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Documentary Heritage of the Indian Indentured Labourers

Documentary Heritage of the Indian Indentured Labourers

Fiji - The National Archives of Fiji


In the early 19th century three problems came together. British companies had established a huge network of sugar plantations but slavery had been abolished throughout the Empire. A new and plentiful source of cheap labour was needed. At the same time, growth in population in British India, especially in South India, had brought many peasant families to the brink of starvation, trying to live as landless labourers, or else on farms just too small to support them in a bad year. The answer found was to offer free passage from India to where labour was needed, and a guaranteed job when they got there as indentured labourers. Nearly 1.2 million poor Indian peasants took up this offer over the century beginning in the 1830s. In the receiving territories work was hard and pay was low, but there was no threat of hunger. Over time, the descendants of these indentured labourers had an enormous impact on the territories they moved to: in Fiji, indeed, they almost became the majority of the population. In due course, many of these descendants have become political, academic, social and sporting leaders of those territories. This mass migration, the legacy of colonialism, is a major historical event and illuminates many of the most important historical developments of the 19th century, especially within the British Empire. In the receiving territories detailed and comprehensive records on the indentured labourers were kept, giving their personal details and noting where they went to work.

The collection includes records from Fiji from 1879 to 1962, Guyana from 1838 to 1917, Suriname from 1853 to 1946, and Trinidad and Tobago from 1851 to 1917. They allow detailed discussions of this vast mass of indentured labourers and are critical to the history of the territories in question. They are the only official documents available for ancestral and lineage research. The collection was inscribed on the International Memory of the World Register in 2011.


All the records of the indentured labourers in the receiving territories are in good condition and kept in climate-controlled environment. They are under no immediate threat. However, they are heavily used and this implies a long-term threat. A microfilming programme is in place to reduce handling of the originals.


The collection is housed in the National Archives of Fiji, Guyana, Surinam, and Trinidad and Tobago.




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