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Indentured Servitude in the Caribbean, Essay Example

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Words: 1411

Essay

During the 19th century the Caribbean was desperate to find a new way to meet their labor needs after slavery had been abolished. They needed workers to work on their plantations, and this resulted in laborers from India and China being sent to the Caribbean as indentured servants. Indentured servants were laborers bound by a contract to work for free on a plantation or in a home for a period of time in exchange for their passage to the country, a place to live, food, and clothes. Their labor could be sold to a third party similar to a slave, but indentured servants were different from slaves in a variety of ways. Indentured servants, specifically Chinese coolies, were sent to the Caribbean in the 19th century, as is demonstrated in the documentary “Coolies: How Britain Re-Invented Slavery.” The documentary goes over the decisive similarities and differences between indentured servitude and slavery, but specific to the Caribbean. Indentured servitude was drastically different from slavery because servants had laws that protected them, were treated better in general by property owners, they were viewed as people not property, and their contracts often culminated with them receiving land.

The use and exploitation of coolie labor was integrated in the Caribbean after slavery was abolished in the 19th century. In the 1840’s the British created a value market in China to displace peasantry and send them to the Caribbean while simultaneously abolishing the African slave trade2. When the coolies were sent to the Caribbean, they would be sold to the highest bidder and would then pay off their debts in between four to seven years by working on the tobacco or sugar plantations in many instances. This was different from slavery because slavery was indefinite. Slaves never got to stop working after a certain number of years like indentured servants.

Arguably one of the biggest differences between slaves and coolies was that indentured servants had laws that protected them, whereas slaves did not. For example, indentured servants did not have to serve for the rest of their lives when they were brought over from India and China to the Caribbean. Slaves on the other hand did have to because they were viewed as property and not human, whereas coolies were people. They were protected through contracts that defined the terms of their agreement and indentured servitude in the Caribbean. Slaves did not have contracts like indentured servants and were instead forced to work for the rest of their lives when they were born into slavery or were brought over from Africa. Also, because their work never ended, they did not get any property afforded to them like many indentured servants did once their contracts were ended.

Indentured servants not only got land given to them in many cases once their contracts were finished, but in the documentary “Coolies: How Britain Re-Invented Slavery” the documentary shows how indentured servants were treated much differently from slaves. They were viewed not as equals to those they worked before, but people worthy of human dignity and respect in many cases. Slaves had their human dignity undermined by racism and were abused and often killed at the hands of their plantation owners because they were viewed as disposable. Even though they were viewed as property, white landowners in the Caribbean feared that the growing African American population would rebel and take over2. This is why they also began to bring in coolies to even out the population.

 

 

The British, and eventually the Spanish, were in control of the Asian coolie indentured servant population, and as a result were able to manipulate the price of labor for their archrivals as well as reduce the use of African slavery. However, the British didn’t have to do too much work to get plantation owners to stop importing and purchasing African slaves. Obtaining African slaves became more difficult and costly, so the Caribbean preferred to import indentured servants2. This is because they view African slaves as less than indentured servants, perceiving that because indentured servants were working towards their freedom to end their contract, they worked harder. African slaves did not have this same motivation because they were enslaved for their entire lives. Additionally, the Spanish and British soon began to realize that coolies were much more profitable than African slaves because of these perceptions. It would cost the Spanish 30,000-50,000 pesos to send 500 coolies to the Caribbean, but they would yield 100,000-120,000 pesos from the sale of the servants2.

Coolies were viewed as better than African slaves by plantation owners in the Caribbean, making their value go up, and enabled them to be treated better than African slaves. The work that both slaves and indentured servants completed was treacherous, but because indentured servants were on a contract, plantation owners might face legal consequences and penalties if they abused or killed an indentured servant. They were seen as valuable and not to be tampered with, unlike slaves who were viewed as complete and utter property, and a plantation owner could virtually do whatever he wanted to a slave and face no repercussions.

 

Coolies were treated with more respect and dignity than their slave counterparts, even to the point that scholars and plantation owners during the time attempted to understand their sexuality. This is evident through speculation in the 19th century that Indian men and African-creole women had limited social and sexual interactions because Indian indentured servants adhere to the Hindu caste system and brought it with them to the Caribbean. However, the conditions of labor in plantations in the Caribbean were not conducive to the Indian way of life, so it was not implemented1. The fact that people were even speculating about indentured servants sexuality shows they considered them vastly more human than slaves in general. Slaves were viewed as animals and property, their sexuality or ideas about them did not matter to plantation owners and scientists unless it was proving that they were genetically and biologically different, people did not care to study or write about slaves.

Not only did plantation owners not care about their slaves in many instances, but they would often give indentured servants land after they had worked for them for a period. It was often given as a token of appreciation for tending to their crops for years of their life. However, slaves never got any type of appreciation for the work that they did on plantations other than being fed and given cramped spaces to live by their plantation owners. This is just another clear-cut example of how indentured servants were treated better all around by plantation owners. Slaves were never shown any type of gratitude and if they didn’t perform at the level that plantation owners wanted, they would often be beaten or even killed, in front of the other slaves to send a message. Indentured servants were not typically given this treatment because they were at least somewhat respected for their work.

To conclude, it is evident that there are a multitude of differences between indentured servants and slaves including their treatment by plantation owners, how long they had to serve, and even the gratitude/respect they were shown by plantation owners for the work they did. The documentary “Coolies: How British Re-Invented Slavery” discusses the British and Spanish purchase and sale of coolies, Indians and the Chinese, in the Caribbean due to the eradication of slavery in the 19th century. Slavery was illegal during this time, but white landowners in the Caribbean were growing fearful of the expanding African population in the Caribbean, and they valued indentured servants more, believing that because they were working towards their freedom, they worked harder. When looking at indentured servants vs. slaves, indentured servants only had to work for their freedom for typically between 4-7 years whereas slaves were considered property and therefore had to work for their entire lives. Indentured servants had their sexuality studied, were given more human dignity and respect than slaves, and were protected in some form under the law from being abused and killed. Slaves did not get any of these treatments because they were considered to be property, and were only typically written about to prove they were physically and biologically different from others.

 

Bibliography

Diptee, Audra A. “Indian Men, Afro‐Creole Women: ‘Casting’ Doubt on Interracial Sexual Relationships in the Late Nineteenth‐Century Caribbean.” Immigrants & Minorities19, no. 3 (2000): 1–24. https://doi.org/10.1080/02619288.2000.9974997.

Yun, Lisa, and Ricardo Rene Laremont. “Chinese Coolies and African Slaves in Cuba, 1847-74.” Journal of Asian American Studies4, no. 2 (2001): 99–122. https://doi.org/10.1353/jaas.2001.0022.

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