Colombo Telegraph

Indian Plantation Workers Overseas: Introduction & Malaya

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

Recently, as a result of articles relating to Professor C. Suntharalingam, there has been mention of the Plantation workers. As a student of Literature, my interest has not been in broad, impersonal, happenings but, rather, on ordinary folk who experience and endure history; not on law-makers but on those at the receiving end of laws and statutory changes: as Thomas Paine urged in his Rights of Man, governments (and people) must be taught humanity. The approach here is primarily through literary texts. Most of what I have written on the Plantation workers is collected in my Sri Lanka: Literary Essays & Sketches from which the following essay is taken. At the request of the Editors, the article has been broken up into three parts. Readers are reminded of the Marxist phrase, “commodity fetishism”. For example, pictures of tea-leaves being plucked almost invariably show women smiling brightly, in bright sunshine, wearing bright clothes, healthy and happy. Poverty and wretchedness can excite contempt rather than compassion and conscience.

“We have taken

Too little care of this.”

(King Lear 111. iv.32-33)

The slave trade in Africans is perhaps the worst blot on recorded human history, given (a) the trade’s duration, (b) the numbers involved and, above all, (c) its appallingly cruel nature. The effects of the trade persist in various forms into the present, not least in the presence and experience of Africans now native to the United States and the Caribbean. Ironically, the trade has been enabling in that it has generated numerous studies, autobiographies, memoirs and fictional works, the last not only by Africans (Toni Morrison, Caryl Phillips and others) but also by non-Africans: for example, Barry Unsworth’s ‘Sacred Hunger’, Graeme Rigby’s ‘The Black Cook’s Historian’ and the Indo-Guyanese-British writer, David Dabydeen’s ‘A Harlot’s Progress’ (See, Sarvan, ‘Paradigms of the Slave Trade in Two British Novels’, International Fiction Review, vol. 23, 1996.)

The exodus of Indians, voluntary or otherwise, to labour on British plantations under the indenture system, some heading East to Malaya and further to Fiji, others West through the Suez Canal (opened 1869) to the distant Caribbean, was a newer form of slavery, but it has not drawn the attention of researchers nor inspired writers as much as the “trade” in Africans has done. This article examines some of the available work. I regret I have been unable to trace primary material from Mauritius, but I am sure others will fill in this, and other, gaps. The title specifies, “Indian” because many Chinese also went, or were taken, as coolies; “plantation” because Indians who slaved other than on estates were also derogatorily known as “coolies” – don’t visit Colombo harbour, for it is full of sweaty, smelly coolies (see Part 3, ‘Works Cited’: Carl Muller 1993, 19) – and “overseas” because “coolie” exploitation featured within India too: see ‘Works Cited’ for Mulk Raj Anand). Why the indentured labourers themselves haven’t left a substantial body of literature is not difficult to understand: most were illiterate, work was exhausting, housing squalid and they were segregated, trapped within the confines, physical and mental, of the plantation. No doubt, there were songs expressing their suffering and their longings; their yearning for a distant home made attractive by immediate misery, by time and distance, but these songs appear not to have been translated into English. I fear most are lost even in their original languages.

Historically, the African Slave trade and the system of indenture are linked in that it was the emancipation of the slaves in the nineteenth century that made Britain look to its teeming Indian possession for replacement labour. As with Africans, the descendants of Indian “coolies” now form part of the population of certain countries, leading, in some cases to racial attacks: Guyana in the early 1960s and Sri Lanka ever since independence in 1948 with the departure of the British who had introduced Indian labour into the Island. “In 1964, a few years before independence, racial clashes took place on an unprecedented scale… [For example] at Wismar… hundreds of East Indian residents were attacked and killed. The men and children were locked up in their houses which were then set afire. The women and young girls were raped, mutilated and then dumped in the river to die” (David Dabydeen, ‘Slave Song’ 1986: 46). To cite recent examples, the year 2000 saw increased tension in Mauritius between Indians and “Creoles”; parliament in Fiji was stormed and its Indian Prime Minister taken hostage by Fijian “nationalists”; and in November (so-called) “Indian Tamils” in Sri Lanka were attacked in various towns and four youths held in a rehabilitation centre, murdered by a mob which was allowed entry and incited by the security forces, the latter being drawn almost entirely from the majority group. In short, the effects of the British indenture system persist: indenture is not ‘history’ in the popular sense of being over and done with.

