Jamaica National Heritage Trust - The People Who Came www.jnht.com/disndat_people.php








Once the slaves were given freedom, practically no slave remained to work within the plantations.  This emergency was met by the substitution of indentured laborers from Europe, Africa, and Asia. India to work essentially in the sugar plantations, the then important crop of Jamaica.



The slave trade was officially abolished throughout the British Empire in 1807.
This documentary reveals one of Britain's darkest secrets : a form of slavery that continued well into the 20th century - the story of Indian indentured labour.
Indentured workers from North India.
The British East India Company imported Indentured Laborers from Portugal,Syria, Lebanon, India, China, Sri Lanka, Madagascar and Indonesia to replace the African captives.

The first people from India came to Jamaica on board the S. Blundel Hunter on May 10, 1845. 200 men, 28 women, and 33 children embarked in Old Harbor Bay.

The next year (1846) 1,852 people had arrived

The year after that (1847) 2,439 people had arrived in Jamaica.

Thus between 1845 to 1921, over 36,000 Indians migrated to Jamaica as ‘indentured labourers’.

A few Indian immigrants were brought to Jamaica by 1860 making a total of 36,400

Most of them were from North India - Agra, Bihar, and Oudh, Bengal, and Nepal.  They took their four-month journey in the holds of the ship from their homeland to Jamaica. More came from Madras and Punjab after 1900. 

Like African slaves on the notorious Middle Passage, the Coolies were crammed in ships that sailed what is referred to as the Pacific passage. The average mortality rate of coolies headed to Cuba was 15.2 percent. Ships headed for Peru had an average mortality rate of 40 percent. 75 percent of the coolies in Cuba died before fulfilling their contract. More than 2/3 of the coolies that arrived in Cuba died before their contract was met.

Their contracts of indenture usually covered a period of one year, but were increased to five years after 1860. These contracts were arranged in Calcutta (modern Kolkata) and Madras (modern Chennai)   The service contract included return passage.  But only about   12,100 returned home in accordance with the contract. Others were forced to take up another term as the contract was breached by the employers. Others made the choice to settle in Jamaica. They were given some land as part of the termination of contract. They earned their livings by growing vegetables and rice, fishing, and working as silversmiths and goldsmiths, and also became merchants and shop keepers.

The indentured labor program ended in 1917 as it became too costly during World War I. The last Indian workers arrived in June 1916, fulfilled their contracts by 1921, and in 1929, were free to settle where they pleased.  Approximately 81,500 Indians live in Jamaica today, maintaining their traditional culture.





It was a voluntary migration, but implemented through deception, duplicity and sharp-dealing. The illiterate laborer put their thumb print on the indenture contract, but they had little idea of what they had signed in.

Inveigled by the recruiters hired by the British, with visions of abundant land portrayed to them as available freely for tilling, fanciful tales of a comfortable living, and the dreams for an “Ache din” (good days) they were anxious to get in.  But many did not know where they were going, that they did not even knoe that were going abroad the length of travel involved or the length of the contract.






The term ‘coolie’ is of disputed origins: some believe it derives from an aboriginal tribe in the Gujarat region of India, and others believe it comes from the Tamil word ‘kuli’, meaning ‘payment for occasional menial work’ (Oxford English Dictionary).

The labourers were mostly young, active, able-bodied people used to demanding labour, but they were often ignorant of the places they agreed to go to or the challenges they were going to face.

Before 1840 a large proportion of the labourers were so-called ‘Hill coolies’, aboriginal people from the plains of the Ganges. Later many others signed indentured labour contracts, including Hindus, Brahmins, high castes, agriculturists, artisans, Mussulmans, low castes (untouchables) and Christians.

Over 41,000 Bengali labourers were sent to Mauritius in 1834, but the Indian government banned ‘coolie’ shipments in 1838 because there were reports of repression and abuse.

In 1842 the British Prime Minister Robert Peel directed the Indian government to re-open these lines of emigration under proper safeguards. A Protector of Emigrants was appointed to ensure that the labourers had adequate space, food, water and ventilation on the journey.

