Remittances in dollars and jewellery from indentured Indians in British Guiana
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I EXPLORE here the savings indentured Indians sent back to India and whether the amount of savings sent back revealed another side of indenture that complemented the views of the colonial administration that Indians benefitted from indenture. I would like readers also to take into consideration that indentured Indians were contributing financially to two colonies (a) India via remittances, and (b) British Guiana via labour service and taxes. This was indeed a remarkable contribution unmatched at that time so much so that colonial officials argued for the settlement of Indians in British Guiana. They wanted Indians to focus on the development of British Guiana rather than India, a motive that gained little traction as Indians continued to contribute to both colonies.
One main reason why Indians signed or fingerprinted indentured contracts to British Guiana (BG) was to work, save and return home. The report of the Immigration Agent-General (IAG) of British Guiana for the years 1905 to 1936 out of Guyana National Archives shows the following.
Ship from BG
Departure
Indians
Remittances
Jewellery
Average Remittances
Rhine
1905-06
655
$32,181
$5,000
$49
Main
1905-06
655
$27,110
$4,000
$41
Ems
1905-06
701
$20,305
$3,000
$29
Ganges
1905-07
651
$31,328
$5,000
$48
Indus
1906-07
759
$27,174
$4,000
$36
Sutlej
1920
949
$111,866
$18,644
$117
Chenab
1920
912
$86,349
$14,351
$94
Sutlej
1920
607
$51,495
$8,582
$85
Sutlej
1924
379
$49,292
$8,215
$130
Chenab
1926
779
$67,095
$11, 182
$86
Ganges
1927
570
$40,325
$6,721
$71
Sutlej
1929
520
$46,725
$7,787
$90
Ganges
1936
479
$34,422
$5,722
$72

From the table, the average figures for remittances ranged from 41 to 130 dollars. While these figures represent an average achievement, they do not reveal the actual amount some individuals took with them to India. Some returnees were dependents who did not work in British Guiana, while some returnees concealed their savings and jewellery by stashing them in their cloth and body. The table below, compiled from IGA (1905-1906), shows the highest sums of money individual Indians remitted to India on Ship Ems
Name
Gender
Occupation
Residence
Amount
Mungrap
Male
Constable
Not Given
$540
Thanoo
Male
Shovel man
Maryville
$490
Narian
Male
Shovel man
Triumph
$365
Sohrai
Male
Cloth seller
Triumph
$320
Jhari
Male
Weeder
Windsor
$320
Budhni
Female
Farmer
Henrietta
$300
Genda
Male
Gold Smith
Peter’s Hall
$275
Shiamlal
Male
Watchman
Mara
$243
Zakir
Male
Tailor
Triumph
$220
Mohabeer
Male
Shopkeeper
Adelphi
$203
Ajudhia
Male
Shovel man
Peter’s Hall
$200
Ramdihal
Male
Weeder
Uitvlugt

$115

The reason for the higher remittance in this table was that these indentured Indians were exposed to more job opportunities outside the plantation system, which allowed them to earn more wages. However, the aforesaid tables reveal two different sides of the British Guiana Indian indenture.
The first side is the large amount of savings remitted which the planter class often pointed to support and sustain the indenture system, in that, in an overall sense, indentured Indians, as well as their relatives in India, benefitted from the indenture system. Many Indians came to British Guiana with nothing but their cloth on them and were able to acquire savings, which improved their overall individual and family economic status. Even Indians who stayed in British Guiana after their contracts were over “acquired land”, an achievement that was elusive to them in their villages in India because of the rigid caste structure.
From the remitted savings, one is struck by the fact that Indian indentured women also benefitted from indenture, something that was not expected since the indenture system was predominantly patriarchal. The following table from IGA 1905-1906 punctuates this point.

Year
Ship
Name
Occupation
Amount $
1905-1906
Rhine
Laraiti
Weeder
600
1905-1906
Ems
Budhni
Farmer
300
1906-1907
Ganges
Jasoda
Weeder
600
1906-1907
Indus
Perbati
Weeder
595

The record from return ships from British Guiana to India suggests that an estimated 10-15 per cent of the total returnees were women. This was a small percentage. However, return migration mirrored somewhat the small percentage of Indian women that arrived in British Guiana. To recall, women constituted an average of 25 per cent of indentured Indians brought to British Guiana. Their accumulated savings from indenture must have allowed them to live a different and better life from the constrained experience before departing India and from the constricted female indentured experience in British Guiana. Their savings might have also assisted them to reassert their socio-economic relationship within marriage and extended family.
The other side of remittances is that most indentured servants did not benefit from the indenture system. The reality proved harsher. Most of them realised indenture was no easy path to fabulous wealth as promised. They were not able to remit money in the first three years of indentured service. Others were never able to remit money back to India. The earned wages were barely enough to sustain themselves, especially by the 1870s, when the planters began to shift the financial responsibility on administering the indenture system to indentured Indians. Returning Indian males were required to contribute one-half of the cost of their return passage while women contributed one-third toward their return passage. Some indentured Indians went back to India, old and penniless. On average, many took with them to India about $300-$500, after working in British Guiana for five to fifteen years. Moreover, on every returning ship from British Guiana, there were paupers, lepers, infirm and insane. The table below from the report of the IGA from 1924 to 1939 shows the numbers of paupers sent back from British Guiana to India.
Year
Total No. of Indians returned
No. of Paupers Returned
% of Paupers on each ship
1924
379
83
21.8
1926
779
123
15.7
1927
570
100
17.5
1929
520
97
18.6
1936
479
199
41.5
1939
865
257
29.1
(lomarsh.roopnarine@jsums.edu).

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