Recently, as a result of articles relating to Professor C. Suntharalingam, there has been mention of the Plantation workers. As a student of Literature, my interest has not been in broad, impersonal, happenings but, rather, on ordinary folk who experience and endure history; not on law-makers but on those at the receiving end of laws and statutory changes: as Thomas Paine urged in his Rights of Man, governments (and people) must be taught humanity. The approach here is primarily through literary texts. Most of what I have written on the Plantation workers is collected in my Sri Lanka: Literary Essays & Sketches from which the following essay is taken. At the request of the Editors, the article has been broken up into three parts. Readers are reminded of the Marxist phrase, “commodity fetishism”. For example, pictures of tea-leaves being plucked almost invariably show women smiling brightly, in bright sunshine, wearing bright clothes, healthy and happy. Poverty and wretchedness can excite contempt rather than compassion and conscience.
“We have taken
Too little care of this.”
(King Lear 111. iv.32-33)
The slave trade in Africans is perhaps the worst blot on recorded human history, given (a) the trade’s duration, (b) the numbers involved and, above all, (c) its appallingly cruel nature. The effects of the trade persist in various forms into the present, not least in the presence and experience of Africans now native to the United States and the Caribbean. Ironically, the trade has been enabling in that it has generated numerous studies, autobiographies, memoirs and fictional works, the last not only by Africans (Toni Morrison, Caryl Phillips and others) but also by non-Africans: for example, Barry Unsworth’s ‘Sacred Hunger’, Graeme Rigby’s ‘The Black Cook’sHistorian’ and the Indo-Guyanese-British writer, David Dabydeen’s ‘AHarlot’s Progress’ (See, Sarvan, ‘Paradigms of the Slave Trade in Two British Novels’, International Fiction Review, vol. 23, 1996.)
The exodus of Indians, voluntary or otherwise, to labour on British plantations under the indenture system, some heading East to Malaya and further to Fiji, others West through the Suez Canal (opened 1869) to the distant Caribbean, was a newer form of slavery, but it has not drawn the attention of researchers nor inspired writers as much as the “trade” in Africans has done. This article examines some of the available work. I regret I have been unable to trace primary material from Mauritius, but I am sure others will fill in this, and other, gaps. The title specifies, “Indian” because many Chinese also went, or were taken, as coolies; “plantation” because Indians who slaved other than on estates were also derogatorily known as “coolies” – don’t visit Colombo harbour, for it is full of sweaty, smelly coolies (see Part 3, ‘Works Cited’: Carl Muller 1993, 19) – and “overseas” because “coolie” exploitation featured within India too: see ‘Works Cited’ for Mulk Raj Anand). Why the indentured labourers themselves haven’t left a substantial body of literature is not difficult to understand: most were illiterate, work was exhausting, housing squalid and they were segregated, trapped within the confines, physical and mental, of the plantation. No doubt, there were songs expressing their suffering and their longings; their yearning for a distant home made attractive by immediate misery, by time and distance, but these songs appear not to have been translated into English. I fear most are lost even in their original languages.
Historically, the African Slave trade and the system of indenture are linked in that it was the emancipation of the slaves in the nineteenth century that made Britain look to its teeming Indian possession for replacement labour. As with Africans, the descendants of Indian “coolies” now form part of the population of certain countries, leading, in some cases to racial attacks: Guyana in the early 1960s and Sri Lanka ever since independence in 1948 with the departure of the British who had introduced Indian labour into the Island. “In 1964, a few years before independence, racial clashes took place on an unprecedented scale… [For example] at Wismar… hundreds of East Indian residents were attacked and killed. The men and children were locked up in their houses which were then set afire. The women and young girls were raped, mutilated and then dumped in the river to die” (David Dabydeen, ‘Slave Song’ 1986: 46). To cite recent examples, the year 2000 saw increased tension in Mauritius between Indians and “Creoles”; parliament in Fiji was stormed and its Indian Prime Minister taken hostage by Fijian “nationalists”; and in November (so-called) “Indian Tamils” in Sri Lanka were attacked in various towns and four youths held in a rehabilitation centre, murdered by a mob which was allowed entry and incited by the security forces, the latter being drawn almost entirely from the majority group. In short, the effects of the British indenture system persist: indenture is not ‘history’ in the popular sense of being over and done with.