Coolies dans les plantations
Séminaire du 17 janvier 2012
Les Coolies étaient des travailleurs manuels non qualifiés, engagés sous contrat (indentured labour), pour répondre aux besoins de main d'œuvre dans les plantations de coton et de canne à sucre, dans les mines d'or et d'argent et sur les chemins de fer. Au 19e siècle, des travailleurs indiens et chinois quittèrent massivement l'Inde et la Chine, surtout de 1838 à 1917, et rejoignirent l'île Maurice, la Réunion, l'Afrique de l'est et du sud, Fidji, les Antilles, Cuba, Pérou, les États-Unis et la Guyane. En Afrique du Sud, par exemple, des gisements de diamants et d'or sont découverts à la fin du 19e siècle: on fait venir quelque 64.000 Chinois entre 1904 et 1907 pour travailler dans les mines. Entre 1866 et 1911 l'Afrique du Sud accueille 150.000 travailleurs indiens sous contrat dont les deux tiers restent sur place après la fin de leur contrat. La plupart travaillent dans l'agriculture.
Les migrations de coolies constituent un des mouvements de population importants de l'histoire, tant par son ampleur démographique que par les distances parcourues. Entre le milieu du 19e siècle et la première guerre mondiale, plus de 15 millions d'hommes originaires d'Asie (en particulier d'Inde et de Chine) ont migré pour s'employer comme travailleurs de force dans des plantations et des mines afin d'alimenter la demande croissante de l'Europe en matières premières. La majorité des coolies gagnent des zones situées dans les empires coloniaux européens d'Asie, mais également dans les îles à sucre des Antilles, en Amérique latine ou encore en Afrique du Sud. A l'issue des contrats de travail dans le cadre desquels ils étaient engagés, les coolies sont restés, pour une part importante d'entre eux, dans leur terre d'accueil, donnant ainsi lieu à des transformations sociales, économiques et culturelles profondes. Le phénomène des diasporas indienne et chinoise s'explique en grande partie par les migrations de coolies.
Coolies dans les plantations de thé en Assam
A partir des années 1860 et jusqu'aux années 1920, les planteurs disposant de capitaux en Assam se libérèrent successivement de deux contraintes initiales, en adoptant d'abord des variétés assamaises de Camellia sinensis puis en se débarrassant de la main d'œuvre chinoise et de la main d'œuvre locale (les paysans Kachari) qu'ils employaient jusqu'alors, pour recruter des coolies venant du centre ou du sud de l'Inde via a penal and indentured labour regime, un régime de travail sous contrat pénal instituant une servitude.
Jayeeta Sharma, 'Lazy' Natives, Coolie Labour, and the Assam Tea Industry, Modern Asian Studies, Vol.43, No.6 (Nov., 2009), pp.1287–1324.
(1304) In the early years of the tea enterprise, the British nurtured a Chinese illusion. It concerned the tea plant, and its grower, and their ubiquity. However, once the British learnt to grow tea, Chinese tea-growers were dispensable. Soon, Assam's tea industry punctured the remainder of the illusion about Chinese tea. Growers found that the China-Assam hybrid plant was ill-suited to the Assam environs. Planters referred to it as the 'plague' and substituted it with improved varieties of the native Assam plant. In place of the Chinese artisanal system, British capital produced Assam tea on an industrial scale on large plantations. This colonial tea industry's prime need was for cheap, docile, easily reproducible labour. Both imported Chinese workers and local labourers proved unsatisfactory. In order to find its ideal workforce, the tea industry took recourse to the expertise of other imperial plantation enterprises.
Coolies watering the tea bushes (c. 1870)
Photographie de Sir Samuel Cleland Davidson (1846–1921), planteur de thé en Assam (de 1864 à 1874), inventeur de patented machinery pour la manufacture du thé et fondateur de la compagnie Davidson à Belfast en 1881.
