FOR the first time, on Arrival Day recently, I visited Plantation Highbury in Region Six (East Berbice- Corentyne). At this place, the first batch of East Indian indentured labourers was brought to Guyana onboard a ship called the Whitby. Hours later, the second batch of Indian labourers was brought to Guyana’s shores onboard the Hesperus. As an Indo-Guyanese, being at Highbury made me think about my ancestors.
My reflection on my ancestors started several weeks ago during a visit to India. Growing up, I heard stories of India being the ‘motherland’ and there was always a cultural connection to that South-Asian nation, be it through movies or prayers.
But while there, I didn’t feel the overwhelming sense of connection that I thought I would. Instead, I wondered more and more about why my fore-parents would leave India to come to Guyana. My feelings, I believe, were also influenced by Gaiutra Bahadur’s book ‘Coolie Woman’ which offered me some things to think about. She wrote about the life of many women in India, their exposure to seemingly rigid cultural norms, and the allure of migrating. That book explored the many reasons people used to leave, reasons I can’t yet determine for my family.
For me, Highbury, India and ‘Coolie Woman’ serve as a stark reminder of how much I do not know and, perhaps, how much of my heritage is slowly slipping away from me. And I hope I can change that.
At the very least, I know that my paternal great-great-grandparents came from India. I may never know why they came to Guyana, but I wish I knew whether they were fleeing hardship or being swindled. I wonder, were my great-great grandmothers widows in India? Or did they simply believe that a better world existed in the new world they were coming to?
The answers to these questions are difficult to find, but I know, at least, that there are records available at the Walter Rodney archives that may allow me to identify who my ancestors are and where they came from. So I will try to find my connection.
While embarking on this newfound quest, however, I think more about other ancestral connections here in Guyana. And I reflect upon the attention directed towards the British monarchy now given the coronation of King Charles III on May 6, the day after Guyanese celebrated Arrival Day.
There is something very unsettling- to me, at least- about such an event in 2023. The British are among those responsible for the genocide of our Indigenous People, the enslavement of Africans and the mistreatment of the indentured labourers. These were all actions undertaken to enrich those societies at the expense of underdevelopment for our countries and people. We still have not received a full and formal apology, instead of statements of regret or reparations, more broadly, but an institution that has profited from exploited labour continues to be upheld and revered by many.
I acknowledge that I am more fortunate than some because there is some possibility, no matter how slim, that I can find my ancestors based on records of the East Indian indentured labourers brought here. That is not the case for Afro-Guyanese, for example, since their ancestors were brought as property and barely recognised (if at all) as humans.
Understandably, my quest to piece together my Indian ancestry makes me think more about the reparations that are being demanded for people of African descent and our Indigenous people.
As I mentioned in previous columns, there has been the argument that enslavement happened centuries ago and that people should simply move on. Only recently, the current British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, echoed similar sentiments. I don’t believe that is a fair or honest position; instead, I believe ignoring our history detracts from the lasting impact of enslavement experienced today- be it entrenched health issues or systemic underdevelopment from centuries of exploitation. It does not cater to the psychological trauma of people of African descent, nor does it assess how enslavement contributed to the debt-ridden feature of Caribbean societies. There are nuances to reparations, but at the core, these are needed to correct (or at least help mitigate) the historical wrongs of enslavement.
Searching for my ancestral connection may be a futile pursuit but at least it helps me to reflect upon and appreciate the people who were brought to Guyana and the people who lived here before a bit more.
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