girmitiya system

Girmitiya System: A Forgotten History with Lasting Impacts

In the 19th century, many Indian-origin workers migrated to various countries, lured by the false promises of a better life and high wages. These Indian labourers were led astray by dishonest contracts and exploited by colonial rule. This system of transporting Indian workers as cheap labour became known as the Indian indenture system, also known as the Girmitiya system.

This system, born out of colonial exploitation, had a profound impact on millions of lives and saw up to 1.6 million Indian workers displaced to various British colonies. In this blog, we delve into the depths of the Girmitiya system, exploring its origins, impact, and enduring legacy.

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Origin of the Girmitiya System

Following the abolition of slavery in the early 19th century, there was a grave labour shortage in various European colonies. The European farmers and landowners in these colonies did not have access to free labour anymore and instead looked to bring in cheap labour from elsewhere.

Colonies such as Fiji, Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana relied heavily on plantations, especially those of sugar. Since the native workforce of these countries had stopped working under poor conditions, it led to an extreme shortage of workers. To offset this shortage, the British started exporting Indians to these sugar colonies.

The British and other colonials promised the unsuspecting poor better living conditions and high wages. Those gullible enough to believe their word were made to sign contracts of a 5-year agreement to work in various plantations in foreign lands. Agents would work to attract migrants on behalf of large European landowners in various colonies, and they were often paid hefty amounts in exchange for sending Indian migrants to work on their farms.

The word "Girmit" originates from the Indian pronunciation of the English word "Agreement", and therefore, all those who made agreements with the colonial government to go abroad came to be known as "Girmitiyas." While most of those who fell victim to the Girmitiya system were sent to British colonies, a large number were sent away to various French and Dutch colonies.

Essentially, the Girmitiya system legally allowed colonial rulers to send Indian labour to various plantations around the world. The workers signed agreement contracts and had to pledge to a court-appointed officer that they were consenting to emigrate. The system led to extreme exploitation of workers once they eventually reached their indentured lands, which led to the suffering of the Indian community in these countries for decades and centuries to come.

The first Indian ship with indentured labourers set sail somewhere around 1830, and by 1838, over 25,000 Indian labourers had been packed away to various countries. This number increased steadily over the next decades with the abolition of slavery in the French Republic and the Dutch Empire.

Ban and Subsequent Reinstatement

However, there was some unrest caused by those who advocated for the rights of these workers. Similar to the Anti-Slavery movement, many began protesting against the emigration of labour, and in 1839, a ban came into effect. The government restricted all emigration to provide labour, and a 200 rupee fine was implemented. Regardless, Indian labourers continued to be sent out to various French colonies via Pondicherry (which was a French colony at the time.)

Despite the ban, many European farm owners and landlords in various other colonies pressured the government to reinstate the Girmitiya system. Eventually, the East India Company gave in to the intense pressure and allowed emigration for labour to Mauritius in 1842, followed suit by lifting the ban on Caribbean countries in 1845.

Passage and Life of Indian Migrants

Once a worker had been recruited, they were ready to emigrate to their destination. The migrant workers were made to sign contracts that detailed their 5-year stay in the foreign land and set their wages. The wage was set at a minimum of 8 rupees per month, and once the contract was signed, the worker had to appear in front of an officer to obtain their emigration slip.

Next came the arduous journey to their destined lands. Since slavery had been abolished, the government had set minimum rules and requirements for the transportation of workers. The government only allowed the transportation of these workers from select ports, such as Madras or Calcutta, and thus began the long journey of these migrant labourers, as many were from far away villages in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar.

Many accounts of these workers have documented how, despite the minimum guidelines set by governments, they still had to endure poor conditions throughout their journey. The migrant labourers were packed like sardines and had to suffer from subpar sanitation, which led to waterborne diseases such as cholera, dysentery, and diarrhoea. Further, there was often a shortage of food and water, accompanied by atrocious treatment at the hands of the colonists who were in charge of the ship.

It was soon realised by the migrants that they had fallen victim to the Girmitiya system, and it was further substantiated by the poor living and working conditions they endured in the indentured colonies. Since the labourers had no exact idea as to where they were being shipped, they had difficulties assimilating into a completely new culture, especially one in which they were treated so horribly.

