Archive for July, 2011
The term ‘Assimilado’ was used by the Portuguese colonialists to describe colonial subjects that had rejected their respective native cultures and taken on the more ‘civilised’ Portuguese one. The French colonialists also had an assimilation policy, for example, the assimilated were called évolués (literally, the evolved ones) in Algeria. The other colonialists, especially the British, did not have a specific formal system of assimilation. In return for obtaining such a status, the Assimilado obtained certain privileges not available to the ‘savage’ natives.
Over the years, the requirements to obtain this status grew to include education, religious and language aspects and it is no surprise that many of those who met the Assimilado requirements also happened to be mixed race. The early policy of the race mixing encouraged or ignored by many of the colonial administrations resulted in a number of inter-cultural families where the, usually European, husband determined that the children obtained some education, followed Christian ways and spoke his mother tongue. This conferred some economic and sometimes political advantage to his offspring.
The ‘Assimilado advantage’ can be seen in the history of many colonies such as the Indos in Dutch Indonesia and the Assimilados/mestizos of Portuguese Goa, Angola, Mozambique and the Philippines. The higher education and the language advantage meant that many people from these communities performed better economically, usually gainfully employed in better jobs such as the lower ranks of the colonial apparatus, than the poor indigenous populace.
An extended Coloured family with roots in Cape Town, Kimberley, and Pretoria (South Africa).
Even though the British are said never to have followed this assimilation thinking, they presided over the removals of the Aboriginal mixed race children, known as the stolen generation, with the view of civilising them enough for them to reject their native, heathen ways. Later, both the British colonies of Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe) and South Africa both defined a separate racial class for their mixed population, the Coloureds, who had better rights than the native African citizens, more so in Rhodesia than in South Africa.
Cultural assimilation is said to be the promotion of a dominant culture but in the case of colonial assimilation, it was the minority culture that was being promoted. However, there was also assimilation the other way. Many of the offspring of romantic or other liaisons between European man and indigenous women were not acknowledged and many of these children were assimilated back into the indigenous culture. This happened so often in some societies that there were descriptions given to such individuals such as ‘lost coloured’ in Zimbabwe and ‘disappearing into the kampun (village)’ in Indonesia. For the most part the very earliest, especially in Africa, mixed race children remained in the indigenous societies and occasionally a throwback occurs.
Arguably, the British racist views on miscegenation particularly during the Victorian years appears to have spread to other European countries. In the later period of colonialism, the newly arrived immigrants, many encouraged by their respective governments and arriving with wives and families in tow, were less willing to compete against these local non-European communities. The rules for assimilation were hugely tightened and further opportunities restricted to make way for these mainly working class immigrants.
Arrival of the "Castel Felice" with Indo Eurasian repatriates from Indonesia on Lloydkade in Rotterdam.
Independence for most colonies brought retribution on the mixed race middle classes and in many cases, such as the Goans and Indos, they fled to the ‘mother’ countries to escape the wrath of the people who saw them as part of the colonial structures. In some cases, such as the Philippines and Angola, it was the educated classes that pushed for independence and they remain in powerful political and economic positions in those societies. The ‘coloureds’ of Zimbabwe and South Africa are a bit of an exception and now claim to find themselves on the wrong end of such policies as ‘Black Economic Empowerment’ and ‘indigenisation’.
One thing is for sure, as these colonial middle classes came to Europe they found themselves in the lower social ranks of their new societies, in some cases, even vilified and unaccepted. They, however, form the older immigrant populations and many of their offspring now contribute to the growing mixed race populations of many European nations.
Peasants in Finland
Say you were unlucky to be born a peasant prior to the Industrial revolution but after the decline of Feudal Europe and you tried hard to see what the future held for you, you might have been not very encouraged by what you saw. You were likely to see that you would spend the rest of your life like your parents before you and their parents before them, working hard but living in perpetual poverty. If you were an ambitious and clever person you might have realised the established class systems in your country of your birth would forever restrict your place in society and the only escape was to move somewhere else. Being poor would mean that the only resource you had was your labour and so you might have considered selling your labour for a pittance in return for the opportunity to start again somewhere else in the world. Somewhere you would have the chance to change what fate seems determined to hand to you.
If that was the case, then you would not have been the only one. In return for passage to the new worlds of the Americas, food, clothing and shelter, millions of poor people sold themselves for a limited period between 5 and 7 years into virtual slavery in a system called indentured servitude. Unlike traditional slavery, the employer owned the contract, not the person, which they could trade. However it was not unknown for indentured servants to be mistreated to the point of death in some cases. At the end of the contract, the servant got a small severance package that may have been land or money allowing them to start a new life as free people in their new homeland.
Indentured labour is one of the primary means by which the European populations in the new American colonies were increased and later on was one of the major reasons for the wide racial mix that exists in the Americas and the Caribbean. Only the transatlantic slave trade had a similar impact on the racial makeup of this part of the world.
In fact it was the transatlantic slave trade and to a smaller extent, the Industrial Revolution that led to a drop in the first wave of the indentured labour trade. Starting in the 1770s, the Industrial Revolution increased the incomes of the working classes, in Western Europe at least, which meant that labourers were less likely to enter into contracts, preferring to pay their own way into the new world. At the beginning of the slave trade, slaves were relatively expensive and indentured labour less so especially considering that many of the labourers came with farming and labour skills that had to be taught to the newly arrived slaves. The increasing European incomes meant that indentured labour took up the more skilled tasks and the slaves formed the ‘muscle’ of the labour market. However as indentured costs rose and second generation slave population grew, it became cheaper to use slaves until the abolishment of slavery in the British Empire in 1833.
