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Producing tea coolies?: Work, life and protest in the colonial tea plantations of Assam, 1830s-1920s

Producing tea coolies?: Work, life and protest in the colonial tea plantations of Assam, 1830s-1920s
M. A. Nitin Varma


Institute for Asian and African Studies, Humboldt University of Berlin, 10099 Berlin, GERMANY.


The statements mark three different moments in the history of contract coolies in Assam tea plantations of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The first remark made by Robert Bruce—the in charge of the tea “experiment” of East India Company in the early nineteenth century—encapsulates a desire for “settled” workers for any future “commercial” success of tea enterprise in Assam. Such an aspiration seems to have been realised—in the form of tea coolies—as described by a colonial officer of Assam at the beginning of the twentieth century. The end of this coolie labour system is confidently prophesised in the last extract from a nationalist daily at the height of the most celebrated “episode” of coolie protest on the Assam plantations in 1921.

These remark also outlining the limits of this study—suggests an obvious chronology and a given process of the idea, realisation and end of coolie-labour on Assam plantations.

Coolie, a generic category for the ‘unskilled’ manual worker, offering services for hire had various pre-colonial lineages4, was attempted to be recast in the late eighteenth-nineteenth century colonial capitalist worlds, through discursive constructions and material practices for ‘mobilised-immobilised’ labour. In particular, the ‘coolie labour system’ organised in a period of abolitionism, was often depicted as a ‘solution’ to the impeding ‘problems of labour shortage’. Soon women, men and families indentured and shipped from the ports of India and China began supplementing and at times replacing the slaves on the capitalist enterprises of the Caribbean, east and southern Africa, the Indian and Pacific oceans and Australasia. The aspiration of freedom that encapsulated the spirit of abolitionism was apparently undermined by contracts which bounded the ‘free labour’, raising moral indignation and political action. Coolie labour, was often proclaimed as a particular compromise between the past (slave-labour) and the future (free-labour), straddling the two different regimes, yet a stage in that promised transition.

Assam tea coolies have been subject to a variety of enquiries and historical studies. In the early studies on the Indian tea industry and some “pioneering” tea companies, issues of labour were either marginal or absent. The trade union activism of Sanat Bose, seminal scholarship of Ranajit Dasgupta10 and doctoral dissertations, in the late 1970 and 1980s, of Rana Behal, Ramakrishna Chattopadhyaya and M.A.B. Siddique, have brought plantation labour back into historical focus.

The historical interest in labour reflects a broader trend in historiography, where from some predictions of a decline and “end” of labour history has given way to a growing sense of renewal.12 The new labour history has been very productive in exploring new themes and unsettling older frameworks and certainties. Yet an overwhelming emphasis on the indentured system and colonial policies has not yielded any sustained interest on the experiences of work and labour of Assam coolies and how such processes were negotiated and intervened by the workers. A point of departure of recent studies on the “indenture” has been the negotiations and experiences of social groups and even individuals. The wealth of “evidence” generated by an elaborate and intrusive colonial bureaucracy, monitoring and controlling the overseas movements, in contrast to a relatively more “deregulated” and less supervised Assam coolie system, has been critical in this incongruity. The lack of scholarly attention should not imply that a more localised nature of the migration to Assam had less transformative consequences—social, biological and cultural—than the long and hazardous passages across the seas to distant destinations. The historical evidence of Assam coolie migration and settlement, to the contrary, suggests a substantial demographic movement over time, a higher incidence of abuses in recruitment, greater rates of mortality during transit and a largely “permanent” character of the population shift.

A parallel trend to this large scale movement of individuals was the drives of plantation capitalism towards greater systematisation and routinisation. This changing nature and organization of Assam tea gardens remains to be conceptualised and historically situated. Such a process marked a shift from a predominantly violent strategy of work intensification and control of workers in the earlier plantations— to strategies of a closer supervision of their work and life—through an elaborate authority structure and newer forms of control on the late nineteenth century. A new ‘time-work-discipline’ was attempted to be formalised and enforced. The “industrial organisation” of work on plantations will seek a reassessment of an overt focus on coercive strategies of labour control in the literature.

A stabilisation of plantations and the planter strategies of routines and supervision also occasioned cultures of work and life taking form on plantations. Culture—which has been a point of emphasis in the “new” labour history—is not taken in its essentialist sense. Culture is neither purely drawn for a pre—plantation past nor is it understood to be completely “derived” and produced from a new structural form—plantation. This will require a closer analysis of the quotidian practices of workers—where cultures and routines of work and life were produced, reproduced and transformed.

This emphasis will seek a re-evaluation of the nature and forms of bargaining and worker politics on the plantations. A body of scholarly literature has emphasised that the plantation regime and the system of contracts had deterred the capacity of plantation workers and they chose accommodation and individual acts of passive resistance as a “strategy” appreciating the realities of the plantation system and structures of power in the larger colonial society.15 Desertion has often been read as a predominant mode of resistance and an individualised strategy of “escape” from the harsh plantation life. Such understandings do not necessarily appreciate that in colonial classificatory modes desertion was employed as an overarching category—which ranged from individual withdrawal of services, to withdrawal of smaller and even some larger groups of workers. The right to private arrest as empowered by the contract and the elaborate system of policing and tracking down the “absconders” also led to a gross underreporting of the phenomena. There also a tendency of plantation managers conflating worker deaths with desertion, as suspected by some officials and also noted by an Indian investigator. This was a well worked out strategy of keeping the mortality rates within the “acceptable” limits.

