Encountering Our Past as Indian Indentured Servants
Written by Anna-Liza Badaloo
Sunday November 5, 2023
Growing up as Indo-Caribbean woman in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), I learned as a child that most Canadians of European heritage assume that everyone from the Caribbean is Black. The more history-savvy folks know that Black people were forcibly brought to the Caribbean from various African countries via the Transatlantic Slave Trade. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t start seriously looking into how Indian people got to the Caribbean until about a year ago.
What took me so long? I was the first generation of my family born in Canada, and my mother was keen to raise me as a Canadian. It’s not that she wasn’t proud of her Trinidadian heritage. But when she and my father separated when I was about 7 years old, she made the difficult decision to stay in Canada to give me a better life as a female. Raising me as a single parent in a new country wasn’t easy. And working to put food on the table left little time to educate me about Trini culture.
Now, I’m an organizational justice consultant who focuses on uncovering how colonization shows up in ways of being, doing, and working. In fact, it was this work which led me to examine my own Indo-Caribbean heritage and history. Earlier this year I was at a work event and talk of our past migration histories arose. When I advised people that Indians wouldn’t be in the Caribbean at all if it wasn’t for the abolition of Black slavery, one thoughtful person had a question: was it the same in Fiji? I paused. I told him that I honestly didn’t know the answer, but that if Fiji was part of the British Empire at the time, it was very likely.
That question spurred me to look into it further. And the more I learn, the more inspired I am to share this vital aspect of our history. Along the way, I’ve been making peace with the privilege that I hold as an Indo-Caribbean person. This article is by means an exhaustive review of this complex subject. But for all of my Indo-Caribbean peoples who are starting to explore this part of our history, and perhaps encountering our own privilege for the first time, consider this a starting point.
Replacing the Enslavement of Afro-Caribbeans
When the British passed the Slavery Abolition Act on August 1, 1834, the British colony faced a problem (Heritage, 2021).
How could they maintain the ever-growing British Empire without enslaved Africans? In the Caribbean, the priority was agriculture: planting, maintaining, and harvesting the valuable food crops that fed their global empire, such as coffee, tea, and cocoa. In Trinidad in particular, sugarcane was an incredibly valuable crop. But this plant is very labour-intensive, requiring sowing, reaping, cutting, and processing the sugarcane in sugar boiling units.(Beyond This Day – 29 January 1838, n.d.) . The hunt was on for workers who could fulfill these requirements.
India wasn’t their first choice for Trinidad. They first brought indentured servants in from Ireland, Madeira, Germany, England, and China. But according to records from that time, these folks simply couldn’t handle the hard physical work involved in sugarcane crops – never mind the searing heat. This is one reason why some of these groups turned to commerce and became shopkeepers and merchants – a trend which can be seen in Trinidad even today. (Shared Memory | National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago, n.d.).
When the British discovered that Indians fit the bill, indentured servitude began in earnest across the Caribbean. It is important to note that there was already a long-established practice (even during times of slavery) of indentured servitude across the globe, including from India. But this marked the first time that it became a centrally organized system of labour. (Beyond This Day – 29 January 1838, n.d.).
Between 1845 and 1917 an astonishing 143,939 Indians came to Trinidad under the system of Indian indenture. (THE EXPERIENCE OF INDIAN INDENTURE IN TRINIDAD: ARRIVAL AND SETTLEMENT, n.d.).
But what about the recently freed enslaved Africans? Wouldn’t they have been first in line to be offered indentured servitude contracts? Records from the time indicate that those who had been freed were unwilling to enter into this system with some even using Indian indentured servants themselves. Ultimately though, the arrival of Indians in the Caribbean lowered the bargaining potential of formerly enslaved Africans, who had only recently been freed.
The Indenturship Agreement
Mainly in the regions of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in Northern India (with a smaller number of people from Bengal and other Southern regions), Indian people were offered the chance to move to Trinidad for a period of 5 years to harvest crops under this agreement.
What did their contracts say? They may not have been referred to as "slaves" – but they weren’t free either. The wage was 25 cents per day for adult males, and 16 cents for adult females. Although this was the minimum amount, plantation owners got their money’s worth by getting them to work longer hours for the same pay. The work week was 45 hours, but during harvesting time it could be up to six, 9-hour days. They could not ask for a raise, leave the estate without permission, live off the estates, or refuse assigned work. (THE EXPERIENCE OF INDIAN INDENTURE IN TRINIDAD: ARRIVAL AND SETTLEMENT, n.d.).
After the 5 years were up, the British claimed that they would pay their way back to India if they wanted to return, and would give them a plot of land in Trinidad if they wanted to stay. About 90% of people opted to stay in Trinidad – but it wasn’t as much of a choice as it seemed. (THE EXPERIENCE OF INDIAN INDENTURE IN TRINIDAD: ARRIVAL AND SETTLEMENT, n.d.).
When their 5-year period elapsed, indentured workers were given a Certificate of Industrial Residence to indicate that they were no longer under indenture. But, to qualify for the promised free passage back to India, they had to indenture themselves for another 5 years. (THE EXPERIENCE OF INDIAN INDENTURE IN TRINIDAD: ARRIVAL AND SETTLEMENT, n.d.).
Coming to Terms with Indian Privilege
My partner (whose background includes Black and Cree) is also from Trinidad. Unlike me, she was born there. When we met I was delighted to have found someone that I didn’t have to explain the Trini experience to. But as we got to know each other, I began to wonder whether we were talking about the same country.
