Coolies — How Britain Reinvented Slavery

Via Tipster BNB, a searing one-hour documentary, exposing the 19th-century British practice of Indentured Labour, through which more than 1 million Indian workers were transported all over the world — only to be told there was no provision to return. They were effectively only slightly better off than the African slave laborers they were brought in to replace. The latter had been emancipated in 1833, when the British government decided to end slavery and the slave trade throughout the Empire.

The documentary is brought to you by… who else? The BBC! (“The BBC: Bringing You… Post-colonial Guilt in Excruciating Historical Detail”)

Some of the speakers include Brij Lal, an Indo-Fijian who now teaches in Australia, and David Dabydeen, an Indo-Guyanan novelist who now teaches in Warwick, UK. I’ve watched about 25 minutes of it so far, and it seems to be pretty well designed — some historical overview, but not too much. Most of the focus is on the descendents of Indian indentured laborers, who are now trying to work out the implications of their history.

Incidentally, it looks like this video can be downloaded for free to your PC — in case you’re going to be sitting in a train or an airport for an hour sometime this weekend, and wanted a little “light” entertainment. (You will also need to download Google’s Video Player application.)

127 thoughts on “Coolies — How Britain Reinvented Slavery

  1. Impressive – all the more so for a country built by the descendants of slaves and indentured labourers (look at Haiti or Jamaica by comparison.)

    Having oil helped a lot.

  2. I’m planning on spending Divali (Diwali) this year in Trinidad. For me, desis anywhere are desis. I’m not a super Bharat-lover, but we’re all people of color, you know? And I want to get my wine (wind) on!

  3. In response to brownelf #93, almost all of the other Fiji Indian people I know consider themselves Indians first, then Fijians. I was born here, so, personally I don’t feel like a Fijian at all. I think, given the politcal climate in Fiji right now and the divide betwen native Fijians and Indians, that people are even more likely to stres the Indian part over the Fijian.

  4. For the first generation ABCD’s to understand the Indo-Caribbean, they must first grasp the concept that most of the Indo-Caribbean people are 4 or more generations removed from India. They grew up in lands where, as citizens of functioning society, they must to some extent assimilate and co-exist with other races and cultures.

    Think of the ABCD and how American he/she appears as compared to an Indian growing up in India. Think 4 more generations down in America, and ask yourselves, how much of India will remain in your great great grandchildren. I think then you will admire the resilience of the Indo-Caribbean people, how much they have maintained of India, and how much they have gracefully balanced their Indian identity with a gentle assimilation into the mainstream Caribbean culture.

    Also there are many more great Indo-Caribbeans besides Naipaul. Names that come to mind are Dr. Cheddi Jagan, Sir Shridath Ramphal, and Yesu Persaud.

  5. I don’t know by what measure ‘Elitist’ considers himself to be of a higher class…The British Government and the E.U somehow seem to consider Mauritian-Indians to be of a higher class/caste than Mainland Indians. While Indians have to jump through all sorts of hoops and withstand humiliating interviews,Mauritians just waltz through passport control without a visa.I should know, I live in Ireland, and somehow half of Mauritius seems to have immigrated here.

  6. Who knew that there were people alive today who were born into the indentured servitude system.

    I may be wrong but I think one group of people that gets left out are the indentured Tamil plantation workers in SriLanka. (Not the Jaffna, Trincomallee, Batticalu or the Colombo Tamil SriLankan we are most likely to meet elsewhere in the diaspora but the upcountry Tamils who are still under the feudal system, I think). I don’t know their history indepth but I vaguely recall something about their plight as living with no rights or citizenship for several generations as late as in the 1980-90s. I wonder if there are any here who can shed some light and correct me if I am wrong.

    I am so tempted to talk about Naipaul, but I will leave it alone.

    I am one-third my way through Naipaul’s ‘Half a life’. My mind constantly makes connections. So quickly: the character Willie encounters a new BBC editor/programmer who “was a bureaucrat at heart…and extend[ed] patronage to people like Willie: lifting unlikely people up from the darkness to the glory of the airwaves.” Had to share that ater all this chatter here.

    comment @31 would not be out of place, also, in the Maximum City thread – when it gets started up. The Taj Hotel in Bombay comes up on p.70, where I’ve just got to!

    It has been 2+ years since I read Maximum City, but I think you are refering to the passage about how to fake ‘class’ and act like you belong with those who give the impression of ‘owning’ the world. I love that passage; it is possibly one of Mehta’s best passages in the whole book. If the mark of a good writer is being able to simply describe and validate observations we all make everyday in our own lives, then Mehta’s earned that status with that one passage.

    Long post, again? Oh no!

  7. Have to put in my plug for a favorite author, M.G. Vassanji. I recently finished his ‘The Inbetween World of Vikram Lall,’ where life in Kenya for descendants of Indians who went to build the British railways is so poignantly described. The digs and jabs between Kenya-born Indians (Vic’s father) India-born Indians arriving later to Kenya (Vic’s mother and Vic’s uncle) and India-born IndoCanadians (the librarian Seema, I think) relating to Kenya-born (Vic) are subtly featured amidst the larger, main theme of white-black-brown Kenya.

