|David Furlong and Tobi King Bakare in rehearsal|
THE GREAT EXPERIMENT tells a side of history which feels it has been buried. The indenture system happened in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery in 1833. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries over 2 million Indian migrant labourers were indentured to work in plantations all over the world: Mauritius, Jamaica, Malaysia, Guiana, Trinidad and Fiji to name but a few. They were shipped all around the world to work on sugar plantations, railways and other colonial enterprises. The literal meaning of Indenture is ‘work contract’: and that is what it was. This work contract had a 5 year duration, and included their monthly wage, the amount of hours per day (9 hours) , the number of days a week ( 6 days except Sunday), passage conditions (it included a one way passage, not the return).
The show explores two worlds: on one side the historical portrayal, on the other side how these events have affected us nowadays in present time.
So far we’ve been looking at the scenes devised by the original team two years ago, while also adding new material. We’ve been trying to go further and deeper with the whole concept. Therefore a lot of questions and dilemmas have arisen. We’ve been discussing the differences between slavery and indenture. Has it similarities? Is it a form of semi-slavery? Or are they completely different terms?
“Indenture is indeed a state of semi-slavery. Like the slave before him, the indentured labourer cannot buy his freedom. A slave was punished for not working; so also is an indentured labourer. If he is negligent, does not attend work for a day, if he answered back, – he will suffer imprisonment for any one of these lapses. A slave could be sold and handed over by one owner to another, so too [the] indentured labourer can be transferred from one employer to another. The children of a slave inherited the taint of slavery; much in the same way, the children of an indentured labourer are subject to laws specially passed for them. The only difference between the two states is that while slavery ended only with life, an indentured labourer can be free after a certain number of years.”
MK Gandhi - Samalochak, December 1915The main reason why Indenture lasted till the beginning of the 20th century was simply economic. The Empire realised that there was more productivity in paying labourers as they worked harder if they had motivation and hope; in comparison with slavery where the only thing they got in return was a whiplash.
Another key issue in the play is the ethnicities of the 5 actors, two of them being Mauritian, other two white British and one African performer. As I mentioned earlier the play offers two worlds, one of them being how this history has affected us in modern days: this world is portrayed as a group of actors in the rehearsal space trying to devise a show about indenture. Conflicts, assumptions and stereotypes come up whilst they devise regarding their ethnicities which can be seen as a form of inherited racism. Is racism embedded in the social structure?
Related to everything I have just mentioned, the discussion of what actors can play and what can they not play came up. For example: can a white man play a “coolie”? We explore this term quite a lot - especially the way Mauritians see the word, and how Westerners assume that it has negative connotations. According to Mauritian actors Nisha and David, most Mauritian families have coolie ancestors: the conflict comes when some of them carry their heritage with pride but other families prefer hide it and deny this heritage.
Rehearsals are flowing nicely and everything is falling into place, What started as a project focusing on history, has expanded much more. It has led to topics such as identity or sense of belonging. Many other matters have been discussed but I must leave some for the actual show..…
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