By Bridget Brereton
Aug 4, 2011 at 12:43 AM ECT
In a newspaper article a few years ago, NJAC claimed: "In actuality, there was little—if any —difference between slavery and indentureship. There were the same inhumane conditions, the East Indian labourer experienced the same kind of physical brutality as the slaves.''
We can perhaps understand these statements as a well intentioned effort to stress the common sufferings and therefore the "equality'' of the nation's two largest ethnic groups. As Brother Marvin sang, "the indentureship and the slavery bind together two races in unity, Brotherhood of the Boat, Jahaji Bhai''.
But all the historical evidence points to huge differences between the two and therefore in the experience of their victims. Both were harshly oppressive systems to control labour in the interests of plantation owners; but they were not the same.
As I wrote in my last two columns, there was an element of choice for the Indian immigrants; a hard choice certainly, but most left India hoping to make a better life for themselves and their families. Enslaved Africans, we all know, were victims of the largest forced labour migration in human history. Conditions on the voyage from Africa to the Caribbean were far worse, far more deadly, than for the indentured Indians on their admittedly difficult crossing of the kala pani.
Once she arrived as an enslaved person, the African was enslaved for life, only very small numbers were freed or bought their freedom or succeeded in escaping. Her children were born enslaved, even if their father was a free man. (Slave status depended on the mother's, not the father's status, for obvious reasons). There was virtually no possibility of returning to Africa.
The indentured Indian was under indenture (labour contract) for five years. At first the period was shorter but the five-year initial contract was soon settled on. During this period he was not free, and was bound by law, backed up by possible jail terms, to his employer. The ex-indentured Indian, however, was legally free. Young children arriving from India with their mother or with both parents were not indentured, and neither were locally born children of indentured immigrants. There was no hereditary element.
After ten years in the colony, the ex-indentured Indian had the right to return to India. Until the last 20 years of the system, the costs of repatriation were met by the local government; then the returning immigrant had to contribute some of the money. But the right to repatriation was never taken away, and between 20 to 25 per cent of the Trinidad immigrants did opt to return.
Perhaps the most oppressive feature of indenture was the "penal sanctions'', meaning that the indentured labourers could be prosecuted for labour offences like staying away from work, and might be sentenced to jail terms if convicted. And this feature was not pointed out to the intending immigrants in Kolkata when the contract was explained to them.
Thousands of immigrants did, in fact, go to jail for these kinds of offences, which is why Eric Williams called indenture "slavery with the jail substituted for the whip''. This was indeed harsh and oppressive. But it had an end: the ex-indentured Indian was not subject to the penal sanctions.
Until the last ten years of slavery, there were virtually no restraints on how an owner or overseer could punish his enslaved workers, including women and children. Physical punishment was routine, often administered in brutal and sadistic ways.
By contrast, this kind of punishment was forbidden for the indentureds. Certainly some were kicked, beaten, slapped or even worse; but this was never allowed by the law, and laws and regulations attempted to shield them from abusive or neglectful employers. They weren't always well enforced, especially in the early years of indenture, but the workers had some legal protection from abuse.
Enslaved girls and women were routinely raped, or forced to consent to sexual relations, by owners, overseers, and virtually any men with some sort of power (including some black men). These victims had no chance of protection, or redress. While some indentured women were abused in this way by plantation staff, it was much less likely to happen, and efforts were made to prevent it, both by plantation managers, and by the colonial authorities.
Above all, though, we have to remember that the enslaved people were legally "chattels'', meaning they were seen by the law as just property, no different from livestock, furniture, plates and pictures. (And in the plantation lists or inventories, they are listed along with the cattle and horses, with their money values (some being less valuable than prime livestock). Human beings reduced to things.
The indentured Indians were never reduced to chattel status, their period of unfreedom was limited, there was a government department and officials (the Protector of Immigrants and his staff) who were supposed to look after their interests,even if this didn't always work very well.
Two harsh systems but not the same. And it's not helpful to pretend otherwise, even with good intentions.
• Bridget Brereton is Emerita Professor of History at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, and has studied and written about the history of Trinidad and Tobago, and the Caribbean, for many decades.http://www.trinidadexpress.com/commentaries/Both_bad__but_not_the_same-126746478.html