• 13 Apr, 2024

Slavery & Indentureship not equal but had Similarities

Slavery & Indentureship not equal but had Similarities

Slavery & Indentureship not equal but had Similarities

Some letter writers feel indentureship and slavery should not be compared. Comparative studies is a standard method for understanding different socio-political and economic systems or different periods of history. Comparing and contrasting two labor system like slavery and indentureship help us to better understand and relate to both.  
There are those who pen that that the two labor systems as practiced in the Caribbean have nothing in common. They are very wrong. They are directed to numerous studies:  https://phdessay.com/ slavery-vs-indentureship-in- the-caribbean/ Sturman, Rachel (1 December 2014). "Indian Indentured Labour and the History of International Rights Regimes". The American Historical Review. 119 (5): 1439–1465. 

doi : 10.1093/ahr/119.5.1439  and the numerous articles of Prof Lomarsh Roopnarine as well as Prof Maurits Hassankhan and Ravi Dev (which can be googled), among many other sources. 

It is penned in multiple sources that i ndentureshp was a disguised system of slavery with one or more major differences from chattel slavery in a number of areas.  Some 40K i ndentured Africans were also brought to Guyana along with the 240K Indians. I ndians were subjected to similar (not same) brutality as the slaves. 


Recruitment had several similarities.  “Often Indians were lied to, or even kidnapped, by unscrupulous recruiters and transported to the Caribbean in unpleasant and overcrowded vessels,  and mortality rates on board the ships frequently were high, with cholera and typhoid the main causes of death.   Indentured were kidnapped similar to slaves. Some signed up voluntarily; but all were deceived about terms and conditions. Slaves and indentured suffered from cholera, dysentery, sea sickness, etc. and on the colony they contracted various illnesses similar to slaves”.  ( https://phdessay. com/slavery-vs-indentureship- in-the-caribbean/ ) 


The death rates aboard the ship were similar though slightly higher for Africans in the initial journeys. A major difference was the Africans were chained on board the ships and several died. Indians could move around on deck for fresh air. But several jumped in the ocean - committed suicide becoming meals for sharks.  “Once in the Caribbean, indentured labourers commonly were given the former slave huts in which to live, and initially performed identical work to the slaves, labouring under the rule of the same cruel and often sadistic overseers and plantation owners” (Ibid).    There were many adverse reports on the treatment of indentured laborers that led to its intermittent suspension and eventual abolition. 


It is a fact that Africans were treated as cargo and sold to plantations. Indians were also parceled out, herded and sent to different plantations; at times kins were separated including husband and wife. Slaves and indentured both put in some twelve hours labor daily. Also, Indians lived in the same lojies (huts not even fit for animals) from which the slaves were evicted and would have been in a worse condition during indentureship than during slavery as they were not upgraded or rehabilitated at the end of slavery for the indentured. The planters minimized cost to maximize profit. 


In theory, indentured laborers had a contract, but in reality it was hardly ever enforced. There was no lawful neutral state authority to enforce it. As one scholar penned, Indian life in the plantation was not much different from the slaves. The indentured were not owned legally by the plantation owners as in slavery. But for all practical purposes, the indentured and their children were owned by the plantations. They could not venture out of the plantations, not ever for worship or visit brethren. Even when indentureship was completed, they could not leave, and there was no other source of employment but the estate. They had to live on the estate because permission was denied to move elsewhere. F reed slaves could leave the plantations. Lomarsh and Hassankhan showed that t hose who finished their indentured bondage were not allowed to leave the plantations. They were moved from the plantation owned lojies to heavily forested land within the plantation. The freed Indians fell the trees and built lojies for themselves.  They had no choice about labor; they must do what massa (his substitutes) ordered including demands for sex (rape) of females during and right after indentureship. 


On labor, it was a crime to be absent from work or not completing tasks; it could lead to whipping and heavy fines.  One scholar penned: “If any coolie fails to work for a single day, he is jailed for two to four days and kept under chains and tortured very much. The idea of a rest day was inconceivable; movements were curtailed, and the laborers were caged within the walls of the plantation”.  Sickness or injury was not an excuse for not reporting to work. No work resulted in no pay or negative pay since there were fines. The slaves were not fined for sickness or not reporting for work; they may be whipped depending on the mercy of the massa. The Indians were not subjected to mercies. No work, no pay, and lashes and fines.  The same cat-o-nine tails that whipped slaves were also used to whip indentured.  The same whites or Africans who whipped the slaves were the ones who whipped the Indians. The whites were smart to use Africans, mostly Bhajans, to discipline the Indians in Guyana. The indentured were beaten similarly like the slaves for not working. Some indentured committed suicide on the plantations as they could no longer tolerate the abuses and sufferings. 

