‘More Akin to the Monkey than the Man’: race and labour in the Indian indenture trade

September 8, 2022 | Blog
Home > ‘More Akin to the Monkey than the Man’: race and labour in the Indian indenture trade

by Purba Hossain (Institute of Historical Research, London)

This blog is based upon a grant awarded by the Economic History Society through its Research Fund for Graduate Students.


When slavery was abolished in 1833, the British Empire encompassed several plantation colonies, and their mainstay was the use of enslaved labour. As abolition led planters to look for alternative sources of labour, it prompted the emigration of Indian labourers to Caribbean and Indian Ocean plantations. Between 1837 and 1920, 1.3 million indentured Indians migrated to work in colonies such as Mauritius, Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad, Fiji, and Suriname on the basis of five-year contracts or ‘indentures’.


Figure 1.   Indian and Chinese indentured labourers in British Guiana

Source: Edward Jenkins, The Coolie, his rights and wrongs (1871); accessed from Wikimedia.


This blog post explores the interplay of race, caste, and labour in the Indian indenture system, focusing on how contemporaneous understandings of race influenced the choice of Indian labourers for overseas plantations and informed indenture policies. Global debates over indenture perpetuated a racialized image of the ideal plantation labourer, which derived from both European understandings of race and Indian understandings of caste and social identity. European ideas of race (such as an assumed linkage between race and climate, or race and docility) came together with Indian understandings of caste hierarchy (such as caste-based restrictions on travel, or an assumed connection between caste and physical characteristics) to validate indentured Indians as the successor to the plantation regime.


One of the earliest proponents of the indenture trade was the British planter John Gladstone, who was the father of four-time Prime Minister William Gladstone. In 1836, Gladstone negotiated with a merchant house in Calcutta to supply labourers for his West Indian sugar estates. The merchant house readily agreed and suggested labourers from eastern India as ideal for Gladstone’s plantations. They wrote:


the tribe that is found to suit best […] is from the hills to the north of Calcutta, and the men of which are all well-limbed and active[.] […] They are also very docile and easily managed, and appear to have no local ties, nor any objection to leave their country. […] [They] are always spoken of as more akin to the monkey than the man. They have no religion, no education, and in their present state no wants beyond eating, drinking, and sleeping.


This letter perfectly encapsulates how the ideal indentured Indian was imagined—not just by planters and merchants, but also by parliamentarians and officials. The choice of Indian labourers was based on a combination of assumptions about their docility, lack of ties to the land, physical fitness, and geographical compatibility. Thus, although in actual practice, indentured migrants came from diverse geographical and social backgrounds, they were essentialized within an umbrella identity of ‘coolies’ or ‘hill coolies’. This essentialization was crucial for the continuation of Indian indenture for eighty-odd years since it was intimately tied to ideas of labour and labouring capability.


Firstly, having ‘no religion’ and no objection to leaving the country added to their ability to be ideal migrant labourers, since, for Hindu men and women of the time, crossing the seas equalled losing their position within caste society. Secondly, caste status was seen as intricately linked to propensity for physical labour, as labourers from upper castes were considered ineligible for plantation labour by recruiters. Thirdly, rural Indian labourers were spoken of as an undifferentiated group of primitive and controllable people—a readily available and untapped source of labour for the Empire. This expectation of docility, coupled with their position outside traditional caste society, made them easy to induce to migrate. Finally, climatic compatibility was key because of the assumed relationship between climate and race. Planters in West India argued that Indians were perfect for the warm tropical climate of plantations, which was otherwise considered a hindrance for European and Chinese labourers. As John Gladstone lamented in a letter from 1837, ‘Labourers have been sent from Germany, Madeira, Ireland, and elsewhere, but these experiments have not succeeded, from the influence of the climate producing reluctance to labour, and increasing the desire for liquors’.


Climatic similarity, labouring capability, and ease of employment—all of which were arguments used to highlight the importance of Indian labourers in plantations—were thus derived from a racialized reading of Indian migrants. Ideal labouring characteristics were manifest in the indentured Indian, fetishizing him as the solution to the post-abolition labour shortage, but it was those very assumptions that also shaped their experience of indenture. The assumption that indentured migrants had very little wants in terms of food and ‘subsisted upon the products of the chase’ led to food provisions being kept to a bare minimum of rice, lentils, ghee, and salt. Similarly, the idea that they were excellent physical labourers who had ‘no wants beyond eating, drinking and sleeping’ influenced their allotted leisure hours in the contract. The ideal labourer trope was both shaped and perpetuated by the indenture trade, and, even as such assumptions underwent changes over the course of the century, race remained central to the indenture experience.


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