Colonial Caribbean in Transition, Bridget Brereton & Kevin A Yelvington; Reviews-Jan. 2001
Bridget Brereton and Kevin Yelvington (eds), The Colonial Caribbean in Transition: Essays on Postemancipation Social and Cultural History (1999), xxiii + 319 (The University Press of the West Indies, Jamaica/University Press of Florida, Gainesville, $49.95). Madhavi Kale, Fragments of Empire: Capital, Slavery, and Indian Indentured Labor Migration in the British Caribbean (1998), 236 (University ofPennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, £29.50/$37·50).
Donald Wood is an historian of Trinidad whose influential study, Trinidad in Transition: The Years After Slavery (1968), was one of the pioneering works on post-emancipation Caribbean history.
1 Dereck Beale,Joseph II (Cambridge, 1987).
The Colonial Caribbean in Transition is explicitly inspired by Wood's work and is designed as a tribute to him. Although different in focus, Madhavi Kale's Fragments of Empire also deals with many of the same issues addressed by Wood. Kale's book is a fascinating study of Indian indentured labour in the British Caribbean which focuses on Trinidad and British Guiana. Kale begins by examining the attempt to import Indians to British Guiana by John Gladstone, a Liverpool merchant who was the owner of sizeable estates in the colony and the father of the future British Prime Minister. With Indian indentured labour already established in Mauritius, Gladstone sought to introduce Indians to British Guiana even before the advent of full freedom in 1838. The debate surrounding this immigration prefigured many of the subsequent arguments about Indian indentured labour. On the one hand, the Colonial Office was wary about establishing a new form of slavery, and it regarded Indian labourers as particularly vulnerable to exploitation in a system which offered workers little protection. Although the Colonial Office sanctioned Gladstone's scheme, it quickly suspended immigration to British Guiana on learning of the high mortality of the indentured labourers. At the same time, proponents of Indian indentured labour emphasized the advantages to the Indians themselves, including the promise of work and the opportunities in the Caribbean for the immigrants, especially in contrast to the hunger and poverty characteristic of their situation in India. There were other arguments in favour of Indian indentured labour from a Caribbean and a humanitarian perspective. One concern was the effect of emancipation. Without immigration, some observers suggested, British Guiana would sink into a state of barbarism. The land would remain idle, since the ex-slave population was leaving the plantations. Moreover, the freed women who formerly made up the majority of the slave labour in the field were withdrawing from this work. While this development was applauded by British humanitarians, it was feared that these tendencies would limit the economic development of colonies such as British Guiana. Indian labour would, therefore, solve a number of problems. As Kale notes, 'Labour migration would address the shortage of labour in the British Caribbean, under-employment in India, and the not unrelated problems of immorality and the challenges of upliftment at both ends of the empire' (54). In addition, given the competition of slave-produced sugar from Cuba and Brazil, it was hoped that immigration would help secure the triumph of the free labour system in the British West Indian colonies.