Je remercie Emilie Arrago-Boruah de sa précieuse interprétation de cette photographie. L'homme vu de face, observe-t-elle, porte un dhutī, plus long malgré sa modeste qualité. L'homme vu de dos porte un leṅgṭi et laisse manifestement passer l'homme au dhutī. Les dictionnaires confirment cette hiérarchie.
Assamais dhutī, hindi dhotī, sanskrit dhutī. Cf. Hobson-Jobson, s.v. DHOTY: "worn by all the respectable Hindu castes."
Assamais leṅgṭi, hindi laṅgoṭi, "a strip of cloth worn between the thighs to cover the private parts" (dictionnaire assamais). Cf. Hobson-Jobson, s.v. LUNGOOTY: "the scantiest modicum of covering worn for decency by some of the lower classes when at work."
Le Viceroi proclama officiellement le 27 mars 1917 l'interdiction du Coolie Trade à destination extérieure à l'Inde: No native of India shall depart by sea out of British India for the purpose of or with the intention of labouring for hire in any country beyond the limits of India. Restait le Coolie Trade interne à l'Inde, du sud vers l'Assam par exemple. Mais le système de travail sous contrat (indentured labour system) prit fin progressivement dans l'Empire britannique entre 1908 et 1926, pour des raisons économiques — des taux de mortalité et de désertion croissants, un taux de fertilité trop bas renchérissaient les coûts de main d'œuvre — autant que politiques — manifestations et révoltes ouvrières qui en Assam culminent en 1921: grève à Chargola et exode des coolies.
Violence des sociétés de plantations
Je m'intéresse aux coolies indiens migrant à l'intérieur de l'Asie même, au Sri Lanka (Ceylan), en Malaisie et en Indonésie. Un grand nombre de coolies tamouls furent importés à Ceylan, d'abord par les hollandais à Jaffna pour la culture du tabac, puis par les britanniques dans les plantations de café et de thé. Mais les cas indiens et chinois sont indissociables. Un livre de Arnold Meagher sur les coolies chinois place la violence et la tromperie en toile de fond du Coolie Trade.
Extraits d'un compte rendu de
Arnold J. Meagher, The Coolie Trade, the Traffic in
Chinese Labourers to Latin America 1847–1874.
Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Corporation, 2008
(i) [The] demand for labour was derived from the land-related resource windfall obtained by European colonisers; (ii) labour shortage was thus predominantly in the low-skilled primary sector, and in plantations in particular, where the use of pre-modern technology was the norm; (iii) any able-bodied people were more than enough to fulfil the basic tasks; and (iv) consequently, the pay had to be at the subsistence level.
The author argues that before the 1840s, the only sizeable supply of low-skilled and low-paid labourers came from Africa. The trade in African slaves worked well neo-classically so to speak until the international ban on modern slavery after the European elite rediscovered their humanitarian conscience. But that came as a political shock to the global labour market. So the slave traders had to find an alternative labour source to keep the Europeans' colonial low-tech economies going. That alternative was found in East and South Asia: China and India. From the author's point of view, the same old slave trade continued in the guise of indentured/contracted labourers called coolies, a corrupt term from India. First, most Chinese (and Indians) were tricked into becoming indentured labourers, about 1.5 million of them. The methods commonly applied ranged from debt trapping (gambling in particular) and opium drugging to armed kidnapping. Very few Chinese went by their free will (probably less than 20 per cent).
The standard term of such a 'contract' was 8 years. Considering that the average life expectancy in Europe and China was about 35–40 years, this was the best part of the working life for an average adult male. So in real terms, this was a life sentence, a very raw deal for those who were forced into those 'contracts' as coolies. Third, the real horror began after coolie ships departed from European-controlled ports in China, mainly Macao and Hong Kong. From that point onwards, there was practically no enforcement or honouring of terms in the written contract on the European part. Chinese coolies were treated practically the same as African slaves. They were chained, regularly beaten, starved, and hot ironed. The percentage of coolies dying on ships was comparable with that of African slaves. After landing, they were also auctioned in the same way. Most tellingly, they were customarily sold and resold to the next coolie owners for their next 8-year term. If this is not enough, the author includes evidence that European plantation owners used their African slaves to drive Chinese coolies. So the coolies' social status was even lower than slaves. The result of this human rights abuse was a very high rate of suicide among Chinese coolies. Some justifiably mutinied against their coolie dealers and owners.
