Indentureship experience in Jamaica - common suffering of Muslims and Hindus
Dr. Rebecca Tortello

By Dr. Rebecca Tortello
Published on 02/14/2009

On arrival, the labourers were given one suit of clothing, agricultural tools and cooking utensils. Divided into groups of 20 and 40 they were then sent first by mule cart and later by overcrowded freight trains to plantations in Portland, St. Thomas, St. Mary, Clarendon and Westmoreland. Many were forced to walk to the plantation from the nearest railway station. Once on the plantation itself, they were forced to work five to six days a week for one shilling a day and lived in squalid conditions. Barracks of no more than 3 or 4 rooms were expected to accommodate several individuals and families in each room. Two shillings and six pence were deducted weekly for their rice, flour, dried fish or goat, peas and seasoning rations. Children received half rations and employers were warned to treat the children well. For example, they were supposed to receive quarterly medical check ups.

During the 70 years of Indian immigrant labour, little consideration was shown for their religious beliefs and cultural practices. For example, non-Christian unions went unrecognized until 1956 and many were therefore forced to accept Christianity. The terms of indenture could be as short as one year and as long as five, with two weeks annual leave. Labourers could be released from their indenture due to illness, physical disability or in the rare case, manumission or commutation, when the labourer paid the unexpired portion of the contract to their employer. They could only leave the plantation, however, if in possession of a permit. If caught without one or if they failed to work because of ill health or any other reason, they often faced fines and even imprisonment. Many suffered greatly from yaws, hookworm and other tropical diseases such as malaria. Although available, quinine, able to prevent malaria, was not often provided by the planters.

When their indentureships were up, they became known as time-expired Indians and issued certificates of freedom that enabled them free access to any part of the island. Two years later and no earlier, they could apply for repatriation. If they did not do so they became ineligible even though they could only be repatriated after having lived in Jamaica for 10 years. Of course, there was always the other option Ãâ??ÂÂ? to renew their contracts and become "second-term coolies". Few made this choice.