Historically, the planters were very harsh and that was evident during slavery and it continued under indentureship to the extent that some scholars argue that indentureship was a xnew form of slaveryx Tota Mangar
By Priya Nauth
EAST Indians brought with them their rich culture and traditions and no doubt a spirit of perseverance and resilience that enabled them to survive the harshness of indentureship and today their descendants continue to make a significant contribution to development in Guyana.
On May 5, 1838, the first set of East Indian labourers arrived in then British Guiana on the ships Whitby and Hesperus that landed with 936 Indian indentured workers after a hazardous journey crossing the Kala Paani (dark) from Calcutta.
Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Guyana and historian, Mr. Tota Mangar, in an interview, said the movement of people from the subcontinent of India was part of a wider immigration of Indian labourers to other parts of the world, including Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Fiji and even parts of the African continent.
He said the English speaking Caribbean received substantial numbers of East Indian indentured labourers, and based on statistical evidence, Guyana received about 239,000; Trinidad and Tobago 143,000; Jamaica 36,000; Grenada over 3,000; St. Vincent about 2,500; and St. Lucia some 4,300.
Also, the non-English speaking areas received indentured labourers, including the French overseas departments like Martinique received over 25,000; Guadeloupe close to 46,000 and French Guiana 19,000; and neighbouring Suriname over 35,000.
xThe movement was widespread. In terms of Guyana, the experiment started under what is known as the Gladstone experiment,x he recalled.
John Gladstone was a proprietor in the West Demerara area at two plantations–Vreed-en-hoop and Vreed-en-Stein, Mangar stated.
xHe was the one who sought permission both from the Indian government and the British government to recruit Indian labourers; and as a result, the first batch arrived in May, 1838, onboard the steamships Whitby and Hesperus and these immigrants found themselves on several plantations,x Mangar said.
The indentured servants were placed on the two Gladstone estates, as well as on Plantation Highbury and Waterloo in Berbice; Belle Vue on West Bank Demerara and Anna Regina on the Essequibo Coast.
xThat started the stream of immigrants coming to Guyana, and between 1838 and 1917, over 239,000 came. Of that figure, approximately 75,000 returned to the land of their birth, while the remainder stayed here and made Guyana their homeland,x he said.
Reflecting on the years of hardships and sacrifices endured by Indians, he said, xThe indentured labourers experienced a lot of problems on the plantations. The environment was extremely harsh.x
Stating that there was a big problem in terms of labour control, he explained, xThe Europeans controlled the indentured servants and they were the ones who made out the contracts and it made it very harsh.x
xOn the plantations they were expected to do task work and invariably you find that the task work was excessive. It caused a problem and many times the labourers could not complete the task and they were penalised by way of fines or arbitrary reduction of their wages,x Mangar further noted.
He went on, xHistorically, the planters were very harsh and that was evident during slavery and it continued under indentureship to the extent that some scholars argue that indentureship was a xnew form of slaveryx.x
xYou had other forms of punishment. There were instances where the immigrants were flogged or whipped,x the Deputy Vice Chancellor pointed out.
xThey were detained; they were jailed and verbally abused and insulted. They were restricted to the confines of the plantation where they were assigned since the planters did not encourage them to move from one plantation to another; they felt that if they move they would compare wage rates and the temptation might be to move to plantations which offered a higher wage,x he explained.
He said a lot of xtrumped upx charges were brought against the immigrants too, stating, xMany times they were not allowed to give evidence on their own behalf. At times too the judicial system was badly skewed against them because the interpreters tended to side with the magistrates and so there were very many instances where they never got justice. Many times they were jailed – it was not easy.x
xIt was a question of survival on the plantation and hard work; and because of their traditions, customs and the importance of a closely knit family, they struggled and sacrificed and ensured in the long run that they and their children got betterment,x Mangar said.
xxbut throughout the system – it was a long history of struggle against the harsh plantersx class and their subjugation of these people,x the noted historian reiterated.
xIt was not easy – everything was a struggle for themx,x Mangar repeated.
Noting their significant contributions, he said, xIt is clear that the East Indian indenture labourers and their descendants toiled very hard to ensure that the sugar industry survived in the 19th as well as the 20th Centuries, and one can argue even in the 21st century, you find their descendants struggling to ensure the survival of the sugar industry because the vast majority of the workforce in the sugar industry today are descendants of indentured labourers.x
In addition, Mangar noted that East Indians made their contribution in several other areas, including rice cultivation.
xBy the end of the 19th century, you find some exclusive East Indian village settlements emerging, and aligned to that was the emergence of rice cultivation on a major scale,x he stressed.
xSo rice development was an integral part of East Indian village settlement,x the Professor stated.
Also, they became involved in cattle rearing, milk selling, and cash crop cultivation; and close to the turn of the century, the immigrants and their descendants began to make their presence felt in other off-plantation economic activities. They became barbers, tailors, carpenters, boat builders, charcoal makers, sieve makers, goldsmiths, porters, small scale manufacturers and fishermen.
xWhat is also significant was the fact that the indentured laborers and their descendants took a serious view, especially from around the turn of the century, of education,x he observed.
xGetting a western education was very important to them in terms of upward social mobility, so you find quite a few of them emerging as doctors, barristers, lawyers, accountants, et cetera, and with the passage of time, they emerged in business, in the lumber industry, in the mining industry, transportation industry and many others,x he stated.
RICH CULTURAL HERITAGE
He also noted that East Indians contributed to Guyanaxs multicultural and plural society with their rich cultural heritage.
Approximately 83 per cent of the immigrants who came were Hindus, about 14 per cent were Muslims while the remaining 3 per cent were Christians, he said.
xWhat we find during the period of immigration was that from the late 19th century, mosques and temples began to dot the costal landscape and related to this were the introduction of Hindi and Arabic and other Indian dialects, along with their holy books, the Ramayana, the Bhagavat Gita, the Holy Quran. These are prized holy books in many households today,x he said.
He observed that traditional Indian wear, such as the shalwar, sari, dhoti, kurta have become very popular over the years, especially at weddings and religious ceremonies, noting, xSome of these have taken on a nationalistic flavour.x
Apart from its rich legacy in terms of music, singing, dancing and the various art forms which have taken root in Guyanese society, he also noted the various Indian traditional dishes like roti, puri, curry, bara, kheer and a number of other vegetable dishes, now adopted by every ethnic group in the society.
Indian festivals are widely celebrated, including the colourful Phagwah, Deepavlai – the Festival of Lights, Ramnavmi, Shivraatri, Youman Nabi, Eid-ul-Fitr.
xA few of these are today national holidays, a testimony to their significance,x Mangar pointed out.
xBy and large, I can say that the East Indian immigrants and their descendants were able to survive largely through their resilience, their determination and their commitment to family,x he emphasised.
He went on, xThey continue to make invaluable contributions to the overall progress and development of Guyana and can be found in every sector of society,x he asserted.
Descendants of indentured laborers continue to make immense strides in the social, economic, cultural, education, political and trade union fields, and indeed they are actively engaged in every facet of life in the Guyanese society today and one cannot forget the sporting arena.
xSo they have left a strong legacy and this is important for mutual understanding, tolerance and for national unity, because we have to understand and tolerate each other as we strive to improve the quality of life in Guyana and to ensure progress and development,x he said.
He also pointed out that other groups such as the Portuguese arrived in Guyana, hence the month of May is very significant.
xWe should not lose sight of the fact that other race groups also came here at other stages of our history; for example later Chinese came, and we also had a significant amount of internal migration in the Caribbean where a lot of Barbadians came to Guyana to work on the sugar plantations too, because at t