Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/February 1899/The Labor Problem in the Tropics

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



A GREAT deal of space has been devoted in American magazines and newspapers recently to the question of how this country has become a colonial power. Destiny and duty, strength and weakness, accident and design, honesty and corruption have been called on by writers, singly and in various combinations, to bear the responsibility of the new departure in the national policy.

Whatever interest such speculations may possess for the student who seeks to discover in the events of history some indication of the evolution of national character, there can be little doubt that the eyes of the people at large are turned in another direction.

What are our new possessions worth? is the question which intelligent men of all classes are beginning to ask; and it is not surprising, in view of the comparative isolation of this country in the past, that there are few who have sufficient confidence in their own opinion to answer the query.

In England, whose colonial and Indian empire embraces nearly one fourth of the population of the globe, there is an astounding lack of knowledge in relation to colonial affairs; and those who follow the debates in the House of Commons will have noticed that when the colonies are the subject under discussion the few members who remain in their seats seldom fail to exhibit a degree of ignorance which must be most disheartening to the able and learned Colonial Secretary.

It is not to be wondered at, then, that in the United States, where the people have been too much occupied with the problems continually arising at home to pay any attention to affairs which, until very recently, have appeared entirely outside the range of practical politics, there should be few men who have given their time to that careful study of tropical colonization which alone can impart any value to opinions in regard to the practical issues involved in the colonial expansion of this country. Discussion of the subject has been almost entirely along the line of the possible effects of the new policy on the political institutions and popular ideals of the United States, and little has been written which may be said to throw any light on the problem of tropical colonization per se.

A residence of ten years in the tropical colonies of France, Spain, Holland, and Great Britain—a period during which I devoted much time to the study of colonial affairs—leaves me of opinion that there are two points in regard to which discussion is peculiarly opportune: 1. The value of the Philippines and Puerto Rico as a field for the cultivation of those tropical products which are consumed in the temperate zones. 2. The value of the islands as a market for products and manufactures of the temperate zones.

It will at once be seen that only in so far as the islands are valuable in the former respect can they be important in the latter, for in the absence of production there can not be any considerable consumption of commodities.

The first point to be considered, and it is the one to which I shall confine myself in the present article, is by what means the productive possibilities of Puerto Rico and the Philippines can be developed.

Basing my calculation on official reports covering a number of years, I find that the average value per capita of the annual exports of native products from a number of tropical colonies selected by me for the purpose of this inquiry is as follows:

Trinidad $26.48 Dominica $7.28
British Guiana 34.26 St. Vincent 7.68
Martinique 23.48 Ceylon 7.24
Mauritius 20.28 Montserrat 7.89

An examination of these figures will serve to show that the value of the colonies in the first column, measured by the standard of their productiveness, is three times that of the colonies in the second column. Reference to the population returns of the colonies named discloses the fact that in the colonies in the first column the population contains a very large proportion of imported contract laborers and their descendants, while in the other colonies practically the whole population is home-born for at least two generations.

A moment's reflection will show the importance of the comparison instituted above, and if the space at my command permitted a more extensive analysis of the trade of tropical colonies, it could be demonstrated that the theory holds good, almost without exception, that of tropical countries those only are commercially valuable in which a system of imported contract labor is in force.

There are one or two colonies (Barbados is the most striking example) in which the pressure of population is so great that the labor supply suffices for the utmost development of which the country is capable; but such instances are rare.

The experience of England in governing tropical colonies is frequently cited by those who favor the so-called imperial policy for the United States as a proof that tropical colonization in itself presents no difficulties which can not be overcome by enlightened administration. It would be difficult to point out in just what manner Great Britain derives any benefit from her tropical possessions, but her experience confirms the theory I have stated above—that the commercial development of tropical colonies is possible only where there is an extraordinary density of population or where a system of imported contract labor is in force.

A glance through the list of Great Britain's tropical colonies will serve to prove the correctness of this theory. Imported contract labor is used in British Guiana, Trinidad, Jamaica, Queensland, the Fiji Islands, the Straits Settlements, and Mauritius; while the pressure of population is extreme in Lagos and Barbados, which support respectively 1,333 and 1,120 persons to the square mile.

The remaining tropical colonies of Great Britain—using the term "tropical colony" in its strictest sense—are the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Hongkong, St. Helena, British Honduras, Grenada, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Antigua, St. Kitts-Nevis, Dominica, Montserrat, and a few islands in the Pacific which are insignificant commercially.

A careful examination of the British trade returns shows that the total export and import trade between the United Kingdom and all the British tropical colonies in 1896 reached a value of $146,000,000, and that of this sum $121,000,000 represented trade with the tropical colonies which employ imported contract labor and with Lagos and Barbados. In other words, the trade between the United Kingdom and those British tropical colonies where free labor is used and where there is no great pressure of population made up less than eighteen per cent of the total trade with the British tropical colonies.