Violence au quotidien sur la plantation
E. Valentine Daniel, l'auteur de Fluid Signs (Berkeley, 1984) et Charred Lullabies (Princeton, 1997), n'a cessé d'enquêter auprès des Coolies tamouls travaillant dans les plantations du Sri Lanka tout en approfondissant son intérêt pour les arts de la parole. Il a sur le métier un grand poème épique dont un article publié en 2008 sous le titre The Coolie nous donne des échantillons.
E. Valentine Daniel, The Coolie, Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 23, Issue 2, pp. 254–278.
The Coolie est difficile à lire et souvent obscur. La forme versifiée rend le récit elliptique et les échantillons publiés sont trop brefs pour permettre les recoupements qui permettraient au lecteur de suivre le fil. On peut aussi rester perplexe devant le choix d'une écriture post-moderne et d'une approche subalterniste qu'on a pu reprocher, chez nous, aux Créolistes (Edouard Glissant, Patrick Chamoiseau, Raphaël Confiant). L'analyse qui en résulte est néanmoins très forte, comme aux pages 261–263 qui évoquent Rukmani, la belle coolie. Elle creuse un canal de drainage. Le chignon de ses longs cheveux noirs se défait, elle se redresse pour le renouer. Sous le regard du maître, Marvel Stark, saisi d'une bouffée de désir (He fancies you with your flowing hair…), qui pour s'arracher au sortilège (To foil her spell…) lui hurle de continuer à creuser. Mais sous le regard hostile de Ramu, Marvel jaloux devient violent et rêve d'étriper le compagnon de la belle coolie. Le Kankani (le porion) à dix mètres de là (Six fathoms away…) sent venir la bagarre et se précipite to broker peace. Violence éternellement recommencée des sociétés de plantations.
Le kaṅkāṇi (kangany) au Travancore
Recruteur, contremaître ou porion, surveillant
(Tamilnad, Sri Lanka et Kerala)
A kankani is the leader overseer of a group of laborers, and those who worked under him tended to be drawn from his own village or neighboring villages. Formerly, the kankani loaned his workers the cost of their passage. He also doubled as a patriarchal figure for his group of workers. Daniel, The Coolie, note 17.
Paul E. Baak, About Enslaved Ex-Slaves, Uncaptured Contract Coolies and Unfreed Freedmen: Some Notes about 'Free' and 'Unfree' Labour in the Context of Plantation Development in Southwest India, Early Sixteenth Century—Mid 1990s, Modern Asian Studies, Vol.33, No.1 (Feb., 1999), pp.121–157.
(134) The way in which the unwilling agricultural labourers were mobilized by the southern Indian planters, those of Travancore included, was written down in rather detailed form by the South of India Planters' Enquiry Committee. It reported:
"In securing labour for their estates, planters occasionally deal directly with coolies, but these instances are very rare, being limited to engagements made with coolies who have worked for several years on the same plantations or with coolies living close to plantations. But even in such cases, the practice is not universal and it may be said that, in recruiting imported labour, maistries, who answer to the garden sardars of Assam, are invariably employed as the agents between the planters and the coolies. The maistry enters into a contract with the planter and the contract is generally reduced to writing. Such contracts are signed by the maistry, rarely by the planter, and they are seldom, if ever, registered. In the case of old and trusted maistries, informal verbal agreements sometimes take the place of written contracts and in some places, for instance, parts of Travancore, a verbal agreement is supplemented by a promissory note executed by the maistry. Receiving a lump sum in advance, the maistry undertakes to supply a certain number of coolies for plantation work for a certain time. These engagements are made usually in March or April of each year [when the plantation labourers returned to the plains, PB], the time fixed for the commencement of work on the plantations being two or three months later [in June or July, PB]. The period of the contract is usually nine months, sometimes less, and it never exceeds a year (...). The maistry then proceeds to the village or villages where he collects labour and generally returns to his employer's estate with his gang, though some maistries remain in the villages and send their gangs to the plantations in charge of their representatives as headmen. The average strength of a maistry's gang varies between 20 and 40 adult males, females and children; the average maximum is 1oo, but in some cases a maistry furnishes as many as 200 or 250 coolies (RSIPEC 1896:12)."
