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History – Mid-19th Century

Indentured labour and the coolie system

Slavery was gradually replaced by the system of indentured labour. This took many forms, some not too different from slavery.

An overseer might, for example, assemble a gang of workers, lend them money and then take them overseas and make them work to pay off the loan. Or the indentured workers might have signed a contract in their own country, to work for five or more years abroad. But some people were simply kidnapped.

Indentured workers, also known more derogatively as 'coolies' came chiefly from China and India but also from the Pacific. From about 1830 onwards they went to British colonies in North America, Africa and Asia, as well as to French, German and Dutch colonies around the world. They also went to the United States and to the newly independent countries of Latin America. The total number of men, women and children sent abroad may have been as many as 37 million.

Conditions on the voyages differed little from those on the slave ships. In 1856/7, the average death rate for Indians traveling to the Caribbean was 17%. Working conditions were harsh and wages were low. Those who survived did at least have the option of going home when their contracts expired. Of the 30 million who left India in the century following the official end of slavery, about 24 million returned. The descendants of those who stayed make up a significant proportion of modern-day Indian communities in the Caribbean and East Africa.

From the end of the eighteenth century the indentured labour system, like slavery before it, was steadily abolished.

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Indentured workers in Trinidad
Indian indentured workers in Trinidad. Source: Project Gutenberg.