Human Writes: In Malaya, indentured plantation labour was practically slavery

Indian workers newly arrived in Trinidad in 1897 under the indentured labour system. — Public domain

For as long as I can remember, in every circle, in every country that I’ve lived in, there was always a preference for – or even deference to – lighter-coloured skin. Put it this way, there weren’t any circles where people wanted to have darker skin.

The desire for fairer skin still persists everywhere. Despite health concerns, there is a massive global multibillion-dollar market for skin whitening products – and it’s big in Asia. An Indian woman’s eligibility for marriage can depend on the exact hue of brown skin.

Such toxic thinking has to be challenged. One exasperated Pakistani woman is doing just that with the campaign “Dark is Divine”. On June 19, 2020, American multinational corporation Johnson & Johnson pledged to stop selling skin-whitening creams and on June 25, 2020, British-Dutch consumer goods company Unilever said it will drop the word “fair” from its Fair & Lovely cream. The moves come amid a global movement challenging colourism and racism, galvanised by the death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of a white policeman on May 25, 2020.

The movement has opened an old, unhealed wound that cuts deep into humanity’s skin. It’s a wound caused by centuries of white condescension and vilification of brown skin, of slavery and colonialism. It’s a wound that still festers in today’s world, where a white minority dominates and controls so much global wealth, power, institutions and ideas.

Now, the slave trade is under examination in Britain. University College London is tracking companies with links to the trade. Venerated institutions have shown contrition. On June 17, 2020, the Bank of England apologised because former governors had links with slavery. On the same day, insurance giant Lloyd’s of London pledged to financially support projects for minorities in recompense for past ties with slavery.

Men once elevated are now scorned in the post-George Floyd world. Recently, protesters pulled down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol while slaveholder Robert Milligan’s statue was removed from the London Docklands. After thousands protested, Oxford University’s Oriel College removed its statue of the Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes. Britain’s conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper bemoaned the college’s “capitulation” and complained universities are “hot-beds of political correctness”.

Well, let me tell you about Rhodes. He “founded” (actually, seized) Southern and Northern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia). He named the colonies after himself and gave them to white farmers. Rhodes believed the English were “the first race in the world” and despised Africans. He made it an offence for an African to have a skilled job and denied Africans the vote – in their own country.

This man stood for Empire, white dominion and exploitation – so no, he doesn’t deserve veneration.

Physically removing such statues challenges views of race and colonialism. It is symbolic that men who were once symbols are being brought down. Websites such as Topple the Racists are tracking such figures, and I expect more statues will come down.

In Belgium, a statue of former King Leopold II was removed in Antwerp while another had red paint thrown on it to signify the blood of millions who died under his rule in Congo Free State. Leopold was said to be extremely cruel, even cutting off the hands of locals working on rubber plantations if they were not productive enough.

Belgium has not dealt well with its colonial past. Neither has Britain. There has never been a systematic re-examination of colonial history or the teaching of it in schools, unlike the way Germany has confronted its Nazi past. Past surveys show most British people think favourably of the empire.

Unfortunately, the revived focus on the slave trade in Britain has not extended to its empire. There has been no mention of the Indian coolies sent all over the empire, including Malaya, to work in slave-like conditions on plantations. This issue, the focus of my last column ("When will Indian lives matter?"), which seemed to touch a nerve – thanks for the letters received! – has long been overlooked.

When slavery ended in the British Empire in 1833, some planters moved elsewhere, including to sugar and coffee estates in Province Wellesley, Malaya. But significantly, plantation life did not change much – evidence of the similarity of both systems.

“The plantation way of life survived from the 18th into the 20th century, with very little change, ” says Hugh Tinker in his 1974 book, A New System Of Slavery.

The indentured system locked Indian labourers into a form of wage bondage that was little better than slavery. Death and disease were rampant. Of the survivors, some were left as destitute “bags of bones”; others returned to India as “sucked oranges”. With a supply of steady labour, there was no need for innovative methods or machines. Everything was done with the human hand, points out Tinker. Hard work was extracted through “penalties and punishments”, including the cane, or a cattle whip in the West Indies and Natal.

It is high time that this history is finally given due attention. Perhaps the companies that previously profited greatly on the backs of indentured labour will finally give back dues owed – if only as a token gesture – to the Indian community.

Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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