The Agreement is a film and photography project documenting Indian communities descended from indentured Indian migrants. Initially these Indian migrants were sent to replace African slaves who had walked away from the brutalities of life on sugar cane plantations when slavery was abolished.
Over a million people left India and most never returned.
This ‘agreement’ the Indian migrants signed, many who were illiterate, was in fact a form of economic slavery. Although they were promised free passage home after years of back breaking labour, many had no idea of where they were being sent, the brutality of plantation life they would face or just how far away it was.
The consequences of this enormous movement of people through the world is a story that many outside of these communities do not know and the comparison of these modern day Indian communities provides a great opportunity to examine identity, racism and power through people’s ordinary lives and lived experience - it offers both hope and despair.
The Indian communities in Guyana, Mauritius, South Africa and Fiji have now been there for generations and still remain persistently and proudly Indian.
They created a new sense belonging. But as their communities grew and flourished, often ethnic tensions developed. Even after any direct connection to India had long since disappeared, Indians in Fiji, Guyana and South Africa have faced the call to ‘go home’ from extremists and a denial of their right to be citizens in the country of their birth.
They were marooned by history. Bought there by the colonialists who have long since moved on, there’s no clear agreement about their rights to be there. Or anyone to hold to account. Just the right to belong, born on the sugar-farm.
At the beginning of indenture they were sent to the sugar colonies on old slaving ships. Many were processed and catalogued in the what had been the slave market in Mauritius, sometimes living in slave quarters as they were selected for their final destinations to take their place in the sugar cane fields working for British, French and Dutch plantation owners.
In Fiji, acceded to the British in the late nineteenth century, the Indian labourers had by then earned a reputation as effective, cheap, exploitable labour so seemed a natural choice for the new sugar plantations. The Fijians themselves looked upon plantation work as back breaking and with little intrinsic value to their already self-sustaining communities. The British, aware of the ‘fatal impact’ of colonialism in the Pacific on the Maori and Aborigine, were interested in protecting the Fijians from servitude and exploitation.
The reality of life on the plantation was one of brutality and racist exploitation with barely enough rations to sustain, sexual predation from overseers, a penalty system that could extend indenture periods and control of the supply of goods which meant little money could ever be saved.
Ghandi would campaign for sugar cane workers rights when he was a young lawyer in South Africa at the turn of the century and upon his return to India would campaign for an end to indenture, which was also supported by British abolitionists.
For many, once their period of indenture ended, there was a chance for a new life and their home and family was now a world away. The poor levels of literacy and great distances meant family ties were almost impossible to maintain. And the experience of travelling across the ‘dark ocean’ to the new world and living in barracks side by side broke down caste barriers and ‘polluted’ those of higher caste making return to traditional life in India difficult.
And now they knew how to farm sugar. And in the sugar empire, where colossal profits had been made, there was a chance for independence and freedom. They went on to use the railways they had built and the plantations they had farmed to build families and a community, to establish businesses, schools and temples.
It is as if they are the ‘black Jews’ of the Commonwealth, never completely secure, not fully at home in the country of their birth, facing an implicit racist tension. Their tight knit and often very successful communities often led to mistrust and envy. Their economic success and persistent cultural difference then led to fears of their political influence once independence was achieved.
But each community has a very specific history as well.
In Fiji and Guyana ethnic tension has been so great they’ve been compelled to leave and repeat the migration of their grandparents, hoping for security and unrestrained opportunity, making new homes in New York, Toronto, Sydney and Auckland. In Mauritius, where they came to form the majority of the population they have achieved great economic success. And in South Africa, Indians who are a small minority in post-apartheid South Africa, find themselves negotiating a place in the Rainbow nation that is struggling with the legacy of apartheid and the need to redress the extreme subjugation of black South Africa. The Indians had straddled apartheid and were ‘too coloured’ for the whites and are now ‘not black enough’ for the Africans.
Recently, in Fiji the Fijian-Indians have faced three coups that severely manipulated racial tensions. In most recently, they have been embraced as full members of society by the indigenous military dictator turned Prime Minister, Rear Admiral (Rtd) Commodore Frank Bainimarama and for the first time, Fijian-Indians have been offered status within the country as Fijian. Bainimarama is promising a culture based on racial tolerance, equal opportunity and an end to corruption. This is only after many years of restricted opportunity and racial tension which has seen many emigrate and where they once almost threatened to numerically dominate the Fijians in terms of population, they are now a clear minority.
In Guyana there is great racial and political tension between the Indo-Guyanese, the descendants of the ‘sugar slaves’, and the Afro-Guyanese, descendants of the African slaves who they were sent to replace. These tensions were exacerbated and manipulated by covert CIA influence in post-independence elections which led to massacres, recrimination, intimidation and flight. Since then, there has been racially driven elections and mistrust between a fundamentally racially divided nation. In online communities some Indo-Guyanese trade racist insult where ‘coolies’ reply by calling blacks ‘nigger’. Many Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese have fled what has become a corrupt and stagnant nation to start again, many making their homes in Toronto and New York.
On Mauritius, a small island that was first under French then British rule, more than half a million Indians arrived under indenture to grow sugar. Indo-Mauritians are now seen as being the most economically successful of the overseas Indian communities. On the eve of independence in 1968 the World Bank predicted a dire economic future for the country with it’s small size, remoteness from world markets and limited resources. However, after independence, Mauritius transformed itself from being a poor sugar economy into one of the most successful economies in Africa.
Finally in South Africa, where Indians were honoured to be ‘coloured’ in the unequal racial hierarchy of apartheid, Indian South Africans became determined political voices in the call and protest to end apartheid. This started with Mahatma Ghandi’s infamous train ride. He was a young lawyer recently arrived from India, travelling by first class he was accosted by the conductor, and thrown out of a first class carriage despite having a ticket, ejected from the train and left to spend a cold night at a remote station. Ghandi went on to organise a strike among sugar cane workers and his first hand experience of this racism and exploitation inspired his fight for the independence of India. Nelson Mandela and other ANC activists were often hidden and protected within the South African Indian community during the struggle against apartheid, a history that has since been elided as South Africa reclaims an indigenous African identity.
After signing an agreement more than a hundred years ago these modern day communities live with this complex legacy which calls into question ideas of race, belonging, land and freedom, and the right to be a full and equal citizen in the country of your birth.