Indentured Labor in the Age of Imperialism, 1834-1922 (Studies in Comparative World History)

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Growing urbanization and rising living standards promoted a rapid increase in consumption in con- tinental Europe and North America as well. To meet this rising demand global production of cane sugar rose from , tons in to 10 million tons in In- deed, rising consumption was strongly stimulated by falling prices.

The sugar market recovered briefly when production dropped in the s as slavery and ap- prenticeship were ended, but declined again as West Indian production picked up. The fall in sugar prices continued as the imperial preference was phased out beginning in and competition grew from new sugarcane M W. See also Mintz, Sweetness and Power, pp. Demands 31 plantations in other parts of the world as well as from sugar beet cultivation in France. To remain profitable while the unit price of sugar tumbled they had to invest heavily in better land, fertilizer, and new machinery that could increase their productivity.

Such investments required borrowing large amounts of capital from lenders, who favored regions richest in natural resources and with the best access to large markets. It is fair to say that access to a regular supply of low-wage labor, though very important to sustaining the scale of production, was less decisive in the long-run profitability of individual sugar plantations and particular colonies than was the quality of land and the quantity of capital available.

Some additional consideration of land, capital, and technology, therefore, is in order before returning to the role of indentured labor. Since the seventeenth century the West Indies had witnessed the rise and fall of individual sugar colonies whose fertile lands were first ex- ploited, then depleted. Barbados had given way to Jamaica, which in turn had lost out to Saint-Domingue, until revolution undid that colony in the s. During the first part of the nineteenth century fresh and fertile fields enabled British Guiana and Trinidad to grow faster than the older French and British colonies, but by midcentury the large Spanish colony of Cuba took over the lead.

The nineteenth century also saw the rapid extension of sugar production outside the West Indies. By midcentury Mauritius had become Britain's premier sugar producer, having expanded from 27, acres under sug- arcane cultivation in the s to , in the s. During the second half of the century the quest for virgin tropical soils led to the establish- ment of new sugar plantations in Southeast Asia, Australia, Hawaii, and southern Africa.

Indeed, by the sugar from these new producers surpassed that from the West Indies and Mascarenes combined. Virgin lands outproduced those depleted by decades of sugarcane pro- duction, but equally important was investment in new technology that increased the yields from the milling and curing operations.

Galloway, Sugar Cane Industry, p. Such roller units arranged in series in Hawaii raised the quantity of juice extracted from about 65 percent to over 95 percent by the early twentieth century, a level that soon became the industry standard.


Once the juice was extracted, it had to be boiled down to a heavy syrup massecuite , traditionally a long, fuel-consuming process, then allowed to cure in smaller containers where the sugar crystals formed and the waste molasses drained away. A new vacuum-pan process permitted the boiling to be done at lower temperatures and thus with greater fuel efficiency.

Another new device, the centrifugal, used high-speed spinning to extract the molasses in much less time, producing a dryer sugar in the process. The need to make large investments in new equipment produced two different successful strategies in the sugarcane colonies, both of which spelled the end of traditional planter society. Especially in the newer producing regions of Hawaii, Java, and Natal, there was a consolidation of ownership of the fields and, during the last quarter of the century, the growth of corporate ownership of both the cane fields and mills. In other places, the traditional self-contained plantation declined as cane growing and milling became separate operations, permitting many independent growers to supply cane to independently owned central mills.

The latter system was most characteristic of Australia, but small producers also became a major factor in the survival of sugar mills in the Mascarenes, in Cuba where they grew a third or more of the sugar in , and in Trinidad where they raised a third of the sugar in The expansion of land, capital, and technology on the sugarcane planta- tions affected the use of labor in many different ways. In some cases the availability of cheap labor enabled the old plantation system to survive into the twentieth century, delaying the introduction of new technology.

For example, a continuing surplus of labor in Barbados, despite the de- parture of , persons, kept wage costs so low that the island lagged behind other producers in technological changes before Brazil and Louisiana were also able to draw upon the impoverished local population, thus avoiding the expense of importing and training new labor.

