Summarize the article by Kevin Harris titled "Sugar and Gold: Indentured Indian and Chinese Labour in South Africa," and note the main points of the article.
The article by Kevin L. Harris, titled "Sugar and Gold: Indentured Indian and Chinese Labour in South Africa" [Journal of Social Sciences, 25(1-2-3): pages 147-158 (2010)] is about modern day slavery. While slavery as it was known for hundreds of years has largely, but not completely, been eliminated,the concept of enforced labor remains a problem in many regions of the world. Harris's article focuses on the practice of what is called "indentured servitude" or "labor," specifically as it occurred in South Africa between 1860 and 1911, when it was still a British colony.
"Indentured labor" is not slavery in the sense that people are seized and forced to perform all kinds of labor, much of it difficult, all the while housed under substandard conditions and treated poorly, often brutally, at the behest of the slaves' "owner." Rather, "indentured labor" refers to a contractual arrangement in which individuals, usually of a particular ethnicity, are compelled to work for menial wages, again, often under difficult conditions, under the terms of contracts to which these individuals had little or no say. As Harris, citing his various sources, defined it,
The individual is in essence "bound under contract to provide service for a specified period of time" (Hu-Dehart 1993: 68). This contract was "a legal document between a free person and an employer" which specified the "precise obligations of both parties" (Hu- Dehart 1993: 68). Therefore, unlike slavery, it allowed for the "employment of wage workers...for a fixed period of time," but under conditions that resembled slavery in that they gave a "very high level of control to employers."
Indentured labor or servitude, then, is considerably more complicated than the traditional form of slavery most people associate with that word. It often involves, at an individual or family level, the requirement to work as virtual slaves to those to whom a debt is owed and cannot otherwise be repaid.
In his article, Harris focused on the use by British colonial authorities of Indian and Chinese laborers to perform the difficult work of tending to the region's sugar fields and mining South Africa's lucrative gold deposits. This was no small feat. Over 152,000 Indians were settled in South Africa for the purpose of working on the vast sugar plantations, while around 64,000 Chinese were similarly brought to South Africa to work in gold mines.
Much of Harris's article discusses the distinctions between different forms of indentured labor, with the experience of importing Indians to work in the sugar fields serving as a model of sorts for the use of Chinese laborers to mine the gold that constituted much of South Africa's wealth during the period covered. Unsurprisingly, the British perspectives on the various ethnicities it imported to perform labor quickly assumed a more racist tone than even before, with specific ethnicities or nationalities being viewed as more culturally and/or mentally and physically suited to different types of labor. To emphasize his point regarding the racism endemic in British or European colonial practices, Harris quotes from one "commentary" from the time purportedly extolling the virtues of Chinese laborers:
Every one that has had personal experience of each and all of the different kinds of labour–Somali, Arab, Indian and Chinese–that it has been proposed to import will unhesitatingly affirm that, viewed solely from a commercial point of view, Chinese labour is by far the best. The Chinaman is not turbulent like the Arab, nor is he rebellious under pressure like the [African]; he is thrifty and economical like the Indian, but, unlike him, he is not mean and hoarding, but, on occasion, can and does spend, and even gives freely. Doubtless he is more of an animal than either the Indian or Arab coolie, but he is by no means a semi-savage.
These types of dehumanizing comments were hardly unusual. On the contrary, such racially-tinged perspectives represented the normal approach to non-European peoples, and the application of crude stereotypes were very similar to the views of many on the other side of the Atlantic, in North America.
In tracing the history of the use of indentured labor by the British at the expense of those whose nations it colonized, Harris emphasizes the conditions in those less-developed nations favored the evolution of a human resources system predicated upon exploitation of the destitute. Everything being relative, he suggests, the possibility of moving to more advantageous conditions made the development of a system of indentured servitude much easier. As the author notes in this regard,
Indenture was perceived as a relief or escape- valve from the harsh social and economic circumstances that existed almost unabated in these Asian territories for more than a century. For one, the Indian and Chinese "population explosion" was a major factor in this regard.
In this context, Harris notes the severity of economic conditions in India, rural China, and in other regions hit hard by economic depressions exacerbated by internal strife in addition to economic devastation already caused by European colonialism. In short, conditions at home were so bad that working in sugar fields in South Africa appeared fairly reasonable by comparison. Indian and Chinese migrations towards southern Africa, then, were often looked upon favorably by Indians and Chinese because the opportunities were more promising than conditions back home would allow.
Much of Harris's study focuses on the immigration policies of each of the countries concerned. The Indians in particular saw the export of labor as advantageous considering the density and level of unemployment in India. Immigration policies were carefully considered, and the drafting of contracts between various governments and colonial administrators included such issues as wages, medical care as well, according to one source cited, "as the contract between master and servant."
In his discussion of Chinese labors brought to the Transvaal region of South African, Harris notes the impact on negotiations between the Chinese and British companies of the earlier experiencing of importing Indians to work in agricultural capacities. Conditions imposed upon Indian laborers were considered so unacceptable that the Chinese administration demanded and got a guarantee of better working conditions for its population migrating to southern Africa. The Chinese, consequently, had more advantageous conditions imposed upon their migrants in Transvaal than had been the case with the Indian migrants in the Natal territory, but with a huge caveat attached. The influx of Chinese migrants, coming on the heels of the Indians, created more tension among whites and other ethnic groups competing for work. Consequently, the Chinese migrants were forced to work under what Harris called a
more controlled and confined environment that was set up for the Chinese indentured labourers, the most obvious difference between the terms regulating Indian and Chinese indentured labour in South Africa related to the duration and extension of their contracts. While the Indians had the option to remain in the country, the Chinese were to be returned to their country of origin after three years, with a possible extension of two. The Indian contract was for a term of five years, becoming a free agent for a further five where after he had the option to return to India or stay in the country, initially with the option of a piece of Crown land. Therefore, the indentured Chinese represented a temporary expedient and could never, like the Indians, become ex-indentured and part of South African society as the Indian could.
The British colonial administrators in South Africa had, somewhat unintentionally, developed a two-tier system for handling migrant laborers from different countries. The experiences of dealing with India and Indian migrants directly influenced the manner in which the subsequent Chinese migration was handled, to the detriment of the latter. Harris points out that the fact that India was considered "the crown jewell" of colonies and that the Indians were considered British subjects gave them preferential status relative to the Chinese laborers, and this distinction would play a major role in the development of the apartheid structure that would come to define post-colonial South Africa for decades to come.