|David Furlong in rehearsals for THE GREAT EXPERIMENT|
The problems associated with today's mass migrations are nothing new. They have always arisen from the incompetent or misguided policies of governments that have often been responsible for creating the conditions from which migrants are trying to escape. In the current European refugee crisis an attempt is commonly made to distinguish between ‘deserving’ refugees, to whom asylum should be granted, and ‘economic migrants’ who should be excluded. However the distinction is not so clear- cut. So-called ‘economic migrants’ are often the victims of mis-rule by totalitarian regimes. Their poverty is therefore brought about or compounded by the actions of politicians. Persecution can involve political and economic discrimination as well as the loss of civil liberties. The chaos of war produces famine and economic distress that is as much a threat to life as the military’s guns and bombs.
Perhaps the most extreme form of political repression arises when a country is occupied by a foreign power. This describes the condition of many countries in Africa and Asia during the era of European colonialism. Political rights and civil liberties were minimal, and territories were administered primarily in the interests of the occupying power, and not those of the indigenous population. The question arises therefore whether labour migrants of the colonial era were maximising their economic opportunities, or were simply refugees. The answer, as today, is often both. Migrants made choices, but only amongst a very limited range of options. One might question the freedom of choice when it comes to most economies, but in these circumstances the range of options was often peculiarly constrained.
Global migration has a longer history than most people imagine. Apart from the millions of Europeans who migrated to America and other countries in the hope of a better life, some 20 million Chinese migrated overseas between 1840 and 1940. Mostly they went to Malaysia, where they worked in the tin mining industry, to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), Siam, French Indo-China, and South Africa, where they were employed in gold mining. Indians migrated overseas in equally large numbers from the 1830s onwards. And wherever Asian workers went they were soon followed by merchants, who traded, set up shops and restaurants and small scale industries. Many of these migrants came from regions with traditionally high levels of out-migration, such as Bihar in northern India, as well as from Tamil Nadu in the south, but eventually every part of the Indian subcontinent became involved. They mostly left to work in sugar plantations in British colonies in the Caribbean and southern Indian Ocean, as well as in South Africa, Fiji, and in the French colonies of Reunion, Guadeloupe and Martinique. Their role was to replace African slave labour following the abolition of slavery in the British empire in 1833/4 and the French empire a decade later. Indian labourers signed up in even larger numbers to work in the paddy fields, coffee, tea and rubber plantations of Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Malaysia. They also served as construction workers, much as they do in the Middle East in the present day. They were often employed using notoriously one-sided labour contracts which obliged them to work continuously for three, four or five years for a single employer, who was thereby reimbursed for the cost of their passage. They had no passports to be confiscated, only an emigration certificate and a contract of employment, but if they did not complete their contract, they would lose the right to a free passage home.
Criticisms from the Anti-Slavery Society in London, who dubbed the first wave of indentured migration ‘a new system of slavery’, led to the suspension of indentured migration in 1838, but it was then resumed in 1843 under close supervision. Opponents of Indian overseas migration within India were reassured by the planters that they would only recruit the poorest of the poor and the most unskilled of Indian workers. However, statistical evidence suggests that by the late 1850s migrants were being recruited from amongst the landless and impoverished within all sections of society. The great Indian Uprising of 1857 gave a boost to the trade, as the economy of rural north India was devastated by war with successive famines following in 1861 and 1865. Tens of thousands of high caste Indians from disbanded regiments of the Bengal army, in particular, found themselves out of work at this time and many migrated overseas. It is true that the wages of indentured labourers were often better than those available locally. However, the alternative employment opportunities were severely limited.
|Tobi King Bakare in rehearsals for THE GREAT EXPERIMENT|
Like most long-distance migrants, the Indian recruits (referred to as ‘coolies’ – a title that later assumed a derogatory meaning) had only a limited knowledge of where they were going. There were sugar plantations in India, and some were already familiar with the type of work involved. But most had no relevant previous experience. What attracted them was the possibility of saving money and returning home with it. In some cases by migration they also hoped to escape caste, gender, or religious persecution. Better still, many were allowed to acquire land – something they could never have achieved in India - and stayed on in the sugar colonies. In the British colony of Trinidad, the earliest migrants were offered a free grant of land if they agreed to stay rather than claim the free passage home to which they were entitled. In time, many gave up working on the plantations and became farmers or shopkeepers.
Between 1.5 and 2 million Indians were contracted as indentured workers. Eventually large settled communities of Indian workers were established in the sugar colonies, which by the early twentieth century was to make this form of recruitment redundant. Other forms of recruitment also took place contemporaneously for the inter-Asian labour trade. These included the so-called ‘free migration’ of workers and the use of Indian kanganies and maistries who advanced wages and lent money to workers to pay their passage. Workers were assembled in gangs to work especially in the coffee and tea plantations of Assam and Sri Lanka, and later in the all important rubber plantations of Malaysia. Unlike the migration of indentured labourers to work in the sugar trade, this form of migration was not closely supervised by colonial governments. We will therefore never know the true numbers, but many millions were involved. Migration to work in sugar plantations probably accounted in fact for barely 10% of the total.