As the Africans before them had done, the Indians under indenture contributed to Britain’s wealth. Writing in 1859 about Mauritius, Patrick Beaton describes emaciated, scantily-clad wretches with miserable, melancholic expressions, and then reflects that these wretches are “the secret source of all the wealth, luxury and splendour with which the island abounds…. There is not a carriage … or a robe of silk worn … to the purchase of which the Indian has not, by his labour indirectly contributed’ (See Select bibliography: Beaton 11). The novel, The Last English Plantation, by the Indo-Guyanese writer Janice Shinebourne, states it directly: it is because of the “coolies” that some became rich and enjoyed a privileged life-style. The wretchedness in appearance of the “coolies” Beaton refers to was the product of poverty, of cramped and unhygienic living conditions; the result of the nature and duration of their labour. In contrast, Chandrasekhar (see Select bibliography) cites seventeenth-century descriptions of Tamils brought from India to work in Mauritius as artisans: a gentle, sober, and thrifty people (p. 13).

Simple folk who had not ventured outside their village, boarded ships and sailed thousands of miles to foreign lands of which they knew nothing; had not even the haziest notion of where they were geographically situated. The moment they signed, they became captives, degraded “coolies”; and when they crossed the kala pani, the dark waters (in the1870s, the voyage from Calcutta to Jamaica took about twenty-six weeks), they lost their caste and, with it, their sense of place within a cohesive social structure. The etymology of the derogative term ’”coolie” is uncertain. It may have been derived from the Tamil word for wages or from the Chinese, k’u, meaning bitter, and li, strength. Demand (in this case for labour) itself does not always create supply, and the chief factor accounting for the thousands of Indians who emigrated as indentured labourers was poverty at once both extreme and hopeless. The peasants at best managed subsistence living, and floods or drought meant starvation and death. In Kamala Markandaya’s novel, ‘Nectar in a sieve’, Rukmani’s sons leave for the tea estates of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka): “There is nothing for us here, for we have neither the means to buy land nor to rent it” p. (68). The mother grieves, and the young men speak soothingly to her, as one would to a child, telling her how much they would earn and that, one day, they would return. Even as they speak, mother and sons know it is a “sham, a poor shabby pretence to mask tortured feelings” (68). She never sees them again. Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable (1935) and Coolie (1936) convey something of the caste-based degradation and exploitation experienced by the poor within India itself, while his Two Leaves and a Bud (1937) describes and indicts plantation life in India, a prison though without bars where the workers must abnegate their selves in order to endure toil and humiliation. But poverty was not the sole factor impelling Indians to go abroad. Many were tricked into making the voyage and, later, some were also tricked into staying on: Sheik Sadeek of Guyana (see Part 3, ‘Works Cited’) describes a farewell party for “coolies” returning to India at the end of their period of indenture. There is plenty of alcohol and, in the morning, the coolies find to their dismay that they have placed their thumb-print on a document that indentures them for another five years. Others were threatened and forced into making the voyage, but there were also those who went abroad because they were enterprising, and were determined to fashion a better life for themselves and their children. A few women accompanied their husbands: the rest were a miscellany : those who, for one reason or another, had incurred the displeasure of their family or the opprobrium of their community, and women who had failed to get married, were barren, who could no longer endure conditions at home, and those who had been coerced.