Many migrants recounted how they were hardly ever paid on time, if they were even paid. Only if the landlord was substantially satisfied with their work would they receive wages, and even then, the wages weren't enough to cover the costs of daily living and saving. In addition, the first wave of immigrants were often socially isolated and punished severely in case of unsatisfactory work.

Furthermore, those who migrated under the Girmitiya system could be prosecuted for even the tiniest mistakes or incompetence in their work, as ensured by the predatory contracts they had to sign. They were denied portable water and food frequently and seldom had access to healthcare facilities, leading to outbreaks of disease, which led to the suffering and death of many.

Additionally, despite signing 5-year contracts, many workers were denied a right of passage back home to India at the end of this tenure. The governments of these European colonies, where the labourers were stationed, even implemented further exploitative conditions that made it difficult for workers to travel back home. This included luring the workers' families and providing them with incongruent pieces of land to ensure that they stayed back and continued to be exploited by the Girmitiya system. Besides, the government of India made it so that if a worker did not claim their right of passage back home for more than 6 months after their contract was up, it would automatically be forfeited.

Impact and Legacy

The Girmitiya system had a profound impact on the lives of millions of Indians who were displaced, as well as their next of kin. The system was based on swindling poor workers in India, and this pattern continued even when they reached their destinations. As a result of the Girmitiya system, the economic disparity between the labourers and the landlords continued to grow. Since the migrant workers provided cheap labour, the land owners maximised profits. At the same time, the workers continued to grovel in poverty as they had no access to resources, living wages, or even food and potable water.

Furthermore, there was a substantial shift in the demographics of many countries. As a result of the large number of Indian workers migrating to various nations, they became the majority group in countries such as Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Suriname. This led to a massive cultural shift in these countries, with Indian culture being assimilated into the culture of these nations. The migrant labourers did their best to keep Indian traditions and culture alive, leading to various new music, art, and cuisine emanating from the Girmitiya system.

This legacy is present even today, with many descendants of the original migrants now holding several positions of power within these countries. The successors of the Girmitiyas are now engrained into the culture of their respective countries and have fought hard to uplift themselves from the precarious positions of their predecessors. The struggles and the resistance against the Girmitiya system have become an essential part of the identities of the Indian diaspora still living in these countries, and many cultural festivals, museums, and memorials have been set up to ensure that the stories of the struggle faced by the initial indentured labourers are not lost to history.

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In conclusion, the Girmitiya system stands as a stark reminder of the exploitation and injustice wrought by colonial powers upon millions of Indian labourers in the 19th century. The workers were lured by false promises of prosperity and endured unimaginable hardships and suffering in foreign lands while also being subjected to brutal exploitation and discrimination.

The legacy of the Girmitiya system lives on in the cultural richness and resilience of descendant communities, who have fought tirelessly to reclaim their dignity and heritage. While the system has left a lasting impact on the socio-economic and cultural landscapes of affected regions, it also serves as a testament to the enduring spirit of resistance and solidarity in the face of adversity.


What is the meaning of Girmitiya labour?

Girmitiya labour or the Girmitiya system refers to the system of indentured labour that originated in the 19th century, wherein Indian workers were recruited and transported to various colonies under colonial rule to work on plantations and other industries. The term "Girmitiya" is derived from the Indian pronunciation of the English word "agreement," reflecting the contractual and legal nature of the labour arrangements made between the workers and colonial authorities.

Who are called indentured labourers?

Indentured labourers are individuals who enter into a contractual agreement, known as an indenture, to work for a specified period in exchange for passage, accommodation, and other provisions. Historically, many indentured labourers were recruited from regions such as India and China to work in colonies under colonial rule, often in plantation agriculture or other industries.

What is the difference between slavery and indentured labour?

Slavery involves ownership and control of individuals as property, with no rights or freedom. On the other hand, indentured labourers are those who enter into a legal, contractual agreement to work for a specific period in exchange for passage and provisions. Unlike enslaved people, they have legal rights, and their status is not hereditary.

Samar Takkar

Samar Takkar is a third year undergraduate student at the Indian Institute of Psychology and Research. An avid tech, automotive and sport enthusiast, Samar loves to read about cars & technology and watch football. In his free time, Samar enjoys playing video games and driving.

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