The recent uprising and protests in a large number of White-settled countries in connection with the murder of an unarmed black American, George Floyd, by a white policeman on duty in Minneapolis has re-opened pages of history relating to unequal power, with state-sanction of white supremacy over ‘others’ having a subordinate status.
As history unfolds it, the over-powered acquired slaves from Africa, the indentured labour shipped from tropical Asia, while colonies like India provided the flow of unpaid ‘drain’ of surpluses from taxes collected within them. The pattern of racial dominance seems to have continued, even today, in the incapacitated Geoge Floyd’s choking to death.
One observes the vehement reactions to the murder from the present generation, both whites and the non-whites, mostly from Northern America and Britain. This comes not only with the claim that ‘Black Lives Matter’ but with questionings of repressive policies in the past, with the oppression of slaves in the US and elsewhere, and of labour from the tropics.
The anger is reflected in massive protests by the youth in different corners of the US as well as in Canada, followed by statues being overthrown in the UK. The dismantling of statues included that of Edward Colston in Bristol – the deputy governor of the then Royal African Company which had the monopoly in England, from 1662, of trade in precious metals and slaves along the west coast of Africa.
Colston organised the transportation of 84,000 Africans to different parts of the world as slaves. Well connected to the ruling elite including the royalty, Colston made a fortune and left a mark in Bristol where various buildings continue to bear his name to this day.
Protests in England, spread beyond Bristol to Oxford and London, have been targeting the symbolic presence of the colonial era in the statues of leading statesmen and wealthy traders from Britain’s era of global supremacy. The voices bring to the fore the need for a re-examination of colonial history – the modality of the colonial past engineered by statesmen like Robert Clive, Cecil Rhodes and even Winston Churchill who were rewarded for their successful handling of colonial matters. While this may involve further academic research on issues relating to colonialism, the anti-racism messages, hopefully, will also help in arresting the adversities faced by sections of society identified as the ‘other’ by white communities.
Digging up historical records of oppression, one may very well recall, the slaves in the background of the Civil War in the US, and the British Empire’s colonial past – the details of which may need further study. One comes across the loot of the taxed revenue from colonial India by Britain, the ruling nation, all under the pretext of meeting the so-called ‘home charges ’ to meet overseas expenditure.
As pointed by Indian nationalists like Dadabhai Naoroji, the tribute paid could be characterised as a ‘drain of resources’! One also needs to reckon, in a similar context, the collusion between the secretary of state for India in London and British silver merchants to keep out Bombay silver traders and bankers like Chunilal Saraya from the silver trade for coinage in India. Similar instances of coercion, malpractices and misappropriation abound in the history of British domination in colonial India.
Parallel to the drain of resources, which consisted of the unpaid transfers of revenue from colonial India, there ran a parallel drain from India, which was the flow of indentured labour. This labour was shipped to the British owned plantation islands in Mauritius, Demerara (now Guyana) and Jamaica, to work in sub-human conditions and to fulfil the commercial interests of the British elite owning such estates.
The flow was much needed in the plantations as slavery was banned all over the British Empire by an Act passed in the British Parliament in 1938. Incidentally, the legislation, advanced by the slavery abolition lobby in England, was also motivated by their interest in achieving efficiency by having a ‘free market’ of labour. However, the abolition of slavery, followed by other forms of deploying labour, was far from delivering a free labour market.
As for planters, the easiest way to keep the former slaves attached to the estates was to have them as apprentices over a short period. It was virtually a forced scheme of four to six years for the former slaves above the ages of six and a half – thus in effect a form of compensation to the planters. Moreover, the emancipated slaves were forced to provide over forty hours a week of unpaid labour to their former masters over the six years of apprenticeship. The scheme ended by 1838, largely with the reluctance of ex-slaves to continue as plantation workers.
Indenturing of labour started almost immediately afterwards with a fresh stream of involuntary workforce procured from India. Given the arduousness of the work and the sub-subsistence wages the planters were ready to pay, it soon became apparent that it was only those who were too poor to pay for even their own passage to the islands would accept such employment.
Thus, the planters’ targeted the denser populations of Asia which included those in the poverty and famine-stricken India. “..Importation of East Indian Coolies “, as pointed out by the Royal Commission of Labor (1892), “did much to rescue the sugar industry from bankruptcy”.
The workers were faced with a miserable state in a distant land, having been recruited with no knowledge of the destination or the terms of the make-believe contract. On reaching the workplace, their movements were under strict control with penalties including whipping by cat o’ nine tails to inflict severe punishments. On the whole, the flow of the recruited Indians signified a parallel process of drain from the subcontinent, of people often ‘ignorant’ of the destination or the life awaiting them there.
Voyages to carry labour were organised, amongst others, by the well connected Liverpool merchant, John Gladstone, who was familiar with the earlier slave trade. As an owner of estates, plantations and a shipping company, Gladstone was responsible for initiating shipments of indentured labour from India by using the contact of Gillanders, Arbuthnot and Company in India with a request for the “…supply of 100 young, active, able-bodied” labourers on contract for his estates.
That he was powerful enough to stall a temporary ban on such shipping was evident with his success in persuading Robert Peel. The British administration was very supportive of the indenturing project which helped both investments on those estates by rich people from London and the mercantile trade in processing raw sugar from there.
Power, based on proximity to ruling authorities, has been responsible for using race as a tool for subordination. This is evident in the continuing pattern of oppression, from the colonial era down to the current episodes of brutality in the most advanced regions. Refusal and disapprovals, on part of the current generation, to accept the past, will hopefully help shape a future in harmony with humanity.
Sunanda Sen is a former Professor of Economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. She can be contacted at (firstname.lastname@example.org)