Letter from John Gladstone, Merchant, Liverpool, 4 January 1836:
“You will probably be aware that we are very particularly situated with our Negro apprentices in the West Indies, and that it is a matter of doubt how far they may be induced to continue their services on the plantations after their apprenticeship expires in 1840. We are therefore most desirous to obtain labourers from other quarters. The number that I should think of taking and sending by one vessel from Calcutta to Demerara would be about 100. They should be young, active and able bodied people.”
Letter from F.M. Gillanders, Gillanders, Arbuthnot & Company, Calcutta, 6 June 1836:
“We acknowledge your letter referring to your desire to procure natives from this part of the world to work upon your estates in the West Indies and to render you independent of the Negro population at the termination of the present system. We are not aware that any greater difficulty would present itself in sending men to the West Indies, the natives being perfectly ignorant of the place they agree to go to, or the length of the voyage they are undertaking. They are docile and easily managed.”
In 1833, slavery was outlawed within the British Empire; but abolition was not yet emancipation. As a concession to the many British merchants whose overseas plantations were run on slavery (all of whom were also financially compensated), a period of several years’ “apprenticeship” was imposed on the former slaves as a transitional measure, during which time the planters turned to indentured workers (“coolies”, as they were commonly known), mostly from India but also from China, to make up for the shortfall of labour.
The indenture system, sometimes called unfree or bonded labour, was both meticulously administered – with detailed records kept for each contracted worker – and notoriously open to abuse. Agents offered false promises, and sometimes resorted to kidnapping. There was high mortality on the carrier ships, which often strategically also carried cauldrons of Ganges water to alleviate the Hindu taboo against crossing the kala pani (black waters) of the open ocean, which was considered to break social ties, and to sever the connection to the regenerating waters of the river Ganges. There was a high mortality also in the plantations themselves: working conditions were sometimes scarcely better than the slavery that the system replaced, and punishments for misconduct included imprisonment, flogging, and extension of the indenture. The system lasted for more than eighty years, during which time indentured workers were contracted not only to British colonies but also, by British arrangement, to other territories owned for example by the French and Dutch. Though indentures were based on fixed-term contracts, many workers never returned home.
Note on Material Men redux
Shobana Jeyasingh’s Material Men, created in 2015, began with a brief biography of its two dancers: Sooraj Subramaniam, schooled in classical Indian bharatanatyam and born in Malaysia, and Shailesh Bahoran, a self-trained hip-hop dancer, born in Suriname – both of whom traced Indian heritage through ninteeenth-century migrant plantation workers. The choreography took this “material” as its point of departure, entwining the dancers’ contrasting styles into the portrait of a resonant encounter.
In Material Men redux, Jeyasingh has taken the same point of departure in a different direction, one that highlights not these characters but the canvas on which they appear: the history of indenture and dislocation through which they trace their presence on the stage. Classical dance comes to evoke the myths and memories of a home that lies elsewhere, while hip-hop brings the undertones of resistance, marginality and invention of migrants in new worlds.
Having invoked this history, Jeyasingh then returns to the choreography of her earlier duet, now presented within the context of a larger picture so that the encounter is not only between the two dancers and the two styles, but also between the currents of the kali pani, the black waters, that flow within them.