The South Asian diaspora inhabits several countries and is, in fact, the largest diaspora on the planet. Poverty and persecution forced many to migrate but in equal measure it was the spirit of enterprise that propelled people to a better life not only for themselves but for their descendants.
The abolition of slavery in the British Empire created a serious vacuum in the labour market and the white masters hit upon the idea of ‘indentured coolies’. The British-owned plantations across ‘the black waters’ (in Natal, Mauritius, the Fiji Islands, British Guiana, the Malay states, and the many Caribbean islands) were in desperate need of cheap and willing labour. South Asia, already stripped to the bone by the East India Company, therefore became the natural recruiting region for ‘indentured coolies’.
Much has been written on this subject but most is popular mythology. It portrays the merciless white man and his brown minions as the demons of the human drama and the poor coolies as the innocent and the exploited. As any historian will testify, nothing is ever stark black or brilliant white. History is mostly grey and, confusingly, in several shades of grey.
Basdeo Mangru who currently teaches at the City University of New York, has just authored Kanpur to Kolkata: Labour Recruitment for the Sugar Colonies (Hansib, London). This meticulously researched account dispels many accepted notions such as that the coolies were usually the dregs of Indian society and that they were deviously lured to leave the subcontinent. In Hindustan impoverished Brahmins and Thakurs could not be seen to be performing manual tasks. But overseas they were allowed to be land labourers with impunity. And hence they too became ‘coolies’.
And then there was the sad state of upper caste Hindu widows who were blamed for the deaths of their diseased or dissolute husbands. And since they had not committed sati on the funeral pyres of their patis they were ostracised. Hindus never married widows and these poor women were treated abominably. In fact they still are even today in Modi’s ‘New and Resurgent India’. If you do not believe me please visit the widows’ ashrams in places such as the holy cities of Mathura and Vrindavan in what is now Uttar Pradesh. The older women beg in the streets and by the ghats of the Yamuna. The young ones are often reduced to prostitution.
In Raj times these poor women had to escape and they often told lies and gave excuses just to leave Mother India. We cannot blame the British for this tragic state of affairs.
Professor Mangru relies heavily on the unpublished Report cum Diary of Major D.G. Pitcher, a judge in the Indian Civil Service. Pitcher emerges from what I have read as a fair minded man of considerable integrity. In 1882 he was commissioned to undertake a comprehensive study of colonial recruiting operations in the North Western Province and Oudh.
According to Pitcher the teeming millions of South Asia became the main reservoir of colonial manpower. Throughout the nearly eighty years of organised emigration (1838- 1917) the port of emigration in North India was Calcutta and Madras in South India. North Indian recruits, upto the1860s, comprised principally of tribals from the hilly areas of Chota Nagpur with some indigents from the Calcutta metropolitan area and the TwentyFour Parganas and its environs. Recruiting was later extended to the north west regions and Oudh and the western part of Bengal which became Bihar. By 1882, one-sixth still came from Bengal and Bihar.
There is no doubt that the despised coolies did well. They, both Hindu and Muslim, worked hard and pulled themselves out of poverty via the magic of education. Many are now millionaires and successf ul businessmen. Several are lawyers, doctors, politicians and civil servants.
Pitcher noted that many recruiting agents and sub-agents resorted to subterfuge and corruption and that many agents were Indian Jews. He made valuable suggestions which the government took on board. Worth mentioning here are the views of those who had returned after completing their periods of indenture. Most of them had “nothing but good to say of Trinidad, and had heard that Demerara was even better”. Hindustan, they thought was a “country of thieves and liars”. Their masters in the West Indies were “very kind to their men”. They claimed that American flour was far superior to that sent from India. Also American rice and corn-flour, and salt-fish from Newfoundland were plentiful and fresh fish were easily available.
Pitcher writes: “A well-known result of emigration is that every year witnesses shiploads of emigrants returning, many of whom possess considerable sums of money. It is within my experience, from conversation with various returned emigrants, to say that colonial life, more often than not, works a very remarkable change in rendering them far more wideawake and independent, and less inclined to bow the neck to caste distinction, than are those who are untravelled. The wealth of the returned emigrant often excites the cupidity of his neighbour …. And so, many re-emigrate after a few months, fairly disillusioned with Hindustan.”
It is a tired cliché to say that history repeats itself but after India’s independence and the creation of Pakistan and, in 1971, the creation of Bangladesh, there was a huge West-ward emigration from the entire subcontinent. When Sri Lanka was convulsed by civil war many Jaffna Tamils came to Britain and moved on to Europe and Canada.
The diaspora has done well. In fact, too well and this excites not a little envy amongst the local population. The Sikh langars in London are today feeding homeless whites.