COMING OF THE COOLIES
DISCOVERY OF “INDENTURED LABOR”
A NEW FORM OF SLAVERY?
Jamaica National Heritage Trust - The People Who Came
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.
COOLIES : HOW BRITAIN REINVENTED SLAVERY
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
The British East India Company imported Indentured Laborers
from Portugal,Syria, Lebanon, India, China, Sri Lanka,
Madagascar and Indonesia to replace the African captives.
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.
year (1846) 1,852 people had arrived
after that (1847) 2,439 people had arrived in Jamaica.
between 1845 to 1921, over 36,000 Indians migrated to
Jamaica as ‘indentured labourers’.
Indian immigrants were brought to Jamaica by 1860 making a
total of 36,400
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
‘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
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.
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
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.
to Jamaica, British Guiana and Trinidad was legalised in
1844. Emigration to Grenada and St Lucia was legalised in
1856 and 1858 respectively.
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.
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.
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
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.
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’.
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.
indentured laborers call themselves "jahajee" "people of the
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.
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.
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.
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
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
The coolies at work in the
sugar cane field
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
website itemises 10 basic contributions by Indians in
Innovative methods of farming, including rice cultivation
Introduction of spices like curry powder to Jamaican
metalsmiths and jewelry workers who created brass, silver
and gold ornaments
Distinctive music, dance and traditional dress that were
incorporated into Jamaica’s culture.
Introduction of social practices like arranged marriages.
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.
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.
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.”
Influence of Indian belief systems incorporated into
Jamaica’s religious practices.
two main waves of Chinese migration to the Caribbean region.
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
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
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.
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.
of Jamaica gained independence from the United Kingdom on 6
August 1962. In Jamaica, this date is celebrated as
Independence Day, a national holiday.
the product of problems of indentured labor
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
Mahatma Gandhi’s rejection
of both slavery and indenture.
Gandhiji said :
How can one be compelled to
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.
a ‘coolie’ as soon as he stepped into South Africa, first as
a “coolie lawyer” and then leading Indian struggles against