Malaya. From earliest times, the Bay of Bengal was a highway of communication between India and Malaya but these contacts arose from mutual need and were of mutual benefit. However, with the establishment of rubber plantations in Malaya by Britain, India supplied not goods but labour, that is, human beings. The nineteenth century saw the breakdown of India’s traditional economy, and the consequences of this caused many who were innately conservative and immobile to emigrate (Arasaratnam). The Malay himself was unwilling to “abandon his fields, milieu and way of life in order to submit to the sweated toil of the estates” (see ‘Works Cited’: Tate, p. 151) – something which can also be said of other countries to which Indian labour was imported. In the Caribbean, the newly, emancipated African was not going to take on the yoke of another form of slavery. Malayan rubber companies found the Indian worker to be amenable to discipline (a chilling euphemism), docile and unused to collective bargaining. In short, they were ideal material for gross exploitation. D.J.M. Tate records that until almost the end of the nineteenth century, a labourer was not supplied with rice (his staple food) unless he was fit to work. It was a practice which condemned the sick and the disabled to a lingering death (Tate, p. 169).

K.S. Maniam is the writer who testifies best to the experience of the indentured Indian coolie on the rubber plantations of Malaya, particularly in his novels, The Return (1993a) and In a Far Country (1993b). I will deal with these two together because the latter begins with the experience of the new arrivals on the plantation and moves forward into contemporary Malaya, while the former, in chronological terms, fits into the 1950s (Malaysia gained independence in 1957). Rajan, in Far Country, pieces together something of the history of his taciturn father. The latter had been told stories by his father, stories from the Hindu epics of heroes who ventured into foreign lands untrodden by human feet, of those who walked through sandalwood-scented forests. Desperate to escape from the suffocating coils of poverty in India, Rajan’s father decides to dare, and makes the voyage. The contrast between epic adventure and the indenture system sharpens the sense of betrayal and defeat:

The ship we came in was crowded and foul. The hulls were rusted. When I drank water from the taps there was only a taste of rust. And the human dung – all over the place. The men not even closing the door. The door too rusted to be closed. The women with the saris over their thighs, to hide the shame. Sometimes no water even to wash, to flush away the human filth. (Manian 1993b)

Realising that they have been deceived and now were trapped, Rajan’s nearly ­deranged mother slashes at the rubber trees. “Brought to ‘wound’ the rubber trees so that the injured sides bleed their profitable sap (from which rubber was manufactured) they themselves become wounded beings, their bleeding enriching imperial capitalism” (Works Cited: Sarvan 1996a, 68). The father remonstrates: “You want to cut up something … cut me up. Yes, I brought you to these trees. Made you their slave. Put the wounds on me” (Manian 1993b, 41). Defending himself, the father says, “I tried … But people can be wrong … The price has to be paid. I’m paying it with blood… We suffered there in India. Now there’s only suffering. No escape like the last time” (Manian 1993b, 7). Attempting to escape, they find that they have fallen into a ravine infested with insects (Manian 1993b, 7). There are other casualties, such as the traditional Hindu woman who withdraws into herself and mutely dies, and Muniandy who worked in the plantation’s smoke-house. Once he retires, he is ejected from his hut, sleeps on the cement side-walks outside shops and is kicked by the irate Chinese shopkeepers. Reduced to rubbish, his body finds final rest “beside the huge furnace where the town’s rubbish was burned” (Manian 1993b, 22). The experience of the aged, use-less, coolie in Sri Lanka was no different:

They rot and linger

In a workless waste …

Their hearts uprooted

Thrown on the dust;

With a tin for beggary

A staff for support

Await the final hour

To cast their weary limbs

Underneath the tea

To the tom-tom’s throb. (Velupillai 1957, 11.)

