By Bridget Brereton
Jul 21, 2011 at 12:43 AM ECT
In my last column (July 7), I wrote on the Indo-Trinidadian narrative about the indentured immigrants, and how it insists that most of them were tricked or forced to leave India. Another part of the narrative stresses the horrors of the long voyage to the Caribbean. A good example is the well-written article by Andra Madoo, published in the Free Education Today (May/June 2011) supplement to the Express.
Often the voyage is described in terms that seem to equate it with the infamous Middle Passage of the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans—thousands of deaths, brutal ill-treatment, complete disregard for the safety or welfare of the immigrants.
The voyage across the kala pani (dark waters) was certainly no picnic. When it was by sailing ship, the norm before the 1870s, it took about three months (90 days) on average. With the shift to steamships in the 1870s, the average voyage took about 50 days. Conditions were uncomfortable, to say the least, and frequent storms, especially rounding the tip of South Africa, must have been terrifying for people who'd never been on a ship before.
Accustomed to jumping on a plane for journeys of a few hours as we are, we would have found the voyage appalling. But it was very different from the Middle Passage. Though quite a bit longer than most slaving voyages, conditions on board were much better, and mortality was much lower.
Britain was very sensitive to the accusation that she had abolished slavery only to revive a new slave trade in Indians, so efforts were made to regulate and improve conditions on the immigrant ships, efforts which continued all through the period of indentured immigration. The regulations were often poorly enforced but they did make a difference.
For instance, every ship had a doctor on board and he was paid according to the number of immigrants landed alive. There were elaborate regulations about food, medical supplies, separation of the sexes, exercise and so on. The result was far lower shipboard mortality than on the Middle Passage. In the early phase it averaged four per cent; after 1870, with the shift to steamships, it was usually below three or even two per cent.
One voyage we know a lot about, because its captain published an account, was the Sheila, a sailing ship which brought immigrants to the Caribbean in 1877. It took on 626 passengers at Kolkata and five died, a mortality of 0.8 per cent, and five babies were born en route. On the other hand, there was a much higher mortality on voyages where epidemics, especially typhoid or cholera, swept the passengers—as on the Salsette in the late 1850s. But this was very much the exception.
In the article mentioned in the first paragraph, Madoo writes: "the women folks on board became the target of European crewmen''. And this definitely did happen from time to time, despite strict rules aimed at preventing sexual assaults or advances by the crew on the immigrant women, and any sexual contact between the Indian men and women. (The single women were housed at one end of the ship, the single men at the other, and the married couples in between). But it was far rarer than on the Middle Passage, where the rape of African girls and women by the crew (from captain down) was routine.
My Jamaican colleague, historian Verene Shepherd, has published a fascinating book called Maharani's Misery, about a young Indian immigrant known only as Maharani who died on board a ship bringing indentureds to Guyana in 1885. It was suspected that she died as a result of rape by two crewmen.
The reason that Shepherd could research and write her book was that the young woman's death was formally investigated in Guyana, with two separate enquiries, and hundreds of pages of documents from the two investigations. It's completely unthinkable that anything like this investigation could have happened in the Middle Passage, where rape of enslaved women was simply one of the perks of the job for the crew.
Once arrived here, and working on the plantations, the Indo-Trinidadian narrative stresses how miserable conditions were, how harshly the indentured workers were treated—again often comparing their plight with that of the enslaved Africans. As Seecharan sums it up in the case of the Guyanese version, it was "unremitting oppression, moral degradation and despair'', which he describes as simplistic and only half-true.
The narrative insists that the indentureds were made to work impossibly long hours, earned practically nothing, were bullied and harassed by the overseers and were often flogged or kicked by the estate staff. Many spent time in jail for simple offences against the indenture laws, like being absent from work. Overseers "interfered'' with Indian women. Living conditions in the infamous estate barracks were appalling.
There is, of course, a great deal of truth in the above description. But one can't conclude—as so many do—that the indentured Indians suffered the same conditions as the enslaved Africans had. In my next column I'll try to compare enslavement and indentureship more systematically.
• 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/Narratives_of_arrival-125932203.html