Natures of Indenture

By M

Drawn in rough brushstrokes: on the left, a samsui woman in a wide triangular hat is at work holding an object, with buckets and warehouses in the background; on the right, a construction worker in helmet and vest is operating a power tool, with highrises and crane in the background.

Shutting their eyes to a litany of atrocities, sympathisers of colonization often cite the abolition of slavery as evidence for the moral goodness of empire. The British empire’s decision to end the slave trade in 1807, and slavery in its empire in 1834, might read as a hopeful story of humanitarian progress, but legal pronouncements from hallowed parliaments tend to misconstrue emancipation as a definite break. In faraway colonies, slaves continued to be held illegally for years, and the labour vacuum brought about by emancipation was filled by a new kind of labourer: the indentured labourer. In other words, the end of enslavement was “slow, protracted and resisted on multiple fronts” [1].

Colonial Singapore was no stranger to indentured labourers, better known as ‘coolies’. But coolies were also strangers, understood vaguely as ‘unskilled’ and ‘cheap’ labourers oftentimes tied to debt bondage, or portrayed as exploited workers in the ‘wake of slavery’. There remains little scholarly consensus surrounding the definition of indenture, particularly with its distinction from slavery or convict labour.

Between 1840 and 1940, 4 million Indians travelled to Malaya, whereas a shorter period saw more than 750,000 Chinese indentured migrants [2]. Within a similar timespan across the globe, there were 3.7 million indentured migrants, of which 3.3 million came from China and India, while Africans, Indians, Japanese, Javanese, and Melanesians made up the rest [3]. Together, they were the engines of global capitalism that hardened in the period of high imperialism of the late 19th century. Sugar, tea, rubber, coffee became conduits that connected labor on far-flung plantations to tea-rooms in the metropole. Across the south, their labour transformed landscapes.

Today, the coolie, once a colonial slur, is celebrated as a champion of grit, hard work, and determination– the sort of values championed by our endlessly productivist present-day government. Now as in the past, the coolie is a figure that is imbued with colonial fictions. Moon-Ho Jung reminds us that coolies “were never a people or a legal category. Rather coolies were a conglomeration of racial imaginings that emerged worldwide in the era of slave emancipation, a product of the imaginers rather than the imagined.” In 1806, the first Chinese indentured labourers settled in Trinidad as part of a British ‘labour experiment’ [4]. For Lisa Lowe, this ‘experiment’ marked their appearance in the British “liberal myth of inclusive freedom”, as a figure embodying the “fantasy of “free” yet racialized and coerced work”.

Humanitarians, and later historians, have raised concerns on whether indentured labour was an extension of slavery, best represented by Hugh Tinker’s A New System of Slavery (1974). Historians since have challenged the Tinker’s charge by pluralising and contextualising indenture labour systems of the past, while being careful not to understate exploitation and disenfranchisement.

First, systems of indenture should not only be seen as a colonial process, networks such as South Indian kangany recruitment or the Chinese “ticket system” were deeply embedded within existing structures of kinship, debt and caste. These local systems often even competed against formal systems of colonial indenture. Next, to cast indentured labourers as victims removes their agency and reduces their varieties of historical experience. Stories of iron discipline, exploitation or torture should also be told alongside stories of choices, desertion or meaning-making. For one, news of terrible work conditions spread like wildfire through local informational networks. As in late 19th century Mauritius, rumours surrounding tough colonial ‘vagrant laws’ instilled hesitation in signing contracts amongst potential labourers.

Small but fraught moments of agency could also be found in the stories of indentured women workers, such as those in Gaiutra Bahadur’s Coolie Woman [5]. Bahadu attempts to reconstruct her great-grandmother’s experience of indenture in Guiana, in spite of how “the archives leave gaps” [6]. Illiterate, the voices of these women in the historical record were little to none. Where there is documentation of indentured women, they were mediated through the unyielding accumulation of colonial bureaucratic documentation. Even then, stories gleaned from the colonial archives offer more nuance to the theme of exploitation. Women had “sexual leverage” in a trade where “men enormously outnumbered women”, and could use indenture as means to leave men, alongside local patriarchal structures [7]. In the archives, there were plenty of “headstrong women, determined to go or determined not to"[8]. One signed up as a coolie upon learning her husband took up another woman, despite her father’s offer of food and shelter; another was clothed and fed by a recruiter who found her “almost naked and starving”, but ultimately “refused to go [become a coolie] and walked off with the clothes.”

Indentured labourers not only changed communities but also landscapes wherever they found themselves. The steamship used for the transport of indentured labourers manifests as a symbolic overcoming of monsoon winds, a phenomena that has determined seasonal travel patterns within the Indian Ocean for centuries. Sunil Amrith asks what if we began to think about these workers “as agents of environmental transformation” [9]. Workers, through their human suffering, reshaped the Malayan landscape into tamed rubber plantations, while continuing to stake small claims of belonging towards the land, often in the modest form of tree shrines.

The history of indentured labour remains with Singapore, as present-day labor policies return to a colonial addiction with cheap labour. As Singapore profits off global economic disparity by ‘importing inequality’ with its dependence on low wage migrant workers, we should be reminded of the British empire’s culpability in producing a deeply stratified imperial world system that fueled indentured labour systems in the first place. A granular look at this historiography also points out the dangers of seeing workers as nothing other than their suffering, making them shorn of agency to tell their own multifaceted stories. We are surrounded by these moments of moral agency, embedded into our “city in nature” through labour.


  1. Sujit Sivasundaram, Waves across the South: A New History of Revolution and Empire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021), 284.

  2. Sunil S. Amrith, “Indians Overseas? Governing Tamil Migration to Malaya 1870–1941,” Past & Present, no. 208 (2010): 235.

  3. Richard Allen, “Asian Indentured Labor in the 19th and Early 20th Century Colonial Plantation World,” 2017,

  4. Moon-Ho Jung, Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 5.

  5. Gaiutra Bahadur, Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, paperback edition (London: Hurst & Company, 2016).

  6. Bahadur, Coolie Woman, 32.

  7. Bahadur, Coolie Woman, 26.

  8. Bahadur, Coolie Woman, 31.

  9. Sunil S. Amrith, Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants (Cambridge, Mass and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2013), 129.