While there was some Trini slang that we both knew, the names for foods were quite different. I was more familiar what the Bhojpuri words (like baigan for eggplant), while she shared terms with me that I had never heard. What we did have in common, was a lifetime of seeing anti-Black racism. But we were on different sides of it. As horrified as I was about my family’s racist attitudes (no different from other Indo-Caribbean families I knew growing up), it was nothing compared to being on the receiving end it. It was hard to hear of her experiences with Indo-Caribbeans, and the condescending attitudes that she has been subjected to. Yet, this modern day circumstance has roots in the Indian indentured servitude system.
In Trinidad, the colonizers created a divisive dynamic between Black and Indian communities that there are still echoes of today. I often try to imagine what happened when the early Indian indentured servants came to Trinidad and encountered recently freed Black folks. The colonizers made sure to keep the newly arrived Indian indentured servants away from Black populations, first settling them in areas like Nelson Island, deliberately far away. But what did they really think about each other? Black folks would have seen the British bringing over Indian folks after enslaving their people for centuries, and giving them more privilege. Even scant payment was better than none.
Did the Indian folks know exactly what situation they were coming into? The British would have painted a rosy picture of life in Trinidad, which was appealing due to the poor living conditions that many people in India faced due to the long colonization of that country. But how did they view Black populations when they arrived? They may have seen them as ‘lesser than’, internalizing colonial sentiments. Most significantly – Indians had the opportunity to have their own land. A real lightbulb moment arrived for me recently: my family has had land for generations in a coffee and cocoa-growing area in the bush. I fondly recall visiting these farms nestled in the forests of Biche as a child, where my father worked the land after he moved back to Trinidad. Was this land part of an initial colonial land endowment to one of my ancestors? I may never know, but it seems likely. I had to really sit with that for a while, thinking about what that land has seen over time, and the energetics that may still reside within that land today.
Throughout my life I have seen numerous instances of anti-Black racism among Indo-Caribbean people. For the females in my family, it was considered the worst of sins to bring a Black male home as a romantic partner. Even having Black female friends could be a problem if they were deemed to be “too ghetto”. It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I had also internalized these sentiments that I grew up with. This is complicated by the fact that I do indeed have Black heritage, in addition to Indian, German, and Spanish. Growing up I had to blow dry my hair straight and not let it look “too wild” (code for “too Black”). I internalized this message so deeply, that it was only in my late 30s that I finally realized that it was OK to wear my hair naturally curly.
Conversations with my partner have really allowed me to explore my privilege more fully. She has shared numerous examples of her own racist experiences with Indo-Caribbean people, both past and present. This personal relationship has given me a new window and a new passion to explore our Indo-Caribbean colonial history, and how it still shows up today.
Deepening the Exploration
In August of this year, I visited an exhibit at the Gardiner Ceramic Museum entitled Reclaimed: Indo-Caribbean HerStories. Featuring the work of Toronto-based, Indo-Caribbean ceramic artist artist Heidi McKenzie, the exhibit shone a light on the power, courage, and strength of Indo-Caribbean women by revealing the little-known histories of Indo-Indentureship in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries through to today.(Reclaimed, n.d.)
I invited a group of Indo-Caribbean women who also work in the environmental movement here in Toronto to join me. It was the first time that we met in person. While toasting each other over a pre-exhibit lunch, we reveled in the diversity at the table. Some of us were born here, some in Trinidad. Some had European heritage in their background (noted that they were white-passing in some circumstances), some had Black heritage. We were of varying skin tones and ages, but we had no lack of things in common. Everyone had a story to tell about the first time a white person tried Trini pepper sauce by the spoonful, thinking it was like a salsa, or that relative who always carries their own personal supply of pepper sauce.
The sepia images of Indian indentured servants in their traditional clothing alongside their postcards was powerful. You can see pain, but also hope and strength in their eyes. One of my favourite parts of the exhibit was the images of Indo-Caribbean women today, holding a picture of a female, Indo-Caribbean ancestor. These modern women’s eyes looked different. There, I saw pride in their Indo-Caribbean heritage. The loving way they hold the framed pictures speaks volumes: my ancestors have suffered and endured; but thanks to their strength and fortitude, I am here today to carry on their Indo-Caribbean legacy.
About the Author
Anna-Liza Badaloo (she/her) is an organizational consultant, un-learner, and inclusive storyteller working at the intersection of health, environment, and social justice. Committed to amplifying diverse voices, her work uncovers how colonial, capitalist, heteronormative, and ableist systems harm equity-deserving communities.
Beyond this Day – 29 January 1838: Indian Indentured Trade and ‘The First Crossing’ | Historical Transactions. (n.d.). Retrieved October 2, 2023, from https://blog.royalhistsoc.org/2020/01/29/beyond-this-day-29-january-1838-indian-indentured-trade-and-the-first-crossing/
Heritage, C. (2021, July 20). Emancipation Day—August 1. https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/campaigns/emancipation-day.html
Reclaimed: Indo-Caribbean HerStories. (n.d.). Gardiner Museum. Retrieved October 2, 2023, from https://www.gardinermuseum.on.ca/event/reclaimed-indo-caribbean-herstories/
Shared Memory | National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago. (n.d.). Retrieved October 2, 2023, from http://natt.gov.tt/node/68
THE EXPERIENCE OF INDIAN INDENTURE IN TRINIDAD: ARRIVAL AND SETTLEMENT. (n.d.). Retrieved October 2, 2023, from http://www.caribbean-atlas.com/en/themes/waves-of-colonization-and-control-in-the-caribbean/waves-of-colonization/the-experience-of-indian-indenture-in-trinidad-arrival-and-settlement.html