Book Excerpts : Colonial Imigration 19th-20th Century


Book:Colonial Emigration 9th-20th Century, Proceedings 1825-1848 Vol: One
Author: Leela Gujadhur Sarup
Publisher: Aldrich International
Price: 6750/--

Leela Gujadhur Sarup spent a decade in libraries and archives across India to ferret out information on the emigration of Indian indentured workers to different sugar colonies across the world. In the end she produced a masterpiece of rare value on the subject. We serialise from Proceedings Volume I
Leela Gujadhur Sarup
Leela Sarup, nee Gujadhur, was born in Calcutta, India. She hails from renowned industrial family of Mauritius. Her initial education was in Mauritius and she returned to India to complete her studies. When not travelling, she spends her time mostly in Calcutta and Mussoorie. She can be reached on
The official suspension or Embargo of emigrants’ traffic from British India was from 11th July 1838. A request not to recruit workers from India was sent to the French authorities, who readily agreed. There are no records of official sanction for despatching Indian emigrants to French and other non-British colonies, as it appears that since the British were not the de-facto rulers of India and a few other nations had a few territories under their control, they were also at liberty to recruit slaves for their respective colonies. 

During the Embargo period, one Mr. H. Maingard, from the Bourbon (Reunion) Island, came to India to recruit labourers but he had to return without any workers. Chinese emigrants continued to arrive as reported by Mauritius Governor Lionel Smith, who also admitted allowing workers from Pondicherry to Mauritius in 1841, when the embargo was still in force. 

Early in July 1838, the Directors of the East India Company deliberated that the traffic of the Indian workers cannot be stopped but proper regulations were to be enforced. Various committees were set up during the Embargo period, to investigate the conditions under which the emigrants were ill-treated in Mauritius. In August 1838, six men were selected to form a committee to enquire into the abuses of the emigrants, amongst whom was one Indian, Rusmony Dutt.

From August to October 1838, the Committee met 23 times and each one dissented on all the points entirely and with such divided opinions the report could not be compiled. By November 1838, the Government asked for the report, in vain. By January 1839, there were 43 meetings. It was not until 14th October 1840, that is, 26 months later, that the report was completed and signed by three members of the committee. One member of the committee left for England and the other two members submitted their separate individual reports. The exhaustive report of J.P. Grant is included in this publication as can be seen from pages 31 to 77. The report submitted by Messrs Dickens, Charles and Rusmony Dutt are on page 82-84.

Meanwhile in England, the House of Commons devoted several sessions to this matter. When finally the report was tabled, there was a note that there was “Some difference of opinion still exists.”

Lord Auckland retired as Governor General in 1841 and Lord Ellenborough succeeded him. Queen Victoria presided over the meeting for passing Colonial Emigration Act XV of 1842. 

In Mauritius, Sir Lionel Smith had replaced Nicolay as Governor. He was duly informed in January 1842 that necessary arrangements had to be made to appoint agents to be known as Protectors of Emigrants at all the ports of departure in India and the port of arrival at Mauritius. All these agents were to be selected by the East India Company and they were to safeguard the well-being of the emigrants at all stages. The Protector of Emigrants was to control recruitment, lodgements and see to it that the emigrants should have two proper meals everyday. The conditions of shipment were very explicit that the sailing ships meant to transport emigrants should be well equipped with provisions, clean, with adequate water for drinking and enough space for free movement on the upper decks and such ships should refrain for carrying cargo, specially salt.

Finally, the Embargo on Emigration was lifted and in thirteen months, from 1st December 1942 to 31st December 1943, 34,339 men, 4,530 women and 1,449 children reached Mauritius; these emigrants were sent under the East India Government Agency system. 

From January 1844, the Protector of Emigrants and the Colonial Agency took over and this system was observed from then onwards. From January to December 1844; 24,867 men, 4,078 women, 2,761 children, 1,008 and 871 male and female infants were despatched.

