Corporate Histories and Woke Culture: The Case of CSR and the Indian Indentured Labourers

Prof Umesh Sharma, University of Waikato

‘Woke’ is now increasingly used as a byword for ‘social awareness’. This social media driven awareness has resulted in previously published literary and artistic works being either ‘censored’ on a piece-meal basis; or the entire works of that author, director or entertainer being ‘cancelled’. This has significant consequences for business. For example, a book published in an earlier generation might suddenly be ‘censored’ because of language, racial characterization, or depiction of drug use, social class, or sexual orientation of the characters, or other social differences that are viewed by today’s moralists as harmful to the readers. Such a posthumously censored book will not only cease accumulating royalties, but worse still be subject to costly litigations against the author’s estate. A body of work that is ‘cancelled’ entirely for whatever reason, loses all its value.[i]

This ‘woke’ culture is also impacting companies and their histories; and therefore impacting their valuations. In this article we will look at the impact on companies that have a history associated with various forms of slavery.

Racism and Slavery

The ‘woke’ culture has given people a deeper understanding of the issues of slavery, racism, and its impact on business in the British Empire. Britain had been involved in the transatlantic slave trade for more than 200 years by the time it abolished the trade in 1807; although the full abolition of slavery did not follow for another generation. It is estimated that approximately 12.5 million enslaved Africans were forcibly trafficked across the Atlantic between the 16th and 19th centuries. More than three million of those men, women and children were carried on British slaving ships. They were delivered to work on brutal plantations, where they cultivated crops such as sugar and cotton. During this period, slavery was introduced to the lands that formed the USA, while they were British colonies. Yet for decades Britain neglected, even celebrated, its own colonial history. And it still does. Discussion of slavery itself has been subordinated beneath a focus on abolition, and particularly white abolitionists such as William Wilberforce. The British taxpayer paid out large sums in compensation to former slave owners, though none was handed to the people who had been enslaved. Many of them were even forced to work on for years without pay after slavery.[ii]

Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR)

CSR Limited today is a major Australian industrial company, producing building products and having a 25% share in the Tomago aluminium smelter located near Newcastle, New South Wales. It is publicly traded on the Australian Securities Exchange. In 2021, it had over 3,000 employees and reported an after-tax profit of $146 million. The company has a diversified shareholding with predominantly Australian fund managers and retail owners. The group’s corporate headquarters is in North Ryde, Sydney. What is little known of the company is that its history is steeped in making profits out of the slave trade.

Founded in Sydney in 1855 as the Colonial Sugar Refining Company at the Old Sugar mill, the company expanded into milling cane in Queensland and Fiji from the 1870s. It quickly became the most important miller and refiner in Australasia, with a virtual monopoly on Queensland and Fiji sugar production up to, respectively, 1989 and 1972. It also sold by-products of the sugar industry, from molasses to ethanol. In 2010, CSR sold its sugar and ethanol business to the Singaporean company Wilmar Sugar.

CSR in Queensland

The Queensland Government passed an Act in 1881 allowing CSR to acquire large amounts of land in the north of the colony and to invest £500,000 in establishing sugar plantations in these areas.[iii] The two major CSR plantations created at this time were the Victoria Plantation and the Homebush Plantation. Blackbirded (kidnapped) South Sea Islander labour was utilised by CSR to deforest the land, plant, and cut the sugarcane, and build the mills. Knox and the company’s Queensland director E.B. Forrest chartered blackbirding vessels to bring Islanders to the plantations.[iv] The 1884 recruiting voyage of the Hopeful blackbirding labour vessel which kidnapped and murdered many Islanders was under contract to deliver labourers to Ebenezer Cowley, the manager of the Victoria Plantation.[v] An 1886 inquiry into this type of labour found that up to 60% of the Islanders transported to the Homebush Plantation had died within four years.[vi] The kidnapping and deaths of these workers resulted in 111 Islanders being removed from the CSR plantations by the Queensland government and returned to their homelands in 1885. Instead of the Islanders being compensated, CSR was compensated £4,424 by the government for the loss of these labourers![vii] CSR also experimented with cheap Chinese, Javanese, Sinhalese, and Japanese coolie labour on their plantations.[viii]

By the 1890s, Knox decided to abandon the plantation system in Queensland and return to the central mill method used in its New South Wales operations. CSR subdivided the Victoria and Homebush estates into small farms which it sold or leased to white farmers who would sell their cane to CSR to be processed at its nearby mills.[ix]

CSR in Fiji

In 1880, the company’s sugar plantation and milling systems were expanded to Fiji with a large estate and mill being established at Nausori. Another estate and mill was constructed at Rarawai in 1886. Cheap Fijian and South Sea Islander labourers were utilised with high mortality rates being recorded.[x] At Nausori, the Agent-General for Immigration in Fiji, described the deaths of the Islander labourers at the CSR plantation as appalling and tantamount to manslaughter.[xi] Local laws made it harder to use Blackbirded Melanesian labour and CSR soon turned to Indian coolie labour imported from Calcutta. By 1885, most of CSR’s Fijian plantation workforce were indentured coolies on 5-year contracts.[xii]

The Indian Indentured Labourers

The first shipload of 463 Indian indentured labourers arrived in Fiji aboard the ship Leonidas on 15 May 1879.  The last ship SS Sutlej arrived on 11 November 1916 with 888 indentured labourers.  Between 1879 and 1916, a total of 42 ships made 87 voyages carrying 60,965 Indian indentured labourers and 60,553 reached Fiji.

