Diaspora: Setting The Stage For Indian Coolies Abroad
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One of the earliest references to Indian overseas is to be found in the notebooks of that distinguished observer, Charles Darwin, who was negotiating his way around the Indian Ocean in 1835.
As soon as he anchored the H.M.S. Beagle off the island of Mauritius, Darwin observed in his notebook: ‘Convicts from India are banished here for life; of them at present there are about eight hundred who are employed in various public works. Before seeing these people, I had no idea that the inhabitants of India were such noble looking men; their skin is extremely dark, and many of the older men had large mustachios and beards of a snow white color: this, together with the fire of their expressions, gave to them an aspect quite imposing.’

Just as Britain kept exporting its hardened criminals to faraway places like Australia, convicts from the British Indian Empire were also banished to remote islands on the rim of the Indian Ocean. Mauritius was one such place.

Transportation overseas became a substitute for life imprisonment or the death penalty. And because these far-flung settlements of the British were in dire need of laborers, the convicts were immediately put to work in the plantations as well as in building the infrastructure: railroads, harbors, offices and jails.

Not all the Indian taken to the Colonies were criminals. Some had merely run afoul of the British Government and its colonial laws. A few were men who had dared to defy the white man’s edicts; we will never know the names of these early Indian patriots who were exiled from their motherland.

As Darwin pointedly observed: ‘These convicts are generally quiet and well conducted; from their outward conduct, their cleanliness and faithful observance of their strange religious enactments, it was impossible to look at these men with the same eyes as our wretched convicts in Australia.’


A most profound change, which in turn directly affects the fate of Indians overseas, came about with the abolition of slavery and slave trade in 1834. Nearly 750,000 men, women, and children who were emancipated in the west Indies alone were unwilling to work for their former masters - so great was their detestation of the years of servitude and abuse.

In the island of Mauritius 60,000 former slaves simply refused to work in the sugarcane fields for a pittance. Women chose to raise families instead of submitting to the drudgery of slave labor and the abuse of their European masters. Many former slaves also became independent farmers by taking over the cultivation of fallow land. Others became small-time traders to the former slaves. Soon a number of villages sprang up, independent of the sugar plantations.

On many estates the former slaves demanded, and got, additional wages for their backbreaking work. As one writer pointed out, after emancipation the master became “the slave of the Negro until immigration began to tell.”

With slave trade banned, the colonial empires of the British, French, Dutch and the Portuguese were deprived of a steady supply of African slaves who for nearly 200 years had toiled for the white man in overseas plantations, providing Europe with all of its luxuries: sugar, tobacco, coffee, cotton, indigo, tea, and spices. These were products vital to the economy of Europe. Britain, for instance, had invested large amounts of money in the production of sugar in Mauritius, which was providing more than 70 million pounds of sugar every year in the 1830s.

In British Guiana, Trinidad, Surinam and elsewhere in the West Indies, it was the same story. Britain found that the cultivation and processing of sugar for consumption in Europe was an immensely profitable enterprise. Besides, the soil in the tropics was rich ad fertile and well suited for sugarcane. The indispensable prerequisite for sugar production, however, was an abundant supply of cheap labor. This intimate connection between sugar and slavery would now push Europe to the brink of an economic upheaval.


As a result of the dramatic decline in slave population, sugar production fell by 75 percent within 35 years. The price of sugar as well as many essential items rose steeply. Sugar estates were abandoned in Jamaica, Trinidad, Mauritius, and Guiana. Plantations were sold for paltry sums because there weren’t enough slaves to man them. Sugar estates that fetched over $100,000 in 1810 were being sold 25 years later for $1,200.

For capitalists as well as consumers in Europe, whose very existence depended so much on slave labor in the colonies, the situation was quite alarming. And when Lord Bentinck revealed that 48 business firms with liabilities over $1 million had collapsed in England, the British parliament swung into action by immediately authorizing a loan to the sugar colonies. But that was only an interim measure.

Another plan was also being considered by the sugar barons.It involved the introduction of “coolies” from China or India to replace slave labor. A desperate situation had to be met with a desperate solution. While the British Government acceded to this proposal, there were some practical considerations, too.

In the 1840s, it would cost twice as much to transport a laborer from China to the West Indies compared to one from India. There was another stumbling block: Chinese law forbade a Chinese subject from emigrating without a special permit. Even if the permit was obtained, there was great resentment in China to the fraud, brutality, harsh conditions and high mortality on such long voyage. A curious memorandum circulated among colonial officers in 1843 states that the Chinese are “wholly free from the inconvenient prejudices of Hindoostan.” Also that “they must be paid the full value of their labor… they must be treated with the same consideration as any class of British laborers. If they are not, they become inevitably discontented, disorderly and roguish.”

In other words, the Chinese could not be exploited as easily as the laborers from India.

Why was the introduction of Indian labor so economical for the Imperial Powers? The answer becomes apparent if we just compare the wages of a typical Indian laborer in a sugar plantation with that of a former slave. The Indian coolie was offered $45 per year with an additional bonus for food and clothing according to the terms of contract known as indentured labor. In addition he was offered some tantalizing privileges: free passage and the right to settle in the colony or be repatriated to India after the term of contract expired. The emancipated African laborer, on the other hand, demanded wages at least 10 times that offered the Indians. Another reason why the plantation owners preferred Indian coolies “was the clean habits and quiet and docile disposition of the Indians over the Negroes.”


Meanwhile India, in the 19th century, was in the grip of imperial power play. The Indian princes were merely pawns in this power game. The masses of people were being crushed by poverty and the burden of a vicious caste system. India offered little hope. Whole families were starving - or at best eking out a meager existence at less than subsistence wages.

New absentee landlords sought to impose heavy taxes on landless laborers. Shrewd adventurers in Bengal secured large grants of land thus depriving tribal people of holdings they had possessed for so long. Land speculators used their cunning tactics to purchase estates and then subleased them in small parcels to contractors who in turn made the most of rents from cultivators.

A pamphlet at the India Office Library expounds the different kinds of taxes that peasants of the Kol tribe in Chottanagpur had to deal with: ‘When the oppressor wants a horse, the Kol must pay; when he desires a palki, the Kols have to pay, and after wards to bear him therein. They must pay for his musicians, for his paan. Does some one die in his house? He taxes. Is a child born? Again a tax. Is there a marriage or a puja? A tax. If he is found guilty and sentenced to be punished by court, the Kol pays the fine. Or does a death occur in the house of the Kol? the poor man must pay a fine. Is a child born, is a son or daughter married? the poor Kol is still taxed. Thus unjust people not only take everything in the house, but even force the Kols to borrow, that they may not obtain what they want, reminding one of the saying that the poor man is taxed from his birth to his coffin.’

There was another cruel device by which the tribal people were forced to work, virtually as slaves, in the fields of moneylenders. They would become “Kamia” or the bond-servants of creditors. Under the terms of this bond the coolie oftentimes contracted to serve for the term of his life. It was becoming common for the Kamias to run away to the cities and into the open arms of recruiters for indentured laborers abroad.

Then there was famine.

It was a regular ordeal in parts of Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu. In 1836 a British official noted: ‘While the country in general has enjoyed peace from all external aggression, ever since it was subjected to our authority, its native inhabitants have become, every year, more and more famished.’

(We will next explore how the indentured laborers or coolies were exported.)

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