About 10 million people of South Asian origin can be found living outside their ‘homeland’—from the Caribbean to Fiji, from Canada to New Zealand. They are con-centrated in North America, Southeast Asia (mainly Malaysia, Burma and Singapore), Europe (mainly the UK), Eastern and Southern Africa (mostly Mauritius and South Africa), the Caribbean, the Pacific (mostly in Fiji), and now, as migrant workers, in West Asia.
The stories they have to tell are as varied as the communities and regions in South Asia which they or their ancestors left. From the indentured labourer condemned to subhuman existence to the gutsy ‘free’ entrepreneurs who ventured out to make a fortune; from the unskilled working at menial jobs in the industrial heartland of the West to the highly educated, skilled professional of the global economy, they all left their home regions seeking a better future. Most people know of the latter-day migrants and how they are faring in their new countries, but accounts of the earlier pioneers are largely consigned to scholarly tomes and hardly appear in popular circulation.
For more than 2000 years, people from South Asia travelled and settled in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and even China and Japan and the East African coast. However, unlike many other peoples, South Asians did not migrate permanently in substantial numbers to other parts of the world till the 19th century. Large-scale migration from the Subcontinent began in earnest in the 1830s with the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean. To replace the recently-freed slaves with cheap labour in the sugar and cocoa plantations (as well as coal mines and estates) in other British, French and Dutch colonies, the British government set up the system of “indentured labour” to allow recruitment of workers to go abroad on five to 10-year contracts.
The tiny Indian Ocean island of Mauritius situated 500 miles east of Madagascar (‘discovered’ by the Portuguese, and taken by the British in 1810 after periods of Dutch and French rule) was the first to receive Indian indentured labourers in 1834. Next came British Guiana in 1838, Trinidad, Réunion, Guadeloupe and Martinique in 1845, Jamaica in 1854, Natal, South Africa, in 1860, Dutch Guiana in 1873, Fiji in 1879, East Africa in 1895, and smaller numbers in a number of other outposts.
Servants and dancing girls
Noted British historian Hugh Tinker observes in his now-classic A New System of Slavery that for most South Asians “emigration was not accepted as a natural process” and that “even under the most desperate circumstances, he [the Indian] always leaves his native land with an idea of returning to it”. Emigration was more a matter of ‘push’ than ‘pull’ for most South Asians who needed to escape intolerable living situations back home.
The emigrants mainly hailed from the overcrowded agricultural districts of India, where crop failure could plunge whole villages to near-starvation. There were clear correlations between years of poor harvests in particular areas and large-scale emigration from there. On an individual level, of course, there were those who migrated for more personal reasons, such as having displeased village notables, lost a family quarrel, or being wanted by the authorities.
Because of the mystery surrounding emigration, local touts (called arkatia or arkati, the origin of which is not clear) could easily prey upon vulnerable, illiterate villagers with wonderful accounts of places that required their services. It was only from the licensed recruiters at the boarding depot that the peasants often learnt of the true facts. But when they declined to go, they would be asked for road expenses up to the depot, which left the peasants with the choice of returning home penniless or emigrating. It was also often the case that the deception was concealed until arrival in the far-off colony, by which time it was obviously too late.
Most of the labourers were recruited by licensed recruiting agencies using, as noted by Tinker, “the most dubious methods” from the areas closest to the ports, especially Madras and Calcutta. Thus the Tamil and Telugu districts of the Madras Presidency in the south and Bihar’s Chhota Nagpur and the United Provinces districts in the north were the principal areas of recruitment.
All kinds of individuals were swept into the emigration agent’s net and although the latter was supposed to examine the muscles and hands for signs of manual toil, they signed up anyone and everyone in order to fill the ships quickly. One official report noted, for example, that of the 27 emigrants in one ship interviewed, 14 were non-labourers and included weavers, scribes, shoemakers and beggars, all of them having been duped into going overseas. On another boat, over half were domestic servants, soldiers, policemen, barbers, shopkeepers, hawkers, and even dancing girls and their male attendants.
Recruitment took place mainly in the interior. These were the days before the British built the incredible network of Indian railways, and so the labourers had to travel hundreds of miles on foot to reach the ports. An average trek from Varanasi or Patna to Calcutta port would take 30 to 40 days. With the advent of the railways, and the emigrants, writes Tinker, “squeezed together, 10 in a third-class compartment”, this trip was reduced to less than two days.