Colonial Sugar Refinery (CSR) continued to reap profits from the sugar industry.  For the six months that ended 30 September 1910, the first-time comparative figures were made available, CSR’s Australian refineries and mills yielded a net profit of £126,714, while the profit from its Fiji and New Zealand operations was £70,000.

While the indenture system in Fiji was officially abolished in 1917 and the indentured labourers became ‘free settlers’, they and their descendants continued to toil on sugar cane farms.  This continued in the much the same way as under the initial indenture system, just as slavery continued in different forms after slavery was abolished in many parts of the world.[xiii]

Lord Denning in 1970 felt that the indentured labourers were exploited in the sugar cane farm by the millers.  This resulted in much bitterness amongst Indian farmers.  Lord Denning concluded that the value of molasses was to be added to the proceeds of sugar and the total to be split into 65% growers’ share and 35% millers’ share.

This was unacceptable to the millers, especially CSR.  The Fiji Government bought CSR’s interest and started operating the mills under the Fiji Sugar Corporation in 1973 and CSR left the country the same year.

Education – The Great Liberator

For the first 30 years of colonial rule in Fiji, the colonial government neither encouraged nor discouraged education of local population.  For European children, however, schools were provided in Levuka (from 1879) and Suva (from 1883), while native education was sustained and discharged by the missions.  Although by 1900, there were schools in most Fijian villages offering up to four years of education, Indians had very little participation in schools. The colonial government did not assist Indian education prior to 1916, because the prevailing colonial attitude was that it would be self-defeating to educate the Indians as they had been taken to Fiji to be an unskilled workforce.

To ensure that the descendants of indentured labourers remained unskilled and continued to work on the cane farms, the colonial government had a policy of not educating the children of indentured labourers.  However, the determination of visionary descendants of indentured labourers to engage in self-help education rising from humble beginnings to provide primary, secondary, and tertiary education became the most powerful liberator of all.

Whilst Denning’s Award gave much relief to the descendants of indentured labourers, the growers faced both new prospects and new problems.  Two coups eventuated in 1987 and 2000.  The first coup was carried out on 14 May 1987, exactly 108 years after the first shipload of Indian indentured labourers came by Leonidas and set foot in Fiji in 1879.  It was immediately after this that the descendants of indentured labourers started fleeing overseas in exceptionally large numbers.

This forced many community-minded individuals and religious organisations to engage in self-education with very humble beginnings and eventually rising to a world class education system today.

Clearly, the silent and most powerful liberator for Indians was the self-help education that paved the path for most descendants of the indentured labourers. Education enabled them to come out of the cane farms and into trade, business, government, and greener pastures abroad.[xiv]

Conclusion

In today’s CNN, Facebook and Google worlds, a company’s actions today can come back to bite them many, many years later. Shell’s human rights violations in Nigeria; Nike’s use of child labour in sweatshops in Asia; HSBC’s money laundering of drug money in Mexico; Volkswagens defeat device to beat emissions tests in their diesel engines; Rio Tinto’s blowing up of a 46,000-year-old sacred indigenous site with dynamite to expand its Australian iron ore mine have resulted in significant litigation costs and loss of reputation for these companies.

CSR Ltd., appears to have escaped scrutiny by selling its sugar and ethanol business to Wilmar Sugar. However, it is surely time that it recognises the dark chapters of its past and how it made its profits, and at the very least finance schools and universities to further uplift the descendants of its  indentured labourers.

Companies like CSR Ltd., also need to be very aware that actions today may be viewed with a different lens by future societies.

 

Prof Umesh Sharma

University of Waikato, New Zealand

 

The opinions in this article reflect those of the author and not necessarily that of the organisation or its executive.

 

[i] Ratnatunga, Janek (2020) “Stay ‘Woke’ or Go Broke – A New Awakening for Global Business”, Journal of Applied Management Accounting Research, 18 (2): 27-33.

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Lowndes, A.G. (1956). South Pacific Enterprise. Sydney: Angus & Robertson.

[iv] The Brisbane Courier (1886), “Pacific Islanders Compensation Court”. 20 February, Vol. XLI, No. 8, 768. Queensland, Australia, p. 3.

[v] The Brisbane Courier (1885), “The Returned Islanders”.  Vol. XL, No. 8, 600. Queensland, Australia. 4 August, p. 6.

[vi] The Brisbane Courier (1886), “Pacific Islanders Compensation Court”.  Vol. XLI, No. 8, 770. Queensland, Australia. 23 February. p. 3.

[vii] The Queenslander. (1886), “Pacific Islanders’ Compensation Court”.  Vol. XXIX, No. 545. Queensland, Australia. 6 March, p. 368.

[viii] Op. cit. Lowndes, (1956)

[ix] ibid

[x] ibid

[xi] Docker, Edward Wybergh (1970). The Blackbirders. Sydney: Angus & Robertson.

[xii] Clarence and Richmond Examiner and New England Advertiser (1885) “Nausori Mill, Rewa River. Viti Levu, Fiji”. Vol. XXV, No. 2086. New South Wales, Australia. 29 August, p. 3.

[xiii] Karan, Ram & Sharma, Umesh, (2021), “The social consequences of indenture system and aftermath in Fiji: an accountability study”, International Journal of Critical Accounting, Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 17-29.

[xiv] ibid