It would appear from the facts I have given that the commercial development of those parts of the tropics where the population is sparse will be dependent on the importation of labor from more densely peopled areas.

If the question is approached from an entirely different standpoint the necessity of contract labor in the tropics becomes more strikingly apparent. The development of the tropics will be in the direction of agriculture rather than manufacturing, and the requirements of tropical agriculture in respect of labor are most arbitrary. It is not sufficient that the labor supply is ample, in the ordinary sense of the word; it must be at all times immediately available.

Thus, a mine owner whose men go out on strike is, briefly, placed in this position: He will lose a sum of money somewhat larger than the amount of profit he could have made during the period of the strike had it not occurred. His coal, however, is still there, and is not less valuable—indeed, in the case of a prolonged strike, may actually be more valuable—when the strike is over; work can easily be resumed where it was dropped, and during the idle days the ordinary running expenses of the mine cease. The greater part of the loss sustained in the instance I have supposed is not out-of-pocket loss, but merely the failure to realize prospective profits.

On the other hand, a sugar estate in the tropics spends about eight months out of the twelve in cultivating the crop, and the remaining four in reaping and boiling operations. By the time the crop is ready to reap many thousands of dollars have been expended on it by way of planting, weeding, draining, and the application of nitrogenous manures. If from any cause the labor supply fails when the cutting of the canes is about to commence, every cent expended on the crop is wasted; and if for want of labor the canes which are cut are not transported within a few hours to the mills, they turn sour and can not be made into sugar. It will thus be seen that in the case of sugar-growing a perfectly reliable labor supply is the first requisite.

The same might be said of the cultivation of tea, coffee, cocoa, spices, and tropical fruits.

This problem—the securing of a reliable labor supply—has been solved in the case of several of the tropical possessions of England by the importation of East Indian laborers under contract to serve for a fixed period on the plantations.

As, in my opinion, the East Indian contract laborer will play an important part in the development of the tropics, I describe in detail the most perfect system of contract labor with which I am acquainted, that existing at the present time in the colony of British Guiana. The system of imported indentured labor which is in force in many of the British colonies has been referred to frequently, both in this country and in England, as "slavery," "semislavery," "the new slavery." The use of such terms to describe such a system indicates a complete ignorance of the facts. As some of the best-informed journals in this country, in noticing my writings on tropical subjects, have fallen into this error, I hope that the description I give here, which is based on several years' experience of the actual working of the system, will serve to convince the readers of this article that the indenture of the East Indian coolie in the British colonies is no more a form of slavery than is any contract entered into between an employer and an employee in this country.

When the British Guiana planter was informed by the home Government in 1834 that four years later slavery would be entirely abolished throughout the British Empire, he foresaw at once that unless a new source of labor was thrown open a very short time would elapse before the cane fields would fall out of cultivation. He listened, not without some irritation, to the assurances of the agents of the Antislavery Society that as soon as the slaves were freed they would work with redoubled energy, and that the labor supply, instead of deteriorating, would, in fact, improve. The planters knew better, and began at once to arrange for the importation of contract labor. With the year 1834 began the period of apprenticeship for the slaves, prior to their complete emancipation four years later.

During this time, and before the imported labor sufficed for the needs of the plantations, several estates were ruined and fell out of cultivation because the apprenticed laborers would not work.

On October 11, 1838, the governor of the colony, Henry Light, Esquire, issued a proclamation to the freed slaves. The proclamation stated that the governor had learned with regret that the labor of the freed slaves was irregular; that their masters could not depend on them; that they worked one day and idled the next; that when they had earned enough to fill their bellies they lay down to sleep or idled away their time; that they left their tasks unfinished, and then expected to be paid in full for them.

In the meanwhile the planters imported labor from the West Indian Islands, Malta, Madeira, China, and Germany; and eventually the system of immigration from India was organized.

The system is under the control of the Indian Council in Calcutta on the one hand and the British Guiana Government and the Colonial Office on the other. In Georgetown, the capital of the colony, is the immigration department, under the management of the immigration agent general, who has under him a staff of inspectors, subagents, clerks, and interpreters, all of whom must speak at least one Indian dialect. In Calcutta resides the emigration agent general, also an official of the British Guiana Government, who has under him a staff of medical officers, recruiting agents, and clerks.

