Jambudveep's Blog

April 13, 2021

The Slavery of Bharatiyas(Indians) by the British- The case of Forced Labour in British India Part 2

Filed under: British Misrule — Yogeshwar Shastri @ 10:42 pm
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Note: By the end of this year, I will be bringing out a book on the subject of forced labour, wherein I will also explain the analysis methodology in detail. If you are interested in the book ( as and when it comes out) please fill in this form.

The readers who fill up the form will be offered a discount of 40% once the book is published.

This part continues where Part 1 left off.

To carry baggage of the Civilian White administrators: A good summary of some of the purposes for which forced labour (called “impressment”) was employed is given by a note from the Collector of Tinnevally in 1860:

 “Impressment was employed for the service of government not for the service of travelers; for example to supply carriage to a regiment ordered to march, to convey treasure to the presidency, to carry salt from the pans to the beach for shipment etc.”[i]

A judicial note from 1849 CE observes that it was extremely suspicious that none of the magistrates had reported a single case of forced labour in Bombay Presidency. It doubts whether people are even aware of the plethora of legislation which prohibits forced labour[ii]. Also, villagers near Mahabaleshwar were forced to work as forced labour for Europeans who left the hill station in monsoon. They were dragged away from their villages just as cultivation was about to begin and forced to provide every bullock for long distance travel. The court upbraided the collector of Thana for suppressing these facts, while the superintendent of Mahabaleshwar washed his hands off the affair. The ingenious ruse applied in this case was to force people from Satara, which was a princely state and theoretically independent, to work as coolies. This meant there were no complaints from British occupied territory.

One of the most common uses was to carry baggage for the Katcheri (government office) as it moved from place to place. Villages which were unfortunate to fall in the route of the katcheri as it meandered through the country were forced to provide free labour to carry the baggage of the katcheri. The baggage usually consisted of the Collectors files, personal luggage and heavy items which were necessary for this institution to function. As the Principal Collector of North Arcot district wrote,

Coolies for conveying the Katcheri baggage are not the regular coolies of the country. They are ryots, village watchers or any day labourers belonging to the village the Katcheri has to pass through. They are not accustomed to carry loads and consequently what is put upon them is not equal to that of a regular hired coolie”[iii].

To put this in context one only has to imagine going to the train station to drop a relation and the local police catching hold of you and forcing you to carry 30-40 kilos of luggage of an IPS officer on your head. And this was not for short distances, it was for at least 20-30 kilometres till the next stop of the Katcheri.

The collector of Savanuru, Karnataka, writing in 1874, has given a good idea of the number of bullock carts which were impressed to carry the official’s baggage[iv]. The number of carts varied depending on how junior or senior the officer was in the food chain. Needless to say, the more senior an officer was (for example collector) the more carts he impressed. Table 2 gives the approximate number of carts impressed by each grade of district official.

 Carts OfficeCarts personalTotal
Collector101222
1st assistant collector2810
2nd assistant collector268
Supernumerary collector156
District deputy collector246
Total173552

Table 2 the number of carts needed by different district officials while travelling from place to place.

The magic number of 52 carts is representative of only one district, there were scores of such districts in each Presidency in British occupied Bharat. In fact, Savanuru was part of the Kanara district of Bombay Presidency in the 19th century and remained so for some years after Independence. The British-era Kanara district virtually covered the entire coastline of Karnataka and stretched a little into coastal Kerala as well. The collector of Kanara writes in 1874 CE that the collectors were travelling for nearly eight months of the year and each collector required a minimum of 5 carts [v]. He further adds that, “The necessary transport cannot be procured anywhere in Kanara without compulsion”. The core issue in all of this was really saving money for the British Occupation government. If it meant forcing people to provide transport for free, well that was for their own good.

Forced labour for White civilians.

While the use of forced labour by government officials might be rationalised on one level, as possibly one of the evils of the BOB, what is surprising is that white people who were not government servants, made full use of free labour.

 The Collector of South Kanara remarks in 1860 CE that as bullocks were hard to find in South Kanara, people were forced to work as coolies and pull the carts of European travellers [vi]. He further adds that people only agree to this inhumane and degrading practice as they believe that they are required to do so by the British government. This practice was not only winked at by British administrators but also actively advocated to prevent “inconvenience” to white travellers. In the same year, the assistant collector of Vishakhapatnam writes to his superior officer, that, as the availability of palakhi bearers is patchy throughout the district it is necessary to force people to act as bearers for white travellers[vii].

As was usual practice in other parts of Bharat, people were corralled by means of lower-level minions such as peons at each stage of travel in the district. The white attitude is made clear in the officials’ statement when he says that:

To remove bearers from all control whatever, would be to place travelers entirely at their mercy, which would subject them to insufferable annoyance and insolence, and would open a door to unbridled extortion and combination, besides subjecting females in particular to the risk of being helplessly left in unhealthy localities, objects of contempt and ridicule, and of incurring constant collision between male travelers and bearers”.

C-26 From M.R.Weld,.Esq., acting head assistant collector of Tanjore,to H.S. Thomas,Esq., collector of Tanjore,dated Mayaveram, 15-01-1876,No.16

He snidely adds that people must be happy with the current situation as otherwise someone would have complained by now!

White memsahibs also made utilised the free labour service as productively as possible. In my personal experience, having interacted with white “civilization” over the past two decades, it is the women who are the most racist. Anyway, coming back to the point, the memsahibs sent off their peons to drag the nearest tailor from his shop and forced him to sew curtains[viii]. The tailor would rarely be paid and if he was it was below the market rate.

What was the British opinion of Bharatiyas?

