In northern Kerala, stories about young men moving to the Netherlands East Indies (modern-day Indonesia) in the early 20th century are not common. At that time Malabaris preferred to migrate to the Straits Settlements (now Malaysia and Singapore). There were clear procedures laid down to move there from the late 19th century, and the British rulers encouraged the migration of Indians to work in industries such as rubber.
Indian labourers managed to earn a good name as hard workers and for not being ‘trouble makers.’ This reputation spread and so the Dutch colonisers and private companies in Sumatra (which is just across the straits from the Malay peninsula) became keen to recruit Indians.
Under the guise of protecting their Indian subjects, laws were introduced and amended by the British in the Straits Settlements to only allow certain categories of workers to migrate to other territories. Exit controls were set up at ports and only those with special passes were allowed to move to the Dutch East Indies.
Among the first Indians to move to Sumatra were Sikhs who found jobs as security guards and police constables.
Recruitment of Malayalis
Malayalis also began to slowly move to cross the straits. One of the first firms to hire Malabari labour for Sumatra and East Borneo was the Asiatic Petroleum Company, a joint venture between the Shell Transport and Trading and Royal Dutch Petroleum companies. Asiatic Petroleum began drilling for oil in Sumatra in the late-19th century.
The company started recruiting Malayalis from Singapore around 1909 for work in oil installations. Hundreds of so-called “Malabari Coolies” were given jobs in both Sumatra and East Borneo. Typically, recruiters would look for physically strong workers who were already employed in Singapore and lure them to Dutch-held territories with offers of better pay and working conditions.
This process came to an abrupt halt in April, 1912, when the British authorities refused to issue the necessary permits to the Malayalis to leave Singapore, citing Section 31 of the Straits Settlements Ordinance VI of 1904, which prohibited “Asiatic Natives” of British India from going to work in the Dutch East Indies as agricultural workers or labourers.
The Asiatic Petroleum Company complained about the refusal of permits directly to the Government of India’s Department of Commerce and Industry. “We would beg to draw your attention to the fact that these men are employed by us mainly to assist in the laying of petroleum pipelines and general work on our oilfields in Sumatra and Dutch East Borneo, where they are exceedingly well looked after,” the company wrote in a letter in June, 1912.
The company tried to make extra guarantees to the Indian authorities. “A perusal of the contract-form enclosed will show the very good terms under which these men work, and we would particularly draw your attention to Clause II therein, in which the company undertakes, at the expiration of the contract, to return the labourer to Singapore, unless he be unfit for work, in which case he will be returned to his native place in India.”
Asiatic Petroleum added that it had arranged for Javanese labourers to work in the Straits Settlements and suggested it was entitled to some sort of quid-pro-quo. The fact that the company insisted on having Malabari labourers for the projects in Dutch territory instead of trying to bring in more Javanese would seem puzzling to most outsiders.
“We are quite certain that the local government would accept our guarantee, as we are very large employers of all classes of labour, both in British and Dutch territory,” Asiatic Petroleum added in the letter.
“In view of the above facts, therefore we trust that you will now see no objection to our continuing to employ Malabar labourers as heretofore, a cessation of which custom would cause us considerable inconvenience, and we beg that you will favourably consider our application to extend to us this special privilege and that you will authorise your local superintendent to allow Malabar labourers to sign contracts for work at our installations in the Dutch East Indies,” the company wrote.
A C McWatters, the under-secretary to the Government of India, wrote back to Asiatic Petroleum and said that the decision on the Malayali labourers could only be taken by the Superintendent of Indian Immigration in the Straits Settlements. For their part, the Straits authorities refused to budge, and this put an end to Malabaris working for the oil company.
If these Malabari labourers were allowed to move to Sumatra, the island could have become a major centre for Malayalis in Southeast Asia, much in the same way Dubai is now for Keralites in the Gulf. In the early 20th century, migrants from Punjab and Tamil Nadu managed to settle down in cities like Medan, which still has active Sikh and Tamil communities.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)