History of Indian indenture in the British Caribbean explored in museum display

'Indo + Caribbean: The creation of a culture' is free and be on show at the Museum of London Docklands until 19 November.

A new display has opened at the Museum of London Docklands that shines a light on the lesser-known history of Indian indenture in the British Caribbean, and the personal stories from London’s Indo-Caribbean community.

Postcards, photographs, and letters presenting personal stories and memories from London’s Indo-Caribbean community are featured. IMAGE: © Museum of London

Indo + Caribbean: The creation of a culture is free and will be on show until 19 November as part of the museum’s London, Sugar, and Slavery gallery.

Following the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, British planters in the Caribbean devised a new scheme to source cheap labour for their plantations.

Having successfully petitioned the British government for their support, labourers were recruited from India and indentured to work three to five years in return for transport, a minimal wage, and very basic provisions.

Photograph of SS Chenab, taken by A.G Linney. She was used to transport Indian indentured labourers to the colonies. IMAGE: © Museum of London

The first indenture ships – Hesperus and Whitby – set sail in 1838. The journey was long and difficult, taking up to five months, with poor conditions on board.

Between 1838 and 1917, when the indenture system was finally banned, around 450,000 Indians had journeyed to the British Caribbean.

Zainab (Jane) Gani who emigrated to London from Guyana. IMGAE: © The Gani Family

‘Understanding the history of Indian indenture in the Caribbean is essential to unpack perceptions of Caribbean heritage,’ said Makiya Davis-Bramble, Curator at Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum, who helped create this display.

‘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.’

On display are letters from sugar planter Sir John Gladstone petitioning the government to support the indenture system, as well as contracts, postcards, and papers from the Parliamentary Archives revealing the realities of life under indenture.

A letter from Sir John Gladstone, a plantation owner, to the government petitioning them to support the use of Indian indentured workers. IMAGE: © The National Archives, UK

Photos, jewellery, artworks, and films presenting personal stories and memories from London’s Indo-Caribbean community are also featured.

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.’