New London exhibition explores Indo-Caribbean colonial history
A new exhibition has opened in London to shine a spotlight on the under-represented history of Indian indentured labour in the Caribbean during the colonial era.
'Indo + Caribbean: The creation of a culture' opened at the Museum of London Docklands last week in its London, Sugar and Slavery Gallery.
Based on stories of Londoners of Indo-Caribbean descent, the display is geared towards unravelling the shared Indian and Caribbean history behind labourers who were shipped from India to work on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean islands.
"This exhibition will do the much-needed job of informing the general public, and children in particular, about imperialism and its impact," said Dr Saurabh Mishra, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Sheffield and academic advisor to the display.
"The timing of this exhibition is really significant, as it comes at a time when voices against decolonisation are gaining. We all know about movements such as Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall, which have generated new interest in matters related to decolonisation. The displays in the museum resonate with the calls being made for decolonisation in the public sphere," the Indian-origin academic said.
Following the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, British planters in the Caribbean devised a new scheme to source cheap labour for their plantations, recruiting workers from India to work for three to five years in return for transport, a minimal wage and some basic provisions. Having successfully petitioned the British government for their support, the first indenture ships – Hesperus and Whitby – set sail in 1838.
Between then and its end in 1917, around 450,000 Indians undertook the long and difficult journey, taking up to five months, to the British Caribbean.
"The question of indenture has been an emotionally charged issue right from its initial days, when rumours circulated about the cruel treatment meted out to Indian migrants in plantation colonies. This intensified in the early 20th century, championed by critics including Gandhi and the nationalist movement in India," notes Mishra.
The London display explores the transition between enslaved African labour and the start of Indian indenture, including letters petitioning the government from planter Sir John Gladstone. It also covers the journey from India to the Caribbean, examining the poor conditions on board and strong bonds forged between migrants as they crossed the Kala Pani or "dark waters". Life in the Caribbean for indentured labourers and exploring migration to the UK drawing on personal stories of London's Indo-Caribbean community also form part of the new free display.
"Exploitative and often shockingly cruel, Indian indenture was a system that nonetheless produced a unique culture, where individuals found agency to forge a new life. We hope this will be a starting point for people to find out about this lesser known aspect of our history," said Shereen Lafhaj, Curator at the Museum of London.
"Indo-Caribbean culture continued to thrive against Britain's colonial rule and grew to represent both celebration and resistance. This display helps us explore the untold stories of indenture and showcases the variety of culture in Caribbean communities today," added Makiya Davis-Bramble, display Co-Curator and Curator at Liverpool's International Slavery Museum.
The new display is the result of a call for ideas to feature in the museum's London, Sugar and Slavery Gallery for its 20th anniversary year and will run until November.
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