The Impact of Indentured Labourers on Caribbean Society

Indentureship is an economic system that controls every aspect of your life, even social. Indentured labourers were brought into the Caribbean to provide a work force that would replace the African slaves. These labourers were Chinese, Africans again, Whites, Portuguese, Syrians, Lebanese and East Indians, in chronological order. This impacted on Caribbean society demographically, economically and culturally. Places that had no immigration include Haiti, Santo Domingo, Barbados and Puerto Rico while Trinidad and Guyana were excellent for immigration.

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The Chinese were the first indentured labourers to come to the Caribbean. They first came in 1806 because the abolition of slave trade was nearing (abolition of slave trade occurred in 1807) and the planters were afraid to lose their work force. Sugar was also on a decline and so, the Chinese were brought to grow tea as an alternative. Approximately 18,000 Chinese labourers from Canton were living in the Caribbean. The country that was the most successful with Chinese immigration was Cuba which had the largest group of immigrants (34,834 in 1861, which was 2.5% of the population and increased to 3% in 1871). From 1853 to 1879, there were 15,720 Chinese immigrants in British Guiana (now Guyana). In Jamaica, from 1860 to 1893, there were 4,845 Chinese labourers. There were also 500 in Martinique (1859) and 500 in Guadeloupe (1854 to 1887). Unfortunately, this kept failing because transport was very expensive and these immigrants were prone to illness which resulted in a high mortality rate. Also, the Chinese would leave the plantations as soon as possible, in order to establish businesses. However, the planters continued to import them because they wanted to displace the African slaves.
Africans were brought again into the Caribbean since immigration of the Chinese was not very successful. This was an epic failure since the Africans wouldn’t work because they thought that Indentureship was too similar to slavery. It was also obvious that after emancipation, slaves would not have wanted anything to do with the plantations, since they got the freedom that they long awaited. From the time period of 1835 to 1917, approximately 39,000 Africans from West Africa migrated to the Caribbean. Therefore, at this time, the countries would have still been predominantly black and Africans would merge with each other.
This did not sit well with the whites and so, more whites were brought into the Caribbean. From Europe, around 5,000 whites went to the Caribbean and 2,000 were from North America. This was in an attempt to create a predominantly white population and balance out the ratio of black to white. They probably feared that if there were more blacks than whites, the blacks would overpower and gain independence faster. Approximately 41,000 Portuguese from Madeira were also brought for this reason. Cross-breeding of the blacks and whites was forbidden but that did not inhibit these relations from occurring. It can be suspected that they got better contracts because of their race. After their contracts, they would venture out into business opportunities.
Less documented on were the Syrians and Lebanese, as they most likely migrated in insignificant amounts. All of the above peoples had to be coaxed to migrate to the Caribbean as indentured labourers. The only group that had certain push factors was the Indians and so, they had the largest group of immigrants.
The Indians came from Calcutta, Madras and Bombay and 430,000 migrated to the Caribbean. Factors such as the decline of industries, decline of agriculture, caste system, taxation, low wages and mutiny of 1857 were all push factors in India. The rural economy frequently fluctuated and the peasants lost their land or fell into debt or disaster. On the other side, there was the inbuilt hardships endured by some disadvantaged groups, and the inevitable occurrence of periodic drought or famine. The caste system was a very oppressive and inflexible social system. In Bihar, the poor sold their services and their children’s services, known as kamiuti. In South India, pariahs (untouchables), pannaiyals and padiyals (lower castes of agricultural labourers) commonly sold themselves and their children into lifelong debts.
Also prevalent were droughts and famines that would ruin harvests. Early migrants were driven into going overseas, by the severe 1840s famine in Upper India. The emigrants often originated from the most over-crowded districts where crop failure could reduce some villages to near-starvation. In times of drought, poor harvests and a succession of famines, there was intensified distress. Emigration from India depended more on the threat of starvation than on the attraction of higher wages in the colonies.
