Indians, by dint of much hard work and thrift, saved and emerged
out of the abyss of misery to carve a new and prosperous destiny for their descendants
Indians, by dint of much hard work and thrift, saved and emerged out of the abyss of misery to carve a new and prosperous destiny for their descendants

TODAY (May 5, 2014) commemorates the 176th Anniversary of the arrival of East Indian indentured immigrants in Guyana, the former colony of British Guiana. For over three-quarters of a century (1838-1917), Indian indentured labourers were imported from the sub-continent of India to the West Indian colonies, ostensibly to fill the void created as a result of the mass exodus of ex-slaves from plantation labour following the abolition of the despicable system of slavery, and moreso the premature termination of the apprenticeship scheme in 1838.

Mr Tota Mangar, one of Guyana’s leading historians
Mr Tota Mangar, one of Guyana’s leading historians

This influx into the Caribbean in the post-emancipation period of the 19th and early 20th Centuries was only one segment of a wider movement of Indian labourers to other parts of the world, including Mauritius, Ceylon, Fiji, the Strait Settlements, Natal and other parts of the African continent.

Overall, where the English-speaking Caribbean is concerned, substantial numbers of indentured Indians were imported. Based on statistical evidence, Guyana was the recipient of 238,909 East Indian immigrants up to the termination of the system in 1917; Trinidad 143,939; Jamaica 36,412; Grenada 3,033; St. Vincent 2,472; St. Lucia 4,354; and St. Kitts 337. In addition, the non-English speaking Caribbean also imported Indian Indentured labourers. Of the French colonies (now Overseas Departments), Martinique received 25,509; Guadeloupe 45,844; and French Guiana 19,276. Neighbouring Suriname, while under Dutch rule, imported a total of 35, 501 immigrants.

In the main, the system of Indentureship could be characterized as one of “struggle, sacrifice and resistance” where the Indian immigrants are concerned. The system itself was closely linked to slavery. British historian, Hugh Tinker, who did extensive work on East Indian Labour Overseas, describes it as a “New System of Slavery”.

Following the abolition of slavery in 1834, and the termination of the apprenticeship system in 1838, a state of fear, uncertainty and gloom was uppermost in the minds of the then British Guianese planters. They were very conscious that a grave labour shortage on the estates would certainly mean economic disaster to themselves and the sugar industry in general.

The mass exodus of ex-slaves from the plantations during this crucial period of ‘crisis, experimentation and change’ merely served to confirm planters’ fear and uneasiness. This movement was not entirely surprising, as several decades of slavery had resulted in the plantation being seen as the symbol of dehumanization, degradation and demoralization, and the victims, quite naturally wanted to rid themselves of white planter class, social, cultural and political domination, and to assert their economic independence. With great enthusiasm and in the face of tremendous odds they started the village movement and peasantry in the immediate post-emancipation era.

The importation of indentured labourers from the Indian sub-continent was part of the continuing search for a reliable labour force to meet the needs of the powerful plantocracy.

In the case of Guyana, East Indian immigrants had its origin in the ‘Gladstone Experiment’. John Gladstone, the father of British statesman, William Gladstone, was the owner of two West Demerara plantations, Vreed-en-Hoop and Vreed-en-Stein, at this juncture of the country’s history.

Our forefathers of yesteryear have certainly been inspirational in the furtherance of national development through their grit and determination. Clearly ‘Struggle, Sacrifice and Resistance’ were ‘part and parcel’ of the Indian immigrant psyche during the neo-slavery system of indentureship, 1838-1917.

As a result of the acute labour problem, Gladstone wrote the Calcutta recruiting firm, Gillanders, Arbuthnot and Company inquiring about the possibility of obtaining Indian immigrants for his estates. The firm’s prompt reply was that it envisaged no recruiting problems and that Indians were already in service in another British colony, Mauritius.

Subsequently, Gladstone obtained permission for his scheme from both the Colonial Office and the Board of Control of the East India Company. The first batches of Indian indentured labourers arrived in Guyana on board the steamships ‘Whitby’ and ‘Hesperus’ in May 1838, and these first arrivals were on a five-year contract. This initial experimentation was not confined to Gladstone’s two estates but it involved plantations Highbury and Waterloo in Berbice, Belle View, West Bank Demerara and Anna Regina on the Essequibo Coast as well.

This immigration scheme, involving Indian immigrants, commenced in 1838 with a temporary halt from July 1839 to 1845, after which it continued virtually uninterrupted to 1917 during which time 238, 909 immigrants landed in Guyana. Of this figure 75,547 returned to the land of their birth while the remainder who survived the system chose to remain here and make this country their homeland.

In the main, the system of Indentureship could be characterized as one of “struggle, sacrifice and resistance” where the Indian immigrants are concerned. The system itself was closely linked to slavery. British historian, Hugh Tinker, who did extensive work on East Indian Labour Overseas, describes it as a “New System of Slavery”.

