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Sirdars as Intermediaries in Nineteenth-century Indian Ocean Indentured Labour Migration*



The sirdar (also termed sardar and jobber in Indian historiography)—foreman, recruiter, at once a labour leader and an important intermediary figure for the employers of labour both in India and in the sugar colonies—is reassessed in this article. Tithankar Roy's thoughtful 2007 article looked at how the sirdars’ multiple roles represent an incorporation of traditional authority in a modern setting, giving rise to certain contradictions. In 2010 Samita Sen, conversely, developed Rajnarayan Chandavarkar's argument about the use of labour intermediaries in colonial India to reveal how, in the case of the Assam tea plantations, the nexus between contractors and sirdars belies the ‘benign’ role often accorded to the intermediary within narratives from the tea industry. This article provides examples from the overseas labour destinations in the Indian Ocean region, particularly Mauritius, to further develop and nuance the debate, through an assessment of the complexity of sirdari roles in the colonial Indian labour diaspora.



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The research for this article was undertaken as part of the AHRC-funded project ‘“Becoming Coolies”: Rethinking the Origins of the Indian Labour Diaspora, 1772–1920’ at the University of Edinburgh.



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1 Breman, J., Of Peasants, Migrants and Paupers. Rural Labour Circulation and Capitalist Production in West India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 328329 .

2 Chakrabarty, D., Rethinking Working-Class History: Bengal 1890–1940 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 218 .

3 Basu, S., Does Class Matter? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp 275283 , and Cox, Anthony J., Empire, Industry and Class: The Imperial Nexus of Jute, 1840–1940 (London: Routledge, 2012).

4 de Haan, A., Unsettled Settlers: Migrant Workers and Industrial Capitalism in Calcutta (Calcutta: K.P. Bagchi, 1996), p. 81 .

5 Arasaratnam, S., South Indians in Malaysia and Singapore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 16 .

6 Jain, R.K., Indian Communities Abroad—Themes and Literature (New Delhi: Manohar, 1993), pp. 89 .

7 Chandavarkar, R.S., The Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India. Business Strategies and the Working Classes in Bombay, 1900–1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Sen, S., ‘Commercial recruiting and informal intermediation: debate over the sardari system in Assam tea plantations, 1860–1900’, Modern Asian Studies, 44:1 (2010), pp. 328 .

8 See Bates, C. and Carter, M., ‘Tribal and Indentured Migrants in Colonial India: Modes of Recruitment and Forms of Incorporation’ in Robb, P. (ed.), Dalit Movements and the Meanings of Labour in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993). The owners of flourishing coal mines of lower Bengal (concentrated in Raniganj, Gobindpur, and Giridih) were among the vocal business interests within India who lobbied against recruitment of migration to Assam and overseas for fear that it would raise the cost of their labour. It is from this same region that the largest number of allegations of abduction, especially of young girls, arose.

9 Peebles, P., The Plantation Tamils of Ceylon (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 2001), pp. 3738 .

10 Roy, T., ‘Sardars, jobbers, kanganies: the labour contractor and Indian economic history’, Modern Asian Studies, 42:5 (2008), pp. 981983 .

11 Sen, ‘Commercial recruiting and informal intermediation’, pp. 20–28.

12 Leroy-Beaulieu, P., De la Colonisation chez les Peuples Modernes (Paris: Guillaumin, 1874), p. 246 . See also Tinker, H., A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas 1830–1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 61 .

13 Further details of the legislative changes regulating indentured labour migration can be gleaned from Tinker, A New System of Slavery, pp. 63–115.

14 Carter, M., Servants, Sirdars and Settlers, Indians in Mauritius, 1834–1874 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995), p 69 .

15 National Archives UK [NA] Colonial Office [CO] 167/288, Report of Robert Neave, 19 July 1845.

16 Parliamentary Papers [PP] 1848 (61) S. M. Passmore to Colonial Secretary, 1 June 1847.

17 PP 1848 (61) Governor Gomm to Earl Grey, 7 June 1847 (124).

18 PP 1848 (61) Gomm to Grey, 10 July 1847 encl. memorial by E. Maurel, dated 28 June 1847.

19 NA CO 167/385, Murdoch and Rogers to Merivale, 15 March 1856.

20 PP 1847 (325) Gomm to Gladstone, 30 May 1846, encloses report by Protector of Immigrants Anderson, 18 May 1846.

21 Angel, W.H., The Clipper Ship ‘Sheila’: Angel-Master (London: Heath Cranton, 1921), p. 152 .

22 Mauritius Archives [MA] RA [Departmental Series] 1587, Emigration Agent Madras to Colonial Secretary, Mauritius, 14 February 1860.

