of all the people who resided in it. They were to collect a fixed amount of revenue from the peasants in the form of taxes and pay for protection from the British East India Company.

However, the revenue was sky-high, and in order to maintain their luxuries and privileges, the Zamindars taxed the peasants for everything they had. Often, they would cart away a peasant’s entire harvest in a bid to meet the revenue target. This caused preventable famines in the Indian hinterlands.

The people of these impoverished villages, ravaged by poverty and disease, were soft targets for the agents (called Arkatis) of businesses which supplied indentured labour worldwide.

The Arkatis targeted young men, and occasionally women, who were slaving away in farms in villages or working small jobs in the cities, and wove fanciful tales of a better life and gainful employment which would make them and their families rich if they just worked hard for five years.

Once these people were swayed or harassed into saying yes, they were told to sign an agreement. Most of the people, who were either illiterate or semi-literate, had trouble pronouncing the word “agreement” and resorted to calling it ‘Girmit”, which is where the term “Girmitiya” — which they used to refer to other indentured labourers — came from.

These Girmitiyas were taken to the far-flung outposts of the British Empire: Mauritius, British Guiana (Guyana), Natal (South Africa), Trinidad, Fiji, Jamaica, Suriname and Reunion Islands. A few men were even taken to Africa to work as labourers in the Kenya-Uganda railroad project.

Unlike the ones who worked in plantations, most railroad workers who survived the punishing conditions and man-eating lions went back to India.

Very few indentured labourers were accompanied by their families — most men had left their families behind. Single women were also recruited, and they were told that they would work in the households of plantation owners, and would be nannies to the Master’s children.

The indentured labourers’ identity cut across caste, region and religious classes. The destitution was so widespread that it did not spare even the high caste families — erstwhile rich Brahmin families were forced into labour and were transported as well. Thus, there are many Brahmin communities that exist in Mauritius and Fiji today.

Indians arriving on shore, by boat from the ships. (1860)
Source: South Africa History Online
Indians arriving on shore, by boat from the ships. (1860) Source: South Africa History Online

Daily Horrors

The horrors a Girmitiya faced started during transport. The ships were filled beyond capacity, and the Indian labourers were packed into the airless underdecks of the ships like sardines in a tin. They were neglected and given food when the caretakers remembered to. Diseases preyed on them, and the ones who died were simply thrown overboard.

17 per cent of people travelling to Caribbean islands died of dysentery, cholera and measles. More people died during disembarking and acclimatisation.

After reaching the shore of a foreign land, they would be made to quarantine on the ship for a few days. Then they were assigned an estate for work for a period of five years.

Once they had finished their tenure, a Girmitiya had three options: sign another contract and re-indenture themselves for another 5 years at the estate of their choice, pay a huge sum of money and buy a ticket back to India (the agents had lied about the free passage back to India, of course), or just live as a free man in the country they were in.

But in order to contemplate these options, they would first have to survive the harrowing five years of their contract.

Artistic interpretation of the first indentured Indian labourers arriving in Mauritius.
(Wikimedia Commons)
Artistic interpretation of the first indentured Indian labourers arriving in Mauritius. (Wikimedia Commons)

The working conditions were sub-human. In Trinidad, men were paid a paltry sum of 25 cents a day for working all day in sugar or cotton plantations, come rain or shine. Women were paid 16 cents a day for various jobs, such as making salt, picking tamarind, doing domestic chores and collecting grass for cattle.

Men were routinely whipped bloody — there are accounts of men getting the hide flogged off their backs for minor infractions. Women would face harassment and sexual assault from their masters. They were made to wake up at 3am and work without rest for long hours, which took quite a toll on those who were weak. Children were expected to work alongside their parents from the age of 5.

Even the slightest breach of contract was treated as a criminal case. Labourers could be imprisoned for leaving the estate without permission. People who had completed their indenture would have to carry around their certificates at all times to prove they were not “deserting” the estate.

Colonies like Trinidad, Natal, Fiji and Mauritius had a Protector of Immigrants department that was supposed to protect the rights of indentured labourers, but they were very ineffectual due to intense pressure from rich plantation owners.

Additionally, most labourers were not aware of their legal rights. Even those who would escape their plantations to report mistreatment to the Protector were tossed behind bars themselves, and then summarily handed back to the estate owner.

We can only imagine what happened to them after.

Fighting Back

The Indians did not take this insane repression quietly and fought back. They would submit petitions, sabotage operations, and even beat up the plantation owners. The severe punishments did not deter their comrades from fighting back, often ganging up on estate owners and beating them to death.

Rahim Baksh, a former railroad worker in India had found himself working under a particularly cruel master. He later recounted how he banded together with his fellow labourers and created a fund. They all would contribute a small percentage of their wages to it.

What was the fund used for? Well, it was a bail fund. They were determined to teach the Europeans a lesson if they tried to beat any of them up, and this fund would be used to bail everyone out or bribe the police when they got arrested.

Indians are resilient, adaptive and enterprising people. Workers banded together, forgetting about caste and religious divisions, and supported each other.

