The British government emancipated the negro slaves held under its authority in the West Indies, thereby greatly depreciating the value of the islands, permitting a half-tamed race to fall back into a state of moral and mental darkness, and adding twenty millions to the national debt, to be paid out of the sweat and blood of her own white serfs. This was termed a grand act of humanity; those who laboured for it have been lauded and laurelled without stint, and English writers have been exceedingly solicitous that the world should not "burst in ignorance" of the achievement.
Being free, the negroes, with the indolence inherent in their nature, would not work. Many purses suffered in consequence, and the purse is a very tender place to injure many persons. It became necessary to substitute other labourers for the free negroes, and the Coolies of India were taken to the Antilles for experiment. These labourers were generally sober, [Pg 434] steady, and industrious. But how were they treated? A colonist of Martinique, who visited Trinidad in June, 1848, thus writes to the French author of a treatise on free and slave labour:—
"If I could fully describe to you the evils and suffering endured by the Indian immigrants (Coolies) in that horribly governed colony, I should rend the heart of the Christian world by a recital of enormities unknown in the worst periods of colonial slavery.
"Borrowing the language of the prophet, I can truly say,'The whole head is sick, and the whole heart is sad; from the sole of the foot to the top of the head nothing is sound;' wounds, sores, swollen ulcers, which are neither bandaged, nor soothed, nor rubbed with oil.
"My soul has been deeply afflicted by all that I have seen. How many human beings lost! So far as I can judge, in spite of their wasting away, all are young, perishing under the weight of disease. Most of them are dropsical, for want of nourishment. Groups of children, the most interesting I have ever seen, scions of a race doomed to misfortune, were remarkable for their small limbs, wrinkled and reduced to the size of spindles—and not a rag to cover them! And to think that all this misery, all this destruction of humanity, all this waste of the stock of a ruined colony, might have been avoided, but has not been! Great God! it is painful beyond expression to think that such a neglect of duty and of humanity on the part of the colonial authorities, as well of the metropolis as of the colony—a neglect which calls for a repressive if not a retributive justice—will go entirely unpunished, as it has hitherto done, notwithstanding the indefatigable efforts of Colonel Fagan, the superintendent of the immigrants in this colony, an old Indian officer of large experience, of whom I have heard nothing but good, and never any evil thing spoken, in all my travels through the island.
"I am told that Colonel Fagan prepared a regulation for the government and protection of the immigrants—which regulation [Pg 435] would probably realize, beyond all expectation, the object aimed at; but scarcely had he commenced his operations when orders arrived from the metropolis to suppress it, and substitute another which proceeded from the ministry. The Governor, Mr. Harris, displeased that his own regulation was thus annulled, pronounced the new order impossible to be executed, and it was withdrawn without having been properly tried. The minister sent another order in regard to immigration, prepared in his hotel in Downing street; but Governor Harris pronounced it to be still more difficult of execution than the first, and it, too, failed. It is in this manner that, from beginning to end, the affairs of the Indian immigrants have been conducted. It was only necessary to treat them with justice and kindness to render them—thanks to their active superintendent—the best labourers that could be imported into the colony. They are now protected neither by regulations nor ordinances; no attention is paid to the experienced voice of their superintendent—full of benevolence for them, and always indefatigably profiting by what can be of advantage to them. If disease renders a Coolie incapable of work, he is driven from his habitation. This happens continually; he is not in that case even paid his wages. What, then, can the unfortunate creature do? Very different from the Creole or the African; far distant from his country, without food, without money; disease, the result of insufficient food and too severe labour, makes it impossible for him to find employment. He drags himself into the forests or upon the skirts of the roads, lies there and dies!
