Le kaṅkāṇi (kangany) au Travancore
Recruteur, contremaître ou porion, surveillant
(Tamilnad, Sri Lanka et Kerala)

Séminaire du 17 janvier 2012

A kankani is the leader overseer of a group of laborers, and those who worked under him tended to be drawn from his own village or neighboring villages. Formerly, the kankani loaned his workers the cost of their passage. He also doubled as a patriarchal figure for his group of workers. Daniel, The Coolie, note 17.

Paul E. Baak, About Enslaved Ex-Slaves, Uncaptured Contract Coolies and Unfreed Freedmen: Some Notes about 'Free' and 'Unfree' Labour in the Context of Plantation Development in Southwest India, Early Sixteenth Century—Mid 1990s, Modern Asian Studies, Vol.33, No.1 (Feb., 1999), pp.121–157.

(134) The way in which the unwilling agricultural labourers were mobilized by the southern Indian planters, those of Travancore included, was written down in rather detailed form by the South of India Planters' Enquiry Committee. It reported:

“In securing labour for their estates, planters occasionally deal directly with coolies, but these instances are very rare, being limited to engagements made with coolies who have worked for several years on the same plantations or with coolies living close to plantations. But even in such cases, the practice is not universal and it may be said that, in recruiting imported labour, maistries, who answer to the garden sardars of Assam, are invariably employed as the agents between the planters and the coolies. The maistry enters into a contract with the planter and the contract is generally reduced to writing. Such contracts are signed by the maistry, rarely by the planter, and they are seldom, if ever, registered. In the case of old and trusted maistries, informal verbal agreements sometimes take the place of written contracts and in some places, for instance, parts of Travancore, a verbal agreement is supplemented by a promissory note executed by the maistry. Receiving a lump sum in advance, the maistry undertakes to supply a certain number of coolies for plantation work for a certain time. These engagements are made usually in March or April of each year [when the plantation labourers returned to the plains, PB], the time fixed for the commencement of work on the plantations being two or three months later [in June or July, PB]. The period of the contract is usually nine months, sometimes less, and it never exceeds a year (...). The maistry then proceeds to the village or villages where he collects labour and generally returns to his employer's estate with his gang, though some maistries remain in the villages and send their gangs to the plantations in charge of their representatives as headmen. The average strength of a maistry's gang varies between 20 and 40 adult males, females and children; the average maximum is 1oo, but in some cases a maistry furnishes as many as 200 or 250 coolies (RSIPEC 1896:12).”

Interestingly, the recruiter, in Travancore, apart from maistry also called kangany, in his turn, "makes advances to coolies, entering into contracts with them (sometimes in writing, but more often not)" (RSIPEC 1896:17). The advance offered by the kangany was of crucial importance in many regards. For example, it enabled those workers who were financially bonded to a particular landlord and/or moneylender to pay off their debts. In addition, many of these labourers, who were often extremely poor, could not resist taking the advances offered by the kanganies. They had to take care of their immediate basic needs, like food, clothing and shelter. Others, and this group was less significant, used the advances for extraordinary expenditures, like marriages and other important social events. Finally, it should be acknowledged that the advance system remained very widespread throughout South India during the nineteenth century. Apart from the disadvantages for the workers, which will be analysed in the next subsections, the advance meant for the labourer the only practical guarantee for his employment. At the same time, its height gave some indication about the financial background of the new employer and, consequently, about his ability to pay an attractive wage (RSIPEC 1896:18-20)…

Apart from providing advances, the kangany was of major importance in other respects as well. For example, the kanganies gave the workers an exaggeratedly optimistic impression about plantation life which, at least partially, took away their fear of all kinds of frightening diseases, inhuman work conditions and low wages. Uma Devi, who was able to study the information collected in Travancore for the benefit of the South of India Planters' Enquiry Committee, pointed out the dilemma many labourers had to face: either to believe the plantation labourers who returned to the plains or to have faith in the kangany's picture of plantation life. In addition, the recruiters often obtained most of their labour from among their own family and friends. The workers were thus, apart from their financial bonds, also closely related to the kanganies in a strict social sense. And lastly, the recruiters showed their gang of labourers the way through the jungle to reach their estate of destination.

Clearly, the mobilized labourers were immobilized at the same time. Although freed from landlords and moneylenders, they were enslaved by their new employers. As mentioned above, the advances offered by the recruiters were often immediately used by the workers to pay off already existing debts, to meet basic needs and to defray expenses related to family affairs. Moreover, the advances were accepted to pay for the journey to the plantations, particularly food. Thus even before having reached the estate, the contracted labourers became indebted to the kanganies, who, on their turn, as seen above, were bonded through contracts and debts to their superiors: the planters.

In addition, the financial situation of most labourers did not improve during their period of contract. Most kanganieswere in fact jobbers; apart from the recruitment of workers they supervised 'their' gang of labourers on the estates. This meant, for example, that the kanganies, who apart from their fixed pay as overseers received commission on their gangs' earnings at the end of the year, derived much benefit from keeping their workers indebted. As long as the plantation labourers had to clear their debts, the kanganies could force them to work longer hours than initially agreed, coerce sick workers to fulfil their daily tasks in the fields, and detail labourers beyond the period of contract, all of which contributed to a larger amount of wages paid by the planters, of which, as just mentioned, the kanganiesobtained their share. In order to reinforce the debt slavery, the workers received a weekly food issue on credit together with small cash advances. Only after the workers were allowed to return home, which often occurred only months after the expiry of their contracts, did the labourers receive the balance of their wages, which in most cases were paid by the kanganies themselves. Not surprisingly, on many of these occasions the jobbers cheated the often totally illiterate labourers and kept more than their legitimate share of the workers' wages for themselves.