The British vultures characterised Bharatiya’s as notorious complainers, apathetic and lazy dolts, selfish, short sighted and insolent. A particularly positive characterisation was of us as “obedient children”. And how did these genocidal buggers see themselves? As “enlightened rulers”!

Notorious Complainers

Consider a case from 1830’s Rajamahendravaram, Andhra Pradesh. The Collector C.Grant is desperately trying to cover his back against a complaint by Jagannatha Rao. The complaint relates to government officials using people as forced unpaid labour (remember the British concept of “caste” wasn’t applied wholesale to Bharatiya society at that time).The Collector is also accused of withholding petitions by Bharatiyas against government excesses. And how does this rat C.Grant characterise the upright Jagannatha Rao?

The rancourous spirits and the unworthy motives which seem to have dictated the petitions of the informant did not at all surpise me, when I saw the notorious names appended to them…The informant, who is a Brahmin, comes forward as the avowed defender of the ryots of the lowest class of the community which his own caste have trampled upon for ages.[i]

So there you go! How dare the oppressive Brahmin fight for the rights of the downtrodden? Not happening in the enlightened English rule. Of course nothing ever comes out of these complaints.

Lazy and Apathetic

Bharatiya’s were reluctant to provide free labour to the government for which they were paying heavy taxes as well. This reluctance was attributed to us being lazy and apathetic for the common good (i.e. the British rulers). The reality was this: the British government in exchange for all sorts of taxes and cesses undertook the responsibility of maintain agricultural and irrigation works. This was previously done by the villagers who pooled in their efforts. But will all independence and incentive taken away from the village system there was nothing left except pay taxes and provide free labour. A related characterisation of Bharatiya’s was as “selfish and short-sighted”. The British officers believed that it was their birth right to make us work for free[i].

The whole difficulty as to the enforcement of the rules for the management of tank calingulas and as to the non-observance by the people of their ancient obligations to make the petty repairs to their irrigation works from time to time required arises, I think from the following causes: their indolence, their short sighted and selfish indifference to the feelings and interests and wishes of others, and their proneness to faction and consequent inability to combine.”[ii]

To remedy this situation the innovative British officers suggested framing new laws or enforcing existing ones like Act I of 1858 to force Bharatiya’s to labour for free. A sample of their thought process is given in the report by the Collector of Masulipatanam below:

From the late collectors circulars in the gazette, and from what I hear from the superintending engineer, I fancy the ryots here are very apathetic about giving their labour; but I think that, if section 6 of Act I of 1858,was enforced here and there, and the villagers are charged twice the value of earth work  done by imported labour, they will learn to get rid of their apathy.”[iii]

Obedient children

At the other end of the spectrum was the classification of Bharatiya’s as docile animals who would follow the white man’s orders. One officer from Belgaum in 1874 CE identified that the obedience stemmed from the farmers resignation to being exploited by their rulers.

Here if carts are required a certain amount of compulsion is often necessary; i.e. the order is given, and the cultivators send their carts with little or no objection, as they regard the having to do so as a necessary evil, and it is one to which they have always been accustomed.”[i]

On the other hand the Collector of Tanjore in 1877 CE lamented in his report that the natives were becoming less “obedient” compared to previous times.

In the old days the collectors order was all that was wanted; like good children the ryots never hesitated to yield a willing obedience, and the recusant few, if there were such a breed, were hustled into good behaviour by the common sense of the village.”[ii]


To be continued…


[i] Revenue Department No.495 of 1874,Letter to chief secretary of government, revenue department, Bombay, from H.B.Boswell, acting Collector of Belguam, 15-04-1874.

[ii] From H.S.Thomas.Esq., collector of Tanjore,to the acting secretary to the board of revenue, dated Tanjore, 13-03-1876,No.1013


[i] Revenue Department No.506 of 1874,Letter to the Chief secretary to government from  J.Moore, Acting Collector,of Khandesh, N.D, 10-04-1874,Camp Borad.

[ii] From H.W.Bliss , Esq., acting collector of  Madura,to the acting secretary to the board of revenue,dated  28-01-1876,No.34.

[iii] From G.D.Leman,Esq. acting collector of the Kistna district,to the secretary of board of revenue ,dated Masulipatam,27-03-1872,No.1038


[i] Complaint of Jagannath Rao on forced unremunerated labour,Rajamahendravaram ( MRO:BP:Vol 1558, Pro:15.5.1837,Nos.37,pp.5300-3).


[i] No.1974  From J.Silver, Esq., collector of Tinnevelly, dated Tinnevelly,25/04/1860,No.153

[ii] IOR: Board Collection 2337: No 122510: Draft Jdugement 117 (PC 6728): 70 pp

[iii] Principal collector,North Arcot to Board of revenue: 17.17.1837. ( MRO:BRP:Vol 1566,Pro 31.7.1837, No. 47, pp 8658-9)

[iv] Revenue Department No.1211  of 1874,Letter to revenue commissioner, S.D., from E.P.Robertson, Collector of Savanur, 20-04-1874

[v] Revenue Department No.1006 of 1874,Letter to chief secretary of government, from  A.R.MACDONALD Collector of Kanara, 24-03-1874

[vi] Consultation  of board of revenue 15-05-1860, No.2270,  From D.Williams, Esq., Ag.Hd.Asst.Collector in charge of South Canara,08/05/1860,No.67

[vii] C-26 Consultation of board of revenue 23-05-1860 Enc.1 From R.Davidson,Esq.,Offg.Asst.Collector of Vizagapatam.          To E.G.R Pane,Esq.Collector of Vizagapatam,dated Vizagapatam, 05-05-1860

[viii] No.3285,dated 30th august 1883 From- H.E. Perries, esq, commissioner and superintendent, Rawalpindi division.
To- The secretary to government, Punjab

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