Marseille naval museum Steam ship Europe.
In 1838, after the forced ‘apprenticeship’ period foisted on the ex-slaves, labour became an issue in the slave dependant colonies and there was a renewed growth in the indentured labour trade. The difference this time is that it was mainly Indian and Chinese labourers that filled the gap. The result of this renewed immigration, described in my post ‘Coolies – Racism, Tradition Or Culture?’, is a fairly large Asian, mainly Indian descendant population, on many Caribbean Islands and in Northern South America, namely Guyana and Suriname.
In both waves of this type of immigration, it was mainly men who made up the bulk of the labourers which meant that some men married either local or other immigrant partners, many of whom would be from another race or community. Later on in the second wave, efforts were made by legislation to include more female servants which reduced the racial mixing that the labourers partook in ensuring they remained distinctive communities in their new adopted countries.
In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted ‘The Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ which in Article 4 stated “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms”. Indentured service is considered a form of servitude and it would be nice to say that this system does not exist anymore but that is just not the case.
Much of the domestic help in the Middle East, many from India and the Philippines, could be considered indentured labour, owing money to those who have facilitated their employment in those areas. There are also many foreign nationals working, some partaking in fringe activities, particularly in the sex trades, in many Western European countries that could be considered indentured servants. Sometimes their situation even borders on modern slavery.
Unfortunately, like our imagined peasant in the first paragraph, many people have very little opportunity to better themselves and as long there is poverty, people will take chances to improve their lot. . It is unlikely that this practise, as with illegal immigration, will stop in the near future.
On 4 August 1972, the then President of Uganda, Idi Amin, gave Uganda’s 80,000 Indians 90 days to leave the country. Idi Amin used the Indophobic social climate of Uganda to justify his actions, which were secretly applauded throughout Eastern and Southern Africa. Indians, it was claimed were hoarding wealth and goods to the detriment of indigenous Africans.
Tamil coolie setting out tea plants.
Amin’s actions were just part of a series of anti-Indian sentiment that existed and continues to exist not only in many ex-British colonies but in other colonies such as Suriname where imperial Britain felt compelled to supply indentured labour after it coerced other colonising nations to abolish slavery. From about 1834 and using licenced agents mainly through Mauritius, labourers were imported from the poorer regions of India and then exported with the promise of some pay-out usually involving a plot of land or money at the end of their 5 to 7 years contract. Up to 1932, an estimated 28 million Indians left India to work indentured labourers.
Labourers were not the only manpower needed in the British Empire, there was also a need for educated people in the lower ranks of the imperial civil service, banking and other commercial operations not readily available in other Britain’s colonies. The Indians came to inherit the lower middle classes in many of these countries which may have, encouraged by the imperialist racism, led them to perceive themselves as coming from a more advanced and ‘civilised’ society than those of the newly adopted country. Many Indians who remained after their service contracts used their trading traditions, their small contract pay-outs and contacts back in the homeland to set themselves up in business which funded further immigration swelling their ranks and education in more lucrative trades such as medicine and law. The Indians have been very successful in this strategy coming to virtually monopolise many business sectors, up to 90% in the East African economies.
The Indian experience is mirrored by the Chinese diaspora that was also swelled by the indentured labour market. Fuelled by poverty, the Chinese labourers, mostly from the Guangdong province, found themselves dispersed mainly throughout the rest of Asia but also in substantial numbers in the Pacific Islands, Australasia and the Americas. Sinophobia raised its head early in the USA where the cheap labour was being used to lay railroad tracks and the prejudice grew in other countries such Australia, United States, Canada, and New Zealand even as late as the mid-20th century. Even in today in places such as Tahiti, the Chinese community finds itself the brunt of racial rhetoric.
Like the Indians, the Chinese have been quite successful in dominating the commercial sector in many countries, for example, despite making up only 1% of the Philippines population, they control some 40% of the private commercial sector
Typical Chinese Coolie before and for some time after the American occupation
It is quite telling that the innocent term ‘Coolie’, a historical term for manual labourers or slaves from Asia, became a racial slur with the rising racial discrimination against Indians and the Chinese. The discrimination faced by these communities reinforced their cultural and religious traditions especially regarding family and marriage that meant they continue to exist as a separate and identifiable, usually minority, communities within many countries though in some, particularly in the Caribbean and South America such as Trinidad, Suriname and Guyana, Indians make up a sizeable percentage of the population. Their relative good wealth, their customs and their perceived ‘advanced, more civilised’ attitude contributes to a stereotyping of racial superiority which does lead to strained racial relationships with the indigenous and other immigrant communities in their adopted countries.
Nowadays, the inward isolation of these two communities leads to accusations of racial favouritism which excludes other groups from entering and participating in commercial sectors. This, on the surface, appears to be a good case for assimilation of immigrant populations and there is no doubt that many Western countries are favouring this route as opposed to multiculturalism previously championed and now falling out of favour in Britain.
Is assimilation really the answer to such racial dilemmas? Both communities have also enriched our lives for example with their food which would not have happened had they been assimilated. Is it the traditional systems, such the Indian caste system, of these communities that determine their relative isolation from the rest of the populace and not necessarily racist attitudes? Even under multiculturalism many of those traditions are being slowly eradicated particularly in Western societies as third and fourth generation offspring embrace the societies they live in.
What are your thoughts?