Living the Legacy of Indenture from Mauritius to Guyana from South Africa to Fiji



The Indian diaspora formed by the indenture system (and its French equivalent, “Engagisme”) is almost as vast as the British Empire itself. It was crucial for us to commission this epistolary dialog between three descendants of indentured laborers in Guyana (María Del Pilar Kaladeen), South Africa (Sumayya Vally), and Mauritius (Gitan Djeli) about diasporic commonality and the shared experience of this legacy. They are accompanied in their exchange by the work of Fijian-Australian artist Shivanjani Lal.

María ///

Between 1834 and 1917, under a system called “indenture,” Britain transported over one and a half million Indian men, women, and children from the Subcontinent to other parts of the British Empire. Conceived and implemented in Mauritius and the Caribbean as a response to the abolition of the use of enslaved labor, the system of Indian indenture later spread to Fiji, Malaysia, South Africa, and beyond. While indenture was intended to continue the cheap cultivation of sugar, the products that indentured laborers worked later included tea, rubber, cocoa, and coffee.

The abolition of indenture in 1917 arguably had as much to do with the fact that it had outlived its usefulness, due to the growth in the manufacture of beet sugar, as it was related to any humanitarian awakening on the part of the British or as is frequently claimed, pressure from the “Jewel in the Crown” over the treatment of Indians overseas.

By the time it was terminated, the system had left Indian diasporic communities in countries on five continents and had helped to facilitate the transport of Indians to French and Dutch colonies like Guadeloupe and Surinam. Despite its reach and cruelty, British children and young people are not taught about indenture in schools and the system is rarely acknowledged in museums and cultural institutions in the U.K. This is indubitably because its presence in 19th century history disturbs the preferred narrative of an Empire that abolished slavery, rather than one that attempted to forge a different system from its ashes.

Indentureship was not slavery; it was however defined by coercion, brutality and carcerality. The level of connivance and deception involved in the process of recruitment means it should be referred to as a form of unfree labor.

In recent years, the descendants of the system of indenture have been able to find fruitful and creative communion with each other across the Indian indentured labor diaspora. In 2018, the first anthology of writing by descendants of indenture from across the former British Empire was published and, in 2022, an exhibition in New York united diasporic artists from across the Caribbean.

Lal Funambulist 1
All artworks by Shivanjani Lal. Yaad Karo means to remember, to stitch together and piece fragments of history for both collective and individual remembrance. Yaad Karo (1879-1920) records histories of migration that link Shivanjani Lal to the Girmitya (indentured labor) communities of India and the Pacific. Using shipping documents and personal artifacts to record the experiences of Indo-Fijian Girmitya, Lal hand-stitches a series of imagined journeys. The source map from a 1960s school atlas centers Australia within these oceans, acknowledging the role of Australia as a colonial partner within these histories.

Dear Sumayya,

In my work I use this phrase, “indentured labor diaspora,” although I don’t think it adequately represents the way that it can sometimes feel as though we are all family to each other.

In the noughties, in the middle of my PhD, I traveled to Mauritius. A gentleman came to our room when we complained the shower wasn’t working. He fixed the shower and invited us to his village to meet his mum and the panchayat. He had spied my books on the way into our room: “From Guyana,” he had said, “then we’re the same people.” He was right. Not in the way that scholars talk about the fact that most of the recruits came from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, and how this makes us the same; but correct in the sense that all of us grew out of a mishmash of Indian communities and landed in places where we met others from elsewhere. In my family, there are stories from Nepal, Madras, and Bihar. The way that we came together like this—in Trinidad, South Africa, Fiji and Malaysia—is what makes us “the same people.”