chapter  2
24 Pages

The proletariat at the gates: migrant and non-citizen labour, 1850–2000

Social institutions as powerful as slavery do not collapse instantaneously. Slavery was abolished in British colonies in 1834, but only children under the age of six were immediately freed; the remaining ex-slaves were ‘apprenticed’ to their masters for four to six years. It survived until 1863 in the Dutch colonies and until 1865 in the United States. Again, vagrancy laws, apprenticeship, contracts and economic compulsion still tied many of the former slaves to their old tasks. However, as a profitable and preferred means of organizing labour, the system was clearly on its way out. Moreover, the commentators and planters of the time knew it. As Adam Smith argued in The wealth of nations, ‘The work done by slaves though it appears to cost only their maintenance is in the end the dearest

of any’ (cited Tinker 1984: 77). The planters had to maintain a yearround workforce in a seasonal industry, while the slaves had to be supervised, policed, housed, clothed and fed. Similarly, the British humanitarians at home maintained that ‘free labour’ would be more efficient than slave labour. The planters agreed. One, in Mauritius, rubbed his hands in glee at the arrival of the first group of Indian indentured labourers in 1835. ‘Their cost’, he gloated, ‘is not half that of a slave’. The system of indentureship thus rapidly replaced slavery as the key mode of exploitation in the European plantation economies.