An ingenious young man named Bhujawan had come to Fiji with nothing but the clothes on his back and a copy of the Bhagawad Gita. Due to his hard work, he was quickly promoted to the post of Sardaar — he supervised the labourers and acted as a liaison between the labourers and the overseers.

He tried to protect the people under his charge as much as possible, by giving easier tasks to the weaker men and saving his people from the wrath of the overseers. He admits that he got into a lot of trouble with the European masters for that.

He also talks about celebrating Holi, singing and dancing around the fire and reading the Ramayana aloud for the community every evening. Muslim workers would say their prayers in the field, and hold community gatherings for Eid where everyone was welcome.

They would also recount tales of India to forget about their tough lives for a while. Of course, all Sardars were not this benevolent, and very few estates were permissive about building community.

Gafur, a student studying to become a Maulvi, was lured to come to Fiji under the pretext of teaching in an Islamic school. He was in for a rude shock when he was made to work in cane fields. The estate he worked in was particularly cruel, and unlike Bhujawan’s experience, there were no festivities or reading of the Ramayana. The Sardaars he worked under were extremely cruel, and women would voluntarily submit to European men for an easier life.

Despite this, the labourers still banded together for support: Hindus would build mosques and Muslims would build temples. The Girmitiyas held on to their faiths with everything they had; at the end of the day, it was their unrelenting faith in God that enabled them to brave their ordeals.

Settling, Adapting, Thriving

The Girmitiyas eventually adapted to life in Fiji and Trinidad. They married and created families. People who had finished their tenure would often re-indenture themselves with a better position in other estates. They scrimped and saved money, and once free, would buy small parcels of land and a cattle or two. They started cultivating grains and vegetables, and also started small sugar plantations.

In Trinidad, by the early 1900s, most Indians were free. In fact, more than half of Trinidad’s sugar exports were supplied by independent Indian farms by 1902.

The British were slowly losing their grip on their labourers; massive strikes due to terrible working conditions and holding back wages swept the plantations. Indian families also strived to get their children educated — this started a positive cycle that generated prosperity for Indian communities all over the world.

Within a generation or two, Indians who didn’t have a scrap to their name became wealthy. But this did paint a target on their back, for both locals and the colonial government.

Take the South African territories of Natal and Transvaal, for example. Indians who had completed their tenure in estates started their own businesses and were heading towards the path of prosperity. They also won the right to vote. This fanned anti-Indian sentiments among the white folk in Natal, and they passed legislation to “contain the Indian merchant menace”.

The Immigration Law Amendment Bill stated that Indian labourers could not be free after their tenure — they had to either return to India or re-indenture themselves for two years. Indians were not allowed to own land anywhere except in allotted ghettoes. A strict curfew of 9pm was imposed on them.

The Franchise Amendment Bill limited the number of Indians who could vote to 300, as opposed to 10,000 white voters. The Black Act of 1907 was instituted, which required them to register their fingerprints with the government. Additionally, the Supreme Court declared that only Christian marriages were legal, thereby nullifying all Indian marriages in South Africa.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who was in South Africa at the time, suffered several indignities of his own and decided to fight for the cause of Indian Indentured labourers.

He submitted petitions, wrote letters to newspapers, spoke to other activists and led non-violent protests against the various oppressive laws that the colonialists had passed against Indians. He was arrested and discredited several times, but he fought on undeterred.

It was here that he laid the foundations of Satyagraha. At the peak of the protests, 50,000 indentured labourers were on strike and thousands were in jail.

Violent altercations with the police occurred and sugar mills, restaurants and other businesses were closed due to missing Indian staff. In 1914, the authorities conceded to all the Indian demands and ended the strike.

MK Gandhi’s first Satyagraha in South Africa demanding equal rights for Indians.
(Source: Counterview)
MK Gandhi’s first Satyagraha in South Africa demanding equal rights for Indians. (Source: Counterview)

Indians built their lives from scratch so far away from home, and integrated into the melting pot of culture in these lands, while still leaving a distinct mark of their culture.

In Trinidad and Tobago, while there are political tensions between the Indo-Trinidadians and Afro-Trinidadians, food and culture unite them. The most popular food there is “Doubles” which is essentially adapted from chole-bhature but still distinctly different.

Doubles, a delicious street-food from Trinidad and Tobago that is adapted from the Kachori and Chole-Bhature
(Source: Delish)
Doubles, a delicious street-food from Trinidad and Tobago that is adapted from the Kachori and Chole-Bhature (Source: Delish)

Most Indo-Trinidadians are still Hindus and cling tenaciously to their cultures by conducting pujas. Felicity, a village on the coast of the island, is famous for its Diwali lights and fireworks displays. People of all religions and races enthusiastically participate in Holi, also known as Phagwa.

Other islands in the Caribbean, such as Guyana and Jamaica, also have a significant Indian population. Mauritius now has a huge population of Indians, and in fact, Hinduism is the majority religion over there, with 52 per cent of its population practising it.

