A Passage to Suriname? The Migration of Modes of Resistance by Asian Contract Laborers

A Passage to Suriname? The Migration of Modes of Resistance by Asian Contract Laborers
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  A Passage to Suriname? The Migration of Modesof Resistance by Asian Contract Laborers Rosemarijn Hoefte KITLV/Royal Institute of Linguistics and Anthropology When, on June 5,1873, the  Lalla Rookh  docked in Fort Nieuw Amsterdam,Suriname, 399 indentured British Indian immigrants had almost reachedtheir destination: the colonial plantations. The timing was no coincidence.On July 1, 1863, the Dutch government had abolished slavery in its Carib-bean colonies. During a ten-year transition period the former slaves wereto work for employers of their own choice under the supervision of thestate. Three weeks before this mandatory apprenticeship period wasover, the  Lalla Rookh  arrived. The immigrants aboard had signed a con-tract obliging them to work for five years on a plantation in Suriname yet tobe assigned. The labor contract and additional local ordinances specifiedthe rights and duties of the indentured workers and forced them to committheir labor power to the unspecified demands of their employers at spe-cified times. Fundamental to the system was the penal sanction, which gaveemployers the right to press criminal charges against indentured workerswho, according to them, neglected their duty or refused to work. Thus thepenal sanction allowed planters to impose their own conception of workdiscipline.The main objective of the estate owners was to continue their agribusi-ness with labor that was malleable and as cheap as possible. In manycolonies the planters resorted to immigrants to replenish the labor pool. 1 Following unsuccessful experiments with immigrants from China, Madeira,Sierra Leone, and elsewhere, immigration accelerated with the importationof British Indian laborers. A total of more than five hundred thirty thou-sand British Indians, or Hindustani (as they were then and are now oftencalled in Suriname), migrated to the Caribbean. 2 Suriname is a unique case in the Caribbean because it was the site of alarge  second  flow of immigrants. The Hindustani remained British subjectswho could appeal to the British consul and thus undermine both the high-est Dutch authority and the planters' search for a submissive plantationlabor force. Doubts about the dependence on a foreign nation for thesupply of labor, as well as the growth of nationalism and the concomitantrise of an antiemigration movement in India, forced the Surinamese plant-ers to look elsewhere for indentured workers. In 1890 the first migrantsfrom Java arrived, and when World War Two ended immigration from theNetherlands East Indies, 32,956 Javanese had come to Suriname. As wasthe case with the British Indians, this migration to Suriname was only asmall part of a much larger population movement, particularly to Sumatra International  Labor and  Working-Class  History No.  54, Fall 1998, pp. 19-39© 1998 International Labor and Working-Class History, Inc.    h   t   t   p   s   :   /   /   d   o   i .   o   r   g   /   1   0 .   1   0   1   7   /   S   0   1   4   7   5   4   7   9   0   0   0   0   6   1   9   0   D   o   w   n   l   o   a   d   e   d   f   r   o   m    h   t   t   p   s   :   /   /   w   w   w .   c   a   m   b   r   i   d   g   e .   o   r   g   /   c   o   r   e .   U   n   i   v   e   r   s   i   t   y   o   f   A   m   s   t   e   r   d   a   m ,   o   n   0   9   A   u   g   2   0   1   8   a   t   1   2   :   3   3   :   5   4 ,   s   u   b   j   e   c   t   t   o   t   h   e   C   a   m   b   r   i   d   g   e   C   o   r   e   t   e   r   m   s   o   f   u   s   e ,   a   v   a   i   l   a   b   l   e   a   t   h   t   t   p   s   :   /   /   w   w   w .   c   a   m   b   r   i   d   g   e .   o   r   g   /   c   o   r   e   /   t   e   r   m   s .  20  ILWCH 54, Fall 1998and Borneo. Of the total of 145,066 Javanese migrants leaving from Bataviaor Semarang during the period 1902-1910, only 5,433, or less than fourpercent, went to Suriname. 3 Migration and indenture, of course, had a profound impact on thecultural life of the migrants, including kinship structures and social net-works, the role of women, religion, and language. The new conditions inSuriname led to renewal and adaptation on the one hand and isolation andcultural conservatism on the other. Several factors worked to force theimmigrants to accept cultural change. The adjustment to a new environ-ment, the unequal sex ratio, the relative youth of most immigrants, and thedifferent organizational structure on the estates—including the plantationhierarchy, division of labor, and racism—disrupted traditional forms ofsocial and cultural organization. 