Each year the planters of British Guiana send in requisitions to the immigration department stating the number of immigrants required for the following year. These requisitions are examined by the agent general, and if, in his opinion, any estate demands more coolies than the extent of its cultivation justifies, the number is reduced. As soon as the full number is deeided on, the agent in Calcutta is informed, and the process of recruiting commences. The laborers are secured entirely by voluntary enlistment. The recruiting agents go about the country and explain the terms offered by the British Guiana planters, and those men and women who express their willingness to enter into a contract are sent down to Calcutta at the expense of the colony.

On arrival in Calcutta they are provided with free food and quarters at the emigration depot until such time as a sufficient number, are assembled to form a full passenger list for a transport. During the period of waiting, which may extend to several weeks, a careful medical inspection of the laborers is made, and all those who may be deemed unfit for the work of the estates are sent back to their homes at the expense of the colony. Prior to embarkation the coolies are called up in batches of fifteen or twenty, and the emigration agent or a local magistrate reads over to them in their own language the terms of the indenture. Each one is then given an indenture ticket on which the terms of indenture are printed in three dialects. The agent general affixes his signature to each ticket; and a special provision in the laws of British Guiana makes his signature binding on the planters who employ the coolies. The ticket thus constitutes a contract valid as against either party in the courts of the colony.

The coolies have the right to carry with them any children they may wish, and those under twelve years of age are exempt from indenture. The transportation is effected in sailing vessels, which are for the time being Government transports. The reason why steamers are not employed is that sailing vessels are found to be much healthier, and that the long sea voyage has an excellent effect on the immigrants. The regulations governing the voyage are very strict. As far as the coolies are concerned, the ship is in charge of a medical officer. The captain of the ship, the officers, and the crew are all under the command of the doctor, except in so far as the actual sailing of the vessel is in question. The vessel has ample hospital accommodation, a complete dispensary in charge of a qualified dispenser, and all the arrangements must be passed by a Government inspector before the ship is given her clearance. The food to be furnished during the voyage is specified by law. The bill of fare consists chiefly of bread, butter, rice, curry, sago, condensed milk, and fresh mutton, a number of sheep being carried on the ship.

Every morning and evening the doctor makes an inspection of the vessel, and enters in his log-book all essential details, such as births, deaths, cases treated in the hospital, and so forth.

On arrival in the colony the coolies are allotted to the different estates. The coolie is bound to remain for five years on the plantation to which he is allotted, and to work during that time five days a week, the day's work being seven hours. In return for this the planter must furnish him with a house free of rent, and built in such a way as to meet the requirements of the inspector of immigrants' dwellings in regard to ventilation, size, and water supply; and no immigrants are sent to any estate until these houses have been inspected and passed as satisfactory. The planter must also furnish on the estate free hospital accommodation and medical attendance, and in addition provide free education for the children of indentured immigrants.

The medical officers are Government servants, and the colony is divided into districts, each of which has its own doctor, who is compelled by law to visit each estate in his district at least once in forty-eight hours and examine and prescribe for all immigrants presenting themselves at the hospital.

The planter is further bound to pay a minimum daily wage of twenty-four cents to each man and sixteen cents to each woman. This appears at first sight a very small sum, but when it is taken into account that a coolie can live well on eight cents a day it will be seen that the wage is three times the living expense, a rate very rarely paid to agricultural laborers in any part of the world.

That the coolies do, in fact, save considerable sums of money will be seen when the statistics of the immigration department are examined. These records show that during the years 1870 to 1896 38,793 immigrants returned to India after completing their terms of indenture, and that they carried back with them to their native land over $2,800,000. At the end of 1896 there were over five thousand East Indian depositors in the British Guiana Government Savings Bank and the Post-Office Savings Bank, with a total sum of more than $450,000 to their credit.

At the end of five years the indentured coolie becomes absolutely free. He may cease work, or, if he prefer it, remain on the estates as a free laborer. The whole colony is open to him, and he may engage in any trade or profession for which he may be fitted. If he remains for five years longer in the colony, even though he be idle during the whole of that time, he becomes entitled to a grant of land from the Government. The law in this respect has been recently changed. All coolies who came to the colony prior to 1898 have the choice at the end of ten years of a free grant of land or an assisted passage back to their native place.

It may be objected by those persons who are unacquainted with the system that all this sounds very well on paper, but that the opportunities for fraud and oppression must be very frequent, and, human nature being what it is, very frequently taken advantage of, to the injury of the coolies' interests. Such charges have, in fact, been made from time to time, but they have, on investigation, proved to be unfounded, or, at the worst, highly exaggerated. The treatment of the indentured immigrants in British Guiana was the subject of a Royal commission of inquiry in 1870. The appointment of the commission followed a series of charges made by a certain Mr. Des Voeux, a magistrate in the colony, in a letter to Earl Granville, at that time Secretary of State for the Colonies.

