indentured labour

All You Need to Know About Indentured Labour: Origins, Conditions, and Significance

Step into history's shadows, where sweat and perseverance build dreams that line the pockets of oppressors. Indentured labour, an agonising reality, thrives in colonialism's depths – from sugar, cotton, and tea plantations to rail projects, painting a tableau of struggle and exploitation. This journey unravels the intimate link between indentured labour and the haunting legacy of slavery.

In this blog, we delve into origins, conditions, and significance, peeling back layers to spotlight the lives sculpted by this system. A global history emerges, weaving tales of immigrants and emigrants from India and beyond. This voyage uncovers empathy and challenging perspectives and fosters a deeper understanding of this often-neglected chapter. 

Unveiling the past, we shed light on those whose narratives shaped our world. Join us as we navigate this intricate web, reflecting on the dynamics of progress, power, and sacrifice that echo through time's corridors. The stage is set, and our exploration commences.

Origins of Indentured Labour 

The origin of Indentured labour is a tapestry woven from various threads, each category a distinct hue on the canvas of history. Delving into these categories allows us to unravel the complexities of this system. Join us as we explore its diverse origins, shedding light on the intricate stories that have shaped its narrative.

In Slavery

Slavery predominantly targeted African immigrants, stripping them of bodily autonomy and reducing them to mere commodities. Subjected to brutal conditions, they existed as objects devoid of consent or personhood, devoid of fundamental human rights.

Indentured labour, tracing its origins to this grim past, manifests differently. Individuals work for an employer they're indebted to, often by choice. However, instances like debt slavery leave them with scant alternatives, subjecting them to harsher treatment than even enslaved people endured.

In Contract Labour

Contract labour entails crafting a binding agreement, typically with an immigrant labourer, obligating them to dedicate their time to the employer's tasks. Until the contract's designated culmination, even the freedom to breathe may require the employer's sanction. Indentured labour aligns with this expansive concept of temporary ownership.

Coolies, primarily Asian labourers operating within contracts, emerged due to workforce scarcity post-slavery abolition. This category of unskilled workers, the coolies, found its genesis in response to the void left by the cessation of slavery.

In Native America

War was ravaging Europe, and there was an extreme financial crisis in the 15th century. The trend followed into the 16th century, and inflation ravaged the lands. Protestantism spread like wildfire and catalysed further military conflict. Colonialism was getting popular.

The effects of colonialism had also started to affect people. It led to the death of free trade, which paved the way for increased labour with little to no income. It further developed into indentured labour owing to the circumstances. 

In American Colonies

New England was formed through group settlement. A piece of land would be provided to the immigrants, and the boundaries were closely observed to be fixed. This required very intricate planning for sustenance, which included farming, fencing, and grazing processes. They decided who should become the settlers and the freeholders. Much work had to be put into this, which required intense labour for a particular period. They travelled to plough their lands. This also paved the way for indentured labour. 

YOU MIGHT BE INTERESTED IN: The Silent War of Sugar: Untold Stories of Indian Indentured Laborers in the Caribbean

Conditions of Indentured Labour

The indentured labourers, including emigrants from India, sought ways to escape poverty and famines. The problem here was the difference in education. Only some people understood the terms in the contract and were tricked into believing differently. This included the distance of travel and the wages which would be provided. There was also the aspect of immigrants being unable to understand the language of the source of colonisation. 

Conditions on the ships

The duration of the journey cannot be determined as it can range from a few to many weeks. The atmosphere was similar to that of a slave ship and was extremely pathetic. There was also the aspect of emigrants from different countries getting ill-treated by the agents of colonisation. Many also get afflicted with diseases like cholera, dysentery, and measles. Many deaths occurred as a continuation of exposure to diseases and famines. 

Working Conditions in the Plantations

The conditions were quite inhuman in the plantation sector, forcing the emigrants from different countries to work long hours and provide the lowest wages. They are already there after long journeys, and this affects their health. 

In some places, children had to work along with their parents from the tender age of five. Whipping was something that happened very frequently and was a significant source of stress. They were required to wake up at ungodly hours and, if not, were severely punished. 

The Kenya-Uganda Railway was constructed with the help of many 'coolies'. A number of them died while serving the project because of harsh working conditions, while lions at the construction site mauled some. This was also the effect of colonialism and attaching low value to the emigrants from India. People who tried to escape did not find that easy as they were recaptured and then chained or imprisoned. The existing contract could be changed, and the duration could be increased due to a breach. 


Immigrants then started to fight against the abuses prevailing in the indentured labour system, which was tedious. They began formulating petitions and handed them to the agents of colonialism, who were the head of the entire system. Immigrants working in the plantations also tried to perform acts of revenge towards the agents of colonialism on many occasions, but this just resulted in further results and did not bear any fruitful results as they were, after all, contributing to the economy of the suppressor. 

Mahatma Gandhi had, in the light of the Indian Nationalist movement, worked against indentured labour in South Africa because of the overwhelming presence of Asians in it. Because of his initiative, the British banned indentured labour in 1917. The suffering caused due to indentured labour had brought a sense of resistance to the common folk and, with it, a sense of rebellion against what they think is incorrect, along with many other movements.

ALSO READ: Girmitiya System: A Forgotten History with Lasting Impacts


History has provided us with many traditions, violence, and colonialism. They produce ugly after-effects in the current world, where they have models to refer to and learn. But the information is mainly used to hurt others. Even though, on paper, certain practices are banned, they still exist in this world.

Similarly, indentured labour still exists in the disguise of many other different circumstances. Fundamental human rights are still being denied in the work environments of the world. 


What is the origin of indentured labour?

Several Indians submitted themselves to indentured labour to save themselves from the crippling hands of poverty and famine. The 19th century was vicious in that way. While some journeyed on their own, others brought their families too. The abolition of slavery brought a hike to the demand for Indian indentured labourers.

What are indentured servants, and what is their significance? 

Indentured servants are part of a system where they are supposed to work without pay to settle a loan or indenture. It was a prevalent practice in the United States as workers were also hired in exchange for passage to America.

What is the significance of indentured labour? 

The very first settlers realised that they had many lands, but their eyes could not reach everywhere and hence, no one to care for it. The passage had been costly for the colonies. The Virginia Company brought forth indentured servitude to trap workers. It is a critical aspect of the colonial economy.

What were the conditions of indentured servants?

Indentured labour included a problematic life and severely affected physical health. For instance, consider the Chesapeake Colonies. A servant who does work on almost four acres of corn and a thousand tobacco plants would probably bend over fifty thousand times. 

What are the three types of indentured labour? 

In the 18th-century context, three different types of indentured labour were prevalent. It included the free-willers, King's passengers, and redemptioners.

Aparna Shiva M

Aparna is a post graduate student at Central University of Gujarat. She did her bachelor’s from Stella Maris College, Chennai. Creative writing is her forte as she mirrors herself through her poems.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Latest from History