The shock and alienation felt by the emigrants, most of whom would have left their village and birth places for the first time, was greatly deepened as they waited for three weeks or more in the depot in the company of total strangers “whose speech was unintelligible, and whose physical characteristics appeared foreign, while their ways of eating and other habits would all seem wrong”. However, they would have to conform to these strange ways (including standard-issue, convict-like clothing), and quickly pick up the lingua franca of the depot, Hindustani. There was also the inevitable epidemic which often turned the depots into a place of sickness and death. Thus, as Tinker writes, the emigrant “was now immersed in a process of deculturisation, almost dehumanisation”.
The sea journey intensified this process. Notes Tinker: “Time and again the Europeans involved in these voyages made a comparison with the Middle Passage of slavery.” As with the slaves, the experience “both shattered and strengthened” the survivors who gained “fortitude, and a sense of comradeship, and even brotherhood for those who had shared the passage”. The voyage lasted anywhere from eight weeks (to Mauritius) to up to 26 weeks (to the Caribbean).
Conditions on the sailing ships left much to be desired. The crew tended to ill-treat their human cargo with impunity. Sickness, disease and death were common, and mortality rates were appalling, reaching up to 38 percent in the case of one passage. Then there were the inevitable storms and shipwrecks.
Life on the plantation
After landing, the recruits were sorted out and marched off to their new ‘home’—the old slave quarters, still called the Camp des Noirs (Camp of the Blacks) and “Nigger Yard”. Many spent their first year in sorrowful shock, remembering their homes and realising how badly they had been tricked. The first few years were very trying and many failed to adapt to the arduous conditions. Mortality rates went as high as 12 percent, while life for the survivors was literally a living hell, or narak, as it is called in Hindustani.
The workers had very few rights, and these were generally ignored. They were subject to the whims of those in charge: the overseers, the manager or the owner who did not have their welfare in their minds as a priority. Working and living conditions were terrible, health care and housing extremely primitive, and wages very low (and to remain unchanged for 100 years). It was no wonder that suicide rates were shockingly high. In the mid-1870s, while they varied between 46 per million in Madras to 54 in the UP back home, it was 640 among expatriate Indians in Natal and 780 in Fiji (climbing to 831 in 1910).
The system of indenture was configured in such a way that it tied the labourers to their contract longer than they had agreed to. Fines were frequently imposed for trivial offences such as quarrelling with other workers, and deductions were made from pay for not meeting the un-realistic production targets, and so on. The workers often ended up owing the plantation owner at the end of their indentureship and so had to re-indenture repeatedly. This was a new system of slavery and it lasted all of 90 years after its inception. It was a fact, after all, that indentured labourers cost only half as much as the slaves they had replaced.
About a third of the labourers returned home, and almost all of them came back penniless. Tinker’s research showed that in 1916, 76 percent brought back nothing, with 10 percent bringing 100 to 150 rupees. Worst of all, most returned with their health shattered.
Marriage and geography
The length, harshness and risks of the voyages in this period of indentureship (1830s-1910s), together with the subsistence-level pay, would have made visits to South Asia extremely difficult, if not impossible. So the only contacts with the homeland were through new arrivals and correspondence (with the help of letter-writers), and later through visitors such as Hindu and Muslim ‘missionaries’ and others.
There is, however, one crucial difference in the condition of African slaves and that of the Indians who stayed on, and that is the question of identity. Both groups went through the same soul-destroying conditions in the colonies. But while that experience obliterated the identity of the African slaves, Indian labourers retained, albeit to varying degrees, much of what made up their cultural heritage, which included elements of language, religion, food, celebrations, and music, and held on tightly to it.
With the growing affluence of the Caribbean Indian communities after 1945 and, presumably, significantly more comfortable and faster means of travel—by steam/diesel ship, later by air to South Asia and then inland by train or car/bus—the contacts intensified. Indian artistes were invited to perform and a greater number of Caribbean Indians began going to India (on pilgrimages, visits to ancestral places, business or to study). The government of India also encouraged the building of links with descendants of its 19th-century citizens in the Caribbean as well as in Mauritius, Fiji and other places, through a variety of activities, such as visits by parliamentarians.
