The Economic History Review

Between unfreedoms: The role of caste in decisions to repatriate among indentured workers

Volume 75 Issue 2
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Pages: 421-446Authors: Neha Hui, Uma S. Kambhampati
Published online: October 19, 2021DOI: 10.1111/ehr.13115

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Indian indentured labour migration followed slavery in providing cheap labour to British plantation colonies. To make this migration characteristically distinct from slavery, the workers were offered a subsidized trip back at the end of the indenture period. However, despite this guaranteed and subsidized return passage, only about a third of the workers returned to India. In this article, we consider the role of caste in the decision to return home using data from ship registers for more than 16 000 Indian indentured workers in British Guiana between 1872 and 1911. Our results indicate that individuals from very low castes were significantly less likely to return home in comparison to other caste groups. We argue that this was because while caste hierarchy played a very significant role in every aspect of the workers’ lives back in India, their lives in the plantation economies did not allow the reproduction of caste hierarchies. Low caste workers who stayed on in British Guiana were therefore able to escape the unfreedom of caste. This trend is not robust for other caste groups. While the association of higher caste groups and return is positive and significant, the significance disappears when we include economic conditions.