GUYANA COMMEMORATES INDIAN ARRIVAL DAY ON THURSDAY, May 5
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ON May 5, Indian Arrival Day is commemorated as one of the most important socio-historical anniversaries in Guyana.  The final Emancipation of the slaves who manned the sugar plantations of the colony came about in 1838 with the end of the Apprenticeship System and this resulted in the freedmen leaving the sugar estates and settling in villages which they established – “the Village Movement.”  This exodus from the sugar estates resulted in a severe labour shortage, and except new workers were found, the sugar industry would die and the economy of the colony would collapse.

The planters knew from at least 1830 that Emancipation was coming  and realised that their workforce would leave the plantations.  They therefore frantically began exploring for new sources of labour and tried Madeira,the West Indian islands, China and India.  These new workers were to be recruited under the Indenture System of labour contracts.  Madeiran Portuguese, Chinese, West Indians and Indians were tried, but the Madeirans, Chinese and West Indians left the estates as soon as their labour contracts had expired to settle in the towns and villages.  The Indians remained, thus the planters settled upon India as their labour pool.

Between 1838 and 1917, when Indentured Immigration was discontinued, 249,000 Indians were brought to Guyana.  They derived mostly from the Bhojpuri-speaking belt of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and after the 1870s from Madras with a sprinkling from other states, in particular Punjab.  The Indenture System was a labour contract between the planter and the worker.  The main clauses of the contract were that the worker would have to serve his master for five years, though occasionally for longer or shorter periods.  Housing and wages were to be provided as well as medical attention, and at the end of the period of Indenture, the worker could re-indenture or opt to return to India.  The workers were kept in a depot at Calcutta or Madras where they awaited the small wooden sailing ship on which they would be embarked for a journey of many months over two oceans.  The journey was reminiscent of the Middle Passage, which the slaves had to suffer on their way from Africa to the  West Indies.  When they embarked on the ship, the indentures had their first bitter taste of the Indentureship System.

These workers were recruited by Arkathis, who were paid based on the number of heads they recruited.  They deceived the prospective recruits with stories of how easy it was to earn vast sums of money and that the distance between Guyana and India was a short one and one could return to India in a few days.  The rosy pictures of the Arkathis were soon exploded when the indentures arrived in Guyana and the term ‘arkathi’ came to be used for a trickster and criminal and is still so used even today.

The conditions of life and work the indentures encountered were very reminiscent of slavery and this caused many historians to term Indentureship ‘the new slavery.’  The immigrants were made to occupy the old slave barracks which had mud floors, no furniture, no ventilation and no toilet facilities.  The environment was unhealthy and disease breeding.  Wages were very low and were oftentimes not paid and they never had enough food.

They were all malnourished and many suffered perpetually from malaria, diarrhoea and other tropical diseases.  The hospital had no trained medical personnel and no medicines except rum which was regarded as a cure-all.  In the earlier years of indentureship, very few women came, so there was no possibility for family life.  Later in the century, approximately 30 percent of the immigrants were women.  The death rate was very high and this was one of the reasons the indentured population had to be continuously replenished.  When Indentured Immigration was discontinued in 1917, 249,000 immigrants had been imported.  About one-third were able to return to India, more than one-third died in the colony and the rest remained in Guyana.  A good proportion of this remainder feared the rigours of the long sea voyage and had no savings with which to return home.  Until the 1920s, Indians were regarded as being on the lowest rung of the social ladder.

Gradually, Indians began to move into market gardening, milk production, rice and other agricultural production, thus ensuring the food security of the country.  Some moved into commerce, selling mainly groceries and haberdashery and later consumer durables such as cars and agricultural machines and since they had to be very competitive to survive, the consumers benefited.  Acquiring education was a challenge:  primary schools were never established in areas such as the sugar estates where Indians lived and parents who could afford it, sent their children to attend schools in the villages or in the city. By the end of the 1920s Indian lawyers and doctors began to strengthen the professional class and several Indian doctors became legends.  The Civil Service and other state employers tended to keep to the policy of not employing Indians and also persuading big businesses to maintain that policy since it was feared that if Indians left agriculture or the countryside, the British-owned sugar estates would suffer labour shortages.  This colonial policy was seen when the recruitment of workers for the bauxite industry was done:  the recruitment was never done in any of the Indian villages or settlements.  Hinduism and Islam were strengthened and their places of worship were renewed and Indian culture began to contribute to mainstream national culture.  One positive fact of the great Indian presence in Essequibo, which is rarely noticed, is that this presence negated the Venezuelan territorial claim that Guyanese were not to be found in Essequibo and exposed the fraudulence on which the Venezuelan aggression is based.

Indian Arrival Day commemorates the introduction of a valuable and creative force into Guyanese life which was of the utmost importance in the creation and shaping of the Guyanese nation.

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