Laborers, Coerced

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Laborers, Coerced

European discovery of the Americas in the 1490s and its later colonization of the region were associated with the establishment of plantations, using imported African slave labor, to produce sugarcane, tobacco, cotton, and other commodities for export to Europe. In the same decade, the 1490s, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama (c. 1460–1524) discovered the sea route around the Cape of Good Hope (modern-day Cape Town) to the Indian Ocean. This opened up the region to European exploitation first manifested in attempts to control the area's long-distance trade in commodities, which included silk and tea from China, cotton textiles from India, and spices from diverse places. These silks, tea, cotton textiles, and spices were not produced by slave labor. In China, silk was produced by free farmers, and tea was produced by small-scale free producers using seasonal, migrant labor to pick, process, sort, and pack the tea. In India, cotton textiles were produced by free Indian weavers who had considerable bargaining power in their dealings with textile merchants (until the eighteenth century, when the British East India Company restricted their bargaining power). Similarly, at the time of European intrusion in the Indian Ocean, spices were not produced by slaves.

In the following four centuries, a number of islands in the Indian Ocean did import slave labor to produce plantation commodities for long-distance trade: nutmeg in the Banda Islands (in Indonesia); sugarcane in the Mascarene Islands of Mauritius and Reunion (to the east of Madagascar); and cloves, initially in Ambon (in Indonesia) and later on the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba (off the coast of East Africa).


In 1621 the Dutch conquered the Banda Islands in order to gain control of the world's supply of nutmeg. Many Bandese were slaughtered, and most of the survivors were deported to Batavia (modern-day Jakarta) and sold as slaves; the native population of the Banda Islands was replaced by slaves procured from other islands of the Indonesian archipelago and elsewhere. When the Dutch abolished slavery in their colonies in 1860 their planters on the Banda Islands turned to indentured Javanese labor to provide their labor force. By this time, the Banda Islands no longer had a monopoly in the supply of nutmeg. The erosion of their monopoly began with the British occupation of the islands in 1796 during the Napoleonic Wars, when the British took seedlings of nutmeg to plant in their colonies in Southeast Asia. In addition, by 1860 the Dutch were growing nutmeg on other islands of the Indonesian archipelago.


The first European power to colonize Mauritius was the Dutch in 1638, but they abandoned the island in 1710. The French occupied Mauritius in 1721, but in 1810, during the Napoleonic Wars, the British conquered it. From the seventeenth century, slaves were imported by successive European powers from East Africa, Madagascar, India, and Indonesia, and by the nineteenth century, Mauritius had become an important producer of sugar-cane in the world market. The smaller French colony of Reunion also had become a producer of sugarcane using imported slave labor. When slavery was abolished by the British in 1835 Mauritius turned to indentured labor from India; when the French in 1848 Reunion initially turned to indentured labor from East Africa and Madagascar abolished slavery, but from 1861 it became reliant on indentured labor from India. In 1917 the export of Indian indentured labor was terminated.


In their conquest of the Moluccas group of islands (in eastern Indonesia) in the seventeenth century, the Dutch attempted to gain a monopoly on the production of cloves, which were indigenous to some of these islands. The Dutch restricted production to only one of these islands, Ambon, and cloves were produced using slaves imported from other islands in the archipelago. In the following centuries, the planting of cloves gradually spread, initially to Penang (in Malaysia) and the Mascarene Islands, and then in the mid-nineteenth century to Zanzibar and Pemba, which then came to dominate the world market for cloves. Cloves had culinary and medicinal uses, and the main demand came from India and the Arabian Peninsula.

In the mid-nineteenth century Zanzibar and Pemba were part of the empire of the sultan of Oman, which included coastal East Africa. The clove planters were mostly Omani Arabs, and the plantations used imported African slave labor. In 1890 Zanzibar and Pemba became a British protectorate, and in 1897 slavery was abolished in these territories. The newly freed slaves refused to become wage laborers on the clove plantations; instead, under the "squatting system," the ex-slaves grew subsistence crops on their own plots and worked for planters at certain tasks as day or seasonal workers. For the harvest, imported African pickers supplemented the resident labor force.


In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries slaves from Africa and Madagascar were shipped by the Dutch to work in their gold mines on the west coast of Sumatra (Indonesia). African slaves were also shipped to work in the pearl fisheries of the Arabian Peninsula; by the late nineteenth century this region had become the world's largest source of supply for pearls. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Sulu Sultinate based at Jolo (in the southern Philippines) raided for slaves throughout Southeast Asia. Some of the slaves were used in manning slave-raiding vessels, some were sold, and others were used on the coasts and in the forests of Borneo to provide a variety of products for export to China, including trepang (sea creatures), pearls, and birds' nests. The slave system was terminated due to Spanish intrusion in the late nineteenth century.


In contrast to the Americas, where exports of sugarcane, cotton, tobacco, and other plantation crops were based on slave labor until well into the nineteenth century, exports from most of the Indian Ocean region—with the exception of the areas discussed above—were not generally based on slave labor. After the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century, both areas made extensive use of indentured labor. Indian indentured workers went to the tea gardens of Assam (in northeastern India), to the sug-arcane plantations of Malaysia, Reunion, Mauritius, and Natal in the Indian Ocean, and to the Caribbean and Fiji (in the Pacific Ocean). Javanese indentured workers went to the sugarcane plantations of Suriname (in South America), the rubber plantations of Malaysia, and the tobacco plantations of Sumatra; they also were employed on many of the other outer islands of the Indonesian archipelago, and elsewhere. Chinese indentured labor went to the sugarcane plantations of the Caribbean, the gold mines of South Africa, and elsewhere. Indentured workers from Japan and the Philippines also were sent to various plantation economies, including Hawaii. In the Pacific region, workers from Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands were recruited on indenture contracts for employment on sugarcane and copra plantations in diverse places, including Queensland (Australia), Fiji, Samoa, and Hawaii. Indentured workers usually served contracts of three to five years' duration, and they could be imprisoned if they breached their contracts by, for example, running away. It was because of this penal sanction that indentured labor is called a coercive labor system.

SEE ALSO Coffee; Cotton;Labor, Types of;Laborers, Contract;Slavery and the African Slave Trade;Sugar, Molasses, and Rum;Tobacco.


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Cooper, Frederick. From Slaves to Squatters: Plantation Labor and Agriculture in Zanzibar and Coastal Kenya, 1890–1925. New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1980.

Hanna, Willard A. Indonesian Banda: Colonialism and Its Aftermath in the Nutmeg Islands. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1978.

Houben, Vincent J. H., Lindblad, J. Thomas, et al. Coolie Labour in Colonial Indonesia: A Study of Labour Relations in the Outer Islands, c1900–1940. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1999.

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Warren, James Francis. The Sulu Zone, 1768–1898: The Dynamics of External Trade, Slavery, and Ethnicity in the Transformation of a Southeast Asian Maritime State. Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1981.

Ralph Shlomowitz

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Laborers, Coerced

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Laborers, Coerced