Sailing the British Empire : The Voyages of The Clarence, 1858-73

Voyages of Indentured Labor

The 19th century saw a rise to an indentured labor system that some thought was a disguised form of new slavery. Others believe that it was a way for migrants to make a better life for themselves and their children. Whichever camp you fall into, you must consider the grave consequences that each migrant faced when they decided to uproot their lives to enter the indentured system. The migrants who willingly signed up for this new life in a new country or colony must not have viewed this as entering slavery. If they did, they would most likely not have endured the risks of traveling by sea to get to their place of indenture.

Families specifically are important to consider. Imagine taking your family to live in a different country because of a job offer. Its a fairly normal thing to consider in today's global work force and economy.  But there is one catch: There is a 17% chance your 10 year old will die on the voyage, and a 35% chance your one year old will die on the way there. These figures are not too unreasonable for families entering the indentured system in the mid 1800's. During the sailing season of 1859-1860 from Calcutta to the West Indies, 16.5% of children aged 1-12 died on the voyage and 34.5% of infants under one year died on the voyage. 

It should be no surprise to most people that mid-19th
century, travelling by sea voyage was not always the safest endeavor. However,
for many trips and therefore consequently many people it was the only option.
Studies by renowned demographers Ralph Shlomowitz and John Macdonald have
shown that there is a trend in the earlier half of the 1800’s in which
mortality rates while on the sea were considerably higher than those on land
between the years 1838-1853. Fortunately, after 1853, mortality rates between
land and sea evened out to be comparable for adults. Unfortunately, children
and infants still suffered higher mortality rates while travelling by ship.


Travelling on the tumultuous ocean often led to
certain health problems that can largely account for higher mortality rates.
1853 marks a turning point in ocean travel in that by this time many
governmental officials were trying to make sea voyages healthier for all
involved. While some efforts towards better hygiene may have been
scientifically misinformed, the effects of them greatly benefited all who have
since traveled by boat. However, some things could not be prevented. Fevers,
and bouts of lethal diseases still sometimes went around on a ship, as well as
the arrival of natural disasters that threatened all those on board. Efforts made to ameliorate great mortality consisted in part by trying to reduce the number of people per space on board ship. The Clarence was considered a larger ship, and could hold more people. Also considered was the condition of people admitted on board. Regulations that controlled who could be admitted at coolie depots became stricter in order to prevent the spread of illness on board. 

Occasionally, the neglect of a ship's surgeon may have resulted in undue death on board, but for the most part the captain and crew had great motivation to keep coolies on board healthy. For instance, The Salsette sailed with coolies on board during 1859, and faced great mortality. In the captain's journal, it is remarked that he could not have done anything else to keep the coolies safe, and that he had the motivation to prevent death as much as possible because he lost money with each death. 

The Salsette faced so much extraordinary death that the pages of the captain's journal are filled with details of the deaths on board. 

The journal entry of May 3rd narrates the death of a woman who died due to dysentery. The entry also remarks that there is hardly anything to do because the coolies chosen at the depots are chosen poorly and already sick. Furthermore, the prolific sickness is also explained by the coolies' "beastly habits" and poor hygiene. This is an example of how warring cultural attitudes of the time can blame the coolies for problems inherent within the indentured labor system. 

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