Emigration to Jamaica, British Guiana and Trinidad was legalised in 1844. Emigration to Grenada and St Lucia was legalised in 1856 and 1858 respectively.

The last indentured labourers went to the West Indies in 1916. Repatriation continued for many years after the time limit. The last ship carrying returning emigrants left the West Indies for India in 1954.




A group of East Indians re-enact their arrival to Jamaica, stepping onto new ground at Old Harbour Bay, where they first landed in May 1845.

Due to deteriorating socioeconomic conditions in British India, more than 36,000 Indians came to British Jamaica as indentured laborers under the Indian indenture system between 1845 and 1917, mostly from the Bhojpuri region and the Awadhi region (present-day states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Jharkhand) of the Hindi Belt in North India and other places in the Hindi Belt of North India (present-day states of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttarkhand). A significant minority were from South India.

Around two-thirds of the laborers who came remained on the island. The demand for their labour came after the end of slavery in 1830 and the failure to attract workers from Europe. Indian labourers, who had proved their worth in similar conditions in Mauritius, were sought by the British Jamaican government, in addition to workers coming from China. Indian workers were actually paid less than the former West African slaves. This, along with fundamental cultural and linguistic differences and a tendency to not mix with the local population, caused the Africans as well as the British to look down on them. Indians were harassed with the derogatory term, "coolie," referring to their worker status. They were initially placed at the bottom of the social ladder. Although, today many Indians in Jamaica who are descendants of the indentured laborers have retained their culture and religions like Hinduism and Islam. Some Indians either married into the local population of Africans, Creoles, Chinese, Hispanics-Latinos, Arabs, and Europeans. Today the Indian population of Jamaica is either full-blooded Indians who are descendants of the indentured laborers, full-blooded Indians who are recent immigrants or descendant of recent immigrants, or mixed Indians, such as Douglas, Chindians, Asian Latin Americans, Luso-Indian, and Anglo-Indians. Worldwide the British displaced 3.5 million Indians who they recruited to work sugar plantations which include the Caribbean, South Africa, Réunion, Ile de Maurice, Fiji, and South America.






Lunch time 1920




The British Indian government encouraged indentured labour, and recruiting depots were established in Calcutta and Madras, although agents were paid significantly less per recruit than for a European worker. Most Indians who signed contracts did so in the hope of returning to India with the fruits of their labour rather than intending to migrate permanently. The Indian Government appointed a Protector of Immigrants in Jamaica, although this office tended to protect the interests of the employers rather than the workers. Although technically the workers had to appear before a magistrate and fully understand their terms and conditions, these were written in English and many workers, signing only with a thumb print, did not comprehend the nature of their service.

In the mid 20th century, smaller numbers of Indians from the Sindh, Gujarat, Kutch, and Punjab regions came to Jamaica not as labourers but as merchants conducting business alongside Chinese and Arab immigrants.

Arrival in Jamaica

The first ship carrying workers from India, the "Maidstone", landed at Old Harbour Bay in 1845. It bore 200 men, 28 women under 30 years old and 33 children under 12 years old from various towns and villages in Northern India.  The next year (1846) 1,852 had arrived  The year after that (1847) 2,439 arrived in Jamaica. In seven decades between 1845 to 1921, over 36,000 Indians migrated to Jamaica as ‘indentured labourers’.

Indian Government halted the scheme to examine its working. The programme resumed in 1859 and continued until the outbreak of World War I.  Indian indentureship ended in 1917 to the Caribbean since the cost of transportation became large.



Indian indentured laborers call themselves "jahajee" "people of the ship"

  • 1938 - The Whitby, the first ship of Indentured Indians to the Americas, landed in Guyana.
  • 1845 - The Maidstone, the first ship of Indentured Indians landed at Old Harbour Bay , Jamaica.
  • 1845 - The Fatal Al Razak, the first ship of Indentured Indians landed in Trinidad and Tobago.
  • 1873 -The Lalla Rook, the first ship of Indentured Indians landed in Suriname.

