Atlantic History Indian Indentured Servitude in the Atlantic World
Lomarsh Roopnarine
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0210


Between 1838 and 1917, western European governments allowed their planters in the Caribbean to import an estimated 500,000 Indian indentured servants from India to work on their plantations. The arrival of these indentured laborers was in direct response to a so-called labor shortage emanating from slave emancipation. This movement to the Caribbean was one segment of a larger movement to have Asians replace slave labor wherever African slavery had been abolished. Indians were shipped to Mauritius, La Réunion, the Strait Settlements, Fiji, Natal, South Africa, British Guiana, Trinidad, Suriname, Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana, Jamaica, Belize, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Grenada, St. Kitts, and St. Croix. These indentured servants chose to work in the Caribbean mainly for socioeconomic reasons brought about by their own internal oppressive social system and the impact of Western colonialism. Some were duped and kidnapped into indenture, while a majority left their homeland willingly. Fundamentally, the contract workers were mainly rural peasants who were not totally aware of their terms of contract, nor of the severity of plantation work that awaited them in the Caribbean. Some Indians re-indentured for a second term while time-expired Indians returned to their homeland and even returned to the Caribbean for a second time. The main aspects of their labor contracts were basic “free” housing, fringe medical care, a right to return passage, a fixed daily wage, and continuous employment with one employer. When their five year contracts expired, Indian indentured were given an option to re-indenture and receive small parcels of land in lieu of their return passage. Of the estimated 500,000 Indians shipped from India, about two-thirds chose to stay in the Caribbean, and as a consequence, Indians formed the majority in Guyana, Trinidad, and Suriname. The British and Indian governments officially abolished Indian indenture in 1920 because of Indian nationalism, the impact of World War I, pressure from members of the expatriate communities, malfunctions in the organization of the indenture, and malpractices and ill-treatment of the laborers by the planter class.

General Overviews

The mere fact that this is the first time anyone is writing on and contributing to Asian indentured servitude in Atlantic History reveals the marginalization of the field at the international, national and regional level. There isn’t a single comprehensive book covering Asian indentured servitude in the Caribbean. What exists instead are broad studies concentrating on a few countries or on a few themes in one volume (Tinker 1974, Mangru 1987, Dabydeen and Samaroo 1987, Northrup 1995, Kale 1998, Roopnarine 2007) and country-specific studies, such as Beaumont 1871 (cited under Plantation Experience), Nath 1975 (cited under British Guiana), Weller 1968 (cited under Trinidad), Shepherd 1994 (cited under Jamaica), Hoefte 1998 (cited under Dutch Caribbean/Suriname), and Roopnarine 2016 (cited under Danish Caribbean). Comparative studies on Indian indentured laborers in the Caribbean do not exist. Moreover, most published studies have concentrated on the larger population of Indians in British Guiana and Trinidad and have paid little attention to the islands with smaller Indian populations. Still, gender studies on Asian indentured servitude are rare. An examination into the literature of Asian indentured servitude has revealed a neo-slave scholarship, showing that Asians were victims of their indentured contracts, although studies on agency have been on a rise. The published works on Asian indentured servitude can be categorized as follows: (1) works written during indenture by missionaries and colonial managers (see Contemporary Works); (2) studies on indenture written after indenture by both Indian and non-Indian scholars (see Scholarly Works). Thematically, the published works can be divided into the countries that received indentured immigration from India based on recruitment, sea voyage, plantation experience, resistance and settlement, repatriation and remittances, proselytization, cultural change and continuity, women, and abolition.

  • Dabydeen, David, and Brinsley Samaroo. India in the Caribbean. London: Hansib, 1987.

    The book is a collection of essays, poems, and prose by leading Indo-Caribbean scholars and writers on East Indian history and culture in the Caribbean.

  • Kale, Madhavi. Fragments of Empire: Capital, Slavery, and Indian Indentured Labor in the British Caribbean. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

    The book provides new argumentative readings on the cultural, racial, and economic dynamics of indentured Indian labor in the British Caribbean.

  • Mangru, Basdeo. Benevolent Neutrality: Indian Government Policy and Labor Migration to British Guiana, 1854–1884. London: Hansib, 1987.

    The author provides an impressive analysis of the colonized Indian government position and action toward indentured immigration. The analysis shows that the Indian government was powerless in correcting the wrongs of indenture and preferred to take a neutral position; namely, not to get mixed up in the transaction of exporting Indian indentured servants overseas.

  • Northrup, David. Indentured Labor in the Age of Imperialism, 1834–1922. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    This book departs from treating indenture from a single place of origin to a single destination, and instead offers an impressive global history of indenture.

  • Roopnarine, Lomarsh. Indo-Caribbean Indenture: Resistance and Accommodation. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2007.

    This book departs from the neo-slave approach to Indian indenture and argues that the workers possessed the power to challenge their labor contracts and turned adverse circumstances into advantages and opportunities through resistance and accommodation, which was not always clear to the naked eye.

  • Tinker, Hugh. A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labor Overseas. London: Institute of Race Relations, 1974.

    The seminal book takes the position that the indenture system was a new and disguised form of slavery, and that Indians merely exchanged one form of poverty in the homeland for a new one in the new Caribbean plantation destination and domain.

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