Life on the sugar estates
Many of the younger generation find it difficult to imagine the lifestyle and work of their ancestors on sugar estates in the 19th century as the information is scattered in different places and when any such information is actually available, it is limited to a few historical generalisations. Generally the conditions on the plantations in the 19th century are defined as a new system of slavery given their very oppressive nature. Very often it is difficult to grasp those conditions unless more concrete information is available.
This article will attempt to give a picture of living and working conditions on one sugar estate in the Savanne district based on information that have been gleaned from the reports of inspectors in the 1870s. It must be kept in mind that the information is drawn from a colonial report and as all colonial documents were written from the colonial perspective with their biases and prejudices of the time, one has to make an effort to read these documents ‘against the grain’.
The estate, which we have chosen, is Constance. It merged later with other contiguous estates to form the sugar estate of Britannia, which at one time belonged to the heirs of the Pelegrin family and was administered by the manager V. Lamarque. The estate had about 200 arpents of land under sugar cane. It also had a factory with 3 cylinders, which were operated by hydraulic power. In 1871, about 467 men, 210 women and 258 children lived on the estate camp. About half of the men were unmarried and the families were small ones with not more than two children on average. Women did not work and the 467 men carried out works on sugar estate as only one man was employed outside the estate.
The labourers lived in 18 houses which were built in several rows. Each house had a height of 5ft 6 inches and the ridge of the roof had a height of 10 feet. There were altogether 155 rooms. We do not have information about the area of the rooms nor do we know the basis on which they were distributed among the labourers. Housing 600 people with their children in such houses would convey the impression that the camp was overcrowded. We have no idea how this issue was actually dealt with. According to the official record however, no complaint was registered. We can form a clearer opinion if we come across other information from other sources.
Workers had to be on call at 6 am in summer and 6.30 am during winter. They had a break between 10-11 and worked up to 4.30 pm. During the intercrop season, the work consisted of holing, cleaning and manuring. Tasks were allocated to each; the task allocated to a labourer consisted in digging 150-200 holes per day — each hole was 2 feet long, 9 inches wide and 9 inches deep. The labourers usually finished their assigned task in one day and those who could not do so had to complete it the following day.
On Saturdays and Sundays they also had to complete the Corvée either in the fields, in the camp or in the factory yard. We lack information about the harvest time when they had to cut the canes, load them on carts and do factory work. Work in the fields and in the factory was hard work and strenuous. In the factory they worked round the clock during harvest and in the field workers could walk about five miles a day simply to load the canes.
Their rations of rice, dholl, oil and salt fish were distributed on Saturdays. Rice was given weekly, dholl and oil and fish bimonthly. We do not have precise information about the food allocation per worker. Usually the daily ration consisted in 2 lbs of rice and 1/2 pound of dholl, 2 oz of salt and 2 oz of oil. However the amount of rice distributed for one year was 1749 bags of 13 1/2 pounds per bag, which makes a total of 23,612 pounds of rice. On paper the amount of rice looks adequate to feed their wife and children but that allocation would depend on the actual days worked and lost through the double cut… It must also be mentioned that those who were sick were given half ration and those who absented without permission had their rations cut. We have also to take into consideration that employers and their accountants usually cooked up the figures provided to the Inspector and the latter would never know if the actual amount provided at the end of each month reflected faithfully the figures and whether the quality of rice was satisfactory.
Part of the explanation for any shortfall of ration and also wages, as we shall see later, lay in the fact that many workers could not complete five days out of the 6 or 7 days work per week throughout the year. The number of absences of workers during the year may vary from 4 to 28; for those who were not in good health, the average absence per annum could be 18-28.Those who absented suffered from the “double cut”, meaning that they lost two days’ work and rations for one day’s absence. Consequently, every month an average of 30 men worked with no wages. In 1871, the number of days worked by labourers without wages under the “double cut” amounted to 3530 days. For example, the wages for labourer Gooriah was Rs 42.00 for year 1871 for days worked but he received only Rs31.13 after a deduction of Rs 10.87 for “double cut”. Wages as well as rations were very often paid in arrears.
At Constance, conditions were generally harsh though we have not come across any complaint in the report. There was a hospital, which had to be completed in 1866 according to Ordinance 1865 but in 1871 it was described as an old building in palisades with a leaking roof which ‘ought not to have been certified fit for hospital’. A few people attended the hospital, and the very few who stayed were those who did not have families to look after them. Doctors’ visits averaged 4 to 9 per month. Water was obtained from a nearby canal which was usually polluted as labourers also used the canal for bathing and washing.
The estate owners had built kitchens outside the huts on the recommendation of the Stipendiary Magistrate Mr Daly, possibly because of the high risks of fire but they had to discontinue doing so because of general discontent as the labourers threatened to leave the estate. Workers were given one-day holiday for New Year with pay and ration and if they took a second day they had to return it by Sunday labour. They were also one day for ‘Yamsey’ without pay.
A sample of names mentioned in the report were Gooriah, Polyah, Paupiah, Usharigadoo Appadoo, Kistama, Chiniah which suggests that there was a significant number of labourers who came from Andhra Pradesh for this sugar estate and they were most probably the ancestors of many people who carry the same names around Britannia today.
- Published in print edition on 21 August 2015