Between the 1830s and the 1910s, over a million Indian peasants were shipped overseas to European, largely British-owned sugar estates, in the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean and across the Pacific to the island of Fiji. This book tells the story of the indenture system within the British Empire, with India as the ‘mother country’ of ‘coolies’, who post-slave emancipation (1833), raised cane on far-flung plantations. Many these long-distance migrants did not return to their natal villages after the completion of their ‘indenture’, or five to ten years of ‘industrial contract’.
Following the analogy of peasants, who with industrialization were turned into ‘mill hands’, from the 1830s, began the long journey of Peasants of the Raj whose lives were to be reshaped far away from home as ‘sugar hands’. I focus equally on the lived experience of these individuals and their families in north-Indian villages, the pasts that they brought with them, the journey on indenture ships, and their economic and social lives in the ‘coolie lines’. The present work covers distant places such as Mauritius, Natal, Surinam, Fiji and British Guiana. The work does not confine itself to rehearsing the sturdy debates on whether the indenture system was a ‘new kind of slavery’; was it the lure and pull of newer horizons; or the poverty and morass of Indian villages that pushed and propelled the poorest into the parabola of indenture.
Based on archival and fieldwork in India, United Kingdom, Mauritius, Natal and Fiji, this book also underscores the heterogeneity of experience against the cautiously constructed homogeneity of a seemingly uniform plantation lives. It also explores, the anxiety of high and Indian trading castes and non-indenture Indians, including Gandhi towards the end of his South African sojourn, at being clubbed with the rest of the plantation emigrants as ‘coolies’. This is a label, that for good reasons, has sought to be repudiated by second and third generation descendants of indentured labourers.