A little-known period of post-slavery life in the Caribbean is being explored in a new exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands.
I say little known, for those involved, it’s very well known, but often the narrative in the UK about the ending of slavery in the sugar plantations seems to end at that point, and doesn’t look at the “slavery in all but name” that followed on afterwards.
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. Known as indenture, it was pretty much slavery — without the ugly name.
Having successfully petitioned the British government for their support, the first indenture ships to the Caribbean set sail in 1838. Between then and its end in 1917, around 450,000 Indians were recruited to work in the British Caribbean.
A modest display telling this overlooked period of British colonialism has now opened in the Docklands museum, on the top floor at the end of the existing sugar and slavery exhibition space.
There are a few books, some documents and a number of explanatory boards to tell the story of what happened after slavery ended.
A long contract is on display with a display message about whether you think the terms in the contract would be acceptable today. Having asked the question though, it would have helped to display the document in question in a way that it can be read, rather than sideways, and considering the small text size, maybe printed a replica on the wall.
In the end, I took a photo and read it at home on my computer, and I would recommend doing the same as I would say this document is probably the most important item in the collection as the text shows how oppressive indentured workers’ lives were.
For example, the working day was nine hours, with just 30 minutes for lunch, and having signed a 5-year contract, they were only offered half-price travel back home to India if they worked for 10 years.
It’s this difficult to read (physically as well as emotionally) document in the glass case that should be the highlight of the exhibition.