The impact of British colonial rule on Indian economy and society was variable, and remains controversial. One thing for certain would be the drastic change from an agrarian (agriculturally-centred) lifestyle to a competitive capitalist economy. Under new systems of taxation and land-holding, large local landowners and moneylenders gained legal claims on people to secure debt payments. This led to increased loss and disintegration of land and so, pauperization followed. There were official reports that the largest number of emigrants left Calcutta in 1858, following the Mutiny of 1857. Some of the rebel natives and civilians came to Trinidad.
The sea voyage from India to Trinidad was long and took 3 to 4 months by sailing ship. There was a constant fear of fires at sea and a risk of hurricane, shipwreck, mutiny by the crew and suicide by the migrants. The outbreaks of illness and epidemics of contagious diseases were more prevalent. Since the vegetables and fruits would often spoil, they ate boiled rice which resulted in beri-beri disease, as on the Moy from Calcutta to British Guiana in 1904. There was also inadequate rooming for early immigrants, which had to be expanded in order to reduce the high mortality rates (25% would die).
The indentured labourers were under contract for 5 to 10 years. They were promised repatriation but as this was costly, they were permitted to own land after their term was over, as a persuasive method. They were entitled to a basic wage, accommodation and health care, which were to be provided by the estate owner. Labourers worked on sugar or cocoa estates for 45 hours per week and 54 hours during the crop season. Each day, they got 30 minutes for a break and were assigned to a particular estate. Their wages were supposed to be 30-40¢ per day but they were really paid 25¢ with deductions for food and sometimes they weren’t paid.
Employers were required to provide their indentured labourers with suitable dwellings, in satisfactory condition. The Immigration Ordinance of 1870 gave the Governor power to make regulations concerning the immigrants’ barracks to ensure satisfactory sanitation and cleanliness. Houses were to be properly drained, floored with wood and white-washed inside and out. The best barracks had two rooms (for one family or for three single men). One was a living room, part of an enclosed veranda for cooking, with an earthen fireplace (choolhaa). The floors were boarded, the roofs covered with galvanised sheeting from which rain water was collected. Other barracks were dilapidated and leaking. There were usually no latrines.
The individual estate owner was responsible for maintaining the regulations, but often lapsed. Events in 1910 revealed that the Government had failed to enforce its own regulations. The barrack system of housing on the estates contributed not only to unsanitary conditions, but to social abuses. Robert Guppy’s objections in 1888 remained applicable in 1897 when Alzacar quoted them:
… A family has a single room in which to bring up their boys and girls, if they have children. All noises and talking and smells pass through the open space from one end of the barrack to the other. There are few places for cooking, no latrines. The men, women, boys and girls go together into the canes or bush when nature requires. Comfort, privacy and decency are impossible under such conditions.
The needs of the sugar industry brought the Indians to Trinidad and other colonies. As a late-developed plantation colony, Trinidad lacked labour and population at the time of the Emancipation of African slaves. During the 1850s and 1860s, the Indians comprised one of several streams entering Trinidad. The number of British West Indians was equal in numbers to that of the Indians. In 1861, Trinidad’s immigrant population formed nearly one-half of the total, and its impact was important.
Firstly, the immigrants increased the labour supply to the estates. This, together with the inducement of improved market prices, contributed to the increased output of export staples. By 1859 the estate labour force had increased to 17,000 or 19,000. Productivity was higher, although the land used had not increased. Output which had declined markedly after Emancipation, now increased and then overtook the levels obtained during slavery. By 1860, recovery in sugar production could be attributed most directly to the input of Indian labour.
At this time, education would have been available only because there was an adequate labour supply and so, indentureship (mainly Indian) opened up job opportunities. Other immigrant groups were steadily withdrawing from agricultural labour. The Portuguese had become largely urban-based, as shopkeepers or shop assistants. Most Chinese were also small shopkeepers, many in rural areas, with a few engaged in market-gardening or provision growing. The educated West Indians provided a significant proportion of the professional, clerical and skilled working groups (the teachers, clergymen, public officers, druggists and nurses).
Another impact would be that the islands would become more culturally diverse, with Africans, whites, Portuguese, Chinese, Indians and other minorities. Every different race had its own lifestyle and language which merged to form our different dialects. The mixing of religion, races and cultural practice also took place. Another impact would include the introduction to rice growing, especially in Trinidad and British Guiana.