The labourers were given one suit of clothing, agricultural tools and cooking pots on their arrival, divided into groups of 20 or 40 and sent, first by mule cart and in later years on overcrowded freight trains to the plantations all over Jamaica. Here they would work for a shilling a day and live in rudimentary barracks, with several families having to share a single room. Two shillings and six pence were deducted from their wages for the rice, flour, dried fish or goat, peas and seasoning which constituted their rations. Children received half rations  The overwhelming majority of the immigrant labourers were Hindu but no provision was made for their faith and cultural practices. One of the major problem was that non-Christian marriages were not recognised until 1956 and as a result the children born in those unions were not recognized.  This had serious consequences in the repartiation and inheritance of these children.  As a result many accepted Christianity and adopted English names.

The conditions of the indenture varied from between one and five years, with the workers being released if they fell ill or bought themselves out of their contract. They were not allowed to leave the plantation without a permit, on pain of fines or even imprisonment. Many of the workers and their families suffered from yaws, hookworm, and malaria.

Settlement and repatriation

Although most of the workers originally planned to return to India, the planters lobbied the Government to allow them to stay and defray their settlement costs, largely to save on the costs of returning them to the Indian subcontinent. Money and land were used as incentives, with time expired Indians offered 10 or 12 acres  of Crown land. Often the land was mountainous and infertile so many chose to take the cash in hand and by 1877 close to £32,000 had been spent by the Jamaican authorities.


The monetary grants were suspended in 1879, with the land grants being halted from 1897 to 1903 and abandoned in 1906 as there was little difference in the costs of repatriating a worker (£15 per person) and offering land grants of £12 per head.


The coolies at work in the sugar cane field

Problems in returning

The lack of ships available to repatriate the workers was another factor in many of them staying on. Ships refused to sail if not full, and at other times were oversubscribed, leading to some time expired workers being left behind. During World War I German submarine warfare and a lack of ships further cut the numbers able to return. The Indian Government did not encourage the return of workers as many were destitute, ill or had lost touch with their own culture.

The final group of Indian indentured immigrants arrived in Jamaica in 1914 and the last repatriates left in 1929 with legal repatriation ending in 1930. After 70 years of indentured labour, over half of the Indians who arrived in Jamaica between 1845 and 1916 remained and the Indian community on the island developed and strengthened. 

In 1964 when I went to Jamaica as a teacher in the DeCarteret College, Mandeville, I have been told about this Indian “coolies”.  I was told that though in other West Indian islands, the Indians became business men and small scale industrialists, none of the Jamaican Indians came near to that level. In comparison all Chinese indentured labors when their period of service was over became small scale merchants and shop keepers and not one remained as servant.  In contrast in the midst of the problems the Trinidad and Tobago Indian community thrived and many became part of the ruling government of the island. Several indians both male and female were in high position within the political parties and ruling people since 1960. After the freedom of the country Prime Ministers included both male and female of the Indian community there. Today about 40% of Trinidad Tobago Island are of Indian origin.


In Jamaica, they were a much smaller group and were not able to assert their identity until much later.  After one generation the new generations became educated and prospered.  They are now more involved in the country’s politics and enterprises especially in medicine and Technology.

Hinduism in Jamaica





Jamaica was once home to 25,000 Hindus until the mid 20th century. They retained their religion by personal and family worship at home.  Now there is at least one temple in Kingston.  However, most of them converted to Christianity. In the last few decades, the population of Hindus in Jamaica decreased steeply. In the 1970s, 5,000 identified themselves as Hindus. There were 1,453 Hindus in Jamaica according to the 2001 census. The 2011 Census showed that the number of Hindus in Jamaica increased only to1,836 adherents.   There is one Hindu Temple  located outside of downtown Kingston, the Sanatan Dharma Mandir built in 1970.


DOOKHEE GUNGAH, born of Indian migrants, began life in 1867 in a shed in Mauritius and worked as a child cutting sugar cane. By the time of his death in 1944, he was one of the island’s richest businessmen. He is a notable example of how some indentured labourers prospered against the odds.