The commission visited the colony and conducted a most searching inquiry. Hundreds of witnesses were examined, and the commissioners visited several estates, without giving any warning of their intentions, and questioned many of the coolies as to their treatment. Mr. Des Voeux entirely failed to substantiate his charges; and Sir Clinton Murdoch, the chairman of the emigration board—a permanent department of the Colonial Office—in referring to the report of the commission in a blue book issued in 1872, said: "It may, I think, be considered that the report of the commissioners is generally satisfactory, both as regards the magistracy, the planters, and the immigrants. Many defects in the system and mode of working it are no doubt pointed out, but they are defects caused by errors of judgment, by insufficiency of the law, or by want of foresight, not by intentional neglect or indifference to the well-being of the people, still less by oppression or cruelty. The vindication of the magistracy and of the medical officers appears to be complete, and the fair dealing and kindness of the managers toward the immigrants is acknowledged."

The laws have been amended, the Government inspection has been made more complete, and to-day it is impossible that any abuse of power on the part of the planters can pass unnoticed.

To give an instance of the effectiveness of the Government supervision—each estate is compelled by law to keep pay lists according to a form specified by the immigration department, in which the name of each indentured immigrant must be entered with a record of each separate day's work during the five years of the indenture. Thus, if the pay list shows that in a certain week a man worked only two days out of the legal five, it must also show the reason why he did not work on the other three days. It may have been that the man was in the hospital, in which case the letter "H" must appear opposite his name for those days; or he may have been granted leave of absence, when the letter "L" would account for him. These pay lists are inspected by a Government officer twice a month, and any faults disclosed by the examination become the subject of a severe reprimand from the agent general, followed in the case of persistent neglect by the cutting off of the supply of coolies.

So minute are the records of the immigration department that were an application made to the agent general for information regarding some particular indentured coolie, that official could without difficulty supply the name of the man's father and mother, his caste, age, native place, with the same information in regard to the man's wife. He could also make out an account showing every day the man had worked during the term of his indenture, and the reasons why he had not worked on the other days, with the exact amount earned on each working day. In addition to this he could state how many days the man had spent in the estate's hospital and what was the matter with him on those occasions, besides furnishing a copy of every prescription made up for the man in the estate's dispensary.

A striking evidence of the desire of the Government to protect the coolies from ill treatment of any kind is afforded by the rule of the immigration department that, if any overseer on an estate is convicted of an offense against an indentured immigrant, the dismissal of the offender is demanded, and each estate in the colony is warned that if it employ the man the supply of immigrants will be cut off.

The coolies are given every facility to complain of ill-treatment or breach of contract on the part of the planters, for, in addition to the opportunity afforded by the regular visits of the subagents, the right is secured to them by law of leaving any estate without permission in order to visit the agent general or the nearest magistrate; and either of these officials has the power to issue all process of law free of cost to any coolie who satisfies him that there is a prima facie cause of complaint.

Such, in brief, are the features of the East Indian immigration system of British Guiana.[1]

Those who approach the question of the labor supply for the American colonies with an unprejudiced mind will see that there is nothing in the system I have described which is at variance with the principles of the American people.

All that is required to make such a system a boon both to the employer and to the laborer is that the officials charged with the inspection of the system and the protection of the immigrants' interests should be intelligent, honest, and fearless in the discharge of their duties.

  1. To those who are interested in the subject of indentured labor in the tropics, the following statistics, compiled by me from official sources, may be of interest. The figures relate to British Guiana:
    Year. Number of
    from India
    Number of
    pired im-
    who re-
    turned to
    Value In dol-
    lars of money
    and orna-
    ments carried
    back to India
    by returning
    Number of
    East In-
    dian de-
    positors in
    the Gov't
    Total amount
    of their de-
    posits, in
    Number of
    of offenses
    against im-
    Death rate
    per 1,000
    among in-
    death rate
    of the
    1886 4,796 1,889 111,775 5,558 425,956 8 27.40 25.56
    1887 3,928 1,420 92,613 5,821 438,600 4 23.20 32.41
    1888 2,771 1,938 95,074 5,904 457,886 1 19.73 29.27
    1889 3,573 2,042 112,124 6,802 513,220 1 1,257 2813
    1890 3,432 2,125 142,611 7,269 558,734 3 20.40 39.80
    1891 5,229 2,151 134,225 6,398 515,246 2 20.40 37.00
    1892 5,241 2,014 97,529 6,085 527,203 1 25.20 39.00
    1893 4,146 1,848 104,763 6,179 544,420 1 24.91 35.00
    1894 9,585 1,998 113,308 6,128 529,161 2 24.22 33.53
    1895 2,425 2,071 119,289 4,950 453,950 1 20.36 29.58
    1896 2,408 2,059 7,6470 4,520 434,759 1 16.50 24.10