All of these impacts can be seen presently and were more positive than negative. Immigration and Indentureship, on the whole, helped races live and work together in order to create a more civilized society where all races can be treated as one.

Moravian Missions through the Caribbean and West Indies

Religion is an important aspect of many people’s lives throughout the world. Not all beliefs are widely accepted and due to this intolerance, religious persecution has occurred at different times in history. Moravians are no stranger to this type of thought as many viewed this religion with tremendous skepticism. This holds true during the many travels of Moravian missionaries to the West Indies and the Caribbean as they spread the word of Christ and the teachings of founders Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf and Spangenberg. These missionaries were active in a transatlantic approach to the spiritual unity of Moravian communities scattered throughout the Caribbean islands and maintained a consistent set of beliefs through worship and conversion.

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As the development of the Moravian doctrine began to take shape, Zinzendorf’s leadership in the eighteenth century had the Moravian community looking outside of its borders for the first time. Prior to the stabilization of life in Hernhutt, the primary focus of community leaders was to ensure the survival of the Moravian Church. Zinzendorf and his Moravian missionaries had seen great success in areas such as Holland, England, and America which, in part, helped to give credibility to what the Moravians were doing, but why would he choose to expand all the way to the Caribbean?
The idea of missions first came in 1731 when Zinzendorf was introduced to an African slave living in the Virgin Islands, along with two Greenlandic Eskimos, all who had been converted to Christianity. Zinzendorf was no stranger to the idea of travel to the East and West Indies thanks to the stories he heard as a child from his grandmother who would read about the East Indies and the activity of the German Pietists in the area (Hamilton 40). This never left his mind and only inspired Zinzendorf, especially “as a boy in Halle, Zinzendorf had met some of these men in person, and what he learned of these experiences had inspired the founding of “The Order of the Grain of Mustard Seed”. The Count never lost this interest in the unevangelized parts of the world.” (Hamilton 40).
These encounters as a young boy provided the foundation, but the words of Anthony Ulrich is what motivated the church to mobilize and begin to take action. Ulrich, “a former slave from St. Thomas then in the country, was invited by Count Zinzendorf to make a plea for missionaries to be sent to the West Indies before the congregation of Hernhutt” (Furley 3). He spoke of his brother and sister, Abraham and Anna, and their desire to hear the Gospel. “If only some missionaries would come, they would most certainly be heartily welcomed. Many an evening have I sat on the shore and sighed my soul to Christian Europe” (Hutton 17). To Zinzendorf, this was nothing short of a message from God. One of the most interesting statements made by Ulrich during that meeting was that “no one could possibly preach to the slaves unless he first became a slave himself” (Furley 3). This urgent appeal to Zinzendorf from Ulrich about the spiritually deprived slaves in St. Thomas was the final deciding factor for the launching of the first mission.
After hearing the words of Ulrich, a man named Leonard Dober was touched, intrigued, but also distressed about these slaves who have no way of hearing the words of the Gospel.
Dober and another man, David Nitschmann, “a carpenter and established church leader” (Richards 59), were selected to be the first missionaries to make the difficult journey to St. Thomas. They arrived on the shore of the island on December 13, 1732. Remembering the words of Anthony Ulrich, Dober and Nitschmann attempt to sell themselves into slavery in order to reach those already enslaved. However, a Dutch law that was in place prohibited the enslavement of white people. They were able to find work and a place to sleep as a Dutch planter hired them to complete work on a house.
As soon as they had the chance, both men set out to find the brother and sister of Anthony Ulrich and eventually found them on the south side of the island working on a plantation. Both were pleasantly surprised to hear from their brother in Europe, but even more amazed to hear Dober’s stories discussing the Savior. Although they had a difficult time understanding the words of Dober who spoke a mixture of German and Dutch, they gathered family and friends together in order to hear the promise of good news from Christ the Savior and give their lives to him.
