The First East Indian Immigrants in Trinidad: Indentured? Or Free?

Dennison Moore

By Dennison Moore

Next Tuesday, Trinidad and Tobago will celebrate Indian Arrival Day, a public holiday commemorating the arrival of people from India as indentured labourers.  But were the first arrivals from India indentured labourers?  In this article Dennison Moore argues that they were not.

On 30 May 1845, one hundred and seventy-two years ago, the Fatel Rozack landed 225 East Indian immigrants on the island of Trinidad in the West Indies.

Since then, many writers of learned books and articles, teachers and orators have referred to these immigrants as “indentured labourers.”

All those who employ that phraseology intend to suggest to their readers or hearers that the Indians were not free agents when they arrived in the colony.

No one has hitherto bothered to question that designation; so it is fair to say that, by frequent repetition, it has assumed the status of received wisdom.

But were those immigrants in fact indentured?  I think not, for the following reasons.

On the 30th Day of July 1838, the Imperial Government passed an Order in Council (OIC) which declared “that from and after the arrival of this present order within any of the said colonies [British Guiana, Trinidad, St. Lucia, the Cape of God Hope and Mauritius] all contracts which may at any time thereafter be made for the performance with the same of any service or labour in agriculture, or in or about the manufacture of any colonial produce, shall within  such colony…be taken by all courts, judges, justices, magistrates, and others therein to be null and void and of no effect.”

This OIC, still in effect in 1845, is the reason why no contracts of indenture, made by emigrants in India with proprietors of Trinidad, exist anywhere.  And the same is true of those Indian labourers who arrived in Jamaica and British Guiana in 1845.

As regards Trinidad, an advertisement placed in the newspapers by the Agent-General of Immigrants in January 1845, confirms that no such engagements of service were contracted in India. It called “on all parties proposing to employ the Coolies about to be introduced here, to come forward with a statement of the number they were prepared to employ, and for whom they would provide suitable accommodation.”

The first article in the “Rules and Regulations to be observed in regard to the distribution and location of Coolie labourers” stated that on their arrival in the colony, the Coolies “should enter into contracts of service (emphasis added) for one year.”  This shows clearly that the labourer was a free agent.

Indeed that is how the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners regarded him.  They commented thus on the contract of one year which Trinidad proprietors were prepared to offer the Indians: “(I)t is scarcely necessary to observe, that any agreements to be formed must be entirely optional on the part of the immigrants themselves (emphasis added) and that by law they will not be binding for any longer period than one year.”

With regard to the scale of wages that proprietors were prepared to offer the immigrants, the Commissioners felt that it was not fixed, but was “an estimate of the lowest amount that would be given.”  It was up to the immigrants to make their own bargains when they arrived in the colony.

It is known that Governor Lord Harris had made several attempts to curb by regulations the freedom of the Indian immigrants.  On every occasion he did so, the Colonial Office rebuked him for violating their rights and disallowed his enactments.

In 1848 Lord Harris, in a despatch to Earl Grey, listed nine reasons why he believed that Indian immigration had failed in Trinidad.  The reasons can be summed up in one sentence: the immigrants were allowed to do as they please.

Surely that is not something that could be said about them, if they were indentured.

In case readers may be wondering whether the status of Indians, who went to Jamaica and British Guiana in 1845, was any different from that of their compatriots in Trinidad, here are the views of two authorities.

About the Indian immigrants in Jamaica, Walton Look Lai had this to say in his book Indentured Labor, Caribbean Sugar: “These people were regarded as free labourers, and were at liberty to enter into contract for periods not exceeding one year, with any planter in the island for whom they chose to work.”

As regards British Guiana, Dwarka Nath said this in his History of Indians in British Guiana: “As the immigrants who arrived during 1845 refused to enter into written agreements on their arrival, they were under no obligation to work for a longer period than four weeks….The planters had no hold on the immigrants after that period and were consequently unable to supervise them while they were becoming acclimatised.”

It is time for those who think that the first Indian immigrants in Trinidad were indentured labourers to present their evidence for that conclusion.

( Trinidad-born Dennison Moore is the author of Origins & Development of Racial Ideology in Trinidad:  The Black View of the East Indian.)