Begun in 1834 and abolished in 1917, the system of indenture created Indian diasporic communities in three continents. Professor David Dabydeen, a pioneer of Indian-Caribbean studies as a discipline in the UK and a leading poet of the Indian-Caribbean experience, is co-convenor of the forthcoming Indenture Abolition Centenary conference. Below, he explains why it is important to mark the abolition of a system used to bring millions of Indians to labour on British colonial plantations in the Caribbean and beyond.

You have been involved in the field of Indian-Caribbean studies for pretty much your entire career. What does the centenary of the abolition of indenture mean for you?

I am glad to be alive to be witness to, and participant in, the events to mark the centenary. As a writer of Indo-Caribbean descent, I have felt a certain obligation to chronicle, in poetry, fiction and scholarship, aspects of the experiences of indentured labourers, which might otherwise be lost through neglect.

In my poem Coolie Odyssey, I wrote of a graveyard of Guyanese Indians I had visited, which was largely bumps in the earth: ‘There are no headstones, epitaphs, dates/ The ancestors curl and dry to scrolls of parchment/ They lie like texts/Waiting to be written by the children/For whom they hacked and ploughed and saved/ To send to faraway schools.’

Do you think that we’ve made any progress over the last few years in increasing public knowledge about the system of indenture in the UK? 

Not really. I participated in a BBC TV programme called ‘Coolies: How Britain Reinvented the Slave Trade’ which, I suppose, brought the subject to a large unfamiliar audience. I taught a master’s course at Warwick on Indo-Caribbean Literature. Then there was the Warwick University 1988 International Conference on Indians to mark the 150th year of arrival in the Caribbean, which resulted in a respectable publication.

Professional historians on the Caribbean obviously know about the Indian presence, and brilliant scholars like Clem Seecharan, Walter Rodney, Bridget Brereton and Brinsley Samaroo have chronicled aspects of that presence. But the Caribbean, even Cuba, does not figure prominently in British academia, so scholarship has a limited readership.

For the British public to understand indentureship, we would need a series like ‘Roots’, which brought home powerfully the nature of slavery. Maybe a major television biography on V.S. Naipaul, the most famous descendant of indentured labourers, might bring the subject to public attention.

A donor has recently funded a series of annual lectures into the study of indenture for the University of Warwick. What are your views on this? Do you think it could change the future of ‘indentureship’ studies in the UK in terms of increasing awareness and promoting scholarship into the subject?

It will, and it is our obligation to ensure that the annual lectures will be filmed and widely disseminated in the Caribbean, since we ourselves, at the level of the general populace, know little about how and why Indians arrived in the region.

 What’s the purpose of marking the centenary of the abolition of indentureship? What do you hope October’s two-day ‘Indenture Abolition Centenary’ event will achieve?

I owe that to those who came from 1838 onwards. I was honoured to be lead editor of the Oxford Companion to Black British History, published in 2007 to mark the 200th anniversary of the ending of the slave trade. Given that I am in a privileged position in academia, with access to funding and publications, it is unthinkable that I would not do otherwise. Plus there is the sheer excitement of meeting fellow travellers.

Fortunately we now have a group of bright young scholars, like Maria del Pilar Kaladeen at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, who are the seeds of future scholarship, and who will organise on the page and in seminar rooms. Many of these new scholars will be attending the October conference, and it is wonderful for Warwick and London universities to provide them with a platform.

 More information

  • David Dabydeen is professorial fellow in the office of the vice chancellor and president of the University of Warwick, having served at Warwick from 1984 to 2017 as director of the Centre for Caribbean Studies and professor of postcolonial literature. The Guyanese-born academic is also an award-winning novelist and poet, and was formerly Guyana’s Ambassador to UNESCO and, from 2010–15, the country’s Ambassador Plenipotentiary and Extraordinaire to China.
  • Indenture to abolition centenary conference, at Senate House, 6–7 October, will include presentations from new and established scholars and feature the latest research on indentureship and its legacies. It also incorporates the University of Warwick’s inaugural Gafoor Lecture in Indentureship Studies, which takes place on 6 October and, on 7 October, a literary panel co-curated with the Commonwealth Writers cultural initiative.