Origin of Indian involvement in Trinidad

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
June 06, 2022

During the celebration of the day of the arrival of the Indians, on May 31, an editorial in the Express reported: “On this day, 177 years ago, the Fatel Razack entered the Gulf of Paria with more than 200 Indians on board, the first of 143,939 Indian citizens to be brought here under a British Plan to meet a shortage of labor following the emancipation of enslaved Africans in 1834-1838.

The same day the Express made its claims, the Center for Reparations Research (UWI) and the Indo-Caribbean Cultural Center (ICC), in their call to attend a Zoom meeting on Indian reparations, offered a slightly different reason for the engagement. Indian: “The Indian indenture system was a regime of debt bondage in which more than a million Indians were transported to work in European colonies, replacing slave labor, after the abolition of the slavery in the early 19th century.

While most elements of these statements are true, the rationale offered by the Express editorial and the ICC for bringing Indians to Trinidad and Guyana (formerly British Guiana) is not entirely correct. Indians were brought to these British territories to reduce the wages that slaves had to earn after completing the apprenticeship.

What is the origin of the Indian engagement in Guyana and Trinidad in 1838 and 1845, respectively?

On January 4, 1836, John Gladstone, owner of an absentee sugar estate in Guyana and father of William Gladstone, future Prime Minister of England (1868–1894), wrote the following letter to Gillanders Arbuthnot and Company, a shipping agency in Kolkata :

“You are no doubt aware that we are very particularly situated with our Negro apprentices in the West Indies, and that it is [a] question of doubt and uncertainty, how far they may be induced to continue their services on the plantations after the expiration of their apprenticeship in 1840… We are therefore very desirous of obtaining and introducing laborers from other quarters , and especially of climates similar in nature.” (John Scoble, Hill Coolies: A Brief Exposition, 1840).

Gladstone feared the “dangerous monopoly” that black workers would have upon completion of the apprenticeship. He pointed out: “It is very important to us to endeavor to provide a portion of other workers, whom we could use as compensation, and, when the time comes, to make ourselves, as far as possible, independent of our black population; and it occurred to us that a moderate number of Bengalis, like you were sending to the Isle of France [Mauritius]… might suit our purposes. (Gladstone’s italics.)

In 1835, William Burnley, Trinidad’s largest slave owner, was questioned by William Gladstone before a select committee of the House of Commons on how he intended to make apprenticeship work for him. He explained calmly and dispassionately to Gladstone: “I very naturally and anxiously turned my attention to the means by which we should be able to cultivate our estates at the end of this period. Burnley had previously corresponded with William Gladstone.

John Gladstone then ordered Gillanders Arbuthnot and Company 100 “young active and able-bodied … to be compelled to work for a period of at least five years, or more than seven years, the wages not to exceed four dollars a month “. He informed Gladstone that he had already sent 200 Indians to Mauritius to work there on plantations, so “there would be no greater difficulty in sending Indian men to the West Indies”.

This was the origin of the Indian engagement in the West Indies or the “Coolie Slave Trade”, as John Scoble, an English anti-slavery leader, called it in 1840. It was meant to be used as “compensation” or repulsion. against enslaved Africans when they became officially free.

Despite the rhetoric from Trinidad growers, production did not drop as dramatically as growers had expected; sugar production had increased from 19,837 hogsheads in 1838 to 17,470 hogsheads in 1839; molasses had gone from 2,337 barrels to 3,144 barrels in 1839; while cocoa had fallen from 2,294,936 pounds in 1838 to 2,282,108 pounds in 1839.

In fact, things had gone so well by 1839 that the Trinidad Standard could argue that if a troubled future lay ahead for the colony after the apprenticeship, “the laborers were not likely to disturb the order of society in their mode of enjoyment of the recent boom”. conferred on them in that there was much, and perhaps more, security of life and respect for property than before emancipation”. (January 3, 1840.)

While the pledge was the policy of the British government, the program itself was implemented by individuals or companies owned by powerful men. These men have always acted in their own interest. They realized that emancipation was coming and ex-slaves were not going to remain perpetual slaves on their plantations.

Once the apprenticeship ended and the former slaves traded for higher wages, the cost of labor rose and these powerful slave owners such as Gladstone and Burnley had to find a source of labor. less expensive work. Of the 1,938 Indians who came to the island between May 30, 1845 and May 2, 1846, 90 settled on the Burnley estates at Cedar Hill, Union Hall, Phoenix Park and Esperanza. Burnley had first suggested using Indian contracts on the island years earlier.

Slavery and indenture were economic systems that responded to the laws of supply and demand and performed their operations at the lowest cost. For these sugar owners, the emancipation of enslaved Africans meant an increase in their expenses and they acted accordingly.

The Indians were brought to these lands to lower the cost of sugar production after apprenticeship, and it is from here that we should see their entry into Trinidad and Tobago.

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