The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 3

By William Roger Louis; Andrew Porter et al. | Go to book overview

5
Migration from Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific

DAVID NORTHRUP

After the British Isles, the most important source of overseas emigrants within the nineteenth-century Empire was British India. In addition, substantial numbers of Africans, Chinese, and Pacific Islanders entered various parts of the Empire. Before 1860 nearly all of these migrations were to supplement former slave populations in tropical sugar plantation colonies, but thereafter a growing share went into plantation labour in colonies that had never known slavery as well as into mining and railway construction. Tropical migration was an integral part of the Empire's expansion, strongly linked to the development of new colonies and subsidized European emigration in the southern hemisphere.

Most Asian, African, and Pacific immigrants were recruited on long-term labour contracts. They either arrived at their destinations already tied to specific employers or were allocated to employers immediately after arrival. Some contracts were in the form of debt bondage, that is, a long-term obligation to a recruiter or employer to repay the cost of passage and advances by wage deductions. Many others entered into formal contracts of indenture, obliging them to work for a specified period of time (typically five years), although no formal debt was incurred. Unlike European indentured servants of earlier centuries, they received wages in addition to free passage overseas and often had the right to free return. Because indentured migrations were subject to close official supervision and to careful record-keeping, their details are better known than other tropical migrations.1

Once established the scale of indentured migration into the Empire remained quite stable at 150,000 or more per decade from 1841 until 1910 (Fig. 5.1). However, destinations changed markedly over time. Mauritius received most indentured labourers Up until 1866, when it was surpassed by the British Caribbean colonies, principally British Guiana and Trinidad (Table 5.1). After 1890 most immigrants went to newer African and South Pacific colonies. British settlers in Natal began importing indentured labour from India in 1861. Queensland Sugar growers

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1
The principal discussions of tropical migration are listed in the Select Bibliography.

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