Origin of The Coolie Slave Trade: Indian Indentured Immigration to Trinidad

By Deosaran Bisnath

Deosaran Bisnath is Vice-President, Caribbean Region, GOPIO International, and Moderator of the Caribbean Hindus Network

Sookra Khadoo Male 15, Panchoo Darhoo Male 16, Dabee Sing Sobrun Sing Male 16, Hullodhur Gobardhun Male 18, and Chowdory Aukalee Male 18, were amongst the youngest in the human cargo aboard the FATH AL RAZACK when it departed the Port of Calcutta on 16th February 1845. One hundred and three days later—on May 30th—the first immigrant ship from India to Trinidad arrived off Nelson Island. Deepa, Mungree, Ancklee, Jhalowa, and Somoreeya were among the 225 who survived the perilous journey across the Kala Pani; the unfortunate six who died were dumped unceremoniously, without rituals or rites.

Between 1845 and April 1917 when the SS GANGES docked for the last time, there was continuous annual importation of labour from India, totaling 145000 to Trinidad, 239000 to Guyana, 50000 to Jamaica, 40000 to Surinam, and smaller numbers to the other Caribbean Islands.

Indians have a long history of emigration to other parts of the world. Despite the strictures in the Shastras against traveling overseas, the presence of Indians abroad can be attested to from the days of remote antiquity. India’s links with Europe date back to the tenth century B. C. with ships moving between the mouth of the river Indus and the Persian Gulf. Indian settlements existed in North-Eastern Africa at the time of Alexander (356-323 B. C.). Marco Polo and Vasco de Gama found Indian merchants along the coast of East Africa, in Mozambique, Kilwa and Mombassa. In contrast to Indian Indentured Immigration, the emigration from India before the early 19th century did not result in any significant permanent settlements overseas.

The potential benefits of a labor force from India had surfaced long before the Emancipation of Slavery in 1834. In 1814, William Burnley proposed that Indians should be imported to work on the Trinidad plantations. Governor Woodford pointed out that free labor was preferable to slave labor and that East Indians would do well in Trinidad. The severe shortage of labour after the Abolition of Slavery resulted in the abandonment of sugar, coffee, tea, cocoa, rice, and rubber plantations, leading to widespread bankruptcy and the collapse of UK financial institutions. It became imperative to find a new source of cheap and easily controlled labour. The British East India Company rode to their rescue. 

In January 1836, John Gladstone, a Guyanese Planter, wrote to Gillanders & Company of Calcutta, expressing his desire to obtain labourers from other quarters, particularly from climates similar to Guyana. Gladstone requested 100 Coolies - young, active, able-bodied people - bound to labour for a period between five to seven years, with monthly wages not to exceed four dollars. Gillanders was keen to comply, raving about the 2,000 natives sent to Mauritius, under five-year contracts. Since the Coolies were ignorant of the agreed destination and the length of voyage, the jahaj (ship), with immigrants on board, will be redirected to the West Indies instead of Mauritius. Gillanders described the Dhangurs (Hill Coolies) as more akin to monkey than man; with neither religion nor education, and, in their present state, no wants, beyond eating, drinking and sleeping for which they are willing to labour
Gillanders suggested a contract similar to that in Mauritius: a period of five years, passage to and from India, and with monthly pay rates of seven rupees for the sirdars (overseers), five rupees for laborers, and three rupees for boys. In addition, food and clothing shall be supplied - fourteen chettacks of rice (about 2lbs.), two ditto of dholl (dhal), two ounces of salt, and some oil and tamarind, daily; and annually for each, two dhooties (dhotis), two blankets, one jacket, and one cap. 

In March 1837, Gladstone and associates informed Gillanders of their intention to hire the good ship HESPERUS to take Coolies to Guyana—150, and fifteen to twenty more if they have children to take with them. Gladstone suggested two women to three men if the female Coolies will work there; if not, then one female to nine or ten men was enough for cooking and washing. Gladstone and his friends were accommodated by an Order in Council that extended the existing contracts from three to five years, commencing with the arrival of the Coolies. The emboldened Gladstone promptly increased the order for Coolies from 150 to 200, and if possible, up to 334, the full capacity of the HESPERUS. 
It was not until January 1838 that the public became aware of the Order of Council, when it was denounced in the British Emancipator as giving birth to a new slave trade. John Scoble, Secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society, alleged that the scheme gave carte blanche to every villain in British Guiana and every scoundrel in India to kidnap and inveigle into contracts of labour, the ignorant and inoffensive Hindoo. 

In May 1838, the Calcutta papers exposed the inhumane conduct of the Chokedars (watchmen) who were guarding the Coolies on board the HESPERUS. The Coolies had to be forced on board and then the hatches were bolted down, after which one man suffocated to death. The WHITBY found difficulty in inducing natives to come onboard and force was required in some cases. It was subsequently discovered that the trade of kidnapping Coolies had been extensive and prison depots were established in the villages near Calcutta for the security of the immigrants, where they were most infamously treated, and guarded with the utmost care, to prevent their escape.

On January 13, 1838 the WHITBY left the shores of India with 267 immigrants on board—250 men, seven women, and ten children. The HESPERUS left Calcutta on January 29 with 170 immigrants on board—155 men, five women, and ten children. Four months later, both WHITBY and HESPERUS landed in the port of Georgetown, British Guiana. Eighteen died during the journey across the Kala Pani—two drowned, most likely committing suicides by jumping overboard. This was the first batch of Indians to arrive in the Western world under the new system euphemistically called Indentureship, but which became in reality “The New System of Slavery”, according to Lord Russell, a Secretary of State for the Colonies. 

Even though Indian Immigration had already begun, anti-Indentureship groups waged a spirited campaign to halt the importation of Indian labourers and warned that “hundreds of thousands of poor helpless women and children are now to be abandoned to want, that the growth of sugar in the West Indies may not languish.”

In Calcutta, on August 3rd 1839, the Friend of India group criticized the Coolie Ordinance: “It is in vain to shut our eyes to the calamities which impend on India. It was in this manner that the Slave-trade crept in, under the shadow of Parliamentary regulation; a race was then begun between abuses and legislation, in which legislation was always found to be in the rear. And, so it will be with the COOLEY TRADE. We must tread the same circle; and, after years of the most poignant misery, come to the same result, that in the case of the new, as of the old, trade, the only path of safety lies in absolute prohibition.” 


December 2010

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