4  Yet migration and indenture also steeredthe Asians toward maintaining their customs and traditions. Their uniquelegal status, sense of displacement, social marginalization, low standard ofliving, geographic isolation, ethnic distinctiveness, and common negativeattitude toward other population groups encouraged them to hold ontotheir social and cultural practices. The influx of newcomers with recentinformation about their respective homelands reinforced this tendency. 5 This study focuses on a specific aspect of adaptation and the mainte-nance of customs: the ways in which British Indian and Javanese contractworkers protested plantation conditions. Were the means of resistance inSuriname similar to those used in Asia, or did the Caribbean experienceadd new elements to forms of protest? Sugar in Suriname after Abolition Not only the abolition of slavery but also the economic woes of large-scaleagriculture led to dramatic changes in Suriname society. In the second halfof the nineteenth century many coffee and sugar plantations were aban-doned and reclaimed by nature. Agricultural and financial mismanagementas well as a chronic lack of capital (it is estimated that half of the total sumof compensation money paid to the slave owners had been withdrawn fromthe colony) proved to be the economic deathblow to many plantations. 6 The imposition of preferential tariffs in Europe and competition from beetsugar caused difficulties for Suriname's sugar industry. These problemswere compounded by the opening of the Suez Canal and subsequent in-creased trade with East Asia: The Dutch colony of Java was, after Cuba,the second largest sugar producer in the world. The production of sugar inSuriname was now confined to large estates where technical improvementscould be introduced. The number of estates in Suriname decreased whilethe total area under cultivation grew. In 1890 there were fourteen planta-tions producing sugar; in 1930, only four were left; the number of hectaresunder cultivation, however, increased. This increase in scale and moderniz-ation of production kept output at the pre-abolition level of eight or nine    h   t   t   p   s   :   /   /   d   o   i .   o   r   g   /   1   0 .   1   0   1   7   /   S   0   1   4   7   5   4   7   9   0   0   0   0   6   1   9   0   D   o   w   n   l   o   a   d   e   d   f   r   o   m    h   t   t   p   s   :   /   /   w   w   w .   c   a   m   b   r   i   d   g   e .   o   r   g   /   c   o   r   e .   U   n   i   v   e   r   s   i   t   y   o   f   A   m   s   t   e   r   d   a   m ,   o   n   0   9   A   u   g   2   0   1   8   a   t   1   2   :   3   3   :   5   4 ,   s   u   b   j   e   c   t   t   o   t   h   e   C   a   m   b   r   i   d   g   e   C   o   r   e   t   e   r   m   s   o   f   u   s   e ,   a   v   a   i   l   a   b   l   e   a   t   h   t   t   p   s   :   /   /   w   w   w .   c   a   m   b   r   i   d   g   e .   o   r   g   /   c   o   r   e   /   t   e   r   m   s .  A Passage to Suriname? 21million kilograms of sugar per year. Nevertheless, the rapidly decliningprice of the product posed severe problems. In 1864 a kilogram of sugarsold for 0.26 guilders, in contrast to only 0.04 guilders in 1939.Agricultural diversification did take place, but the production of ba-nanas, coffee, and cacao was only temporarily successful as one productafter another was hit by agricultural diseases. Sugar eventually lost itsprimary place to bauxite, and the plantations gave way to small-scale farm-ing, particularly the cultivation of rice. Protection Indentured laborers kept the sugar industry going in the prewar years.Both the planters and the state exercised control over contract laborersduring indentureship. To protect contract workers against abuse of powerthe government established the office of Agent General for Immigration.His task was to supervise and control contract laborers, register changes inthe social life of immigrants, and inquire about complaints regarding laborand living conditions on the plantations. However, the agent general rarelyfound the time to make adequate inspection tours. The Immigration De-partment's main task was the administration of the immigrants, but itsexecution often left much to be desired. Indentured laborers did not re-ceive registration certificates or documents listing the terms of their con-tracts. Consequently, it was difficult for them to exercise their rights and tocheck whether employers fulfilled their commitments. There were alsofrequent discrepancies between an estate's official files and individual workrecords, which further weakened the position of the indentured. The Immi-gration Department simply could not comply properly with regulations andhence could not offer the contract laborers adequate protection. 