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Slavery And Indentureship

Commentary By Dr. Randy Persaud

CaribWorldNews, NEW YORK, NY, Thurs. May 21, 2009: A debate is taking place in some quarters of the Guyana media as to whether slavery and indentureship were similar.  A `K. Misir, in a recent newspaper letter, argues that, `For all intents and purposes indentureship was a clever euphemism for slavery since labour became a commodity to be bought and sold.`

I have tried in vain to connect this statement with Misir’s general thesis of similarity between slavery and indentureship. The key element here is that `labour became a commodity.` The question is this – what was it before?

Mr. Misir has answered the question for himself, although the answer may not have been  the one intended. One of the crucial differences between slavery and indentureship was that the slave did not earn a wage. The slave himself/herself was private property, that is, a commodity. The indentured SERVANT earned wages based on a contract.

Let us be clear. For the Indian indentured immigrant, the commodity was his labor; for the slave it was himself. The indentured immigrant sold her labor, albeit under difficult circumstances. The slave was sold, but she played no part in the decision.

I fail to see what is so difficult to understand here, and why some folks insist that they must press on with the epistemology of suffering framework. Is the project `I suffered, therefore, I am?`

K. Misir, like most other writers in the epistemology of suffering tradition, pins his entire argument on quotations from various writers, many of whom are credible scholars on Guyanese history. Close examination of those texts, however, reveal something quite interesting. Almost always the language of comparison between slavery and indentureship is one of approximation.  Thus, indentureship is a new form of slavery; indentureship is like slavery,’ indentureship is close to slavery. Ok, but it was not slavery.

I suggest that the difference matters. Indentureship may have been like slavery in some sense, but Mr. Misir must understand that the language of slavery viz a vis indentureship was a clever euphemism used by anti-indenture progressives in Britain.

Slavery was not only a torturous institution; it was also a total and, therefore, for the slave, a timeless machinery of oppression. There was no way out. No credible historian of indentureship can claim otherwise.

Finally let me note that the purpose behind the epistemology of suffering must be broached. Why is it that every year around May 5, we get these articles about suffering?

Does suffering make the descendents of indentured servants more moral, more worthy, more qualified to make claims? Why this obsession with how much we suffered?  Is it an annual ritual? Is that ritual intended to develop what Charles Tilly once called the grounds for contentious politics?

Let us be clear about indentureship. It was a harsh system of labor exploitation. No one doubts that. There is, however, quite a leap from the facts of suffering, to a framework where ‘sufferology’ becomes the fulcrum of cultural identity. It appears that the claim is not merely – `We Suffered` – but that – `We Also Suffered.`

The insertion of the ‘also’ factor here transposes Indian suffering in indentureship from a discourse of historical recollection to a discourse loaded with political claims. It is the latter that I find less constructive.