11/11/1916: The arrival of Fiji’s last Indian indentured labourers

The 11th of November 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the arrival in Fiji of the last ship carrying Indian indentured labourers, the SS Sutlej. It was the fifth time the SS Sutlej had transported indentured labourers to Fiji, and this voyage was the 87th in total between India and Fiji. Fiji began importing Indian indentured labourers in 1879 when the first group of 478 labourers arrived in the archipelago. Over a period of 37 years, over 60,000 labourers were recruited in India to work in Fiji’s sugar industry. They were by far the largest group of imported labour to the islands, and worked alongside indentured Fijian, other Melanesian and Japanese labourers.

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Suva Harbour: arrival point in Fiji of the SS Sutlej labourers

2017 will be the centenary of the total end of Indian indenture transportation, marking 100 years since the last ship set sail from Calcutta for the Caribbean. Over the past few years there has been an emergence of a new scholarly interest in the Indian indenture system. However, one thing that I would like to see, which I think is yet to happen, is for increased awareness of indenture within the wider public, particularly outside the former indenture importing colonies. Whilst most people are rightly aware of slavery, comparatively few know what happened after abolition or that the Indian indenture system was essentially put in place to ensure the continued production of sugar. Just as slavery bound colonies and continents together, so too did Indian indenture. It was an interconnected system that saw flows of colonial administrators, ideas, and labourers themselves between India, European colonies in the Caribbean, the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This was a global phenomenon involving over 1.5 million Indian men, women and children. In addition to Indian labourers there were smaller yet nonetheless significant numbers of indentured labourers from other parts of the world; from China, Madeira, the Azores, Japan, Java, Melanesia, Angola, Cape Verde, Sierra Leone, Mozambique and the Comoros to name just some.

Indian indenture, and indeed indentured labour more generally should I think, be part of the story of slavery and abolition. Indenture was not slavery; but it was not completely separate either. Rather, it lay on a continuum of labour resulting in a combination of the continued manifestation of traits of the slavery era and the burgeoning evolution of a ‘free’ labouring class. For me, the story of slavery cannot just end with abolition. Much has been written and broadcast in the public sphere recently about the legacies of slavery, both in former colonies and in the metropole but indenture is rarely, if at all mentioned. Yet it had an immensely profound effect on the shaping of the twentieth century world, contributing to the self-rule movement in India, worker human rights, the development of multicultural nations and territories and so forth. As such, today’s anniversary in Fiji and the upcoming centennial commemorations of the end of Indian indenture transportation next year offer us the opportunity to recognise the contribution of the men, women and children who indentured across empires and to ensure a wider public knowledge of what was an intensely trans-oceanic and cosmopolitan system.

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