Anthony Trallope, who visited the Caribbean in the 1850s, viewed it as “A depotism
tempered with sugar”. Chief Justice in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, Charles Beaumont, aptly describes it as “a rotten, monstrous system rooted in slavery.”

The late distinguished Guyanese historian, Dr. Walter Rodney highlighted the harshness of the Indentureship system and its “neo-slave nature”. Another Guyanese historian, Dr. Basdeo Mangru argues that slavery and indenture showed remarkable similarities in terms of control, exploitation and degradation. In any event it is reasonable to conclude that the very nature of the Indentureship system that prevailed, lent itself to struggle, sacrifice and resistance on the part of the indentured labourers.

From the very inception, the system was plagued with controversy. True enough there were strong “push” factors which motivated the people to leave their homeland such as high levels of unemployment, chronic poverty, indebtedness and even famine and at the same time many were disposed to respond to promises of better times and what they perceived as “greener pastures”.

Even so, professional recruiting agents, the arkatis’ in North India, and the ‘maistris’ in South India, resorted largely to deception and coercion to get supplies. Many were lured by way of glowing promises, and were assured of lucrative employment and enriched opportunities. Recruiters exploited their ignorance and simplicity, and some were hoodwinked, cajoled and lured to leave their homes under false pretences while some were even kidnapped. Indeed, fraud, deceit and coercion permeated the whole recruiting system between 1838 and 1917.

Against tremendous odds, the immigrants struggled for their very survival on board ship. Overcrowding of the emigrant ships, inadequate food, lack of fresh water, water-borne diseases such as cholera, dysentery and diarrhoea, and the long and arduous voyage, made life unbearable.

In many instances, the consequence was a high mortality rate to as much as 20 to 30 percent. Immigrants consoled themselves through singing, drumming and story telling, and of greater significance was the lasting friendship that developed among the ‘jehazis’ or shipmates.

In the colony indentured labourers had to endure the critical period of ‘seasoning’ or adjusting to their new environment. This is itself was no easy task, and some found themselves introduced to plantation labour very quickly after their arrival.

On the estates, the indentured labourers experienced the harshness of the system. It was obvious that the powerful plantocracy had effective control of the immigrant labour force. An important aspect of this control was the contract under which the immigrant was recruited. While it stipulated the obligation of the labourer and the employer, the labour laws weighted heavily against the former. As in the case of the slave laws, the plantocracy benefited immensely under the contract laws. After all, the implementation of the laws and the period of industrial residence were taking place thousands of miles from the labourer’s homeland, in a social and political environment dominated by the employer.

It was not surprising, therefore, that the laws were easily varied, and very often abused by the plantocracy to suit their ‘whims and fancies’. Of added significance was the fact that some Immigration Agent-Generals and Stipendiary Magistrates tended to side with the planter class. As a result cases of intimidation, assault and battery were often covered up.

Moreover, court trials were subjected to abuse and were, in many instances, reduced to a farce as official Interpreters aligned with the plantocracy while the labourers had little opportunity of defending themselves.

Throughout the period of Indentureship, immigrants were faced with meagre wage rates and unrealistic task work. Weekly earnings depended on the number of tasks, the nature of the tasks, whether it was weeding, shoveling, manuring, planting or harvesting and the speed with which they were completed. In any event, it was the employer who invariably determined the wage rate and whenever there was a fall in sugar prices immigrants found their earnings minimized.

One immigration agent was baffled to know how immigrants at Plantation Bel Air existed, due to insufficient earnings to support life, while Coljar, a spokesman for immigrants, was quoted in October, 1869 as saying: “Times are hard. We cannot live on the wages we are getting: our stomachs are not being filled.”

Indian indentured labourers experienced a persistent problem surrounding the “muster roll”, which was held every morning. Non-attendance meant the penalty of a fine, which was arbitrarily deducted from their wages. The pressure of getting into the fields early in order to complete unrealistic tasks at the expense of missing the muster roll, was very great. On the other hand, if he attended the muster roll and failed to complete the day’s task, the end result was the same arbitrary deduction of wages. In effect the labourer had little choice. One way or the other, he was penalized.

The Indian immigrant often went before the courts as victims of the labour laws and the legal system in general. The planter had at his disposal several instruments of prosecution. He could prosecute for refusal to commence work, or work left unfinished, absenteeism without authority, disorderly or threatening behaviour, or even neglect. Punishment resulted in fines or imprisonment.

Moreover, an immigrant imprisoned for misconduct could have his indenture extended to include the period in jail. This meant the immigrant was effectively punished twice for the same offence. At the same time convictions of immigrants were inordinately high. Charges could be made on mere orders of managers, and for even trivialities. In 1863 for example of the 4,936 prisoners who were in the Georgetown jail, 3,148 were indentured labourers.

Moreover, The Annual Report of the Immigration Agent-Generals for 1874-1894 showed an alarmingly high figure of 65,084 convictions of immigrants for breaches of the labour contract. This development reinforced the fact that the indentured labourer was far from docile. He was struggling, sacrificing and resisting. The numerous instances of cases under the labour contract were ample proof of his restlessness and non-compliance with a harsh and oppressive system.

