THE first generation of indentured labuorers from India made immense sacrifices to provide for their Guyana-born children and other descendants while contributing significantly to the colonial economy; they laid the groundwork for economic progress. The indentured helped each other, especially members of extended families and neighbours, to overcome travails of the indentureship experience. They lived and worked co-operatively as illustrated by the experience of my extended kinship.
My father’s (Baldat) paternal grandfather (his aja) was Ghurbatore (had one name as was normal for many Indians) and paternal grandmother (Aji) was Amru Rai. He was from Kusmi Village of sub-district Nundgunj of district Ghazipur in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP); and she was from Siarha Village in sub-district Raunapur in district Azamgarh of UP. They were housed in a holding station (pen) at Port Calcutta (Kolkata) for some three weeks before departing for British Guiana in August 1891 to work on sugar plantations as indentured labourers. The journey lasted some three months at sea. On arrival, the couple was bounded to Plantation Port Mourant, the largest sugar estate in Guiana and perhaps in the entire British Empire.
Ghurbatore left his father Abilakh and sister Atwaria behind, while Amru left her father Dukhi behind. It is not known how and why they were recruited (kidnapped or came willingly or were deceived) in becoming indentured. There is no record of other family members left behind other than what was told orally to their children born in Guiana and then handed down to grandchildren and other generations; I tried to learn about other siblings from tracing their roots in their respective villages in UP. I visited the villages several times and interacted with dwellers, including some thought to be ancestral relatives.
In Port Mourant, Amru and Ghurbatore were housed in a small cottage at Boundyard, so named because that is where the indentured labourers were kept to carry out bounded labour, which was hardly different from slave labour. (Each ethnic group lived in a separate community to prevent ethnic solidarity. Port Mourant also had a Portuguese Quarter and a “N Yard,” pejoratively labelled by the colonial plantation owners. Notice that the Portuguese indentured area was not called a yard, whereas ‘coolie’ and ‘negro’ had an appendage). Ghurbatore and Amru lived in a cottage just a few minutes walk from where my mother’s (Gladys) maternal grandparents (Amar Singh and Bhuri Singh from Bharatpur, Rajasthan) were bounded in 1903.
The indentured were given a few cents for their daily task, almost 12 hours a day and six days a week. They saved their measly earnings while using some to upgrade their crumbling cottage that once housed slaves. After completing their indenture, my great grandparents settled down rather than returned to India. It is not known if they remained voluntarily, or if they were refused the return trip to India; a return trip was stated in the contract. The plantation owners wanted the indentured to stay on to continue their almost free labour on the estates. Thus, a variety of measures were undertaken to coerce or encourage them to stay. They were supposed to be given the return passage of some $50 if they chose to remain on the estate. But there is no record if they were given the money. Clauses in the contract were not always enforced by the colonial authorities, and the labourers were routinely cheated of their paltry earnings. It was widely recorded that the indentured were badly exploited and ill-treated. Some of them were promised a small plot of land in exchange for the return passage. Not all of them received land. Some of them received useless marsh or forested land and some bought land. They cleared the land to make it cultivable. They built small houses on a land grant or purchased land; the houses may be a far distance from the farmland as was the case of my ancestors in Ankerville. The farmlans and the cattle-grazing lands were dozens of miles away from home.
After completing their indenture (not sure if for five or 10 years), Ghurbatore and Amru acquired a cottage for their family just outside of Boundyard, across the Sideline in Ankerville, where the (now famous) Jagans would live after completing their indenture. The indentured labourers must leave the estate cottage after completion of their indenture. Ankerville was cleared of the forests in the early 1900s and the indentured were parcelled house lots. (Haswell, Babu Jahan, Trainline, Miss Phoebe, Tain, Clifton, Jones, and other sub sections of Port Mourant were created much later; Portuguese Quarter was also extended for settlement of the indentured who had completed their bonded labour).
My great grandparents (par aja and par aji) had five children – three sons and two daughters. Naurangya (mother of the well-known Muneshwer, Georgetown businessman) was the older beti (daughter) followed by Sancharee (mother of well-known business folk Lilmatee Hilton of Rose Hall and Hindu Ramjee of Tain, among others). The betas or sons were Mahadeo, my aja or paternal grandfather, followed by Rajaram and Mahase. Mahadeo was well known as Barkha Bhai (eldest brother) among the siblings and was so respectably referred to by family and neighbours. Muneshwer was the oldest grandchild of Ghurbatore and Amru, bringing much joy to the family and as such was showered with lots of gifts. Muneshwer was fondly called Bhaiya by cousins and neighbours. Sancharee died in 1946 from appendicitis and Naurangya had a natural death in 1961.
Ghurbatore and Amru laboured very hard on the estate and used their savings to acquire land and cattle. (They tied their bellies to save for their children as my aja had related). It was thickly forested land. They had to clear the land of the jungle to make it cultivable for rice and kitchen crops. They also had to clear the land where they had built their cottage. My memory of the 1960s was the area around the cottage of Ghurbatore and Amru had large towering tamarind trees and all kinds of thick bushes with needles (plimplas). The indentured couple, like other indentured, were very industrious. They cleared the many acres of land had purchased from the estate, transforming them into productive paddy fields. They also leased hundreds of acres of land that they transformed into a savannah for cattle-grazing. They purchased hundreds of cattle for milk production. Milk was sold to the public and or used to produce ghee. The cows were milked in the backdam and placed in dozens of milk cans and transported by the train at Trainline or on bicycles to the main road where it was collected by Ghurbatore’s two daughters and daughters- in-law and sold in bulk or retail. The cow dung was used as manure on the rice fields. Ghurbatore and Amru were a generous couple, allowing others to graze their cattle on their leased land as well as on their rice land after the harvest.
