Posted on March 12, 2024

Caribbean Countries Say UK Must Pay Reparations for ‘Indentured Labour’

Craig Simpson, The Telegraph, March 11, 2024

Caribbean nations are set to demand that Britain make reparations for indentured labour in addition to slavery, in a major expansion of the campaign to address colonialism.

Countries that have pushed for payments on slavery are now planning to seek reparative justice surrounding the 500,000 indentured workers shipped from India to work on sugar plantations after African slaves were freed.

Under the indenture system, workers agreed to work for a set number of years in exchange for a pay-off at the end, such as land or a return passage to their place of origin, but most never returned after being duped into their bonded labour.

Exporting indentured labour to the Caribbean was pioneered by Sir John Gladstone, a 19th-century landowner in British Guiana, and father of William Gladstone, who would become prime minister.

Guyana, as it has been known since independence in 1966, received the most indentured labourers of any Caribbean colony, and its leaders are in favour of fresh action to secure reparations.

President Mohammad Irfaan Ali told The Telegraph:  “All those nations that benefited from abominable systems need to do the morally right thing and to accept their complicity in historical wrongs.”

He said leaders were “prepared to examine” the issue of “the atrocities committed under Indian indentured immigration”.

‘History is on our side’

Mr Ali believes the push for reparations will be successful, saying:  “There is a growing awareness in both Britain and in many European capitals about the need for reparative justice. History is on our side, and we are also on the right side of history.”

He said his government would work with other Caribbean nations and “continue to raise the issue of reparative justice whenever we are afforded the opportunity to do so”.

While Mr Ali is “convinced that there were grave atrocities committed under Indian indentured immigration”, he made clear “that these cannot be compared with the genocide against indigenous peoples and African enslavement”, which was a “crime against humanity” and would remain the focus of Caribbean campaigning.

Guyana is one of 14 member states within the Caribbean Community (Caricom), which has sought reparations from Britain and other former colonial powers. It has recently pivoted to a plan to demand payments from businesses and institutions connected to slavery. 

Caricom, which is chaired by Mr Ali, previously set out its formal demands in a 10-point plan detailing why and in what form slavery reparations should be given, from apologies to payments and debt cancellations.

In 2014, this was put to European governments that have not offered any redress to date. David Cameron ruled out reparations in a 2015 visit to Jamaica, highlighting Britain’s role in eliminating the slave trade, and Rishi Sunak rejected calls for reparative payments in 2023.

The Telegraph has learned that this list of demands is currently being updated to include indentured labour, with the formal document set to be put to Britain and other former colonial powers.

Heads of government in the Caribbean will then help to decide the best way to lobby Britain and other countries for reparations.

Indenture came with basic freedoms and pay, and pulled in labour from Portugal, Ireland and China as well as India.

The issue is distinct from chattel slavery, under which African slaves were treated as property with no rights, no pay and no prospect of freedom from their bondage.

Because of these differences, it has been suggested by some sources that using Caricom’s existing infrastructure of slavery campaign groups may be inappropriate.

Indentured labourers were bound to agreements to work for a set amount of time, and while they were paid, the use of so-called “coolies” was brutal and known in the 19th century as “a new system of slavery”.

Sir John Gladstone’s aim was to replace slave labour following abolition taking effect in 1834.

Slaves faced a period of “apprenticeship” until 1838, during which time they remained tied to the land as a source of cheap labour for planters.

As this date approached, Gladstone wrote to friends in the Foreign Office in 1837 and obtained permission to recruit “hill coolies from Bengal” to work his land – a replacement for slave labour which was taken up by other planters across the Empire.

In 2023, his descendant Charles Gladstone travelled to Guyana to offer a formal apology for the practices of his great-great-great grandfather.

Indentured labourers were largely recruited from the illiterate Indian peasantry, often without knowing what they were signing up to, and shipped to the Caribbean where they faced years of hard labour, disease and a lack of basic rights.

More than 200,000 East Indian labourers went to Guyana under the indenture system, and the largest ethnic group of its modern population – 39 per cent – is now of Indian descent.

Indentured labour was also used in other colonies, including South Africa, where young lawyer Mohandas Gandhi, later conferred with the honorific “Mahatma”, would first make his name campaigning successfully against the system which was officially abolished in 1917.