In all these migrations there was an opportunity for betterment, but at huge risk and often at great cost. Prior to the introduction of steamships, disease might break out on ships during the long sea passage, leading to extraordinary levels of mortality. Some were also lost in drownings at sea and shipwrecks. The treatment meted out to workers by former slave owners in the early years was often harsh. Gradually though, over time, conditions were improved with the introduction of improved rations and increasingly rigorous inspections. The complaints and protests of the workers, who struggled against colonial discrimination, played an important role in ameliorating the trade: so much so that the Internal Labour Organisation in the 1920s looked to indentured labour regulations for examples on how to define the rights of workers. Much as in the present day, the least fortunate migrants were those who found themselves working in entirely unregulated industries, such as agriculture or domestic work.
|Nisha Dassyne in rehearsals for THE GREAT EXPERIMENT|
Attempts were made by numerous colonial governments to do away with the kanganis, sirdars and other intermediaries to develop what they imagined as an entirely ‘free’ market in labour migrants. This proved to be impossible, even after the abandonment of the indentured labour contract in the 1920s under pressure from Indian nationalists. Much like people smugglers in the present-day they provided a service which no-one else could. To survive and improve their life chances, migrants had to undertake long journeys and depended upon the networks and knowledge provided by intermediaries. Even though colonial labour migration was not illegal, contracts could not be secured without the involvement of intermediaries.
In the present-day, the growth of free trade has been accompanied by an ever greater tightening of border controls. This began in the 1880s with immigration restrictions introduced by Canada and Australia to halt the inward rush of impoverished Chinese migrant labourers. Travel restrictions became more widespread in the 1930s with the impact of the depression, with the eruption of strikes and race riots being often blamed on migrant communities. Border controls then became endemic after World War II, as newly independent social democratic states struggled to define and control their citizens, to raise taxes, and to determine the legal rights of their populations. It is these restrictions, that have made intermediaries of various sorts even more important than they were in the past for those seeking and needing to cross the globe in search of sanctuary and employment.
In the parts of the Middle East and north Africa torn apart by warfare and civil strife there are no consulates where refugees can apply for asylum. At the same time, European air, sea and road transport regulations forbid any migrant to board a plane without a visa of some sort. Smuggling is thus driven by EU policy. Many politicians have pointed out how the foreign policies of the European powers, particularly the arming of rebels in the aftermath of the ‘Arab Spring’ and the bombing of Libya, Iraq and Syria, have contributed to the exodus. Nineteenth century colonialism limited the opportunities of Indian subjects so that they had little choice but to become indentured migrants, for which they were recruited by Indian sirdars. So too, have European governments compounded a state of war and then created a legal regime where would- be migrants have no choice but to put themselves in hands of smugglers, who are the only ones capable of organising their escape.
In colonial times, the Royal Commission on Indentured Migration to Mauritius in 1875, received conflicting evidence of the exploitative behaviour of sirdars: sometimes they seemed to serve the interests only of themselves, but at other times they clearly defended their gangs of workers. Neither the workers or planters could survive without them. The Royal Commission concluded there they were an ‘evil’ (hypocritically blamed on ‘the persistence of native practices’) than must be endured.8 Just as there were ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sirdars in colonial times, the same can be said of intermediaries in the present: at the one end there are legitimate and responsible foreign labour recruiters and at the other end are the ‘traffickers’ who use intimidation to coerce migrants into exploitative employment in industries lacking regulation, such as agriculture, domestic and sex work. People smugglers lie somewhere in between. It is the illegality of their actions that often causes people smugglers to be prosecuted as ‘traffickers’, but for the difficult circumstances of migrants and the need for their services, European governments have a case to answer too. Because of their illegality, smugglers are forced to abandon lorries or boats before reaching their destinations, off-loading sea passengers onto dinghies that either sink or are confiscated upon arrival. Intermediaries in colonial times travelled with migrants for the whole journey, acted as overseers on the plantations, and often spent their entire lives with the persons they recruited and accompanied overseas. In fact the life of migrants was probably less hazardous in colonial times than it is now. The culpability of European governments for the poor conditions migrants have to suffer is in many ways similar, but the results are even more devastating today.
Crispin Bates is Professor of Modern and Contemporary South Asian History at the University of Edinburgh and Co-Investigator with Prof. Andrea Major (Leeds University) in the AHRC-funded ‘Becoming Coolies’ research project on the origins of Indian overseas labour migration in the colonial era. See www.coolitude.shca.ed.ac.uk.
To find out more about THE GREAT EXPERIMENT and to book tickets, visit https://www.bordercrossings.org.uk/programme/great-experiment