1838 Calcutta Inquiry on Export of Indian Labourers
By Vijay I. Ram
“… that coolies and other natives were induced by misrepresentation and deceit practised by native crimps, styled Duffadars and Arkotties employed by Europeans and Anglo-Indians, undertakers and shippers, … and who were most cognizant of these frauds and who received a considerable sum per head for every coolie exported.”
It was in those damning words that Chairman T. Dickens Esq, a senior member of the Indian Judiciary, concluded the Royal Inquiry on Indian Labourers held in Calcutta in 1838. He presented his findings to the London government on the 16th October after having heard testimonies from returning Coolies, Planters, Shippers, Agents, the Police and other distinguished members of the civil society in Calcutta.
The painstaking inquiry which ran over two months of daily sittings scrutinised specific areas of complaints from a broad spectrum of public opinion, especially from the still very militant anti-slavery movement and the Protestant clergy both in India and England. The British government was in a significant way pressurized to review the indenture system that was meant to replace slavery which was on its way of being phased out as an economic system. But was it a more just system, or was it only a replacement of the previous mode of exploitation of labour, as would very much have preferred the colonial planters!
The Inquiry unearthed an evidence-based unscrupulous sub-economy where middlemen and intermediaries were found operating schemes on how to dispossess the little hard-earned money left in the pockets of the coolies. That system to further impoverish the immigrant community was carried out on board ships under the nose of European shippers and agents. Relics of that old economic architecture have survived two centuries, it would seem, and may still be felt today in the country’s political and socio-cultural lives.
The abolition of slavery saw hundreds of thousands of workmen gradually disappearing from the cane fields; the plantocracy found itself suddenly with an acute deficit of labour and a consequent drop in production output. The shortage of sugar, the precious ‘white gold’, not only almost quadrupled the world price of sugar, but more importantly it started threatening the market, trade and investment, thus the entire colonial economic and financial systems.
Something had to happen, and had to happen quickly!
The Dutch-Spanish planters in the Americas and the West Indies, some of whom combined with British investments, those in Africa and India, and the French colonists in the Indian Ocean and Mauritius, were all demanding quick actions. The fields had to be manned!
The abolition of slavery only made it unlawful to engage in human trafficking, it did not suddenly demolish the organic structure and mechanics of the recruitment, shipment and trade of the evil practice. The Duffadari system was very much present and available for those in need of its customs.
The ducking and diving in terms of jurisdiction allegiance of the local Mauritian colonists after the French Revolution, the beginning of the Napoleonic era, the capitulation of Ile de France to British administration and the abolition of slavery made the coincidence of juridical transition and the regulating of Indian Indenture very difficult to manage politically.
The Duffadari system
Agents, middlemen and brokers have always existed in any business where a commission is guaranteed in the end, and this did not defy the rules in the trade of human trafficking. Slavery in India was at its most prominent during the Sultanates of the 12th and 13th centuries when the trade was mostly under the ‘Vannias’, traders and money lenders from the Paarsi regions of the Balouchi and Sindh. It is said they were very active during the Carnatic wars of the mid-eighteenth century and scattered through migration and stayed in the Arcot province of the south-east, after the French lost the last Carnatic war and thus some got to be known as Arkotties. In Assam, they were literally known as human traffickers.
Some later joined the British army as part-time soldiers to quash anti-independence rallies or would have served the Nawabs as tax collectors. And the less scrupulous ones were engaged by colonial planters as agent-recruiters of migrant labourers. Enjoying the respect of having worked for the state, they had the facility of trust from those in quest for a job. With the post-slavery shortage of labour in the Mauritian cane fields and the devastating effects left behind in those Indian regions badly affected by recent droughts, there was a crying economics of supply and demand for the new ‘main-d’oeuvre’.
During the very beginning of the Indian Indenture labour period, as early as the 1820s, Arkotties were acting as the main agents of Duffadars and they would go to local Mofussils, Perwanahs and Zillas and ‘recruit-cum-kidnap’ people from very poor regions, especially those with very little education, among the Dhangars (Hill Coolies) of the Bhojpure region for example. The Duffadars were employed on commission by shippers and local planters from the colonies and would receive their rewards in Rupees per head.
