Like most people, I love chocolate, ice cream, and—as every Indian knows—delicious sweets such as laddoos, jalebi, and gulab jamuns. And for most of my life, I rarely gave a thought for how sugar, the key ingredient in all these treats, is grown and manufactured. I most likely would never have thought about it, but for the curiosity about my roots.
As a child, my grandmother told me stories about my great-grandfather – that he went to South Africa, was hardworking, but died poor and in tragic circumstances. I wondered why he went to South Africa and what happened in his life. Unfortunately, there were no records or photographs for me to see. All I had were stories from my grandmother and a lot of questions.
As a youngster, I realized that my great-grandfather was an indentured coolie.
He was one of the 1.3 million (13 Lakh) Indians who were sent as indentured laborers in the nineteenth century to sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean, Mauritius, South Africa and Fiji.
The search for my great-grandfather spanned most of my adult life and only recently after a series of miracles, I found the original ship record of my great grandfather. After a search of more than three decades, I was finally able to piece together my great grandfather’s life and mine.
The indenture journey
These indentured laborers suffered immense hardship on the plantations, working dawn to dusk, six days a week in inhuman conditions.
They struggled against all odds and faced humiliation so that their descendants would have a better life. The indenture life was close to slavery. The farm owners withheld pay and rations at their whim. Coolies were whipped for the slightest transgression and women coolies were sexually harassed.
Today, about 4.5 million people of Indian descent live in these countries, most of whom are the offspring of indentured laborers. Like their forebearers, many of them have worked hard and seen great success in their lives, such as Alvin Kallicharan, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, famous West Indian cricketers, Vijay Singh, the World Number 1 golfer; V. S. Naipaul, the Nobel literature prize winner; and Anerood Jugnauth, former prime minister of Mauritius.
During the course of my research, I was shocked to learn that the indenture system is very much alive even today. In the Middle East, hundreds of thousands of kafala workers from India, Pakistan, and other countries labor in the scorching sun to build gleaming malls, office towers, and stadiums. The lives of laborers haven’t changes much since the indenture days.
This book is an attempt to present a sadly neglected chapter in human history, the story of Indian indenture in the industrialized world. The addendums on Gandhiji, Colonial history, Sugar history and Kafala will surely make this an interesting read.
Book: Viriah: 1.3 Million (13 Lakh) Indians Were Shipped as Indentured Laborers to Sugarcane Plantations in British Colonies to Replace Slaves. My Great-Grandfather Was One of Them. This Is his story.
About the Author
Krishna Gubili was born in 1970 in Hyderabad, India. He lives in Easton, Pennsylvania with his wife and daughter. He is passionate about history, travel, movies and cricket. He is an alumnus of JNTU College of Engineering, Hyderabad and Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow.