Immigration Schemes

After the abolition of slavery, planters throughout the British Caribbean complained that they were unable to cultivate sugar without a reliable and constantly available labour force. They believed that free labourers were likely to be unreliable unless they could in some way be coerced to work when the planters demanded them. Their demand for immigrant labour was supported by the Colonial Government. In 1840, after the initial withdrawal of labour by women and children, the Assembly was encouraged to enact an Immigration Bill to enable St. Vincent to receive Africans from captured slave ships and from Sierra Leone.

Africans were the first immigrants to arrive on a government-sponsored scheme. There was initial concern that a large number of Africans would have a negative influence on the local population. Migrants from Madeira first arrived in St. Vincent in 1845. Although they were imported through private schemes, the local Legislature voted to pay bounties on each person that arrived. Madeiran migrants were mainly in family groups but included some young men. However this page will focus on the Indian Indentured Labourers and their contribution to St Vincent, even to this day.

Indo Vincentians

Indo-Vincentians are an ethnic group in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines who are mainly descendants of indentured labourers from India. So when and why did they come to  St Vincent?

Indian Indentured Labour?

Indian migration to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines began when slavery finally ended in St. Vincent on August 1, 1838. There was a shortage of labour as the resident workers (ex slaves) refused to work on the estates, and who can blame them they had, had enough. In 1858, planters proposed paying African labourers one shilling a day if they agreed to work for six days a week, Governor-General Hincks, was opposed to immigration, and believed that low wages were responsible for the reduction in the labour force. He suggested increasing wages of all labourers to between one shilling and one shilling and two pence to discourage the emigration of many Vincentian, labourers to other Caribbean territories. However, Hincks was not supported in his ideas by the Colonial Office and the St. Vincent Legislature initiated new export taxes to pay for indentured labourers from India.

The British had taken over the governance of India and the offer of contract work in St. Vincent was made to Indian labourers. Many Indians took up the offer as the economic conditions in India at that time were very bad. Famines in India in the 1870s also impacted on Indian emigration. Over £4,225 was raised to procure labourers from India. Planters who received Indian labourers contributed  £1,807, the rest was taken from export taxes and other revenue.  By 1890, St.Vincent had spent over £80,600 on Indian immigration. This was money that the colony could not afford, and services such as roads, health and education were neglected to finance immigration.

St. Vincent had to enact laws which would satisfy the Indian Government before immigration of the East Indians could begin. Accordingly, several acts were passed in 1857, great care being given to formulating terms and conditions of contract service for the Indians. The first shipload of immigrants arrived in St. Vincent in June1861, bringing 259 East Indians from the port of Madras (present day Chennai), there were 7 additional shiploads between 1861 and 1880, all originating from Calcutta. The total number of Indians landed in the colony was 2,429 men, women, and children. Most of the immigrants were requested by and assigned to the larger sugar estates along the Windward coast, including many of the Carib Country estates.

The terms of indenture

According to the terms of indenture, the East Indian Indentees were to be paid to work in the island on an estate. The length of service was initially five years, and Indians had to remain on the estates as 'industrial residents' for this period. Furthermore, they could not travel off their estate without permission and even when their indenture was over, they could not legally move to any of the other islands in the Caribbean.

Those that agreed to remain as indentured labourers for a further three years were entitled to a return passage to India or a cash payment. They were also to receive free housing, medical attendance and wages of ten pence per day.  However, after 5 years, they could pay a commutation fee to exclude themselves from the final 3-year commitment.

The planters wanted the Indians attached as long as possible, within the legal indenture term of 8 years, to estate agriculture, therefore, inducements were given for the indentees to serve out their terms in the estate fields, rather than have them pay a commutation fee to exclude themselves from the final 3-year commitment.

In 1874, the terms of indenture altered and Indians had to remain for five years as industrial residents on their estates and could receive a free passage home if they completed a further five years labour on their estates. In an attempt to dissuade many labourers from leaving St. Vincent or settling in the towns, labourers were given a bounty of ten pounds in addition to a free return passage if they agreed to sign for the second five-year term.

Living conditions

Conditions on the estates were harsh for all indentured labourers, many died within their first year. An Immigration Agent, later referred to as the Protector of Indians, was also employed to inspect the estates with Indian labourers at regular intervals and plantation managers were supposed to keep full and detailed records of the Indian's work, food, and medical conditions. In fact, medical facilities were almost non-existent and the records were never fully kept.

Many of those who died suffered from bowel complaints, Yaws and Worms others were covered in ulcers that did not heal. While planters were eager to employ immigrants, few were also willing to take on the responsibilities required of them. A lack of empathy towards agricultural labourers, one of the legacies of slavery, may explain the harsh treatment meted out to many immiigrants.

Managers complained that Indians performed less than Two Thirds of the daily task performed by Creoles, as a result planters decided to reduce their wages and set their own level of pay which was at the time deemed illegal. On Rutland Vale Estate, for example, the manager decided to pay his Indians only half their wages, as he considered that they only did half the work set them. Indians on other estates also frequently complained that they did not receive their full wages, and the situation was worsened on estates where the wages were only paid once a month as managers sometimes made unfair deductions. However, it was also true that many of the indentured labourers were too weak to cope with the work load expected of them.

Indians complained that they had been unfairly deceived about the condition in St Vincent before they left India. Wages in St Vincent were considerably lower than in other Islands but they had limited means of appealing against cruelties and abuse. In all reports and documents, Indians were universally referred to as "Coolies" an expression that instantly distanced them from other labourers as well as been seen as poor workers, they were also accused of being dishonest and complaining. All the men making these statements were aware that Indians were systematically been cheated out of their promised wages by planters.

Indians also had to adjust to a new diet and new regulations on how they organised their homes. The immigration inspector, E. Musson, described their early diet as 'garbage' because they ate Tamarind, roots, leaves and other plants. He also described Indians as having 'great filthiness of habit', claiming that they had to be 'coerced 'into keeping their homes clean. The Immigration Act stipulated the type of housing that should be made available to Indians. The Act also stipulated that planters should be responsible for maintaining the houses. In fact, few estates offered their labourers decent housing, and the immigration agents of St. Vincent ignored the rapid deterioration of estate cottages and barracks.

Indian women suffered greatly in St. Vincent. Despite all the problems that planters had previously experienced in trying to persuade creole mothers with young children to work, few estates made provisions for child care. This made it difficult for many of the women to fulfil their contracts. One woman refused to sign a contract and her husband requested permission to be allowed to pay for her passage from India to release her from indenture. Other women were less fortunate and had to combine child care with work, which resulted in them earning reduced wages. Many women earned little or no money and became seriously malnourished. Hunger was not the only problem that Indian women faced. They also had to confront sexual aspersions and were considered by officials as immoral .

According to Lieutenant-Governor Rennie, Indian women who chose migration came from a class which was not very rigid in their morality. There were at least two Indian men to every Indian woman, but according to Rennie, these few women considering the class to which they mostly belong, are quite sufficient for the men they accompany. In other words, each woman should be expected to provide at least two men with sexual relations. Indian women were therefore open to sexual attacks and afforded little protection from exploitation because of this view on their sexual mores.

In 1870, one episode reveals the perilous position of many Indian women, who were without the protection of their families or the support of their employers. Saberchanney, a labourer on Argyll estate, was held on the floor by several men and flogged eighteen times on the back by Samuel Parsons, an English overseer. She was punished in this way for refusing to have sex with one of the Indian drivers. Saberchanney did not complain of her treatment. In fact, Parsons was only prosecuted because a carpenter witnessed him assaulting another Indian and reported the incident to Lieutenant-Governor Berkeley.

Stories concerning harsh treatment of Indians occasionally surfaced in Colonial Office reports. In 1878- 1879, details emerged of the appalling living conditions that Indians suffered in Grenada. The report stated that many Indians who had contracted yaws were thrown off the estates and left to die in the streets. A similar picture emmerged in St. Vincent. In 1882, when Lieutenant-Governor Gore was on leave, the Governor-General from Barbados became concerned about the rise of poverty in St. Vincent.

The protector, R. P. Cropper, reported that poverty and disease were widespread, and living and working conditions were below the stipulations of the Immigration Act. Yaws was common and he found labourers on several estates, and in particular Cane End, severely weakened in , body and depressed in spirits so they could not manage a full days work. On Upper Adelphi estate, Cropper alleged that all the Indians were thin. Furthermore, he revealed that the conditions of many immigrant homes were atrocious. Several buildings had to be condemned. He described houses on Carapan estate as filthy and wrecky from roof to floor and, on most estates, ordered that the houses should be instantly repaired.


Indians had limited means of appealing against cruelties and abuse. As industrial residents, with no legal rights to leave their estates without the permission of the manager, indentured labourers faced punishment for even trying to expose their complaints. Furthermore, as the magistrates and planters belonged to the same social class,some Indians were tried in court by their employer's friends.

In 1861, a group of male labourers from one estate marched into Kingstown to demand a reduction in their work load, their leader was sentenced to twenty days hard labour for breaking his contract. In 1873, seven Indians were convicted of breaking their contract after they attempted to strike on Cane Grove Estate. Their leader was George Gordon who was possibly a creole.

Indians did not attempt a group protest again until 1882, when the working conditions for many had become intolerable, and they feared that they had been cheated out of their return passage to India. In October, about thirty male labourers marched from Argyll and Calder estates into Kingstown to protest to Lieutenant-Governor Gore. However, because they had left their estates without permission from their employers, magistrates had the protesters arrested, and the ringleaders were fined five dollars each for being away from their estates without a pass.

In many ways, despite the actions of the magistrates, this protest was successful. It resulted in a petition to the Secretary of State, which prompted the decision to provide return passages to India for over 1000 people. Indians also used more subtle ways to protest about conditions. The most common action was referred to by immigration agents as 'skulking' or 'idleness'. For example, out of the 258 labourers living on eleven estates in November 1861, only 111 were at work. Forty-eight were women and children at home, sixty-one were ill, fourteen were absent from the estate and twenty-four were 'skulking'.

In 1871, Indian labourers were reported as working only 93,354 days, out of a total of 154,774 days. They spent over 15 per cent of their working days in 'idleness'. This working pattern was common throughout the indenture period and reflects both the Indians resistance to work and the planters' continued inability to provide and enforce a full working week for their employees. Violent acts were unusual among indentured Indians, but there were also occasional reports of arson and assault committed by Indians.

The stereotype continued even after it was proved that Indians had been flogged on Argyll estate and then not allowed to leave, and after Cropper revealed the real horrors of their living conditions. European officials continued to side with planters despite conclusive evidence that Indians were not making frivolous complaints. Race and class ideology superseded even international law. Even when under government. control, Indians faced abuse..

With the aid of "coolie" labour for the fields, there was a renewal of activity in St. Vincent's sugar industry. The need to keep the "coolies" on the estates was a reaction to increasing emigration of native Vincentian and ex-coolie labourers to Trinidad in response to higher wages. Having decided to pay the £10 bounty to any Indian who would give up his right to return passage and re-indenture himself for another 5 years, the Government, in 1875, persuaded over 400 East Indians to accept the bounty and to re- indenture. Although most Indians chose to remain in St. Vincent, approximately 30% of those arriving since 1861 had emigrated to other Caribbean areas by 1875, especially to Trinidad. Only 3.5% of the indentees returned to India..

At the end of their first period of indenture many Indians chose to leave their estates and move closer to Kingstown. They settled mainly at Calder, Akers, Argyle, Richland Park, Park Hill, Georgetown and Rose Bank others applied for passports and moved to Trinidad and British Guiana for higher wages, and more access to land and become part of the Indian community there.  In response to this, an act was passed in 1879 prohibiting ship captains from transporting any Indians from St Vincent. Simple put, they were band from leaving the island.

After 1880, no more "coolies" were imported into St. Vincent because the Government was unable to provide sufficient funds for such labour, and in any event, the disastrous decline in sugar prices in 1882 affected the income of the planters so severely that the scheme became redundant. By the 1920s when the indentured labour system was abolished in the Caribbean, the Indians had integrated into the society and had made an impact on the culture of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Many of these Indians were able to save enough money to buy land, once their indentures were completed and to work as casual labour on estates such as the native Vincentian population had been doing since the end of slavery.

Relationship between Indians and Creoles

Early relations between Indians and creoles were never cordial, and Indian labourers also had to cope with resentment from many Vincentian labourers possibly because Indians were supposed to receive higher wages than local labourers. In the early 1860s, Musson claimed that Indians were unaware of the jealousy that local labourers felt towards them. However, Indians were frightened off the estates during the 1862 disturbances, and some labourers blamed them for the increase in poverty and unemployment among Vincentians.

It is probable that this resentment, coupled with language problems and different religious and cultural practices, made life for many indentured labourers lonely and uncomfortable. Furthermore, few Indian males found creole wives, despite there being a surplus of African-Caribbean women. According to Lieutenant-Governor Rennie, black women did not consider Asians appealing.


Indentured labour was costly, both in terms of money and human suffering. Immigrants were often isolated and given little protection against abuse. While there were no doubt some employers treated their labourers fairly, the large numbers who attempted to quit the estates, either through abandoning estate labour when their period of indenture expired or by repatriation, indicated the harshness of plantation life. Furthermore, because labour contracts were legally binding and absence from estates was a criminal offence, indentured labourers were unable to expose instances of cruelty or cheating without risking imprisonment. Almost half of the Indian labourers who arrived in St. Vincent returned to India after their indenture had expired or moved to British Guiana and Trinidad.

Why then did planters and successive Governors persist with immigration at such a considerable expense and even when there was no longer a labour shortage? Edward Musson, claimed that planters preferred the inferior labour offered by indentured labourers because of the contracts forced on the Indians and the punishments that could be inflicted on them for non-completion of tasks.

Another possible reason for the continuation of immigration is that the existence of a poor immigrant workforce enabled planters to reject creole workers, forcing them into increasing poverty. According to Wesleyan missionaries in 1880, on the larger estates near George Town, creole labour had been 'entirely dispensed with and substituted with that of Coolies. 

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