Interestingly, the recruiter, in Travancore, apart from maistry also called kangany, in his turn, "makes advances to coolies, entering into contracts with them (sometimes in writing, but more often not)" (RSIPEC 1896:17). The advance offered by the kangany was of crucial importance in many regards. For example, it enabled those workers who were financially bonded to a particular landlord and/or moneylender to pay off their debts. In addition, many of these labourers, who were often extremely poor, could not resist taking the advances offered by the kanganies. They had to take care of their immediate basic needs, like food, clothing and shelter. Others, and this group was less significant, used the advances for extraordinary expenditures, like marriages and other important social events. Finally, it should be acknowledged that the advance system remained very widespread throughout South India during the nineteenth century. Apart from the disadvantages for the workers, which will be analysed in the next subsections, the advance meant for the labourer the only practical guarantee for his employment. At the same time, its height gave some indication about the financial background of the new employer and, consequently, about his ability to pay an attractive wage (RSIPEC 1896:18-20)…
Apart from providing advances, the kangany was of major importance in other respects as well. For example, the kanganies gave the workers an exaggeratedly optimistic impression about plantation life which, at least partially, took away their fear of all kinds of frightening diseases, inhuman work conditions and low wages. Uma Devi, who was able to study the information collected in Travancore for the benefit of the South of India Planters' Enquiry Committee, pointed out the dilemma many labourers had to face: either to believe the plantation labourers who returned to the plains or to have faith in the kangany's picture of plantation life. In addition, the recruiters often obtained most of their labour from among their own family and friends. The workers were thus, apart from their financial bonds, also closely related to the kanganies in a strict social sense. And lastly, the recruiters showed their gang of labourers the way through the jungle to reach their estate of destination.
Clearly, the mobilized labourers were immobilized at the same time. Although freed from landlords and moneylenders, they were enslaved by their new employers. As mentioned above, the advances offered by the recruiters were often immediately used by the workers to pay off already existing debts, to meet basic needs and to defray expenses related to family affairs. Moreover, the advances were accepted to pay for the journey to the plantations, particularly food. Thus even before having reached the estate, the contracted labourers became indebted to the kanganies, who, on their turn, as seen above, were bonded through contracts and debts to their superiors: the planters.
In addition, the financial situation of most labourers did not improve during their period of contract. Most kanganies were in fact jobbers; apart from the recruitment of workers they supervised 'their' gang of labourers on the estates. This meant, for example, that the kanganies, who apart from their fixed pay as overseers received commission on their gangs' earnings at the end of the year, derived much benefit from keeping their workers indebted. As long as the plantation labourers had to clear their debts, the kanganies could force them to work longer hours than initially agreed, coerce sick workers to fulfil their daily tasks in the fields, and detail labourers beyond the period of contract, all of which contributed to a larger amount of wages paid by the planters, of which, as just mentioned, the kanganiesobtained their share. In order to reinforce the debt slavery, the workers received a weekly food issue on credit together with small cash advances. Only after the workers were allowed to return home, which often occurred only months after the expiry of their contracts, did the labourers receive the balance of their wages, which in most cases were paid by the kanganies themselves. Not surprisingly, on many of these occasions the jobbers cheated the often totally illiterate labourers and kept more than their legitimate share of the workers' wages for themselves.