Legacies: stereotypes, racism and the civil rights movement

Indentured labour from Asia

by Dr Emma Poulter

Indentured labour

Slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1838 but was followed by a period of enforced ‘apprenticeship', which did not end until 1838. Plantation owners, who were generously compensated for their losses on Emancipation, turned to another source of enforced labour to keep their plantations in production: indentured labourers from south Asia. The plantation system remained in operation across the British Empire in several agricultural industries such as palm oil and cocoa production in west Africa.

An article in the special collections at the John Rylands library entitled ‘Treatment of Indian immigrants in Mauritius' by the Hon Stanley, describes the use of indentured labour during the late nineteenth century in Mauritius:

'The whole system of coolie immigration is bad from the beginning... no tinkering will mend it... and the government should learn that it has a higher duty than that of producing 100,000 tons of sugar a year - the welfare of two thousand Indians, who have been brought thither by false promises, whose whole social system, based on the ancestral community, on the restraints of caste and custom, has been broken up and thrown to the winds, while no elevating influence or higher code of education and morals has been substituted for the ancient standards... Commerce has done much for the civilisation of the world, but commerce when the rights of inferior races clash with the developments of industry, is very ruthless.'

Further object and collection based research is needed to shed light on the use of indentured workers throughout the British Empire and the connections to Greater Manchester through the textile trade. It would also be interesting and useful to locate examples of textiles within the collections which illustrate early trade with India, the ‘fourth leg' of the triangular slave trade.