The two daughters moved on after marriage, while the three sons remained at home with their spouses and children for some time before moving out in their own homes built by Amru and Ghurbatore. As was the tradition, Ghurbatore and Amru gave his daughters’ husbands dowry (land grant, cattle, cash, jewellery). The custom was brought from India and was practised for a few generations to this day. Ghurbatore also set up the daughters for success with housing and support to help raise their families. The two girls were successful going into business. Naurangya got assistance for her son in business, while Sancharee received assistance as a vendor in the market and inherited rice land (that was distributed) and few cattle. Naurangya also received funds to build a house in Ankerville on a large plot of land with many fruit frees behind the Port Mourant hospital. Sancharee and her husband were accommodated in a cottage, a few houses away from where Ghurbatore and Amru lived. (Sancharee was wedded to Ramjee Singh, who was given the respected title of Babu. He was an indentured labourer from India who came to Guiana in 1912.
Sancharee and Ramjee had several children – Phulmatee, Lilmatee, Inderjeet or Hindu, Golin, Baljeet, Bethlyn, Boodoo, and Sugrim). Naurangya had only one child – Muneshwer. As the oldest grandson, Muneshwer was the favourite and was funded by Ghurbatore and Amru in business, opening a clothing shop next to Roop Mahal in Haswell; his Mamu or mother’s brother, Mahadeo, my aja, also loaned him funds to assist with the business. It was the expectation of Ghurbatore that Muneshwer would help his cousins, the grandchildren of Amru and Ghurbatore. After his success at Haswell, Port Mourant, Muneshwer moved to Georgetown where he established the largest hardware at the time and that remained so for decades. Other grandkids also received gifts. When Golin got married, Ghurbatore and Amru gifted a cow and a calf to the dulahin and her husband, Pandit Bangat). It was the custom among the older generations to gift cows in marriage; my aja also gifted a cow to my eldest sister in marriage.
Females were gifted less than the sons who inherited the bulk of the property of hundreds of acres of productive rice land. But the land and cattle were still communally owned and planted for the extended clan as the indentured wanted to hold on to their properties. Ghurbatore was the boss, reluctant to part from his land and cows till his death when his wife took charge of family affairs. Ghurbatore assisted two of his sons to go into small businesses – Mahase in tailoring and running a general clothing-related shop, while mentoring Muneshwer; Rajaram managed a plowing enterprise using ox and a team of workers. My Aja did not pursue business, preferring instead to tend to the rice land and cattle to continue the father’s ancestral tradition. Aja had lost his wife who died young before any of his five children (Ramrattan, Baldat who was my day, Baleraj, Eva, and Simbhudas had wed; my father ran a shop in Ankerville and Simbhudas had a shop in Bloomfield after their marriage). He lent his savings to his siblings and nephews and nieces, and they transformed it into wealth for themselves. Aja lacked skills to transform his assets into greater wealth. Not surprisingly, he was not as wealthy as his siblings. It is also the tradition in Indian families for the oldest son to imitate the father and continue his occupation. Thus, Mahadeo, aka, Bharka Bhai spent his entire life in rice cultivation and cattle-rearing. Mahase and his three children (Beta Bhai, Buddy, and Betty) had no interest in farming. Rajaram’s 10 children assisted with farming.
Aja partnered with Rajaram to purchase a tractor in late 1940s or early 1950s. They were among the earliest farmers to acquire a tractor for plowing of the large acreage of paddy fields. The tractor was also used to assist non-family members with plowing. Rajaram was the driver of the tractor; my aja showed no inclination to drive a tractor, preferring to stay in the backlands, while Rajaram and later his children drove the tractor back and forth from Ankerville to the fields.
Ghurbatore died during mid 1940s and Amru late 1940s. The property, rice lands and cattle they acquired during their four decades in Guiana would be split up among the three sons after their parents’ death. Mahase lost interest in tending to cattle and rice cultivation and was compensated for his share of inheritance. The other two brothers attended to the land as partners with demarcated sections. The cattle remained undivided, hundreds belonging equally to both. Mahadeo and Rajaram cooperated, rearing their cattle and cultivating rice. Before his death, Mahadeo divided up his rice land and cattle among his four sons. Rajaram also divided up his land and cattle among his children. My father teamed up with Rajaram in herding his cattle. After the death of Mahadeo and Rajaram in late 1960s and 1970 respectively, the flock had been depleted. Many were stolen or eaten by leopards or tigers at Canje back or the savannah, and some were sold. My father kept a few cattle and some died from a severe drought with the rest sold before we migrated to America in 1977.
The hard work and industriousness of the first generation led to their economic progress. Their financial assistance laid the groundwork for the economic progress of their children and grandchildren and other descendants.