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Indian Indenture In British Malaya: Policy and practice in the Straits Settlements

Published by Peepal Tree Press

ISBN: 9781845230364

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David Chanderbali’s book is a valuable addition to the small but growing literature concerning 19th century Indian indentured migration to work as labourers in plantation economies in the tropical world. It complements Hugh Tinker’s (and others) studies of Indian indenture in the Caribbean, Surendra Bhana’s (and others) of South Africa and those dealing with Fiji and Mauritius.

Whilst Chanderbali’s book is not the first to deal with Indian migration to the Malay peninsula, it is the first to deal comprehensively with the workings of the indenture system in that region. As such it makes several important contributions. It offers a contribution to South-East Asian studies by giving a more accurate and detailed account of the circumstances of the arrival of Indians in what is now Malaysia. It adds to the history of labour movements in the nineteenth century by confirming what was common to the system wherever it manifested, and establishing what was local and distinctive. In this case it involved features of the local Chinese rumah kechil system. One of these was to pay the immigrants’ passage, in addition to making a cash advance. In return, the immigrants contracted to work for a specified length of time or until they liquidated their debts. This kind of debt bondage was not to be found in such a naked form in other versions of the indenture system.

Chanderbali’s narrative is a lucidly written and well structured. Whilst amply documented with statistical tables, the study never loses sight of the people involved, whether Indian labourers or white planters. Above all, in its careful detail, it enables clear comparisons to be made in identifying the factors that shaped the commonalities and the distinctive features of particular indentured systems, features that have contributed to the contemporary position and inter-ethnic relationships of Indian communities in the Caribbean, South Africa, Mauritius and Fiji.

Dr David Chanderbali was born in Guyana. He studied in Guyana and completed doctoral research at the Australian National University. He taught in the Department of History at the University of Guyana and is now the Registrar at that university.
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