In recent times there has been, among their descendants, a marked revival of ‘Indianness’ and contact with the Subcontinent. The story of Jaipal Chamar, indentured in 1912 to Jamaica, who was able to re-establish in 1954 his Indian connection with a son in India born some months after his departure, is not atypical, as historian B. Samaroo notes:
Jaipal Chamar’s search for his heritage has been re-enacted time and time again by Indians settled abroad… During the century and a half that Indians have been in the Caribbean they have constantly sought to maintain this contact by seeking out, during indentureship, new immigrants who could tell them of developments at home… After indentureship ended the contact took other forms…
In the case of East Africa, the pattern of contact was different from the very beginning due to several factors. Significant Indian immigration began only at the end of the 19th century, some 60 years after the first wave to the Caribbean. Virtually all of them migrated, and especially so after World War I, as ‘free’, ‘passenger’ or non-indentured immigrants, who had more ambition and enterprise, and the majority (mostly from Gujarat and the Punjab) went for trade.
The trips from the Subcontinent to East Africa (which were by steamship by the second decade of this century) took only about three weeks compared to the 26 weeks sail to the Caribbean. The frequency of travel in both directions was hence much higher, leading to easier contact and consequently stronger retention of South Asian culture and identity in East Africa and in nearby Mauritius.
But the situation in South Africa was closer to that in the Caribbean than, as it might be surmised, to East Africa. This was due to the similarity of circumstance. As in the Caribbean, the vast majority of South Asians were brought to South Africa as indentured labourers and lived as disenfranchised, landless, semi-skilled and unskilled workers under oppressive racist regimes. This virtually cancelled out the advantage of relative proximity to South Asia. In contrast, the much smaller communities in the territories between East and South Africa (i.e. Central Africa) maintained closer contact with South Asia precisely because their conditions were similar to those of their East African brethren.
In the critical area of marriage, geographic proximity played a vital role. It was easier for immigrants in East Africa to search for marriage partners from back home, at least until the 1960s, by which time the local pool of potential partners had grown sufficiently to make such trips less necessary. This was particularly important for the much-smaller immigrant communities in Central Africa, which began to look increasingly to the East African and South African groups by the 1960s.
In total contrast, it appears that not many visited South Asia from Fiji. Their principal mode of contact was similar to the Caribbean one referred to above, with one significant exception. The several thousand Gujarati and Punjabi ‘free’ immigrants of the 1920-1940 period retained close ties with South Asia; but they “were felt to constitute a separate, almost ‘alien’ element in the Fijian Indian community”, writes anthropologist A.C. Mayer.
The massive spurt in post-1950 South Asian emigration consisted of two very different types of South Asians. Most of those who emigrated in the 1950s and 60s were unskilled workers who went to fill post-World War II labour shortages in the lowest-paid unskilled, menial occupations in British cities. A sizeable number of skilled South Asians also departed East Africa to escape the escalating local anti-Asian climate after independence, culminating in Idi Amin’s peremptory en masse expulsion of Indians in 1972.
In contrast, in the post-1970 period the majority of emigrants have been skilled professionals—technicians, engineers, doctors, academics—who have settled in high-paying jobs, mostly in North America. In addition, a large number of temporary workers from South Asia also go to the oil-producing countries of West Asia.
The pattern of travel and contact for immigrants in the earlier period (pre-1950) and for those in the most recent period could not be more dramatically different. With the arrival of the jet plane, travel time and distance have been virtually eliminated: it now takes less than 18 hours to go from the Caribbean to South Asia, a trip that took more than six months a century ago, and more of the diaspora South Asians today can afford the cut-rate air fares of the modern era.
There is now considerable travel back and forth to the Subcontinent, particularly from North America and the UK, and also from the earlier areas of immigration such as the Caribbean. The purposes of the visits (often two-way), of course, vary—to see family and friends, arrange marriages, conduct business, undertake cultural or religious activities, etc—but they all reinforce the South Asian identity.
Furthermore, developments in modern transportation and communication technologies have also helped create a world where dispersed South Asians, rather than being culturally isolated, can now find in most major world cities easy access to everything from Asian-language broadcasts and newspapers to shops selling videotapes in Indian languages.
Whether the contacts will continue or what the extent or strength of the contacts will be in the second and subsequent generations, born and brought up outside of South Asia, remains to be seen. If the past is anything to go by, it is very likely that the binding force of South Asian culture will ensure the continuation of some form of contact for some time into the future at least.