By a successful marriage of land and local labor, Java expanded its sugar pro- duction rapidly in the second half of the century, surpassing Mauritius as the Indian Ocean region's major sugar producer in the s and, during the Spanish-American War, eclipsing Cuba as the world's greatest pro- ducer. Yet, in many cases, the decision to import indentured laborers from afar was not just a matter of demographics. Demands 33 more West Indians migrated within or from the Caribbean region in the early twentieth century than entered British Guiana and Trinidad under indentured contracts.

The answer is not indentured laborers' greater productivity. Indeed, most planters were convinced that their indentured Indian laborers were less productive than the Creole Africans they supplanted. Nor was indentured labor necessarily cheaper once the considerable recruitment costs were taken into consideration. The key factor may have been that the terms of the indentured contract allowed for much greater control of the labor force, a point that will be developed in Chapter 5.

Great disappointments: The lessons from nineteenth century transitions from slavery to free labor

Because these changes in the sugar industry produced highly varied responses, it is useful to look in more detail at how the demand for indentured labor was connected to developments in different cane-grow- ing areas. This overview will include Peru and southern Africa where the labor was also used for mining. Jamaica's sugarcane industry illustrates an unsuccessful adjustment to these new circumstances. Although it had been Britain's premier sugar colony in the eighteenth century, Jamaica's decline had begun even before emancipation. The underlying problem was that the soil's fertility had been exhausted by decades of sugarcane production.

The nearly six mil- lion pounds paid to the island's planters in compensation for their slaves did little to reverse the inexorable decline, since slipping production re- stricted the ability of most Jamaican planters to finance more efficient production methods themselves and to borrow more funds. Some planta- tions survived but many more went under. Despite the arrival of 57, indentured laborers, Jamaican sugar exports declined rapidly during the last quarter of the century.

Access to labor was not sufficient to save Jamaica's sugar industry. In contrast, the greatest sugar producers and the greatest importers of indentured labor in the British Caribbean were British Guiana and Trin- idad, whose virgin fertile lands attracted ample new capital. Guiana's sugar exports grew percent between and , most of the in- crease before being attributable to a percent expansion of acreage 31, to 76, ; most of that after was due to technological innova- tions that increased yields per acre by 55 percent. Trinidad's development was similar, with sugar exports increasing percent between and Britain's Indian Ocean sugar colony, Mauritius, also greatly increased production.

Sugar exports rose from an annual average of 33, tons in the s, to , tons in the s and s at which time the colony was producing nearly 8 percent of the world's cane sugar. That growth depended heavily on the easy access to indentured laborers from India, , of whom had arrived by , two-thirds since midcentury. But growth slowed considerably after that.

Front matter

Capital necessary for moderniza- tion became hard to attract, both because Mauritius lay far from the major sugar markets in Europe and North America and because the opening of the Suez canal in diverted shipping between India and Europe north of the island. Under those circumstances the colony labor needs came to be largely satisfied by the resident population of Indians no longer under indenture and by the older African residents.

As a partial alternative to capital investment the planters from the s engaged in a grand morcelle- ment of their estates, the selling off of the less profitable lands in small parcels to Indians no longer under indenture, whose continued cultivation of sugarcane did much to sustain the colony's production and caused a modest boom in the early twentieth century. The French West Indies, cut off from adequate supplies of new labor and facing direct competition in their traditional French market from domestic sugar beet growers, registered only modest gains in production during the second half of the century.

A severe earthquake on Guadeloupe in , which destroyed many of the old mills, had the unexpected benefit of speeding the transition to more efficient central factories. Reunion went through a cycle of boom similar to that of Mau- ritius in the earlier nineteenth century with sugar production peaking at 73, tons in During the crisis after its production fell by two-thirds, and even during the recovery from to annual pro- duction remained at between 35, and 40, tons.

