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Studio Portrait of an Indentured Worker (Caribbean Photo Archive)

Between 1837 and 1917, more than 430,000 Indians arrived in the British Caribbean colonies as a part of the indenture system. After the emancipation of slaves in 1837, British sugar planters lost their hold over an enslaved labour force that could be coerced and controlled. In order to resolve this problem, the sugar plantocracy convinced the British metropole that the importation of indentured labour was crucial to the fortunes of the plantations, and the colonies. John Gladstone, a British merchant with investment in the Caribbean, played a key role in promoting the indenture system.

In a 1836 letter, he writes,

“It is of great importance to us to endeavor to provide a portion of other labourers whom we might use as a set-off, and when the time comes, make us, as far as it is possible, independent of our negro population; and it has occurred to us that a moderate number of Bengalees…might be very suitable for our purpose.” (Quoted in Madhavi Kale’s Fragments of Empire)

It was Gladstone’s initiative that led to the importation of the first Indian workers to British Guiana in 1837, and later in Trinidad in 1845. This system of indenture, which was driven by colonial economics and structured by colonial idealogy later spread to other parts of the Caribbean, would soon be known as another form of slavery.

About the Project

This project maps, spatially and chronologically, the migration of Indian indentured workers to Trinidad, one of the colonies to which a large number of indentured workers were sent. Between 1845 and 1917, about 143,900 indentured Indian labourers were sent to Trinidad. While scholars such as Rhoda Reddock, Tejaswini Niranjana, Richards and Byrne, and others have already documented this migration through sociological research, feminist studies, and statistical evidence from the colonial archives, the digital medium presents an opportunity to visualize this migration in its scope and duration.

By visualizing patterns in migration flow, I situate migration under the indenture system in the context of British imperial politics, the economic imperatives of the sugar plantocracy, and the nascent nationalism in India. The socio-political narrative that emerges in this visualization will be interspersed with the personal narratives of migrants from photographs, first person accounts, and literary sources. The resultant effect is often jarring in tone and voice: while the movement of the labour across continents and within Trinidad is framed by official policies, the experiences and lives of the immigrants and their children in Trinidad are narrated in personal accounts, historical or literary. I hope that the discordant voices will provide contradictory, alternative, and disparate perspectives on Indian indenture in Trinidad.

The goals of this project

1)      Situate Indian indenture at the nexus of the polices and ideology of the British metropole, the sugar plantocracy in Trinidad, and Indian nationalists. In order to do this, the project maps key debates, events, and policies in Trinidad, England, and India which shaped the flow of Indian indentured workers to Trinidad. Often these debates and policies were contradictory and shifting (such as the ratio of women to men to be maintained), and occasionally events such as famine and nationalistic sentiment dramatically altered the number of workers who could be recruited. The juxtapositions in the project are intended to be open-ended, and spark questions and further study. In order to demonstrate how this project can encourage more detailed reading and study, I present a sample reading here.

2)     Create a space where the presence and voice of the migrant, often silenced in the colonial archives or effaced by statistics, may emerge. While first person accounts from the indentured workers are lacking, tales of their life emerge from accounts left by their children, and community members such as missionaries, travel writers, and colonial authorities. While the latter accounts must be read in light of their colonial ideology, they nonetheless comment on the circumstances in which the indentured workers lived and worked in. The former accounts are equally rich sources of information as they also offer a glimpse into the lives of the first generation of Indians born in Trinidad. Anna Mahase Snr’s autobiography is a very important source in this regard as she records the tales told by her mother of her arrival in Trinidad. Her autobiography forms the basis of a feminist study of indentured experience as well as of the first generation born in Trinidad.

3)     Engage a broader audience with the historical and literary sources on Indian indenture in Trinidad. The sources used in this project include poetry by Mahadai Das, excerpts from Anna Mahase Snr’s autobiography, quotes from prominent Indian nationalists, and text from Immigration Ordinances in Trinidad, and Immigration Laws in India. Secondary sources, such as Walton Look Lai, Rhoda Reddock, Tejaswini Niranjana, and Judith Ann Weller, are used mainly to comment on the various Immigration Ordinances and Laws. The project aims to introduce audiences to interdisciplinary sources on Indian indenture as these sources illuminate and complement each other. For example, the colonial and missionary concern about creating moral and stable marriages is reflected in the changing Immigration Ordinances on bringing sufficient and good women from India to Trinidad (see 1868 in Project). Anna Mahase Snr’s Autobiography shows how this concern operated in the lives of Indian indentured workers in Trinidad (See 1891 and 1910 in Project).

Note on Technology

This project uses the free online tool, TimeMapper, which is used to create timelines and maps. To use the tool, the project manager must first enter the data to be visualized into an Excel file, which the tool reads to create the map. The Excel file used for this project can be accessed here. The TimeMapper user interface is particularly effective at juxtaposing: the map and timeline are positioned together so that one can be read in light of the other, text and visuals can be placed side by side too. The project manager can also make use of white space (next to the two elements) to give the reader contextual information or to present an argument on how to read the two elements on that page. One important limitation of the tool, however, is that it may stop working when the data entries in the Excel file become too large.


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