Overview of the South Asian Diaspora

19th Century

The Indentured Labor System
Abolition of slavery in the European colonies of the Western hemisphere between 1834 and 1873 created the need for a new source of labor. In areas where land was scarce, such as the Caribbean Islands, newly freed slaves were forced back to work on the plantations. In areas where land was plentiful, such as Guyana, Surinam, and Trinidad, former slaves took up independent subsistence farming. The need for plantation workers was supplied in part by the system of indentured labor. Natives of India agreed to work for a fixed number of years in one of the colonies in exchange for a meager wage, plus room and board. Most laborer came from northcentral and northeastern India, though a sizeable minority came from the Tamil and Telugu-speaking regions of the South. Most were Hindus, though a few were Muslims. In the 1840's laborers started coming Trinidad in the Caribbean, Guyana in South America, and Mauritius off the coast of Africa; in the 1860's to the British colony of Natal in South Africa; in the 1870's to the Dutch colony of Surinam; in the 1880's to Fiji. In 1920 the indenture system was abolished but immigration to colonial areas often continued.

Immigration of Contract and Free Laborers
Some Tamils migrated to Sri Lanka to work on the tea plantations. South Asians went to Malaya, then a British colony, to tap rubber. In the last quarter of the 19th century Indians migrated to Myanmar to work on the plantations or to perform menial jobs. In general, South Asians who migrated to British East Africa were neither indentured nor contract laborers. They came initially to build railways and stayed as low ranking civil servants, shopkeepers, and professionals. Many of these immigrants came from Gujarat, Punjab, and Goa.

20th Century

In the 20th century, while some South Asians continued to immigrate to communities that had been established in the 19th century diaspora, other struck out for new destinations, in the U.S., Canada, the UK and European countries, and later Australia, and the Middle East.

Immigration to the U.S.
Immigration to the U.S. came in two waves, the first from 1907 to 1924, and the second much larger wave, starting in 1965 continuing to the present day. The first wave consisted mostly of Sikhs from the Punjab, and Muslims. After an unsuccessful attempt to gain a foothold in the lumber industry in the Northwest, most South Asians migrated to California and through hard work became landowning farmers. Because U.S. immigration laws discouraged returns to South Asia to find South Asian wives, most immigrants remained unmarried or took Hispanic wives. The decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1923 regarding the Thind case said that Indian immigrants were Asian rather than white and made it impossible for immigrants already in the U.S. to gain citizenship. Indians naturalized before the Thind decision found their naturalization called into question. Increasingly strict immigration laws reduced immigration and the Immigration Act of 1924 barred all further immigration from India. The estimate of South Asians immigrating to the U.S. before 1964 is around 6,400. In 1946 the Luce-Celler Bill established very small quotas for immigration from India and Pakistan (100 per year from India). In 1965 with the Immigration and Nationality Reform Act marked the beginning of the second wave of immigration and by 1990 nearly 1 million South Asians had immigrated to the U.S. A large percentage of South Asians in the second wave were professionals. Currently the largest concentration of immigrants and Americans of South Asian descent is in California and New York.

Immigration to Canada
South Asian immigration to Canada began at the start of the 20th century. As with the U.S. most immigrants were from the Punjab. In Canada most South Asian immigrants worked in the sawmill industry rather than in agriculture. By 1908 there were around 5,000 South Asian. As in the U.S. the influx of foreigners triggered a hostile reaction from the while population. The Canadian government responded in 1908 by limiting immigration to people who came by continuous voyage from their native country. It was not possible at that time to come from South Asia directly to Canada and so the regulation effectively stopped South Asian immigration. Between 1909 and 1943 only 878 South Asians were allowed to enter Canada. However, in Canada, unlike in the U.S. South Asian men were allowed to return to their native countries for extended periods, for instance to get married. They were also allowed to return with their wives and any children under age 18. After World War II restrictions were gradually loosened and immigration legislation in 1962 and 1967 substantially liberalized immigration. Before 1962 most immigrants from South Asia were men from the Punjab. After 1962 the influx was more balanced between men and women. Besides Sikhs from the Punjab, Hindus from Gujarat, Bombay and Delhi came to Canada, as well as Muslims from Pakistan and Bangladesh, Christians from Kerala, Parsis from Bombay, and Buddhists from Sri Lanka. In Canada, South Asians made up a significant proportion of total immigrants and as a result very the target of significant harassment. However, in the 1990's South Asians in Canada are a prosperous and well-educated minority and enjoy a much higher level of acceptance than in former decades.

Immigration to the UK, Australia and the European Continent
Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis began to come to the UK as factory workers in the 1950's and 1960's. They were met with hostility from working class Britons and tended to concentrate in urban ghetto neighborhoods. By the mid-1980's South Asian composed more than half the non-white population in the UK. Some South Asians also settled in Australia after that country began to reverse its previously discriminatory policies in the 1960's. On the European continent, South Asian professionals were drawn to Austria and Germany. Because of liberal policies on granting political asylum, Germany was a haven for Tamil refugees fleeing from the conflict in Sri Lanka.

Suzanne McMahon
South Asia Bibliographer
University of California, Berkeley

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