The responses have been fast and furious: Bisram’s missive (SN May 11) alleging similarities between indentureship and slavery were “nefarious” and “insultingly facetious” thundered Robin Williams (SN May 12). Not to be outdone, Eric Phillips (SN May 12) posits that the letter’s purpose was to push Indian nationalism; he proposes that Bisram publicly apologise. The finishing touch was added by Juliet Holder-Allen (SN May 12) who makes the claim that only an “insider,” that is, a “well informed and cultured African man or woman can tell Africans about their history; no one else.” That there are critical differences between slavery and indentureship, there is little doubt, the former occurring for over four centuries and encompassing horrors of unimaginable proportions. In addition, indentureship and slavery do not share the same historical circumstances. The Atlantic Slave Trade and slavery have been rightfully classified as crimes against humanity. That being said, the emerging scholarship that argues that indentureship was a form of slavery does not in any way diminish the heinous crime of slavery and it should not be viewed as such.
Robin Williams hits the nail on the head when he claims that Mr Bisram’s letter “is one of the most shallow and sophomoric examinations and comparisons of two horrible historical happenings.” This adequately summarises the comparison that Bisram attempted to make in a rather awkward and gauche manner. However, Williams lost control of the narrative by the second paragraph of his letter by descending into a political rant. I cannot claim to know what Bisram’s intent in penning this letter was. Messrs Phillips and Williams allege ulterior motives; this I will not comment upon and I will confine my contribution to the topic of indentureship and slavery.
The idea of indentureship as a form of slavery is not new. It occupies a central place in indentureship research. The British academic and historian Hugh Tinker postulated this notion in his 1974 book, A New System of Slavery. The book opened with a quote by Lord Russell (1840) where Russell expressed his “unwillingness to approve any measure to transfer labour from British India which may lead to a new form of slavery.” Tinker’s position reinforced the abolitionists’ views that deception, kidnapping and coercion were the hallmarks of indenturship; the exploitation and oppression to which the servants were subjected made them victims of a new form of slavery. Indeed, indentureship was the new avatar of slavery; as A.E Smith (Colonists in Bondage) wrote, “indentureship was the most convenient system next to slavery.” Indentureship as a form of slavery does not make the claim that it was identical to slavery; the sheer magnitude and scale of slavery defies any such comparison. What it implies is that indentureship shared some features that came to characterize slavery and it evinced many of the same reactions in the indentured servants as slavery did in slaves. Tinker notes that “indentureship incorporated many of the repressive features of the slave system and induced in Indians, many of the responses of the African brothers in bondage.”
Frank Birbalsingh (Indo-Caribbean Resistance, 1993) argues that the “conditions under which indentured Indian immigrants existed suggested that they were slaves in every other respect other than name. Indentured labourers on arrival in the colonies were housed in the same living space vacated by the freed slaves and performed their exact tasks,” he wrote. For all intents and purposes, indentureship was a clever euphemism for slavery since labour became a commodity to be bought and sold. The individual personification of the labour was of little relevance to the plantocracy and the merchants, in very much the same way in which the individual personification of slaves was immaterial to the masters. Historian Brinsley Samaroo (Culture and Behaviour Symposium, T&T, 2007) had this to say: “The British attitude to Indians was they were seen only as bodies… as labouring bodies. Hard hands and corny palms were the qualifications… just like it was with the Africans before them.” As Benedict pointed out (Indians in a Plural Society: Report on Mauritius), the indentured labourers were subjected to draconian penal clauses and restrictive labour regimes which made them little more than controlled entities. Floggings, fines, imprisonments, and inhumane treatment were commonplace; these were invoked for crimes such as “wilful indolence,” “feigned illness,” and “impertinence.”
The BBC Four documentary, How Britain Reinvented Slavery, takes a similar position, drawing parallels between the practice of slavery and indentureship. The introduction to the documentary reads as follows: “The slave trade was officially abolished throughout the British Empire in 1807. This documentary reveals one of Britain’s darkest secrets: a form of slavery that continued well into the 20th century – the story of Indian indentured labour.” (This documentary can be readily accessed through You Tube). Similar views are echoed by Dabydeen and Samaroo in Across the Dark Water; they argued that indentureship did indeed turn out to be a new form of slavery. In making this argument, scholars are not attempting to minimize slavery and their scholarship should not be construed in this way.
It must be underscored, however, that significant distinctions between indentureship and slavery do exist. Williams elaborated on some of these differences: “the snatching of children from their mother’s arms at birth; selling individuals as chattels; the destruction and dispossession of their cultural and religious roots; mind condition measures.” Another distinction that must be emphasised is the total annihilation of the all important social and cultural fabric that is so important in family and community. The centuries during which Africans were subjected to the heinous crime of slavery facilitated this destruction. On the other hand, indentureship lasted less than a century; the indentured servants were allowed limited space for religious expression (even though they were heavily preyed upon) and were paid a paltry wage. In the context of slavery, these are significant differences. However, in the context of the actual experiences, parallels can be drawn. In France and the American Tropics to 1700 (2008), Boucher opined that indentureship and slavery were similar, while acknowledging that the condition of slavery was permanent. Dabydeen and Samaroo presented anecdotal evidence that referred to the preparation of the labourers for prospective buyers. As a matter of fact, the BBC website for the documentary, How Britain Reinvented Slavery, carries an interesting photograph of three indentured servants. The picture is a vivid representation of what might have very well been an auction of indentured labourers. Further, in Indians in a Plural Society: Report on Mauritius, Benedict notes that the “Indian labourers were herded together with little regard to their regional origin, religion, or linguistic group.” In all respects, they represented little more than a commodity for trade. The introduction of such capitalist considerations rendered them into things! It is important to note that Mauritius was the test region for the use of indentured labour following the emancipation of the slaves. It was the very experience of the first indentured labourers in this island that gave credence to the notion that indentureship represented little more than slavery in sophisticated parlance.
Much has been made about the notion of choice and free agency that was exercised within the indentureship system. Williams and Holder-Allen both characterised it as being “voluntary” as opposed to slavery which was “involuntary.” While their statement on slavery is quite factual, their assumption on indentureship is not wholly true. There is no disputing that free agency played a part in the indentureship system but this does not capture the entire picture. A pivotal question in academic research into indentureship centres on the concept of “free”; how much control did these labourers have in the decisions that affected their lives? Evidence suggests that many of these people did not exercise agency on their own behalf. A large percentage were duped, kidnapped, coerced and exploited into indentureship. The majority were illiterate and could not comprehend nor understand their contracts; the fact that they signed it by affixing a thumb print speaks volumes. Most were lied to about their final destination; protestations for release fell on deaf ears. Information available suggests that the pre-existing slave trade in the British India formed the foundation upon which indentureship was developed (Campbell, Gwyn, ed., The Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean, Africa and Asia, 2004). Many masters had a free hand in dispensing with their servants; they could be sold with the land or they could be sold independent of the land. This was very much a source of the many indentured servants taken to the far reaches of the British Empire. The power dynamics of the society was not conducive to freedom of choice.
It would be absurd to equate slavery with indentureship; at the same time, it is equally prejudicial to dismiss the parallels that do exist.