Two important national anniversaries have fallen in close proximity to each other – Labour Day on May 1 and Arrival Day on May 5. Space would not permit us to deal with both; we will accordingly consider Arrival Day since, with the 19th-century immigrations, it marks the creation of modern Guyana.
In 1838 the Apprenticeship System came to an end. By this System, the slaves though theoretically freed in 1833, had to continue working on the plantations for some time for a very small wage. Owing to the fact of natural decrease of the plantation workforce by death and disablement and the fact that the freedmen had gradually begun to leave the plantations, the planter class began to anxiously search over the world to recruit labour for their plantations. Eventually, the focus fell on China, Madeira (a part of Portugal) and India.
About 15,000 Chinese were brought to the colony and many more Portuguese from Madeira but these proved unsatisfactory for the needs of the plantations, and in any case, they left the plantations as soon as their Indentureship contracts had expired. The indentured workers from India proved the most reliable and consequentially, all the indentured workers that came to Guyana from the last quarter of the 19th century to the end of indenture in 1917 were from India;
Indentureship was often described by historians as “the New Slavery” since it did retain many of the most important characteristics of slavery. The wages paid to the workers were invariably less than what they had agreed to before leaving their homes. Such wages could barely cover the cost of their very basic food. Their clothes were always skimpy and they often used the bags in which wheaten flour was imported as material to make their clothing. They lived in the same slave barracks, now generally known as ‘ranges’. These ranges had no floors since their floors were the bare earth and during the rainy season, the ranges and the land surrounding them were always muddy. In the ranges themselves, there was little privacy. There was no health care and the death rate among the indentures was very high mainly from malaria and preventable diseases. During the 19th century and even into the 20th century, there were no schools on the sugar plantations resulting in a very high rate of illiteracy. The Indian indentured servant and his children were stereotyped as agriculturists and as such, they could scarcely find jobs out of agriculture. In agriculture, however, they were able to find some agricultural industries such as the rice industry and the coconut industry. If they ventured out of agriculture, it had to be in some self-employed work such as shop-keeping.
But probably, the discrimination which hurt them the most was cultural. Their cultures were despised and their Hinduism and Islam were regarded as alien and subject to continuous attacks by Christian missionaries.
During the period of Indian Indentureship, no trade unions were permitted, so when working conditions became unbearable, there were spontaneous strikes. These strikes were generally designated “riots” which gave the Police authority to act harshly on the strikers and even shooting them. During the period of Indian Indentureship, there were seven such strikes or “riots” resulting in a serious loss of workers’ lives. Indentureship, like slavery which preceded it, was a period of harsh exploitation and immeasurable suffering among the plantation workers and their families. Despite the terrible exploitation and harsh conditions which the plantation system imposed on the working people, it ironically had some positive effects:
For one, since all the racial and cultural groups brought to the country to supply labour went through the plantations, the plantation put its indelible stamp on them all and they became very much alike. This gave a oneness and unity to Guyanese society which is clearly seen when Guyanese are in a foreign country. The various efforts by political and other groups to stir up racial and religious discord among the population and disturb this foundational unity of Guyanese society have never succeeded.
Another positive for which the Plantation System was responsible, was the bringing of the three greatest world religions together and have them cooperate and develop empathy among each other. This is the only country in the world where Hinduism, Christianity and Islam sincerely cooperate with each other and where members of these Faiths even participate in each other’s services. The Guyanese philosophic position is that all religious ways lead to God and each way is equally valid.
And lastly, the Plantation System peopled Guyana at a time when the population of about 80,000 to 100,000 was declining and there was talk of abandonment of the colony in some colonial circles. As important, it saved the country’s economy which was based on the sugar industry, from total collapse.
Owing to the emigration wave which enveloped the country from the 1950s, almost the entire Portuguese and Chinese populations emigrated and the responsibility of commemorating Arrival Day devolved on Indian descendants to the extent where the Day is now generally called “Indian Arrival Day”.