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African-Indian relations

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By Ravi Dev

Enslaved Africans on a Dutch sugar plantation

Some insist it was Indian Indentureship that caused African Guyanese to move off the sugar plantations, by undercutting their bargaining power. The reality is more nuanced. There is no question the planters introduced indentured labour because they wanted cheap labour or face closure. In Guyana, the planters feared the freed enslaved Africans would move off the plantations because of the availability of land for self-employment. In islands such as Antigua and Bermuda, where there was no alternative, the planters didn’t even introduce the “apprenticeship” transition period, but gave the slaves immediate “freedom”.
Since the later 19th century, many African leaders in Guyana opposed Indian immigration for several good reasons, not the least being that taxes paid into the Government coffers (of which a considerable sum came from African pockets) were used to partially fund the cost of bringing the Indians to Guyana.
But it was not Indian labour that broke the back of African attempts to wrest higher wages from the planters. Rather, if labour were to be “blamed”, it was more the Portuguese and, ironically, fellow Africans from both the W.I. and Africa, who played key roles. The ex-slaves called the strike of 1847 at a point of financial crisis for the planters, who, encouraged by the indentureship of 15,848 Portuguese, 12,898 Africans from the W.I., and 6,957 Africans from Africa, compared with only 8,692 Indians, held off the demands for higher wages. People of African descent outnumbered all other immigrants during that critical period of “undercutting” wage demands by the Guyanese ex-slaves.

Portuguese cutting sugar cane

After another strike in 1847, the unskilled ex-slaves, by and large, decided to make their living off the plantations. Even though Indian indentureship was suspended between 1848 and 1851, there was no movement back to the plantations by the Africans, nor was there any increase in the wage scale. The removal of preferential tariffs into Britain for WI sugar in 1846 ensured further cost cutting. Yet, freed Africans from Barbados and the smaller islands migrated to British Guiana, where the wages were higher.
The Portuguese first arrived in 1835, during the “apprenticeship” period of the freed slaves. Their immigration continued until 1881-82, with the bulk arriving by 1858. The Portuguese died in considerable numbers, as did the Indians. In the key years of 1846-47, when the efforts of the Africans to raise wages ultimately failed, we should note that 9736 Portuguese arrived, as opposed to 7480 Indians. In terms of work output, the Portuguese were even more industrious, and earned more than Indians. Those Africans who decided to work earned more than either.
The analyses of history by eminent West Indian historians such as Drs. Eric Williams and Walter Rodney (among others) do not lay blame on the immigrants – whether Portuguese, Indian, Chinese, West Indian or African – who were all indentured. Blame was laid on the working of the labour, legal and political systems imposed by the British to extract their labour at the cheapest price.

The post African-Indian relations appeared first on Guyana Times.

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