In 1995, the Government of Jamaica proclaimed May 10 Indian Heritage Day in recognition of the Indians’ contribution to the social and economic development of the country. The arrival of the Indians more than 170 years ago is commemorated in stamps.

On March 1, 1998 the National Council for Indian Culture in Jamaica was formed. It is the umbrella organization of Indian associations with the mission to preserve and promote Indian culture.



The above website itemises 10 basic contributions by Indians in Jamaica. 

1. Innovative methods of farming, including rice cultivation

2. Introduction of spices like curry powder to Jamaican cuisine.

3. Skilled metalsmiths and jewelry workers who created brass, silver and gold ornaments

4. Distinctive music, dance and traditional dress that were incorporated into Jamaica’s culture.

5. Introduction of social practices like arranged marriages.

6. Introduction of new plants and trees and their products, including betel leaves, betel nut, coolie plum, mango, jackfruit, and tamarind.

7. The use of ganja/marijuana for spiritual and medicinal purposes.

8. Incorporation of traditional Indian foods like curry goat, curried potato, eggplant, bitter gourd okra. roti and callaloo, which have become part of the national cuisine.

9. The source of the appellation “Gong,” a name applied to Leonard Howell and then to Robert Nesta Marley, who was called “Tuff Gong.” The term is an abbreviation of the Hindi word ‘Gangunguru” that means “great king” or “king of kings.”

10. Influence of Indian belief systems incorporated into Jamaica’s religious practices.




Chinese Indenture

There were two main waves of Chinese migration to the Caribbean region.

The first wave of Chinese consisted of indentured labourers who were brought to the Caribbean predominantly Trinidad, British Guiana and Cuba, to work on sugar plantations during the post-Emancipation period.

The second wave was comprised of free voluntary migrants, consisting of either small groups (usually relatives) to British Guiana, Jamaica and Trinidad from 1890’s to 1940’s. In fact the most modern Caribbean Chinese are descended from this second group. 



In 1806,  192 Chinese immigrants arrived in Trinidad . . Approximately 18,000 Chinese entered the Caribbean during 1960s . The Chinese indentured immigrants were given contracts for three and then five year periods with no repatriation to China. Chinese were able to leave their plantations by buying out their freedom. From the 1870’s onwards the Chinese increasingly moved into the setting up of shops and small businesses. In 1964 I was told that not one Chinese who came as indenture remained in plantations.  They all succeeded in starting their own shops or other business.


In general we may mention that it was not the rich nor even middle class that came as indentured laborers.  They were laborers - coolies which actually meant one who receive payment in lieu of labor.  In India they were probably the same- working class.  So the offer of migration indicated to them an opening to improve their social and economic status.  A quick look at how they faired in the end of their period indicating that they achieved what they came in for.  In most west Indian islands the Indians were a powerful political presence.  The fact that even some Brahmins also came along with others speak much of what it gave back to the people who ventured.

Independence of Jamaica

The Colony of Jamaica gained independence from the United Kingdom on 6 August 1962. In Jamaica, this date is celebrated as Independence Day, a national holiday.





Gandhi as the product of problems of indentured labor


Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian freedom movement, saw first hand the plight of Asian indentured laborers in South Africa and campaigned on this issue during the first decade of the 20th century. It was the plight of the indentured Indian coolies that introduced him to the system of British imperialism. He went fighting for them and went to jail for them four times in South Africa, before he came back to India and led the freedom struggle. The system of indentured labour was officially abolished by British government in 1917.


Mahatma Gandhi’s rejection of both slavery and indenture.
Gandhiji said :

How can one be compelled to accept slavery?
I simply refuse to do the master’s bidding.
He may torture me, break my bones to atoms and even kill me.
He will then have my dead body, not my obedience.
Ultimately, therefore, it is I who am the victor and not he,
For he has failed in getting me to do what he wanted done.

Gandhi was a ‘coolie’ as soon as he stepped into South Africa, first as a “coolie lawyer” and then leading Indian struggles against racial oppression.