This spiritual awakening among the slaves continued to spread like wildfire throughout the different plantations on the island. This was not readily accepted by the plantation landowners and they made their displeasure known in their actions. Many slave owners beat their slaves for attending any Moravian meetings and would take all their books away if they were caught learning to read. However, none of this would deter the enslaved men and women. In fact, the crowds that gathered during the evening to hear the teachings only grew larger.
One way the Moravian missionaries were able to reach the ears of those enslaved and spread the word of the Gospel was through the help of a woman known as Rebecca. Detailed in the book Rebecca’s Revival ​ ​by Jon F. Sensbach, it is her strength and unwavering dedication to the overall Moravian mission that enables two Moravian brothers, Friedrich Martin and Matthaus Freundlich, to “travel along the road in an aggressive recruitment drive for souls”(Sensbach 73) also known as “The Path”. Martin noted the extraordinary leadership Rebecca displayed by writing in his journal in 1737, “Rebecca is a very diligent worker, when I am out in the countryside, she takes my place so that the Brethren don’t have to look after the Negro women which they do not want to do. The Lord is with her and grounds her heart in faith. It is a serious duty for her to spread His word.” (Sensbach 76,77)
Another island the Moravian missionaries would reach was that of St. Croix. A count from the Danish court petitioned the Brethren at Hernhutt for men who could act as overseers to his recently purchased six plantations, but also have the opportunity to teach the enslaved men and women about Moravian beliefs (Hutton 61). Zinzendorf was skeptical of this opportunity, believing that this dual role would create conflict and not allow the missionaries to do what they were sent to do. The chance to spread the word of Christ and preach to slaves was too much to resist and Zinzendorf felt as if the risk was worth taking.
However, St. Croix would prove to be much more difficult than anyone had imagined. The selected eighteen colonists, fourteen men and four women, set out for St. Croix but their boat was forced to dock in a port of Norway due to weather. More than half a year went by before their journey resumed and many died while on St. Thomas for twelve weeks before departing for St. Croix. Only half of the original eighteen made it to St. Croix but they were stricken with a fever and were unable to perform their missionary duties. Reinforcements arrived in 1735 in the form of eleven people, but four of the eleven died within two months of arriving which caused the whole mission to be abandoned.
It had been more than a century after Jamaica became a territory to be owned by the British that any attempt would be made to send a mission to the island. The Moravian mission to Jamaica was founded in 1754 by Zacharias Caries, Gottlieb Haberecht, and Thomas Schallcross. Two wealthy landowners, William and John Foster, owned land in Jamaica but lived in England and invited the Brethren to bring their teachings of the Gospel to the slaves that worked on their sugar plantation. It was on this seven hundred acre plantation run by the Fosters that the first mission station, Carmel, was established. The Moravians would eventually open four more mission stations on the island, but the early years of the missionary effort did not go well.
Religious conversions were slow, possibly due to the strenuous daily work on the sugar plantations which left many who worked in a state of absolute exhaustion. Or it may have been due to the strict requirements if one was to convert. For example, the practice of the selling of slaves would almost always tear families apart, notably husbands and wives. Moravians would allow these slaves, torn from their husbands or wives remarry, but only if there was no chance they would be united with their original partners. Also, the climate and constant fear of fever wreaked havoc on the population, especially the missionaries who had come to the island hoping to preach the word of the Gospel.
A journal written by J.H. Buchner, who was a missionary in Jamaica for fifteen years, documented just how much the Moravians sacrificed in order to try and help many of the slaves in their salvation to Christ. He notes that, “Of the sixty-four brethren and sisters who died in the service of the Jamaica mission, there was only one who lived to endure the severity of the service for nineteen years! Since the commencement of the mission, 193 brethren and sisters have been engaged in the work- sixty-four have died on the island, 98 have returned home, or were called to labour in other islands, and thirty-one are now engaged in the service here”(Buchner 21).