The following are the exact words of the chief of Police and Superintendent of Calcutta, Captain F.W. Birch testifying to the Inquiry:
“…I have heard of a Darogah (another low rank police) in Zillah Burdwan, on the high road, who gets one roupee per head for each coolie.”
“They are told by the Duffardars that they will be well paid, well fed and that they would not have to cross the ocean. I know of a woman who was made intoxicated, shut in a box and carried across the Esplanade. Kidnapping prevailed in a very great degree in the lower provinces of Bengal.”
And on further questioning, the Police Chief stated he was aware that:
“This trade has been going on for well before the 1837 Act, I would say even before 1834, may well be I believe at least 15 years previously.”
Poor people mostly from the United Provinces of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were induced, conned and deceived into leaving their homes and loved ones under the false pretence of ‘a job in Calcutta’. There was overwhelming evidence among the first exported coolies clearly decrying their outrage when they got to know they had to cross the ocean. The fear of their firm and entrenched faith beliefs that they would somehow lose their caste, thus their religious status, would have deterred them from engaging.
Shri Dwarkanath Tagore, an esteemed industrialist of the Bengal region, told the Inquiry:
“…the lower classes could easily be influenced by village Gomasthas and Mundels, or any other notable and influential panchayat people, but they would only go as far as Calcutta. Never further down the river. They were too attached to their castes.”
“The Dhangars have worked for me before, they would only accept to stay eight months, never longer as they would die to go back to their families. Knowing them, they would never sign a contract for five years,” Shri Tagore emphasised.
The recent changes of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in agriculture, land, taxation and administration laws under the Cornwallis and Vernon reforms, made the migration (pravasi) of landless farmers an easy prey to Zamindars. Farmers were suddenly transformed into wage earners and it became fairly common for pravasis to leave home for work; they would travel thousands of miles to feed their families, but they would not go overseas!
“I’ve lost my caste, even my mother won’t eat or drink from my hands anymore, Sahib. Even if I have to starve or beg, I won’t go back to that country of slaves again,” Bibi Zuhoorun from Bowaneepur told the Inquiry in tears.
Kedgeree, the melting pot
The banks of the Hoogly would have witnessed much of the traffic denounced earlier, but not more so than the old river port of Kedgeree which could be described as the melting pot of all sorts of dark businesses, a shadow economy. Kedgeree is situated some sixty miles further downstream from Calcutta at the river’s estuary, where the Haldi and the Damodar meet between Diamond Harbour and the Sagar Island. That old port offered smugglers their last opportunity, before they set sail on the ocean proper, to embark unregistered or unlisted coolies.
There were tragic accounts of desperate natives throwing themselves overboard as soon as they realised their embarkments were now to start navigating the unknown ocean, or in their vain attempt of catching some drinking water while still on ‘fresh’ river waters.
Captain Edwards of The Christopher Rawson: “I took 40 coolies off Kedgeree. They were brought by the clerks of Messrs Henley, Dawson and Bestel, the shippers. We waited until Kedgeree to fill water and we were provided by a Monsieur Rousseau who owned a private tank and made a small charge for it.”
To a question as to whether he was using salt water in food preparation, Cpt Edwards replied: “…the crews always mix salt water when boiling the rice. I believe it does the rice good.” He also admitted of cutting all the coolies hair indistinctly of being a man or a woman: “Yes because of cleanliness, it was not healthy to have hair a yard long, not good for their health. Some protested on religious ground!”
“Apart from 40 men who boarded with me in Calcutta, all the other 250+ coolies were embarked at Kedgeree.” Dr Abdullah Khan, the native doctor of the ship Captain Edward disclosed with clinical disapproval: “They had only one quart bottle each day, they drank half of it and filled the other half with salt water. The water was of poor quality and looked foamy like beer!”
