Today marks the 171st anniversary of the arrival of East Indians to the then British Guyana from the Indian sub-continent. After braving the torturous and turbulent oceans for months under sub-human conditions, the first batch of East Indians from India, called Indentured Labourers came to British Guiana aboard two steamships, xHesperusx and xWhitbyx on May 5, 1838.
Their toil, sweat and struggles over the years later brought recognition and today is being celebrated as xIndian Arrival Dayx.
Indeed the journey was long and brutal. Many of the Indentured Labourers fell sick and those who could not defy death, were unceremoniously dumped overboard. This was what the East Indian Immigrants went through in their blind date for fortune in the West Indies.
We must however salute the heroism of these people, who for some three quarters of a century kept coming to the shores of the West Indies including Guyana to fill the void left as a result of the mass exodus of slaves following the abolition of slavery, and especially the premature termination of the apprenticeship scheme in 1838.
In the period 1838 to 1917, a substantial number of Indian Immigrants were imported to the English speaking Caribbean, and some 238,909 of them had arrived in British Guyana up to the time the system was terminated in 1917.
They continued to work on the sugar plantations, and paved the way for their off-springs today to make Guyana their home. Indeed they worked and lived under a harsh and cruel system which served only the Plantocracy and their masters in England to whose cause the Indentured Labourers were bound.
In his booklet: Rooting for Labour, Late President of Guyana, Dr. Cheddi Jagan wrote about the atrocious conditions on sugar estates and noted: xIn those days workers lived in logies which were built in the slavery and indentureship periods. There were pit latrines, nothing like the ones we know now or septic tanks and other facilities. Pit latrines over the trench; and when the rains came the whole compound in several estates used to be totally flooded and people had to move around in boats.
xOn one such occasion, I remember going to the compound at Lusignan to the manager: His compound was dry. I asked him why canxt he use the same pump that he was pumping to clear his compound to clear also the compound of the workers. His answer was: xJagan, do you know you are trespassing?xx
These conditions on the plantations persisted for years unending and the genuine workersx struggle began with Dr. Jagan in the forefront fighting for improved living conditions, justice and fair-play for sugar workers which were eventually won over time, and some off-springs of the Indentured Labourers have carved a name for themselves in mainstream society today.
The people note, for instance, that Dr. Jagan himself was the son of Indentured Labourers and once lived in the logies at Port Mourant in Berbice.
The East Indians who came to British Guiana, now called Guyana, have indeed come a long way. They came with their cultures, traditions, religions and values, which have over the years, through thick and thin, welded them together.
They have integrated themselves into what we call in Guyana a plural society, a society with diverse religions, cultures, traditions, races and political persuasions.
Today is a day of special significance to them and all Guyana join in celebrating with them under the theme: One People, One Nation with One Destiny.
Happy Arrival Day to all!