He also provides a first-hand account of just how hard it was for those enslaved to have any time to attend any of the missionaries’ teachings; “When, or at what time, could a missionary labour among these people? One or two hours during the week were allowed to the slaves to attend his ministry, and when they had returned home at night he might be seen making his way through their houses, sitting down with them by the fire while they cooked their evening meal, conversing with and teaching them”, (Buchner 33). He also goes on, expressing his frustration at the rigorous work the slaves must endure. An example of this frustration as Buchner explains it, “How could a man with sensitive feelings, with a heart full of love, endure this?” (Buchner 33).
Although the Moravian missionaries did not necessarily agree with slavery, they were hesitant to bring this up as it would lead to more complications and ultimately lead to them being ostracized from the island or even being put to death.
Moravian missionaries traveled to many other small islands in the Caribbean as well as the Eastern and Western Indies. On the island of St. Kitts, they were able to establish the town of Bethesda in 1819 with well over two thousand people as members of the church. There was also consistent progress on the islands of Antigua and Barbados. In Antigua, work began on a new station called Newfield with church membership numbers swelling to over seven thousand within the congregation. One thing that seemed special about Antigua over all others was the attitude toward slavery by the British Parliament in regards to their adoption of the first Emancipation Act on August 28th, 1833. This act, in part, would have seen a number of years pass before a slave could be trusted with complete freedom. “However, the government was so convinced of the fitness of the Moravian Negroes on Antigua-more than ten thousand in all- that the act included a special clause permitting emancipation to take effect on that island the following year,” (Hamilton 253). Barbados saw the same level of popularity so, much to the delight of the brethren, the Church was able to acquire eleven acres of land in order to establish a new station named Sharon in 1794. This was the only Moravian congregation on the island.
Moravian missionaries did not receive funding from their home church. In efforts to become entrenched amongst the indigenous, local culture, they employed a strategy of missions in which they worked within the local community to make their own living. Zinzendorf felt it paramount that his missionaries earn their own money in a society in order to teach others the dignity of work. Funding for their missionary work only came from the work they did. This approach to foreign missions gave its users a multifaceted benefit of, first, helping to stimulate the local economy by creating industry and jobs, and, second, providing a bridge with the local people in which to develop relationships and trust in order to present the Gospel.
Missionaries were active in a transatlantic approach to the spiritual unity of Moravian communities scattered throughout the Caribbean islands and maintained a consistent set of beliefs through worship and conversion. The missions vision of Count Zinzendorf paved the way for this small refugee community to alter the landscape of cross-cultural evangelism as it devoted its existence to global outreach. By the end of the eighteenth century, Moravian settlements and mission stations had been established in Germany, the Netherlands, England, Ireland, Greenland, Labrador, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, North Carolina, the West Indies, and on the African coast of Guinea. Their vision was to create a transatlantic network of like-minded communities which formed the center of the Moravian missionary efforts. The strategy to conduct this type of undertaking was not a project to be taken lightly. From its base back home in Europe, there was a great emphasis placed on cohesion amongst the Moravian’s established missions communities throughout the transatlantic region. Within each settlement, there was deliberate standardization in styles of worship, social organization, and institutional administration. Great importance was placed on communication and interactions between the leadership back home and the isolated missionaries, allowing the Moravians to function as a tight-knit community even though many of its members were separated by thousands of miles.
The missions and missionaries of the Moravian church still hold an enormous amount of relevance in today’s times.
Works Cited
1.) Furley, Oliver W. “Moravian Missionaries and Slaves in the West Indies.” ​Caribbean Studies​, vol. 5, no. 2, 1965, pp. 3–16. ​JSTOR​, ​​.
2.) Hamilton, J. Taylor, and Kenneth G. Hamilton. ​History of the Moravian Church: the Renewed Unitas Fratrum, 1722-1957​. Interprovincial Board of Christian Education, Moravian Church in America, 1983.
3.) Sensbach, J. F. (2006). Rebeccas Revival​ ​. Harvard University Press.
4.) Hutton, Js Emsl. A History of Moravian Missions​ ​. Moravian Publ. Off., 1922.
5.) Buchner, J. H. The Moravians in Jamaica. History of the Mission of the United Brethrens​ Church to the Negroes in the Island of Jamaica, from the Year 1754 to 1854. Longmans, 1854.