Galloway attrib- utes Reunion's decline to France's greater commercial interest in neighbor- ing Madagascar and to the competition from domestic sugar beets. Levin, The Export Economies: Their Demands 35 colonial Peruvians had long enriched their fields from the mountains of guano bird droppings that had accumulated over many centuries on the rainless islands adjacent to the rich feeding grounds of the Humboldt Current off Peru's Pacific coast, but it was not until the development of scientific soil analysis in Europe during the early nineteenth century that the commercial value of these nitrogen-rich deposits came to be more widely recognized.

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Guano shipment began in the s to the United States where it revitalized the tobacco fields of the upper South , to the West Indies where it helped to avert the complete collapse of sugar production in Jamaica , as well as to Australia and Europe. By Per- uvian guano had become one of Latin America's most important exports. The capital was largely British, partly French, but the labor force was primarily indentured Chinese. Peru's participation in the growing market for sugar was held back by several factors in the first half of the nineteenth century: the disruptions of the wars of independence; a labor shortage due to British abolitionist policies, which virtually ended the flow of slaves into Peru after , causing the slave population to decline from over 40, in to 25, at midcentury; and high interest rates in the s along with problems of entry into the Chilean market.

The plantations' revival came from the capital generated by the growth of guano mining, some of which was channeled to plantation owners by the government's payment of seven million pesos compensation when slavery was abolished in By then improved sea transportation gave Peruvian planters better access to dis- tant markets, but the greatest constraint on sugar's expansion remained finding sufficient labor.

Colonization of Africa - summary from mid-15th century to 1980

Indigenous population densities were low and free immigration small. Not until the late nineteenth century would rising population pressures and civil unrest drive a significant number of Per- uvian Indians into the labor market to sustain the plantation systems. Until then plantation owners relied on indentured Asian labor, importing nearly , Chinese between and and 18, Japanese between and During the century older settlers expanding out of the Cape Col- ony founded new settlements.

A Global Perspective

Between and about 5, British settlers were attracted to the fertile Indian Ocean colony of Natal by subsi- Pattern of Development in Historical Perspective Cambridge, Mass. Initial plans for small cotton plantations using labor from local Zulu villages did not succeed, since the African population of about , found little attraction in plantation work for wages. Instead, the Zulu were able to satisfy their wants by farming the substantial tracts reserved to them, selling cash crops to the towns, hunting for ivory, or renting surplus land in the areas designed for European settlers.

As cotton gave way to sug- ar cultivation in the early s, under the leadership of experienced plan- ters from Mauritius and the British West Indies, it was natural to bring in indentured Indian labor. Once the Indian government's initial resistance had been overcome, some 6, Indians were brought on three-year con- tracts between and Following a lull during the sugar depression from to , sugarcane came to be the dominant crop in the subtro- pical coastal lowlands, with large company-owned estates becoming the norm.

Under the supervision of an official protector of Indian immigrants, another , indentured Indian laborers were introduced between and , mostly for work on the sugar plantations. For two decades most unskilled labor was obtained from nearby African communities, the number of African miners attracted by the high wages rising above , in The destruction and dislocation caused by the long South African War virtu- ally halted gold mining.

When peace returned, the mineowners faced declining ore quality and shrinking access to cheap labor, since Africans were turning to safer and better-paying jobs in towns, which also afforded them much more personal freedom than the prisonlike mining com- pounds. Until the recruitment of large numbers of contract laborers from much poorer neighboring colonies notably Portuguese Mozambique could be built up, a temporary solution was the importation of 64, indentured Chinese laborers in Although such labor was costly to recruit about twenty pounds each , part of the cost was offset by the fact that the Chinese worked at much lower wage rates than local Africans.

Tinker, New System of Slavery, pp. Demands 37 Map 3. Principal indentured labor imports into Africa. Source: Table A. Queensland in northeastern Australia also became a significant importer of indentured labor in this period. As in Natal, colonists had moved into Queensland to grow cotton but turned to sugar after the bottom fell out of the cotton market following the U. Civil War. Separated from New South Wales in , the new Queensland government first sought to bring labor from India but, before that could be arranged, private recruiters began securing laborers from the South Pacific islands to the northeast.