A Marked Symbol of Appreciation

By Sandew Hira

Sandew Hira a.k.a. Dew Baboeram is director of the International Institute for Scientific Research (IISR) in the Netherlands and currently working on a 40-volume Encyclopaedia of the Colonial History of Suriname 1948-1954

In the era of colonialism there were two major worldwide transportation of labourers:

• The transatlantic trade of human beings from Africa that brought 10-12 millions alive into inhuman slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean between 1600 and 1838. This trade is characterized by the United Nations as a crime against humanity.

• The migration of labourers from Asia, mostly China and the former British India, to the European colonies around the world.

Between 1828 and 1937 an estimated 30 million Indians were transported from India to work on plantations in other Asian countries and in colonies overseas. There worked under different labour systems. Around one million worked under a specific labour system, the indentured labour system, in overseas colonies.

The characteristics of indenture ship are:

· The migrant was forced to work for five years for the same employer. He could not change to another employer.

· His actual wage was dictated by the employer despite the fact that there was an agreement with the planters that the wages would be fixed per day (they were paid per task that was set by the employer).

· If he refused to work, he was not sacked but arrested and sent to jail.

· The worker was not free in his movement. He was not allowed to leave the premise of the plantation even after working hours. He needed a pass and could be arrested if he did not have a permit from his boss to leave the plantation.

· The workers functioned under a repressive legal system that continuously punished the worker for the most trivial matters.

· If the workers protested their working and living conditions, they faced the whip and the bullet as happened several times in the period of indenture ship during the uprisings of indentured labourers against colonialism.

· A crucial element in the colonial system was the ideology and practice of racism: the idea that the white man is superior to the coloured people and that this allows him to treat the coloureds as inferior human beings. 

Most indentured labourers left India through the port of Kolkata. They were recruited from different parts of India under the false pretext that they would be brought to a place where they would earn a decent living in freedom and prosperity. The recruiters never painted the real picture of indenture ship, the picture of exploitation and oppression.

Based on these false pretext the young Indians (most were between 20 and 35 years) were misled to sign up for departure. They were transported from different sub-depots in India to the Howray Railway Station from different parts of the country and were housed in the central depots at the port. From there they embarked on a journey that would end in a nightmare for many.

The experience of indenture ship on the plantations was indeed a nightmare for many. Only a few percentage of the Indian entered in a new contract with the planters. Every five years the planters were forced to replace this work force with fresh recruit that are unaware of the destitution they would have to endure.

The overwhelming majority choose for the tough existence in freedom outside the plantation. Between 20-40% returned to India. Several thousands died before they could return. Others were not allowed to return through conspiracies of the planters and the Colonial Government.

In the new countries they succeed to build a new future for their children through hard work, determination and great sacrifice. They succeeded not because of colonialism, but despite of colonialism.
In many countries they have succeeded in building strong communities on the basis of their culture and values. The initial promise for a better future was betrayed by the colonial powers, but the hope for a better future never died. It was translated into a firm effort and great endurance to create the possibilities for success of their children and grand children.

The children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the Indian plantation labourers who left the port of Kolkata are now entrepreneurs, engineers, doctors and ordinary hardworking labourers and servants who can be proud and grateful of the sacrifice of their ancestors.

The Kolkata Memorial is a marked symbol of that pride and appreciation. It will be a tangible expression of gratitude and remembrance for that great journey that our ancestors embarked on less than two ages ago. 


December 2010

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