Some recent studies on protest in the nineteenth century Assam plantations, have unsettled a dominant framework—in Indian labour historiography in general and Assam plantation historiography in particular—of an evolutionary transition from individual to collective forms of protest—especially linked with growth of national movement and communist revolution in the twentieth century.17 However, these explorations have not adequately conceptualised the nature and forms of bargaining and protest in the nineteenth century.18 The framing of protest has oscillated from an understanding of greater politicization in the twentieth century to remaining as contingencies. A more grounded study will reveal how such immediate contingencies were not divorced from the worker solidarities produced in the practices of life and work on plantations. These collective expressions were informing and were informed by workplace organization, patterns of residence and various new occasions on plantations. The production of the “new” occasions was also marked by the “reproduction” of older cultural and religious occasions.

This will require greater attention on plantations not as given homogeneous structures which reproduce uniformly across time and space. The various conceptualizations of plantation as harbingers of modernity, as total institutions, as abstract spaces, have to be firmly located in different historical, geographical and social settings.

A quest for migrant workers and planter strategies of contracting migrant workers (or coolies)—emerge as one of the early resolutions of such plantation aspirations in the post-slavery world. These processes were operating in a global framework, but its specific manifestation needs to be carefully mapped. For instance the framing of a special indenture contract (Assam contract) did not do away a general contract—the Master and Servant contract (Act XIII) in Assam plantations. The contract(s) assumed specialised and overlapping forms in its attempts to immobilise workers in a fairly differentiated plantation landscape. The indenture system in Assam based on the historical experience of Assam contract and Assam valley plantations has to be grounded. This differentiation in the practices of indenturing will also need to be situated in the broadening of the identity of the recruiter.

Drawing from range of insights and concerns of labour history, social history, history of work and studies of protest, this study is based on a variety of sources. The colonial archives at the national and local levels will be particular interest and significance. Till 1874, Assam was part of the province of Bengal and the material for an earlier period is drawn from the relevant reports on Bengal. The planter narratives, autobiographies, memoirs are crucial to understand the strategies of management. There is also some investigation of the “scientific” literature dealing with various aspects of plantation work and life of workers. This kind of literature has also to be located in a changing plantation mode where a greater degree of systematization and control was desired.Contemporary periodicals allow us different perspectives about Assam tea gardens—ranging from pro-planter perspectives, an emerging Indian middle class and anti-slavery voices. Some oral narratives recorded in the areas of recruitment and on tea gardens give us new perspective on plantation experience. Again photographs of plantations and visual sources are closely interrogated as historical texts.

The first part situates the emergence of migrant workers and the contract(s) (Assam contract and Act XIII contract) in the changing nature, organization of work and operation scales of plantations in colonial Assam. How did plantations employing contract coolies develop a relationship with recruiters and how does it change over time. The changes in nature of contracts and modes of recruiting from the 1870s (especially through certain legislative initiatives) created the basis for harsher contracts and facilitated massive migration. The trends also occasioned new modes of plantation organisation and intensification of work. These interlocking processes in analysed in the next part through an unpacking of the unpopularity of Assam, the planter concerns and the worker practices of drinking and the notions of customary emerging on plantations. Informed by such understandings, the last part looks at a moment which stimulated the end of contracts. The episode in the twentieth century is carefully discussed to how it encapsulated processes of continuities and change.

The first chapter looks at the context and practices of the introduction of tea production in Assam. It shows how the shift in acquiring the art of making tea to the practices of cultivating tea was framed in the plantation mode. The plantation structure was premised on routines of work and the immobilisation of workers. Such a process was intensified with the emergence of private enterprise in tea and the growing scales of production. A local migrating group was identified as the settled workers required by the plantations. The planter’s desire for a shift to migrant workers was rooted in these experiences of work and labour.

The second chapter details the nature of shift to migrant workers and emergence of penal controls. The major line of enquiry is how the strategies of planters backed by colonial state were informed by the responses of workers on the plantations. Here, I look at the nature of the contract regime and how it developed a relationship with the modes of recruitment of workers. This contract regime was reconstituted through a discourse of freedom which translated into legislative action of the colonial state. How were these processes encapsulating planter desires to enforce the contracts and deregulate the modes of recruitment? The different experiences of the contract system and modes of recruitment in the two planting regions (namely Assam Valley and Surma Valley) of Assam are also explored in this chapter.

The third chapter specifically focuses on the last two decades of nineteenth century. During this period Assam plantations underwent massive expansion of tea acreage, increasing scales of tea, accompanied by large migration of workers under harsher and longer contracts. How were these changes perceived in the recruiting regions? The attempt here is to unpack the category of “unpopularity” which came to be associated with Assam tea gardens.

The fourth chapter takes the problem of alcohol consumption of workers as an entry point to discuss the shifts in the organisation of production in plantations and the emerging forms of work cultures. Such processes also have to be located in the context of a significant demographic shift of plantations and the changing forms of plantations with new strategies of intensification of work.

Extending these enquiries, the fifth chapter explores the forms of negotiation and bargaining on plantation by contrasting the developing notions of customary (Dustoor) with the formal notions of contract. Again situated in a changing plantation context, the idea of customary will show spaces of bargaining between managers and workers, which were not entirely effaced by contracts. This will allow us to take this as entry point to explore the practices of work and life on the late nineteenth century plantations.

The last chapter shifts the focus to the 1920s which marked a major crisis in the contract system and its eventual transformation. The massive withdrawal of workers from the plantations during the height of the non-cooperation movement known as Chargola exodus is explored. Through a detailed investigation of the event, both continuities and changes in strategies of work, and patterns of collective forms of protest will be explored.