Indians in Mauritius celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi, Ugadi and Diwali. They also built a massive temple next to the Grand Bassin lake, often referred to as Ganga Talao.

Massive statues of Lord Shiva and Mother Durga have been erected next to this lake. Some Indians are also Muslims and celebrate Eid enthusiastically. Bhojpuri music is extremely popular among the mainstream and was propelled to popularity by the talented duo The Bhojpuri Boys.

However, in Fiji, Indians were not able to integrate as well as in other places. Tensions between native Fijians and Indo-Fijians remained because Indians became prosperous after becoming free, and the typical colonial divide-and-rule politics made Fijians wary of Indians.

Due to military coups in the 1980s and 90s, many Indo-Fijians left the islands and moved to Australia, New Zealand and the USA. These communities are diaspora twice over and feel distinctly like outsiders.

Most Fijians are still devout Hindus, and even though they haven’t ever stepped foot in India for generations, they have not forgotten their culture.

The Grand Bassin in Mauritius, which is also known as Ganga Talao. This is a pilgrimage spot for the Hindus of Mauritius. 
(Wikimedia Commons)
The Grand Bassin in Mauritius, which is also known as Ganga Talao. This is a pilgrimage spot for the Hindus of Mauritius. (Wikimedia Commons)

Yearning For Their Heritage

But Indo-Fijians were not the only ones to leave the lands where their ancestors had arrived for greener pastures.

The Windrush generation refers to a wave of people who migrated from Caribbean British territories to the UK between 1948 and 1971. Many families with Indian roots were among them.

The British government, by the way, had the gall to threaten the children of the Windrush Generation with deportation, since they didn’t have official documentation despite living, working and paying taxes in the UK for generations. The Government had to apologise to them in 2018.

Dr Maria Kaladeen, an Associate Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in the University of London and the great-granddaughter of Kaladin, an indentured labourer in Guyana, recalls how her father, who was one among the Windrush generation, never spoke about his roots.

This was probably because of two reasons; firstly, the uncomfortable parts of British history, which were engineered and implemented by the British themselves, were never taught in schools, as that would get in the way of whitewashing the Empire.

Secondly, there was a sense of shame in the humble beginnings of the family. However, Dr Maria was determined to investigate her origins, and was prompted to study the history of indentured labour.

The yearning to find out about their heritage prompted a few Indo-Fijians to create, an organisation that serves as a way for descendants of Girmitiyas from Fiji, to find out more about their roots and verify their ancestry.

One can find out more about the first ancestor who arrived on the shores of Fiji by searching the detailed archives either by year of arrival, name of the ship, or pass number. The archive also contains several first-hand Girmitiya stories that truly showcase the trials and travails of the labourers, and how they somehow triumphed in the face of extreme adversities.

In fact, most of the anecdotes in this article have been taken directly from the first-hand accounts provided on this website.

General register of Fatel Razak, the first ship that bought Indians to Trinidad.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
General register of Fatel Razak, the first ship that bought Indians to Trinidad. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Primed To Thrive

Suriname, the smallest country in South America with a sizeable Indian population, celebrates 5 June as Indian Arrival Day.

In 2015, Baba Mai, a statue of an Indian couple who represent indentured labourers, was installed on the spot where the ship carrying the first batch of labourers, the Lalla Rookh, docked.

In fact, Indian Arrival Day is celebrated in nearly every territory that Indian labourers were taken to; Guyana, Mauritius and Trinidad and Tobago celebrate it as an official public holiday. It celebrates Indians and their countless contributions to the countries’ economy and culture and commemorates them through parades, prayer services and cultural functions.

This, more than anything, denotes the impact Indians had wherever they went.

The Baba en Mai statue in Paramaribo, Suriname.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The Baba en Mai statue in Paramaribo, Suriname. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Indians have a certain irrepressible spirit that is impossible to kill no matter what storm batters their souls. There have been countless waves of foreign invasions, and our people have fought back, won wars and also lost them. They have been subjugated, converted at sword point and treated like chattel.

But Indians, ever enterprising, not only found ways to survive through indignities and hardship but slowly, with patience, adapted to the conqueror and eventually made the conqueror adapt to them.

Even when they were taken abroad, people gritted their teeth and survived. Even though they had no way to go back home and the native and white populace viewed them with suspicion and hostility, they banded together and painstakingly started life from scratch, turning their fortunes within a generation or two.

I had gone to South Africa for a trip with my family when I was about ten, and I saw first-hand how even third and fourth-generation Indians cling tenaciously to their heritage, traditions and culture, despite never having gone to India.

The same is true for the Indian diaspora in Mauritius and the Caribbean Islands.

The enduring legacy of the Girmitiyas should be shared more in the country of their origin, so that we can salute their courage and remember that no matter how pitiable our conditions may be, individually or collectively, we always, always find a way out.

Somdatta Majumdar is an MBA student, with an overwhelming interest in obscure Indian history. She hosts a blog @thegeekhistorian on Instagram with interesting stories of India.
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