s the Museum of London Docklands celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2023, a new temporary display ‘Indo + Caribbean: the creation of a culture’ takes a deeper look at a history with an interesting connection to the West India Docks.

The Docks were created, following a Parliamentary act in 1799, for the purpose of handling all trade from the West Indies. The import and export docks that opened in 1802 saw ships pass through transporting goods including sugar and rum. However, an image from the Museum of London collections shows another type of ship resting at West India Docks in 1928, a James Nourse Ltd steamer called the ‘Chenab’ that in earlier years would have been used for the transport of indentured labourers.

The system of indenture was defined by the indenture contract – an agreement in which an individual would be required to work for a set number of years, sometimes in return for a small wage and return passage home when the contracted period ended. Many of those who became indentured were deceived or forced into signing their contracts and different groups of people have been indentured labourers throughout history.


Indo + Caribbean tells the particular story of the Indian indentured labourers who were used to replace enslaved African labour on plantations in the British Caribbean from 1838 until 1917.

East London Advertiser: Shereen Lafhaj has been looking into the story of Indian indentured labourersShereen Lafhaj has been looking into the story of Indian indentured labourers (Image: Museum of London)

These Indian labourers mostly came from states like Bihar, where poverty and therefore migration for work has historically been high. The migrants often had only a vague idea of where they were going when they boarded steamers such as the Chenab.

It is hard to find many first-hand accounts of the experiences of these Indian migrants on the ocean journey to the Caribbean but other sources, such as records of criminal proceedings, paint a bleak picture. Tales of illness, malnourishment and gross mistreatment are rife.

When the migrants landed in the British Caribbean, their tendency to hold to the relationships they had formed with other migrants on the ships hints at the necessity of sticking together to survive the on-board experience. Their new lives in the British Caribbean largely revolved around producing the sugar that would have then been transported on ships to West India Docks, in order to meet the high demand for sugar in Britain. Violence and abuse characterised the treatment of labourers on the plantations.

The image of the Chenab in 1928 serves as a reminder that the history of West India Docks, and of London itself, is intrinsically tied to that of indenture. The Museum of London Docklands’ location in a Grade I listed former sugar warehouse on Canary Wharf is further evidence of this. It makes the Museum a pertinent place for this display which will serve to increase awareness of the history of indenture.

[This is an amended version of the piece which appears in the e-edition]