23 ‘Dollars’ in this context refers to Spanish dollars, still widely in circulation in the Indian Ocean. They were worth approximately half the value of the East India Company rupee. See Thornton, Thomas, The East Indian Calculator (London: Kingsbury, Parbury and Allen, 1823).

24 NA CO 167/263, Gomm to Stanley, 11 November 1845, enclosing Appendix A of Committee on Labour Report, 19 February 1845.

25 PP (1848) 61, Gomm to Grey, 3 July 1847, enclosing petition of planters, and Grey's reply of 9 December 1847.

26 Mauritius introduced a notorious ‘double cut’ regulation in its post-emancipation statute no. 16 of 1835 which docked two days’ pay for every day of unauthorized absence. Statute no. 22 of 1847 applied the same penalty to Indian indentured labourers, who forfeited any claim to wages or rations during their absence and were in addition to pay a half penny out of every shilling of monthly wages for each day's absence. After 1862 these fines could be imposed directly by planters without recourse to a magistrate. See Hay, D. and Craven, P. (eds), Masters, Servants and Magistrates in Britain and the Empire, 1562–1955 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), Introduction, fn. 166.

27 NA CO 167/263, Gomm to Stanley.

28 MA PA 8 [Immigration Department], Letter of Chief Sirdar to Protector of Immigrants, Beyts, 17 June 1870.

29 Ibid., and Bengal Emigration Proceedings: HND Beyts, Protector, Mauritius to Colonial Secretary, 15 March 1867.

30 India Office Library and Records [IOLR] V/27/820/35, Report on Colonial Emigration from the Bengal Presidency, George A. Grierson, Calcutta, 25 February 1883, p. 38.

31 MA Immigration Reports [B Printed Series], Blunt to Protector of Immigrants, 4 April 1873.

32 See Carter, M., Voices from Indenture Experiences of Indian Migrants in the British Empire (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1996), pp. 6364, 124–125.

33 MA RC [Departmental Petitions], volume 28, S. M. Pearce to J. Finniss, 24 July 1840.

34 Sooriamoorthy, R., Les Tamouls à L'Île Maurice (Port Louis: Henry and Co., 1977), pp. 130134 .

35 MA Inspection Reports, Captain F. T. Blunt to Protector of Immigrants, 3 December 1872.

36 NA CO 167/476, Barkly to Cardwell, 15 April 1865, Re Ordinance 7 of 1865 ‘to secure the rights of new immigrants under contracts of service with job contractors and to extend the jurisdiction of SMs to claims for wages founded on guarantees’.

37 PP Report of the Royal Commissioners appointed to enquire into the Treatment of Indian Immigrants in Mauritius, 1875 [C. 1115], paras 2308 and 2319.

38 Ibid., para. 2315.

39 Ibid., para. 2301.

40 Ibid., para. 2333.

41 Carter, M., ‘Subaltern success stories: socio-economic mobility in the Indian labour diaspora—some Mauritian case studies’, Internationales Asienforum, 33:1/2 (2002), pp. 91100 .

42 Mulloo, A., Our Struggle: 20th Century Mauritius (New Delhi: Vision Books, 1982), pp. 1318 . See also Selvon, S., Ramgoolam (Mauritius: Editions Ocean Indien, 1986), pp. 3–9.

43 Roy, ‘Sardars, jobbers, kanganies’, pp. 971–998.

44 See, for example, documents relating to the recruiting activities of Natal sirdars in India in Bhana, S. and Pachai, B. (eds), A Documentary History of Indian South Africans (Cape Town: David Philip, 1984), pp 2729 .

45 See Major, A., Slavery, Abolitionism, and Empire in India 1772–1843 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012).

46 Antony Cox controversially argues that there were substantial similarities in the factory conditions, labour supervision, and management practices of the jute mills of Dundee and Calcutta. See Cox, A., Empire, Industry and Class: The Imperial Nexus of Jute, 18401940 (London: Routledge, 2012).

47 Nilekani, Nandan, Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation (New York: Penguin, 2009), pp. 224, 398, 286.

48 Ibid., p. 221.

* The research for this article was undertaken as part of the AHRC-funded project ‘“Becoming Coolies”: Rethinking the Origins of the Indian Labour Diaspora, 1772–1920’ at the University of Edinburgh.


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