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Digital History ID 3294

 

During the 19th century, demand for manual laborers to build railroads, raise sugar on Pacific Islands, mine precious metals, construct irrigation canals, and perform other forms of heavy labor, grew. Particularly in tropical or semi-tropical regions, this demand for manual labor was met by indentured or contract workers. Nominally free, these laborers served under contracts of indenture which required them to work for a period of time--usually five to seven years--in return for their travel expenses and maintenance. In exchange for nine hours of labor a day, six days a week, indentured servants received a small salary as well as clothing, shelter, food, and medical care.

An alternative to the indenture system was the "credit ticket system." A broker advanced the cost of passage and workers repaid the loan plus interest out of their earnings. The ticket system was widely used by Chinese migrants to the United States. Beginning in the 1840s, about 380,000 Chinese laborers migrated to the U.S. mainland and 46,000 to Hawaii. Between 1885 and 1924, some 200,000 Japanese workers went to Hawaii and 180,000 to the U.S. mainland.

Indentured laborers are sometimes derogatorily referred to as "coolies." Today, this term carries negative connotations of passivity and submissiveness, but originally it was an Anglicization of a Chinese work that refers to manual workers impressed into service by force or deception. In fact, indentured labor was frequently acquired through deceptive practices and even violence.

Between 1830 and 1920, about 1.5 million indentured laborers were recruited from India, one million from Japan, and half a million from China. Tens of thousands of free Africans and Pacific Islanders also served as indentured workers.

The first Indian indentured laborers were imported into Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean, in 1830. Following the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833, tens of thousands of Indians, Chinese, and Africans were brought to the British Caribbean. After France abolished slavery in 1848, its colonies imported 80,000 Indian laborers and 19,000 Africans. Also ending slavery in 1848, Dutch Guiana recruited 57,000 Asian workers for its plantations. Although slavery was not abolished in Cuba until 1886, the rising costs of slaves led plantations to recruit 138,000 indentured laborers from China between 1847 and 1873.

Areas that had never relied on slave labor also imported indentured workers. After 1850, American planters in Hawaii recruited labor from China and Japan. British planters in Natal in southern Africa recruited Indian laborers and those in Queensland in northeastern Australia imported laborers from neighboring South Pacific Islands. Other indentured laborers toiled in East Africa, on Pacific Islands such as Fiji, and in Chile, where they gathered bird droppings known as guano for fertilizer.

Steam transportation allowed Europeans and their descendants to extract "surplus" labor from overpopulated areas suffering from poverty and social and economic dislocation. In India, the roots of migration included unemployment, famine, demise of traditional industries, and the demand for cash payment of rents. In China, a society with a long history of long-distance migration, causes of migration included overpopulation, drought, floods, and political turmoil, culminating in the British Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856 and 1860) and the Taiping Rebellion, which may have cost 20 to 30 million lives.

Overwhelmingly male, many indentured workers initially thought of themselves as sojourners who would reside temporarily in the new society. In the end, however, many indentured laborers remained in the regions where they worked. As a result, the descendents of indentured laborers make up a third of the population in British Guiana, Fiji, and Trinidad by the early 20th century.

Some societies, such as the United States, passed legislation that hindered the migration of Asian women. In contrast, the British Caribbean colonies required 40 women to be recruited for every 100 men to promote family life.

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