  8. I am 1/2 Trinidadian (descended from Indian indentured labourers) and 1/2 Pakistani (Christian)…and I am not even going to touch the comments about low class West Indians…except to say how typical of a comment for someone ignorant to make. West Indian culture is a culture in and of itself with Indian, Chinese, African, Middle Eastern, European culture combined. I think (if you are male) that you should go to Carnival in Trinidad one year and tell all of the gorgeous Trinidadian women you encounter what you really think.

    Keep in mind…a person is never just simply where they were born or who their ancestors were…a person is whatever they make of themselves with the resources available to them.

    One more thing…does anyone have the actual name of this documentary? And a direct link to download it?


  9. There was a great profile on Naipaul in the New York Times a couple of years ago, soon after he’d pronounced the novel as a fiction form dead. I highly recommend reading it if you get a chance (you might not be able to see the entire article for free on the NYT because it is in the archive, but it is probably reproduced elsewhere on the web). I believe words like “irascible” and “brusque” were used a lot 🙂

  10. Impressive – all the more so for a country built by the descendants of slaves and indentured labourers (look at Haiti or Jamaica by comparison.)

    This isn’t a fair statement, especially if it is meant to imply that the descendants of slaves are somehow inherently worse at establishing stable states. To look at the “failure” of Haiti and Jamaica it’s important to examine their failure/success in the context of political economy and the economic relationships during their moments of independence. The western world worked awfully hard to bring both to heel. As Amitabh said, oil certainly helped.

    Please, we do not need to entertain bigoted comments by saying “I’m not low class! You’re low class!” Better to ignore it, imo.

  11. Malathi, according to your links, the Plantation Tamils lead even today, lives of squalor much as was lived by other indentured servants in other lands in decades past. Wow. All this stuff still continues, people. Unbelievable.

  12. Camille, I agree with you partially, but the Indians in Trinidad are very industrious people. They have done well (relative to others) due to a strong work ethic, strong families, and a tendency to save. Their small businesses are an important part of the whole economy down there. And this was without governmental help of any kind. And these are the descendants of illiterate indentured labor, mind you, not the kids of educated professionals as so many 2nd genners in America are (where the comparison to other, more disadvantaged groups could indeed be unfair).

  13. Amitabh, I feel you. I was just taking issue with what sounded like the underlying premise (i.e. former slaves incapable of accomplishment). I think we agree on this 🙂

  14. the Plantation Tamils lead even today, lives of squalor much as was lived by other indentured servants in other lands in decades past.

    I don’t want this to turn to an arguement about Tamil Tigers/Eelam movement of SriLanka, but I recall that in the 80s/90s the various, fractured Eelam movement organizations headofficing in Madras and beyond India had the Plantation workers’ plight on their list of grievances/agenda. How true they were to the cause of the exploited, displaced, marginalized voiceless Upcountry Tamils or whether they degenerated into merely using them for political sympathy or not, I am not qualified to answer.

  15. Wat dis meh hey bout we been low class ?

    Dis may be true fuh some but nah fuh am an meh people !

    Our Ancestors were Pioneers who built Nations, they fed and developed those Nations into what they are today and still do.

    Today most are no longer tied to the Plantation and are part of the professional ranks and run many successful businesses.

    The Jahajis were brave people who crossed the Kala Pani to lands that they did not know and where they would be abused and tricked into many years of bonded labour.

    John Gladstone (Father of British Prime Minister William) refered to our Ancestors as being “more akin to the Monkey than the man” and of being “totally ignorant of where they are going and have no wants and are willing to labour”.

    Are these the same feelings held by Elitist ?

    Are those American Pioneers who headed west also low class ?

    Our Ancestors and Families worked very hard, retained their Culture and traditions and had great pride and dignity despite the persecution from the Colonial Authorities and from the post Independence Governments dominated by Afro-Caribbeans.

    I am not been derisive towards the Americans, British or Africans, only pointing out facts.

    Low class ??

    Pioneers and Nation builders = Yes

  16. brownelf said

    but the rich Indians fatten their bank balances and do everything to distance themselves from the “rubber-estate” types, even though both classes are principally Tamil.

    I am not sure of the dynamics of the Indian Tamils who emigrated to Malaysia/Singapore. Can comment about the many Jaffna (Sri Lankan) Tamils who left for Malyasia/singapore. The majority of them were educated in english (Jaffna had an excellent schools eg St Johns, which has 175 years of history). Some of them were lawyers who had qualified in england (like gandhi in S Africa). As far as I know Jaffna or Ceylon (Sri Lanka) was not a source for the British Indentured labor. (That said Sri Lanka is now one of the biggest sources of workers/Housemaids in the Middle East working under condition very little better than indentured labor.)

