The dollars and cents (or pounds and shillings) of indentured workers from Madeira

Madeiran immigrant list of 1856 from the National Archives of St Kitts Nevis

I have written before about my husband’s Cabral ancestors who came to St Kitts from Madeira in the 1850s as indentured workers. I’ve looked at different aspects of the Madeirans in St Kitts, such as the conditions that led to their immigration, the need for workers in post-emancipation British Caribbean, transition from manual labor to other occupations, and intermarriage with Kittitians. A document in the National Archives of St Kitts and Nevis provides some information about the business transactions that brought the Cabrals halfway across the world to a new life.

Over the course of the mid-1800s, just under 1200 Madeirans sailed to St Kitts as indentured workers, contracted to provide manual labor on the island’s sugar estates. The contract enforced a basic exchange: in return for paying for the cost of the sea journey, an employer would receive several years of labor from a worker. The business arrangement is outlined in the April 7, 1856 Kittitian archive document:

“The immigration committee appointed under Act no. 717 respectfully report

That on the 4th instant there arrived in the barque Nautilus from Madeira 58 adult laborers accompanied by 48 children.

That there has in consequence become due to Captain Henry Laws £574 sterling being the full bounty fixed by the aforesaid act as payable on the introduction of immigrants at the rate of £4 for adults and £3 10s for children each.

That there is also due to James Taylor Esquire thirty three pounds four shillings.

That annexed is a statement showing the distribution of the laborers and the sums to be paid in to the treasury by the persons to whom their contracts have been assigned.

And your committee recommend that your honorable board and house respectfully request his excellency the lieutenant governor issue orders for the payment of the sums of £574 and of £33 4/ out of the fund raised specifically for immigration purposes.

Signed Jno S Berridge, chairman

My first look at the document left me wishing that the Cabrals were included; a second look revealed that they were actually listed, but without their surname. The last names that were listed are familiar from St Kitts birth, marriage, and death records, among them: De Souza, Dias, De Freitas, De Jesus, Barboza, Fernandez, Vieira, Rodriguez, Gomez, Caldeira, Gonsalvez, Pires, Rosa, Govea, D’Andrade, De Oliveira, and Los Santos.

So what was the price paid for an adult’s contract? In today’s money, it’s only about $400 or $500. It seems that the estate planters made their contributions to a fund kept in the treasury, to be paid out to the Nautilus captain, Henry Laws, with a smaller fee to James Taylor (who was he? An agent, or someone else due a cut?).

The Cabral family was composed of the two parents Francisco and Libana, two children aged 10 and 14, and three under age 8. The planter who paid for their contract was identified as Dr Swanston, who would probably be William Swanston, a surgeon in St Kitts whose family was originally from Scotland. Swanston also paid the “bounty” fees for a married couple named De Souza, the Dias family, the De Jesus family, the Barbozas, and a 40 year old man traveling alone named Fernandez. Dr Swanston’s total was 31 people, amounting to a £56 payment.

During this time, indentured workers were also brought in smaller numbers from India. While over 200,000 Indians went to work in British Guiana, St Kitts only took in about 300. In Kittiian civil records, these laborers were commonly identified with the racial classification of “coolie”, a term today considered a pejorative.


  1. Madeirans 1856, National Archives St Kitts and Nevis
  2. Caribbean Migrants: Environment and Human Survival on St Kitts and Nevis by Bonham C Richardson, 1983
  3. Madeiran Portuguese Migration to Guyana, St Vincent, Antigua and Trinidad: A Comparative Review by Jo-Anne Ferreira, Portuguese Studies Review, January 2006
  4. Global Capitalism and Cheap Labor: The Case of Indenture by Brinsley Samaroo, The Palgrave Handbook of Ethnicity, 2019

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