Though empires abolished slavery in the Caribbean islands during the 1830s, their move to the model of indentured servitude wasn’t much better. From 1838 to 1917, western European governments transported over 500,000 Indian indentured servants to work on their plantations in the Caribbean. Some were brought unwillingly and others consented to their servitude, however, most servants were not made aware of the horrific conditions and treatment that they would face. Really, the “indentured servitude” model that colonizers granted Indian laborers was a fancy word for slavery.
In that same time period, on January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This declared that enslaved individuals in the Confederate States had been freed; freedom for all enslaved people would come only after the ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865. Unfortunately, even a document as official as the Emancipation Proclamation was flawed.
Though Texas was a Confederate state, the power balance between the state and federal governments meant that Texas’ leaders could decide if they wanted to put the document into effect. Finally, on June 19, 1865 – hence the term “Juneteenth” – 2,000 Union troops invaded Galveston Bay, Texas, officially declaring freedom for all enslaved Texans. Therefore, “Juneteenth” is technically in reference to the day that Texans gained freedom; however, it nevertheless marks the last individuals that needed to gain freedom for a free country.
Two centuries later, Juneteenth just became recognized as a federal holiday in the United States. July 4th may stand as the country’s day of independence from Great Britain, but Juneteenth stands as the country’s second independence day in recognition of freedom for all citizens.
Similarly, India may be politically independent, but colonization still manifests itself in subtle ways. In fact, Raja Masood, an associate professor of postcolonial literature and theory, notes that “children are still taught to write an application using words and phrases that endorse a colonial mentality such as “Yours obediently” or “Your obedient servant.” Think of the word “boss” commonly used in the Caribbean and Asian communities. How about the titles Maiam (Madam) and Saab (Sir)? My English professor said, “Don’t call me sir, call me Mike.” Students in India and Pakistan are communicated with primarily in English and almost every school teaches the language as if it’s their native tongue.
Classism and casteism were amplified outcomes of colonization in India. In fact, the stratification and division that colonization brought to India pre-Partition, remains part of Indian ideology and society. Colonization has, also, pushed Indians to disassociate from Black people. The British, having created stratified structures, pit minorities against one another, “us” versus “them,” and unlearning this behavior has been harder than learning it.
June 19th, recognized as the day that slaves gained their freedom, also recognizes that Black people are still fighting for equality and justice. The murders of Black Americans such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are clear signs that anti-Blackness is ever prevalent and detrimental in society today. As Indian Americans, how can we use our riddled history to empathize with the plight of minorities in America?
Inter-minority division feels illogical. We often talk about the atrocities that slavery and colonization individually brought, but what we recognize less are the parallels between them. These parallels are proof that hegemonic institutions have inflicted trauma on a range of minorities. The treatment, which both the Indian slaves and African American slaves endured, was horrendous and, unfortunately, very similar. The governing bodies of both India and the United States exploited people for their own benefit.
Bibee Zuhoorun was one of the many laborers who was made to work in the Caribbean. She shares her testimony in an ongoing investigation on the India indenture trade. Zuhoorun says, “the injustice meted out to fellow labourers – a story of overworked men subjected to ill-treatment and corporal punishment. Labourers were often confined within plantations and denied wages if they refused to work. She felt stuck in a foreign land.” Zuhoorun was one of many.
Women were kidnapped off of the streets in India and brought to the Caribbean islands for the Indian male laborers. Kalyani Srinivas, a resident of the Bay Area and a person of Indian-Trinidadian descent, emphatically states, “Isn’t it a travesty that history misrepresents the blatant slave trade of Indians to the Caribbeans. My great-great grandmother was 16 and holding her child in India when she was taken forcibly by the British to Trinidad. She was brought as incentive for indentured male workers.”
Sexual harassment was a common occurrence and Zuhoorun didn’t receive wages for 2.5 years of her labor. Britain profited largely off of the East India Company and did more harm than good; the British ran the company logistics and financials, and Indians did not get authority nor benefits from the company.
Contrastingly, I note the words of Fountain Hughes, a slave who was interviewed in 1949 and whose words have been archived by the United States Congress. His story is long, but he emphasizes the idea that the slaves were alone, and the conditions they existed in were not worth living for. He says: “we, no more money, but course they bought more stuff and more property and all like that. We didn’t have no property. We didn’t have no home. We had nowhere or nothing. We didn’t have nothing only just, uh, like your cattle, we were just turned out. And uh, get along the best you could. Nobody to look after us. Well, we been slaves all our lives.”
Worse of all is the similarity in the devastating number of casualties that both races faced. An estimated 35 million in casualties is said to have come from the irresponsible rule of the British in India and at least 17 million people died as a result of slavery/slave trade. Both times, abuse of power took the lives of millions of innocent citizens. Both times, these casualties were avoidable.
Our shared narratives have been erased, omitted, and forgotten in written history. Let us remember that Indian-Americans are not far removed from their history of slavery and colonialism.
This year has brought about obstacles for the AAPI community. In fact, AAPI hate is plaguing our society, and in standing up for the AAPI and Black community, we create a united front – one that is stronger than any individual alone.
Juneteenth is a day to celebrate the freedom of African American slaves, and for Indian-Americans, it is a day to reflect on our ancestry and shared trauma to empower others in our community.
Ayanna Gandhi is an 11th grader at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, California. She has a deep interest in writing and reading but also enjoys politics, singing, and sports of all kinds.
Srishti Prabha is the Managing Editor at India Currents and has worked in low-income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.