John Hughes, one of the suppliers/shippers was probed to admit that “…we sometimes, when the ship has not made up her lot of coolies, have to make a stop at Diamond Harbour (opposite Kedgeree) and some more are added up by the Duffadars”. Captain Garrioch Mackenzie of the Cavendish Bentick added that “100+ joined further away. We had 16 deaths among which 8 jumped overboard” on its trip of October 1836. And that they even had to collect some more coolies at Fultah Harbour.
The poor medical facilities were also decried by witnesses. A native doctor who could obviously speak and understand the language of the coolies was told to step aside by the ship Captain who decided he was to dish out medicine himself. To save on medicine, they were only giving glisters enema to the sick, even to those suffering from dysentery and stomach cramps. There were numerous reports of people being given inadequate food and water, of being given excessive salt and tamarind intake to compensate proper food and people being whipped and sent under decks as a punishment.
A shadow economy
Duffadars, Arkotties and Chawkidars made themselves busy in quest of their quota of coolies inland; Topassies, Bhattearas, Farrangis and Serangs dealing in dark businesses on board ships; Overseers, Gardiens and Sirdars on plantations, they all combined to make up a class of intermediaries ready to cash in on the little money of the coolies.
The planters saw to it that prospective coolies could be lured into the contract by being given a cash advance in hand and they were to receive the equivalent of six months wages up front. That was seen as an attractive bait for middlemen to jump on and draw as much as they could from it. The labourers were kept in Calcutta and sometimes ‘badged and bangled’ in captivity for as long as six weeks to two months before embarkment. The Duffadars would charge for their upkeep and money would be deducted among other things from the advance money of the coolies.
Karoo Boodhoo from Arrah recalled: “I registered for a French gentleman whose clerk was Anundoo Mittre. I stayed another month at Beerbul in Bowaneepur and was told I must go to Mauritius. From my advance money they took Rs5 for dustooree, Rs5 for lota, thali, Rs10 for kapra and Rs7 for Duffadar’s accommodation charge and they took other deduction and I was left with only Rs3.”
Whatever little money left over after all the deductions would now be ‘taken care’ of by other actors of this emerging shadow economy. On board the ships a black market was overtly encouraged and a commerce of alcohol, drugs, prostitutes and gambling took place under the nose of the crew. Topassees, Farrangis and Bhattearas (later to be known as Batiaras) would provide for those desires of men having to cross an unknown ocean sometimes lasting as long as two months, and the little money they had would be all gone by the time they reached the shores of that foreign land.
“Several women were brought on board, and some of very bad character, …some two or three Bhattearas were dealing in bhang and other articles and a woman of loose character in prostitution. There was commerce of parched rice, biscuits, sweetmeats and regular complaints of robbery”, told Mr James Smart, the Master Pilot of the East India Company to a question of the Chairman.
On the plantations, coolies unanimously complained of their money being cut for sickness and on the pretence of keeping it for hospital cost and their return journey (la monnaie bateau).
“Mme Lachiche of Batassie only gave her coolies Rs3 and told them they would receive their full Rs5 after two years. She kept eight annas for ghee money,” recounted Boodoo Khan, an ex-Sepoy who was initially recruited as Sirdar but ended up being offered work as a labourer. He refused and paid the price of having to go into confinement for two and a half months before being shipped back to Calcutta.
Apart from complaints of not being paid at all by some planters on pretexts of sickness, absenteeism and police/hospital costs, the overwhelming account was one of unregulated fraud bordering on theft. The Chairman Dickens commented on the so-called return passage in these words:
“At a rate of Rs1 per month, the owner is drawing a premium of Rs60 for an assurance risk of Rs10. The extra money is never returned to the coolies.”
Findings and Recommendations
The Calcutta Inquiry found that the trade of Indian labourers to Mauritian sugar establishments had existed well before the end of slavery, even decades before 1834. There was a well-established system, involving unscrupulous traders, shippers and agents from Mauritius, the UK and India itself, to deny the coolies of their human rights, their dignity and in some case of their earned labour. They also found that the forms of recruitment, shipping, lodging, food provision and pay were far below what could be considered as humane. They condemned the legitimised form of appropriation of coolies’ money through a form of check-off for hospital cost, the Police and return passage (that would survive decades in the form of ‘la monnaie bateau’).
As they were asked to state what would be the necessary or probable consequences of resumption of the coolie trade and to suggest the fitting measures to adopt in the event of re-opening that trade, the Commissioners had these recommendations to make:
- There should be an inter-government convention to cease the right of other foreign powers to export labourers from India.
- At least one third of immigrant labourers should be female.
- To prohibit all other ports except a selected few.
- Should be appointed at these ports: A Chief Superintendent and Purveyors and an Examiner to ensure the provision of food and other necessities before embarkment.
- To prohibit all private vessels and for Doctors to be recruited only from the Royal Navy.
- All regulations to be embodied in an Act of Parliament and by local legislatures.
- To declare null and void all contracts preceding the new Act.
- All agents of importers to be appointed by government.
- Government services to decide when to declare immigration open and to inform the Zillahs, who should be involved in the recruitment procedures.
- Stop all cash advances and planters to deposit a premium of Rs30 per head as a security to government.
- Passage money back to India to be managed by government.
Fraudulent and dishonest
Coolies from those distant villages of some poor states of India did not all emigrate willingly. The conclusion of the Inquiry was unequivocal: there was an oppressive system involving unscrupulous people using a financial bait and other false promises to lure people into leaving their homes.
The nominal advance cash allowance of Rs30 to the coolie “was a source of fraudulent and dishonest gain to all subordinate agents engaged in the export.” Intermediaries of all descriptions were engaged to rip off those poor labourers of that money; they would operate in those forlorn provinces of India as much as on-board sailing ships and on the plantations in Mauritius.
There were reported cases of kidnapping, inducement and imprisonment of coolies by ruthless people using that small pecuniary ‘incentive’ as a coercive means no less than as a gun barrel to the throat!
Passes and registers were readily accommodated to satisfy the target figure and peoples’ religious and cultural identities were singularly denied with utmost ease and complete impunity.
Protesters were sent below deck because they refused to be ill-treated or simply because they urged for more food or water, sometimes at the risk to their own lives. Some preferred to jump overboard rather than bear the humiliation!
The Inquiry was unambiguous on the cause as they saw it:
“Should that advance money be stopped, the end of the business would entail as it seems to be the mainstay of the trade!”
Shortfall of authorities
The findings of the Royal Inquiry on Indian Labourers also touched on other issues of significant importance:
– If the coolies were made aware that they were to go overseas and for five years, it was probable that not one of them would have agreed to go.
– There was inducement and deceit to bring people from their villages on the false pretence that they were to get public road work or as gardeners and porters in Calcutta.
– A big majority of the uneducated coolies were unable to understand the terms of the contracts they were to get into.
– Despite the good intervention of the Police, the coolies were led to believe that they would be liable to penal consequences if they expressed dissatisfaction at being sent on board ships.
– Money advances and charges were carried out without evidence of accounts being kept for inspection.
– The local Police in Mauritius was not accessible to complaints from the coolies and that Magistrates in Mauritius were not disposed to enforce the terms of their contracts, especially on items like food and pay.
– Regulations on sugar plantations in Mauritius closely resembled imprisonment within their boundaries.
– A lot of coolies exported from Pondicherry and other southern ports were still being sent to French colonies e.g. Bourbon Island where slavery still prevailed.
– The hardships and miseries endured on board pushed some coolies to jump overboard and the rate of deaths was estimated at 10%
We need to read the testimonies, findings and recommendations on the 1838 Inquiry with a progressive and constructive frame of mind. Armed today with the benefits of hindsight, we are surely in a more privileged position to weigh between the benefits and deficits of movements of peoples in general and the Indian Indenture in particular. While some of us will rightly acknowledge the massive social mobility of the descendants of indentured coolies, others will also meditate on the social and cultural ‘what-ifs’; but the overwhelming truth remains that social change will follow the course and contours of its historical dialectic and to borrow the well-known motivational quote from the American civil rights activist, Maya Angelou so often cited by the late Nelson Mandela himself:
“If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you are going!”
* Published in print edition on 2 November 2021
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