"Some years since, the unfortunate Governor (Wall) of Gorea was hung for having pitilessly inflicted a fatal corporal punishment on a negro soldier found guilty of mutiny; and this soldier, moreover, was under his orders. In the present case, I can prove a neglect to a great extent murderous. The victims are Indian Coolies of Trinidad. In less than one year, as is shown by official documents, two thousand corpses of these unfortunate creatures have furnished food to the crows of the island; and a similar system is pursued, not only without punishment, but without even forming the subject of an official inquest. Strange and deplorable contradiction! and yet the nation which gives us [Pg 436] this example boasts of extending the ægis of its protection over all its subjects, without distinction! It is this nation, also, that complacently takes to itself the credit of extending justice equally over all classes, over the lordly peer and the humblest subject, without fear, favour, or affection!"
In the Mauritius, the Coolies who have been imported are in a miserable condition. The planters have profited by enslaving these mild and gentle Hindoos, and rendering them wretched.
"By aid of continued Coolie immigration," says Mr. Henry C. Carey, [103] "the export of sugar from the Mauritius has been doubled in the last sixteen years, having risen from seventy to one hundred and forty millions of pounds. Sugar is therefore very cheap, and the foreign competition is thereby driven from the British market. 'Such conquests,' however, says, very truly, the London Spectator, 'don't always bring profit to the conqueror; nor does production itself prove prosperity. Competition for the possession of a field may be carried so far as to reduce prices below prime cost; and it is clear, from the notorious facts of the West Indies—from the change of property, from the total unproductiveness of much property still—that the West India production of sugar has been carried on not only without replacing capital, but with a constant sinking of capital.' The 'free' Coolie and the 'free' negro of Jamaica have been urged to competition for the sale of sugar, and they seem likely to perish together; but compensation for this is found in the fact that 'free trade has, in reducing the prices of commodities for home consumption, enabled the labourer to devote a greater share of his income toward purchasing clothing and luxuries, and has increased the home trade to an enormous extent.' What effect this reduction of 'the prices of commodities for home consumption' [Pg 437] has had upon the poor Coolies, may be judged from the following passage:—'I here beheld, for the first time, a class of beings of whom we have heard much, and for whom I have felt considerable interest. I refer to the Coolies imported by the British government to take the places of the faineant negroes, when the apprenticeship system was abolished. Those I saw were wandering about the streets, dressed rather tastefully, but always meanly, and usually carrying over their shoulder a sort of chiffonnier's sack, in which they threw whatever refuse stuff they found in the streets or received as charity. Their figures are generally superb, and their Eastern costume, to which they adhere as far as their poverty will permit of any clothing, sets off their lithe and graceful forms to great advantage. Their faces are almost uniformly of the finest classic mould, and illuminated by pairs of those dark, swimming, and propitiatory eyes which exhaust the language of tenderness and passion at a glance. But they are the most inveterate mendicants on the island. It is said that those brought from the interior of India are faithful and efficient workmen, while those from Calcutta and its vicinity are good for nothing. Those that were prowling about the streets of Spanish Town and Kingston, I presume were of the latter class, for there is not a planter on the island, it is said, from whom it would be more difficult to get any work than from one of them. They subsist by begging altogether. They are not vicious nor intemperate, nor troublesome particularly, except as beggars. In that calling they have a pertinacity before which a Northern mendicant would grow pale. They will not be denied. They will stand perfectly still and look through a window from the street for a quarter of an hour, if not driven away, with their imploring eyes fixed upon you like a stricken deer, without saying a word or moving a muscle. They act as if it were no disgrace for them to beg, as if an indemnification which they are entitled to expect, for the outrage perpetrated upon them in bringing them from their distant homes to this strange island, is a daily supply of their few and cheap necessities, as they call for them. I confess that their begging did not leave upon my mind the impression produced by ordinary mendicancy. They do not look as if they ought to [Pg 438] work. I never saw one smile; and though they showed no positive suffering, I never saw one look happy. Each face seemed to be constantly telling the unhappy story of their woes, and, like fragments of a broken mirror, each reflecting in all its hateful proportions the national outrage of which they are the victims.'"