Throughout the period of indentureship, the immigrant suffered from a paucity of social amenities. The tenement ranges or “logies” were small and unventilated, potable water was virtually non-existent, and medical facilities and sanitation were poor. As a consequence outbreaks of diseases tended to assume epidemic proportions.

Through vagrancy laws, immigrants had their movement restricted. This was an integral part of planter’s strategy to localize labour and to place restraints on workers’ liberty. The labourer had to get a ‘pass’ signed by the estate manager if he wanted to leave the estate of residence. This pass system exposed the labourer to indignity at the hands of colonial police who were empowered to apprehend him without a ‘pass’. Managers used it as an effective control device and also as a means of preventing workers from making comparisons of wage levels at different estates. The fear was that such knowledge could easily lead to discontent and desertion.

It was because of their powers of control over the indentured labourer that planters became increasingly arrogant. Some repeatedly and openly boasted that the labourers on their estates should be “at work, or in hospital or in goal” – during working hours, such was their attitude. One Demerara planter publicly stated, “give me my heart’s desires in Coolies and I will make you a million hogsheads of sugar”.

It was not surprising, therefore, that from the 1860s onwards, the myth of Indian docility was to be seriously challenged. Indian indentured labourers began to openly defy the system. As a consequence there was a steady deterioration of industrial relations, increasing working class protests and imperial investigation. “Struggle, Sacrifice and Resistance”manifested in numerous labour unrests.
Violent eruptions were occasioned by many specific and localized grievances, such as overbearing behaviour of managers, wage rate disputes, disagreement over tasks, sexual exploitation of women by overseers and the arbitrary deduction of wages of labourers.

The first such disturbance took place at Plantation Leonora, West Coast Demerara in July 1869. The shovel gang complained that wages were withheld because they could not complete a job on waterlogged soil. They also demanded extra pay to do the job. A confrontation between armed police and the labourers was narrowly avoided, but the ringleaders were arrested, convicted and incarcerated at the penal settlement, Mazaruni. The following year violence erupted at Plantations Hague, Zeelugt, Vergenoegen, Uitulugt, Success and Non Pariel.

Another major disturbance took place at Plantation Devonshire Castle in 1872. The root cause of this uprising was widespread dissatisfaction with the allocation of tasks, prices offered, long hours of work, unilateral pay deductions from labourers, wages and general ill-treatment and abuse. This time there was confrontation with colonial police who opened fire and five labourers lost their lives while some were seriously injured.

Riots and disturbances continued with regularity in the 1890s and in the early years of the twentieth century. Four years before the termination of the Immigration scheme, several labourers from plantation Rose Hall lost their lives during a strike and disturbance.

Indeed, towards the end of the indentureship system, labour protest had assumed various forms including work stoppage, mass picketings, violent demonstrations, marching to the Immigration Department, assaults on managers and overseers, coupled with passive resistance such as feigning illness, malingering and deliberately performing poor work.

Indentured labourers also struggled and made tremendous sacrifice in other areas, as for example in the face of an often harsh and oppressive environment, they persisted with their religious and cultural practices. From the late 19th Century, temples and mosques began to dot the coastal landscape and their traditional languages, music, dress, food and folklore were made to prevail. In the face of language barriers, they adjusted to the needs of a Western education in order to enhance their upward social mobility. In the long run they, and their descendants, emerged in the professions to become teachers, headmasters, doctors, lawyers, accountants and civil servants.

They toiled unceasingly to ensure the survival of the sugar industry and the emergence of the rice industry. They contributed significantly in the areas of village development, cash crop cultivation, cattle-rearing, milk selling and other economic activities during the period of indentureship. From the late nineteenth century Indian immigrants displayed a high occupation profile in several off-plantation economic activities including cab- drivers, bankers, tailors, carpenters, boat-builders, charcoal makers, goldsmiths, porters, small scale manufacturers and fishermen.

In recent times their descendents have made, and continue to make tremendous strides in the social, economic cultural, education, political and trade union fields. Many of them are today leading sports personalities, entrepreneurs, educationists, politicians and trade unionists in their own right. Indeed, descendants of immigrants are actively engaged in every facet of life in Guyanese society of today.

Our forefathers of yesteryear have certainly been inspirational in the furtherance of national development through their grit and determination. Clearly ‘Struggle, Sacrifice and Resistance’ were ‘part and parcel’ of the Indian immigrant psyche during the neo-slavery system of indentureship, 1838-1917. They and their descendants have survived largely through their resilience, persistence, custom, tradition and commitment to family which invariably promotes thrift, industry and self-esteem. Let us show a greater sense of purpose and maturity and exercise more mutual respect, tolerance, appreciation and understanding of each other as we commemorate Arrival Day, May 5th. Let us remember there is strength in Diversity. Let us give true meaning to our Motto of ‘One People, One Nation, One Destiny’.


(By Tota C. Mangar)


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