The Return, like Far Country, is a first-person narrative (with a strong autobiographical element). Though not set on a plantation, its presence is felt, and its effects persist – indeed, at one point, the family is forced by circumstances to resume work on the plantation. Ravi’s father makes a living by washing clothes, beating them against stones, and ironing with a coal-fired iron. His was an effort to break free from the plantation and set up his own business, but the “imported” plantation economy misshapes and stultifies the growth of a balanced economy, and the ex-coolies have little or no scope. For example, the carver with his wonderful, “story-creating chisel” (Manian 1993a, 4) is unable to make a living and must fall back on physical labour. Poverty brings with it the curse of debt, for the coolies on arrival are already in debt to the kangani (recruiter, foreman, often the man who had brought them over from India) or to the planter. Writing about coolies on Sri Lankan estates, Hugh Tinker states that around 1917, the average debt of a coolie was Rs 70, while the debt owed by some was as high as Rs 200. The highest salary then was Rs 10 a month (179-80). The debt position in Malaya was worse: the coolie owed money to the planter and to the ‘ganger’ (tindal or mondal) who blackmailed him, made false claims, and took from “coolie” families the little they had. Ravi’s father, Kanna, is regularly visited by a moneylender who teases, demands, threatens and takes. Plantation-inculcated behaviour persists, and the men who harshly exact respect and obedience from their families are servile towards those of a higher standing – “humble, waist-bending, eye-averted’ (Manian 1993, p. 76). Families lived in close proximity, and adults were often dragged into the quarrels of children, first the mothers and then the fathers. Frustrated, unhappy and despairing, the men turned to alcohol, to the toddy tapped from the ubiquitous coconut tree, creating the image of the “coolie” as “an inveterate drunkard” (Arasaratnam 70). Debt, deep frustration, arduous work, unwholesome living conditions, hopelessness – these led to alcohol; and drink, in turn, to violence. “I was suddenly lifted from the floor and flung against the cups, plates and jars on the kitchen table” (Manian 1993a, 32); “my father caught [my stepmother] and … choked the curses in her throat. All around, the children wailed. My sister… went into an uncontrollable spasm” (Manian 1993a. 86). Defeated by imperial capitalism, the father mutters “Useless! Useless!” and dies a crazed man, talking a mixture of languages which makes no sense. The linguistic confusion is metonymic and points to his total bewilderment. Kannan’s futile goal, like that of his mother, was to own a piece of land, as if by that ownership he could claim a “place” in the country to which he had emigrated – even as Old Thom in an Indo-Guyanese novel dreams of going back to “his” paddy fields (‘Works cited’, Lauchmonen 1965). Ravi detaches himself from this tragedy, from this doomed destruction, and forces himself to be somewhat selfish. If not, he too will go down – and make no difference to the life of his family. His sacrifice would have been a gesture, and no more. The title of the novel can be read as Ravi’s “return”, his restitution, an attempt to make the pain of his people known to posterity.

 A Far country, as already stated, takes the reader forward into contemporary Malaysia, a country of over nineteen million with Malays comprising approximately sixty-one percent, the Chinese about twenty-eight percent and the Indians eight percent. Nationalism in some countries

loses its meaning of different peoples fusing over time to form a nation …. Instead, what rears its ugly head is “ethnic nationalism” (less euphemistically, “racism”), and its hatreds and rejections. Those of one racial group assert that they are the natives, the original inhabitants; that they, and only they, constitute the real or authentic nation. The notion of many truths, of a plural authenticity is not countenanced, and so … to be a nationalist is to be a “racist,” and vice versa. (Select bibliography: Sarvan 1996a, 69).

As Arasaratnam observes, in Malaya the ideal of non-racial politics cannot be pursued because “racism” is entrenched as the very basis of political organisation (120); it is politically and socially accepted, and the different ethnic groups are encouraged to think of themselves as separate entities (198). Yet, India is a far and foreign country to Rajan, as it was and is to other (Indian) descendants elsewhere: Indo-Guyanese writer, Mahadai Das, asks doubtingly, if I go to India, will I find my ‘self’? (47). And Naipaul describes the feeling of being out of place, particularly felt by those grown old: “They were living in Trinidad and were going to die there; but for them it was the wrong place” (20). Thus having freed himself from the servitude of indentured labour, Rajan finds himself discriminated against and rejected by the majority group of the only country he knows, the country he fondly (both in the earlier and present meaning) had thought was his “home”. Foreign commercial interests have left him becalmed on a shore which is unwelcoming, amid a people who would subordinate and reject him. Similar feelings of alienation and pain have been experienced by the so-called “Indians” of Sri Lanka and, according to Sivanandan, Sri Lankan Tamils in general: It has been said that the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils has been no different: “Ever since independence successive Sri Lankan governments have done everything… to render the Tamils a separate people, and inferior – and then cried out against that separation when the Tamils embraced it”. (Race & Class, 1984).

To be continued..


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