It became important for the British to encourage emigration. The British offered free passage for women accompanying their husbands. Then it became compulsory to ship 25% women which figure slowly went upto 40% before the ships could be allowed to set sail. But it was difficult to procure women of good character as most of the men refused to take their families with them, as they said, they had no intention to settle down in any foreign country. Due to this shortage of women, the recruiters resorted to malpractices of kidnapping and abducting women. Widows were an easy target and such young women who were harassed by their in-laws, found an easy way out. Many came forward and sailed as unmarried women or just declared they were married to anyone the recruiters suggested. This situation led to many problems and by 1848 it became compulsory for the men and women to declare their marital status in front of authorised persons and obtain necessary certificates.

Over the years the Colonial Emigration Acts were amended, based on difficulties experienced and recommendations of the Protector of Emigrants, Colonial Emigration Agents, medical advisers, shipping agents, emigrants’ complaints and so on. 

The first Colonial Emigration Acts were enacted in 1837. Instead of innovating new terms and conditions in the contracts of the Indentured Labour, the East India Company copied the same terms as set out by the French planters and added that Calcutta will be the only port authorised to despatch the labourers. The first Colonial Emigration Act enacted in May 1837 was repealed in September of the same year only to add that departure was allowed also from the port of Madras and Bombay.

From 1842 onwards, feverish arrangements were made by the East India Company to see to it that Indian Indentured Labourers were properly recruited, their destination and contracts explained in their vernacular language, their fooding and lodgement at first in the residences of duffadars, and other employees of the company was hygienic, well ventilated, and above all, the prospective emigrants were not locked up; they were given freedom of movement. 

All precautions were taken to ensure confidence in the minds of the emigrants. This was unlike in the 1830s, when most of the emigrants were taken by force or under duress or coercion. Records establish facts that under the un-regulated system, (1834-39) Indentured labourers were locked up in the houses of the employees of the East India Company; besides, they were not aware of their destination. When brought to Calcutta from up country, they were promised jobs in the developing metropolis; when found loitering around looking for jobs in the city itself, they were abducted under false promises; these starving men were given two meals a day, which was more than adequate for them. This itself showed a great future to them, however improper the meals or treatment. 

From as early as 1842-43, specimen of Bonds to be executed by commanders of ships allocated for transporting emigrants were submitted to Government as can be seen on Page – 105. Food, provisions and medicine on board emigrant ships were specified (Page 98-101). License to Commanders of emigrants was granted only if all the conditions were complied with. All these measures were taken to ensure a comfortable journey to destination. What awaited the emigrants on arrival is another story. The British did their best to send Indentured Labourers in fairly comfortable conditions. Planters with different temperament changed the aspirations of the emigrants into different avenues:- some nightmarish, some bearable living and a few received humane treatment. But for those who completed their five year contracts, they carved their own future, something they would not have been able to do in India.

There were cases where quite a few emigrants were taken by force as can be seen on the reports on Page 116-121. Though steps were taken to avoid such situations, one can read between the lines that such coercive measures to recruit emigrants were not averse to the British authorities. The authorities were aware that registered recruiters and their touts were enticing villagers to come to Calcutta to work and promised them wages of Rs. 10/- per month, and promised the journey would take 4 days or so.

No expenses were spared to despatch emigrants to Mauritius and eventually other colonies as can be seen in the reports.

In 1843, Mauritius indicated they would not require more than 600 men annually. (Colonial Emigration Act No. XXI of 1843)*. Seeing the success story in sugar cane plantation in Mauritius, the British Government in Calcutta decided to despatch Indian labourers to British Guiana, Jamaica and Trinidad. (Colonial Emigration Act No. XXI of 1844)

Meanwhile, in 1843, out of the 424 immigrants who were despatched to British Guiana (Demerara) in 1838, under the un-regulated system, 262 returned. 104 having died during this period, 58 immigrants chose to remain and settle in Demerara. In 1839, immigration to Demerara and other colonies was prohibited and officially started from 1845. From 1845 to 1848, 9367 immigrants were dispatched to the Carribean countries of British Guiana, Jamaica and Trinidad. 

Regarding care and concern of the Emigrants, the British authorities did not leave any stone un-turned. In April 1847, one Captain C.S. Rundle and his crew were found to have ill-treated Indian immigrants bound to Mauritius. The British authorities, after enquiries, via letters dated 25th February 1848, expressed their dissatisfaction to the Protector of Emigrants and to the Colonial Secretary at Mauritius and desired that no license be issued to Captain C.S. Rundle to transport immigrants. 

To be continued...

November 2009

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