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Remembering the indentured

Academics and artists are shedding new light on the history of indentured labour.

Posted on 25/01/2022
By Dr Maria del Pilar Kaladeen

In 1886 a young man of 20 named Kalidin left his family in Bihar in east India never to return. He died almost four decades later in British Guiana (Guyana), a country 9,000 miles away from his home.

His departure from India likely took place at the prompting of an arkati, one of an army of local recruiters employed by the British since indenture’s inception in 1834. These men initially sourced labourers for Caribbean and Indian Ocean plantations, as owners sought to replace the labour of enslaved Africans. The same system of temporary contracts later brought Indians to labour on plantations in Fiji and South Africa.

Initially, Kalidin was contractually bound to work for five years, but details on his indenture certificate reveal that he re-indentured to a neighbouring sugar estate. Family oral history suggests Kalidin accepted a portion of land in lieu of a return passage to India. He and his wife had ten children and my grandfather, Beharry, was one of the youngest. Beharry’s older siblings concentrated their efforts on protecting him from the carceral life of the colonial sugar plantation. They ensured he received sufficient schooling to train as a tailor and operate his own business in the colony’s capital, Georgetown.

‘I went through the English education system without learning anything about [indentured labour]. This is despite the fact it was designed, executed and implemented by British planters, civil servants, magistrates and judges’

Beharry went on to have five children who all eventually migrated with him to Canada in the late 60s, all except my father who, in 1961, became part of Britain’s Windrush generation, the term used to describe Caribbean migrants who came to the UK between 1948-1971.

If my life has been defined by any one thing, it would be my father’s silence about his roots. Having experienced a British colonial education he was fully immersed in the idea that the history and culture of his grandparents had little value. It was a desire to know and understand where he came from that propelled my academic study into indenture.

Picture shows black and white image of Kalidin’s son Beharry with his eldest son Harry and his wife Ameena.
From right to left, Kalidin’s son Beharry (my Grandfather) with his eldest son Harry (my Uncle) and his wife Ameena (my Grandmother). Circa 1960, the year before my father’s departure for England. This photo of Harry with his parents was taken on his wedding day. 

Like many descendants of indenture in Britain, I went through the English education system without learning anything about it. This is despite the fact it was designed, executed and implemented by British planters, civil servants, magistrates and judges, and affected the lives of over 1.5 million Indians between 1834-1917. Though some Britons campaigned for indenture’s abolition, I believe this silence pervades because of the challenge the documented injustices of indenture pose, particularly to those who trumpet the British role in the Abolition of Slavery and the notion of a benevolent Empire.

Two leading historians of indenture, Clem Seecharan (Guyana) and Brij Lal (Fiji), have reflected on how this external silence could be compounded by silences within families. Seecharan referred to the ‘collective amnesia’ of my great-grandfather’s generation, suggesting that the perceived shame of humble origins and the brutal conditions of indentured servitude combined to create an environment in which the past became a taboo subject, as the indentured conspired in unvoiced agreement to accept a painful present in the hope that their hard work may offer better opportunities to the next generation.

‘The perceived shame of humble origins and the brutal conditions of indentured servitude combined to create an environment in which the past became a taboo subject.’

In the footsteps of a pioneering group of scholars and writers like Lal and Seecharan, I am one of many academics working to engage others with the history of indentured labour. Exciting work by poets like Rajiv Mohabir and Kama La Mackerel, and artists such as Shivanjani Lal and Sacintya Mohini Simpson, are part of a powerful cross-genre effort to share our histories and stories across the indentured labour diaspora.

Recently I chaired an event with the Guyanese poet Elly Niland, the Mauritian theatre practitioner Poonam Seetohul and the South African writer and barrister Anirood Singh. In collaboration with actors and using historical sources and fiction, all three produced powerful monologues that honoured the resilience and resistance of indentured labourers in Guyana, Mauritius and South Africa.

For my part the more I collaborate with others from the indentured labour diaspora, the more assured I am of our ability to productively disrupt the silences of our past. Long gone is the lonely sense that I once had as a child in the eighties, of being part of a history that was unworthy of being explored.

Dr María del Pilar Kaladeen is an Associate Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London.