Tracing the journey of my great grandfather, an indentured laborer

An undated photo of newly arrived Indian indentured workers in Trinidad.

I love chocolate, ice cream, and — as every Indian — 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 too 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 sadly that my great grandfather was an indentured coolie. He was one of the 1.3 million Indians who were sent as indentured laborers in the 19th 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.

Tracing the journey of my great grandfather, an indentured laborer

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.

As I started sharing my research with family members and friends, I realized that very few people have heard about the indenture system and fewer still are aware of the connections between slavery, the sugar industry, Gandhi and the British empire.

It was a tragic realization that many Indians are not aware of the great contribution that Mahatma Gandhi made to South Africa. Hardly anyone I met knew that he spent twenty one years in South Africa. Also, very less known fact is that his progeny has done immense work in the social sphere in South Africa. It was a blessing to know Mahatma Gandhi’s great grand daughter, Uma Mesthrie, a professor in Cape Town during my search. She graciously allowed me to use some photographs from her collection for my book.

Sadly, in the course of my research, I was shocked to learn that the indenture system is 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. While traveling in the Middle East, I spoke with many laborers, taxi drivers, and common folk in Dubai and Doha. The indenture system of two hundred years ago and Kafala today have many eerie similarities.

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 Gandhi, colonial history, sugar history will surely make this an interesting read.

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Krishna Gubili is the author of "Viriah," available on Amazon. Gubili lives in Easton, PA with his wife and daughter.

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