7 The Hindustani migrants, who until 1927 were British subjects, had asecond protector in the person of the British consul. The consul had theright to communicate with the indentured laborers before their distributionin the colony. The British-Dutch agreement on contract migration alsogranted British Indians the right to claim consular assistance and stipulatedthat communication with the consul should be free and without restriction.The Suriname administration was not pleased with the consul's presenceand his power. Particularly in the first decade of immigration the govern-ment and the planters had much to fear from the consul. 8 The officials most in touch with the Asian laborers were the districtcommissioners (DCs), who, as executive officers, were in charge of admin-istration and routine supervision. The DCs had to inspect every plantationat least once a month. The DCs were, in fact, the district governors, andthis function made it hard for them to spend enough time on the inden-tured workers and to be impartial. In general, DCs simply did not havemuch time for immigrants, for they were charged with all kinds of adminis-trative duties such as the gathering of taxes, compilation of statistics, regis-    h   t   t   p   s   :   /   /   d   o   i .   o   r   g   /   1   0 .   1   0   1   7   /   S   0   1   4   7   5   4   7   9   0   0   0   0   6   1   9   0   D   o   w   n   l   o   a   d   e   d   f   r   o   m    h   t   t   p   s   :   /   /   w   w   w .   c   a   m   b   r   i   d   g   e .   o   r   g   /   c   o   r   e .   U   n   i   v   e   r   s   i   t   y   o   f   A   m   s   t   e   r   d   a   m ,   o   n   0   9   A   u   g   2   0   1   8   a   t   1   2   :   3   3   :   5   4 ,   s   u   b   j   e   c   t   t   o   t   h   e   C   a   m   b   r   i   d   g   e   C   o   r   e   t   e   r   m   s   o   f   u   s   e ,   a   v   a   i   l   a   b   l   e   a   t   h   t   t   p   s   :   /   /   w   w   w .   c   a   m   b   r   i   d   g   e .   o   r   g   /   c   o   r   e   /   t   e   r   m   s .  22  ILWCH 54, Fall 1998trations of births, marriages, and deaths, the drawing up of summons of allcomplaints for trial before the courts, and the execution of sentences. Fur-ther, the DCs had to perform a number of judicial tasks. In case of breachof contract by the indentured laborer, the DC had first to investigate theaccusation and sanction the charge before it could be taken to court. Dur-ing court sessions the DC was seated next to the (itinerant) judge andoversaw the execution of sentences. Not surprisingly, many immigrantsviewed the DC as a foe rather than a friend. Migrants often found a moresympathetic ear at the Immigration Department or the British consul inParamaribo. However, as the consul once complained, the official proce-dure was to send a note to the agent general, who in turn would write to the DC,  who, as a rule, replies that the Cooly is in the wrong. 9 Plantation Discipline The first and most obvious way of dominating and controlling the inden-tured workers was the threat of prosecution under the penal sanction. Thelabor ordinances provided penalties for damaging, breaking, or throughcarelessness losing any tool, machinery, or other objects belonging to theestates; drunkenness; laziness; unwillingness to work; abusive language oropposition by word or gesture to anyone in authority; absence withoutpermission; and desertion. The contract also bound indentured workers toa specific plantation, thus denying them the right to switch employers.The arbitrary authority of planters was an additional feature of thesystem. This arbitrariness was clearly demonstrated in establishing tasksand wages. Indenture contracts stipulated a fixed wage for a day's work; inpractice, however, wages were paid not by day but by task. Guidelinesstipulated that a task was work that an average male laborer could com-plete in one working day. The imprecision of this formula introduced sub-jectivity and high-handedness, for the setting of tasks was left to plantationstaff who were free to establish the limits of task work. Frequently thedefinition of a task was not based on average performance but rather onthe performance of a few hand-picked men. As a result, many laborers didnot earn the fixed daily wage. There were always conflicting estimates ofindentured laborers' earnings. The vague definition of such crucial mattersas workload and pay allowed management to reward, punish, and thuscontrol their workers.Another means of control was the isolation of workers on plantationsthrough a pass system. A worker could leave the plantation only with theapproval of the director, who issued the pass. When a dispute arose andlaborers chose to exercise their right to complain at the office of the DC,plantation management usually permitted no more than three passes at a time,  thus preventing a mass exodus from the estate. Planters thus limitedboth the social and geographic mobility of contract workers in order tocontrol their labor force both on and off the job.Social provisions such as housing, the estate hospital, and the planta-    h   t   t   p   s   :   /   /   d   o   i .   