On Friday (May 19), the Museum of London Docklands will open a new free display, ‘Indo + Caribbean: The creation of a culture’, in its London, Sugar and Slavery gallery.
The display tells the underrepresented history of Indian indenture in the British Caribbean and explores Indo-Caribbean culture in London today.
Following the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, British planters in the Caribbean devised a new scheme to source cheap labour for their plantations by 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 indentured ships to the Caribbean, 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.
Shereen Lafhaj, curator at the Museum of London, said, “As we mark the 75th anniversary of Windrush this year, ‘Indo + Caribbean’ is a chance to learn more about Britain’s colonial footprint and the diverse communities from the Caribbean that have enriched our city. 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.”
The display will explore:
- The transition between enslaved African labour and the start of Indian indenture, including letters petitioning the government from planter, Sir John Gladstone.
- 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, addressing the difficult conditions faced by migrants and the impact of their arrival.
- Indo-Caribbean Londoners today, exploring migration to the United Kingdom and drawing on personal stories of London’s Indo-Caribbean community.
In addition to Gladstone’s letters, the display features contracts, shipping company records, postcards, and papers from the Parliamentary Archives that give insights into the realities of life under indenture. The display also draws on photos, jewellery, film, and artwork to uncover personal stories and family memories from London’s Indo-Caribbean community.
“Understanding the history of Indian indenture in the Caribbean is essential to unpack perceptions of Caribbean heritage. The harsh indenture system led to the creation of entwined cultures and hyphenated identities. This in turn created displacement, with the Indo-Caribbean diaspora seeking to carve out their own cultural traditions whilst honouring their Indian ancestry. 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,” said Makiya Davis-Bramble, display Co-Curator and Curator at Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum.
For his part, Dr Saurabh Mishra, academic advisor to the display and Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Sheffield, said, “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. Their campaigning helped bring the degrading conditions and abuses to a much wider audience. This, alongside other factors including resistance by Indian indentured labourers themselves, led to widespread condemnation and pressure to finally put an end to the system after almost 80 years,” he added.
‘Indo + Caribbean: The creation of a culture’ is part of the Museum of London Docklands’ 20th anniversary program and is the result of a call for ideas to feature in the museum’s London, Sugar and Slavery gallery.
It opens one day after the observation of International Museum Day which is being celebrated under the theme, ‘Museums, Sustainability and Well-being’. The display will run until November 19.
According to the International Council of Museums (ICOM), “museums are key contributors to the well-being and to the sustainable development of our communities. As trusted institutions and important threads in our shared social fabric, they are uniquely placed to create a cascading effect to foster positive change.”
The ICOM also state that museums contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) “from supporting climate action and fostering inclusivity, to tackling social isolation and improving mental health.”
In 2023, the focus of the ICOM will be on SDGs 3, 13, and 15.
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