    I would have been very unlikely this segment of the the emigres would have identified with the “rubber-estate” or even Indians for that matter other than for say political gain (i am a cynic). Look thru Wiki and it seems the Jaffna tamils differentiate themselves from other tamlis in Malaysia

    Tamil, Jaffna 23,000 Tamil, Others 1,798,062

    Examples of Jaffna Tamils who lived or worked Malaysia/Singapore S. of the founding fathers of independent Singapore S._J._V._Chelvanayakam born in Malaysia politician in Ceylon E.E.C. Thuraisingham the first local Minister for Education

  17. Great post, Amardeep. As a Trini who is Indo-Caribbean, I often encounter those who are unaware of the fact that Indo-Caribbeans exist and that their history is an integral part of Caribbean history.

    One more thing…does anyone have the actual name of this documentary? And a direct link to download it?

    Here is a link to download the documentary . If you click Coolies – How Britain… on the related videos tab, the trailer for Guiana 1838 is displayed.

  18. I was born in Trinidad.

    Floridian is the most informed and person on this thread. Elitist, is generalising. All societies have different classes, not all the same.

    We do not recognize caste in Trinidad. Most Indian origin people from Trinidad like myself are half caste. I am Kshatryia on my mother’s side and Brahamin on my father’s.

    My nature is of the warrior and not just because I served in United States Navy and participated in Army ROTC in college. I am anti-Ghandi (the so called mahatma).

    Nathuram Godse and Subhas Nataji Chandra Bose are my heroes. I see liberalisim and pacificisim as the worst of perversions and deviant behavior.

    I realise there are many on this thred that have succumbed the the disease of liberalisim. This is something that can be blamed on the colleges and your professors and peers. After you are married with children you will grow out of it.

    MOST IMPORTANT I am an American.

  19. “It just so happens that due to the geographical proximity of the Caribbean to the western world, the population’s facility with English, the lower pressure on their immigration quotas, and their generally higher income level (Trinidad’s per capita is $10,400 vs. India’s $720, after accounting for PPP), “

    Umm… India’s GDP per capita after adjusting for purchasing power is $4000. And Trinidad is relatively rich, not because of proximity to the west but also because of their oil reserves. Guyana is much poorer with a GDP per capita of about $5000 after purchasing power adjustments.

  20. I am a born American. Born to Indo-Guyanese parents. My mother is Hindu. My father is Christian. My ancestors came from India to better their lives. My ancestors SURVIVED the voyages, the disease, the rapes, the beatings, the racist Europeans. My ancestors labored in sugar cane fields – work that no European could do – work that no former slave wanted to do. My ancestors lived in baracks where many lay sick and dying. Where there was not enough food to eat and no time to rest. There was only work. They were worked harder than slaves. Slaves were an investment. Indentured laborers were to be abused for all they were worth in the short time that they were contracted. My ancestors SURVIVED in a strange new country where they were treated as second-class citizens. My ancestors preserved their rural Indian heritage. We still use Hindi words and perform religious rituals based on what has been passed on from those brave souls that crossed the kala pani. My ancestors SURVIVED through adaptation and they managed to juggle the many cultures and influences around them. The history of my people – my indentured Indian people – is one of strength, courage, and resilience. I am proud to have coolie blood in my veins.

  21. The worst part is that it’s still going on, from Iraq to New Orleans.

    Rajesh Harricharan–I am proud to be a deviant and a pervert. I thumb my nose in your general direction–and not just because I went to college.

  22. Lisa331,

    You could not have said it better. I, too, am Indo-Guyanese, and I too am proud of the ‘coolie’ blood that runs in my veins; what I do not know now about my religion, when the time comes, I will learn. And I will do so in honor of the people who worked those fields and died on those boats, and despite the ignorant verbiage I read up higher that was posted by ‘real Indians.’

  23. Wow! What stupidity. Elitist, I think you have a homosexual strain; you seem to be very brash/abrasive.

  24. ‘Elitishit’ you should worship V.S. Naipaul. Obviously you didn’t read or understand history, migration then and now is based on one reason only, social advancement – financial etc. Also, India at that time, was governed by the British and all Indians were their subjects. Now, it might be legitimate to say, that those who left, were escaping that. It is important that people not attach the word ‘slave’ to ‘indentureship’ as most of the intellectuals/morons like to. It implies shame and really does not address the real issues. It is why non-profound thinkers like ‘Elitist’ and strains/viruses like him/her, can belch.

  25. I’m fijian indian i happen to be 7th or 8th generation i think though i’m not really familiar about my ancestory that much all i know is some came from UP,Bihar, nepal, bengladesh and afghanistan but where? why? what? Who? that i do not know and never will know but still have great pride in what my ancestors maintained and fought for however unlike islandgurl and some other indo-fijian guy who said they see themselves indian first then fijian i do not share that ideal with them. I see my birth country as my mothercountry first and i see myself fijian first then i see myself a hindu so does most of my family,friends and other fiji indian folk i know of.

    As for malaysia’s comment the term fijian can be argued when the english set sail to fiji and met the natives they refered the country as fiji cause they could not pronounce the term viti. Therefore the natives became regarded as fijian throughout their lives when the english put up a racist constitution where they made sure boths natives and indians were segregated by giving more rights to the natives known as fijian in the constitution so now it has become a debate should the term fijian be confined to natives of fiji only or the citizens living in fiji