o   r   g   /   1   0 .   1   0   1   7   /   S   0   1   4   7   5   4   7   9   0   0   0   0   6   1   9   0   D   o   w   n   l   o   a   d   e   d   f   r   o   m    h   t   t   p   s   :   /   /   w   w   w .   c   a   m   b   r   i   d   g   e .   o   r   g   /   c   o   r   e .   U   n   i   v   e   r   s   i   t   y   o   f   A   m   s   t   e   r   d   a   m ,   o   n   0   9   A   u   g   2   0   1   8   a   t   1   2   :   3   3   :   5   4 ,   s   u   b   j   e   c   t   t   o   t   h   e   C   a   m   b   r   i   d   g   e   C   o   r   e   t   e   r   m   s   o   f   u   s   e ,   a   v   a   i   l   a   b   l   e   a   t   h   t   t   p   s   :   /   /   w   w   w .   c   a   m   b   r   i   d   g   e .   o   r   g   /   c   o   r   e   /   t   e   r   m   s .  A Passage to Suriname? 23tion shop also enhanced planters' control over contract laborers. And thewhite minority sometimes sought to increase divisions among their subor-dinates by encouraging labor competition between free and contract la-borers by emphasizing religious and ethnic differences or by employingpsychological tactics such as cooptation and preferential treatment.Overseers and drivers—the management personnel in the field—werethe key to labor control. Planters and field personnel would stand togetherin any dispute with the workers. The main job of the overseer was to allottasks and to supervise work. The overseers were either Europeans or Cre-oles from Suriname or British Guiana. Drivers, often called  mandurs  inSuriname, were recruited from among the workers to assist the overseers.The  mandurs  checked that every laborer was present and the overseerrecorded the wages earned. Laborers frequently accused drivers and over-seers of thievery. The labor control system made it easy to manipulate datato punish a troublemaker or reward a favorite—and difficult to documentcorruption. 10 Given their reputation it is not surprising that laborers often despisedthe drivers; they were mistrusted by their supervisors, too. However, the mandurs  were an important link in the chain of command because of theirability to communicate with workers in their native language. Managementcould always use the threat of demotion to the labor gangs to keep  man-durs  on its side.After emancipation, the formal right to sentence or punish a laborerwas transferred from the employer to the state. However, the courts wererarely an impartial arbiter of labor disputes. Most witnesses were part ofthe plantation hierarchy—directors, managers, overseers, and drivers. It isquestionable whether the accused were fully informed of the accusationsbrought against them. Moreover, magistrates often belonged to the samesocial class as planters and shared their prejudices against the Asians. Inother words, the courts enforced the rules of the plantation owners, fre-quently ignoring the native customs and traditions of the immigrants. Inaddition, immigrants experienced major communication difficulties, forthey could not always trust court interpreters. The magistrates rarely be-lieved Asians regardless of whether they were defendants or claimants. 11 The pro-planter bias of the courts was one of the grievances emphasized bythe antiemigration movement in India. The court usually sentenced thoseconvicted to hard labor or gave them a choice between a fine and hardlabor.Indentured workers had the right to take their employers to courtwhen they thought they were being treated unfairly. The principal chargesbrought against employers were for recovery of withheld pay, unduly heavyworkloads, and physical violence. 12  It is doubtful whether many indenturedworkers could read and thus understand the contracts that gave them theright to sue their employers. It required courage, furthermore, for laborersto testify against their superiors, for that could easily put them in vulner-able positions. In addition, it is doubtful whether the courts were objective    h   t   t   p   s   :   /   /   d   o   i .   o   r   g   /   1   0 .   1   0   1   7   /   S   0   1   4   7   5   4   7   9   0   0   0   0   6   1   9   0   D   o   w   n   l   o   a   d   e   d   f   r   o   m    h   t   t   p   s   :   /   /   w   w   w .   c   a   m   b   r   i   d   g   e .   o   r   g   /   c   o   r   e .   U   n   i   v   e   r   s   i   t   y   o   f   A   m   s   t   e   r   d   a   m ,   o   n   0   9   A   u   g   2   0   1   8   a   t   1   2   :   3   3   :   5   4 ,   s   u   b   j   e   c   t   t   o   t   h   e   C   a   m   b   r   i   d   g   e   C   o   r   e   t   e   r   m   s   o   f   u   s   e ,   a   v   a   i   l   a   b   l   e   a   t   h   t   t   p   s   :   /   /   w   w   w .   c   a   m   b   r   i   d   g   e .   o   r   g   /   c   o   r   e   /   t   e   r   m   s .
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