Although they were entitled to a contracted income, indentured were often cheated of the amount. When expected tasks were not met, there were deductions from payment. When productivities were beyond expectations, they were not offered extra pay or bonuses. As Hassankhan penned, “if any aspect of the contract was violated, payments were deducted. At times, indentured worked for free just like slave labor”. In one case, as Sturman penned: “Chitra who came with the indentured and those born in the plantation also worked on the fields without remuneration; that was free labor not different from the labor of children of slaves”. On male/female abuse, women received less than half of the payment of men. 


As penned in  https://phdessay.com/ slavery-vs-indentureship-in- the-caribbean/ ,  “if what is most notable about slavery is it allows the massa to extract labor without paying for it. That is precisely what was achieved in the system of Indian indentureship. There is a salutary lesson for victims of European domination. When Europeans saw fit to bestow freedom upon people, they could only do so by chaining others”. 


Some penned that the Africans were not allowed to keep their names and practice their culture. They forget that Hindus were not allowed to cremate their dead or conducted puja on foreshores until after the end of indentureship. The first cremation was in 1955, some 117 years after they first arrived on the colony and 34 years after the end of indentureship. Many Indians were forced to convert their faith and to change their names in order to get government jobs or contracts. 


Notwithstanding the above, slavery and indentureship are two different systems and no attempt should be made to equate both. However, we must relate to and understand each other’s experiences.  Barbadian Africanist scholar George Lamming wrote that “the Indian hands fed us in the Caribbean”, adding “They contribute as much as the hands of African slaves to the Caribbean experiment of giving shape to a unique express of human civilization”.  As Lamming put it: “there can be no creative discovery of this civilization without the central and informing influence of the Indian presence in the Caribbean”. 


I am in agreement with Africans who pen that Indian can speak for enslaved Africans and their descendants. Should Africans speak for Indians or Portuguese or Chinese indentureds or the oppressed indigenous people. 
I should note that in addition to slaves, African contracted indentured laborers came to Guyana. The history record would show that when slavery ended in 1834 (1838), there were under 80K freed slaves. Some 40K Africans were subsequently imported into Guyana as indentured laborers as Ravi Dev reminded readers (SN Aug 27). Who speak for the indentured Africans? Are their descendants entitled to any reparations? 


The injustices of indentureship system should be recognized and the ancestors honored. Africans do not wish for the Indians, Amerindians and other groups to be included in African claim for reparations. That should be honored. The other groups should pursue their own cause or case for reparations with financial support from the regional governments and CARICOM. The governments of the region provide funding for the African reparations commission. Indian representatives should be equally funded in order to present their own case for reparations. 



Dr Vishnu Bisram

Dr Vishnu Bisram is Guyanese born who received his primary and secondary education in Guyana and tertiary education in the US and India. He is a fourth generation Indian. His great grandparents from both his mother and father’s sides were born in India -- Gurbatore from Ghaizpur, Amru from Azamgarh, Sau from Chapra, Mangri from Mau, Bhuri and Bhura Singh from Bharatpur, among others. They all came at different times to then British Guiana (1880s and 1890s) to work on sugar plantations as indentured laborers. After serving ten years, they were freed laborers. They remained on the colony rather than returned to India, married and had children. They used the savings from indentureship to purchase landholdings to cement their ties to their adopted land. They were not given free land. Vishnu Bisram is ninth of twelve children of Gladys and Baldat, rural farmers, she also was a seamstress and he a taylor and they attended to a kitchen garden as well. Vishnu attended the St Joseph Anglican (called English) primary school from 1966 to 1972. In 1972, he passed the annual nationwide Common Entrance exam winning a scholarship place to attend the government Berbice High School in New Amsterdam, some 17 miles from his home village of Ankerville, Port Mourant. He declined the placement scholarship and opted instead for the private Chandisingh High School to which his family pad to pay a tuition. He entered for eight subjects at the Cambridge University Exam in 1977. Vishnu migrated to the USA in 1977 to further his studies. He enrolled at the City College of City University of New York September that year at age 17, studying Bio-Chemistry and also completing a major in Political Science. After his BSc in Bio-Chem, he pursued graduate studies in International Relations earning a MA. He went on to complete multiple post graduate degrees including doctorates in Economics, Sociology, History, Political Science and Educational Administration. Dr Bisram taught for over forty years in various subjects in the US. He also served as a newspaper reporter and columnist for over four decades and is a well-known pollster in the Caribbean region. He is a specialist on the Indian diaspora traveling extensively around the globe to research and write about Indian communities. He published countless articles on various subjects in the mass media, journals, and books. He also organized international conferences on the Indian diaspora and presented papers at many conferences. He was a guest lecturer at universities in Mauritius, India, Fiji, South Africa, Guyana, Trinidad, Suriname, USA, and other countries. He is a well regarded political analyst on American and Caribbean politics. He makes him home in Guyana, Trinidad, and America and travels frequently to India.