“Arrival” is not geographical

By Ravi Dev

Landed At Demerara, Guyana, South America, East Indian Immigrants, Engraving 1884 (Getty Images)

The nation commemorates Indian Arrival Day on May 5th. The holiday is officially designated “Arrival Day” putatively to recognize all the other immigrant groups that were brought by the planters to labour on the sugar plantations after the abolition of slavery. These groups include the Portuguese and Chinese, as well as Indians, but there has not been any noticeable participation by the descendants of these industrious and hardy pioneers since the holiday was ushered in back in 2004.
In 2016, President Granger – leader of the PNC-led coalition – announced that Arrival Day of immigrants other than Indians would also be recognized, but not as public holidays. In the run-up of efforts to have the day officially recognised, we had predicted this outcome, not merely because May 5th was the specific day Indians arrived in Guyana – Portuguese landed on May 3rd and Chinese on January 12th – but because the latter two groups, especially the Portuguese, never demonstrated any collective inclination to remind themselves or the nation that they had arrived as immigrants to this nation.
Whatever the reasons for this self-induced amnesia, it may be time for the Government to alter the omnibus appellation that probably forcibly reminds these communities of a circumstance they would rather not deal with.
Trinidad also initially ushered in an “Arrival Day” holiday, but soon changed it to “Indian Arrival Day” without raising any fuss.But whether we call the holiday “Indian Arrival Day” or “Arrival Day”, there is still the objection originally raised by ACDA and some others as to why should Africans celebrate an occasion that resulted in the undercutting of the bargaining power for their labour? Whether the group that was used as scabs were Indians or Portuguese (as I have argued) to break their seminal 1847 strike, the argument needs to be addressed. There are several ripostes apart from pointing out that because of the loss of preferential prices from England in 1846, if wages were not cut, the entire industry would have had to be shuttered, and hydrologically, the Guyanese coast would have ceased to be viable. Sugar planters were not in any position to give the old wages, and this was the case in all the islands, and is why so many Barbadians and other small islanders migrated as indentureds to Guiana after the abolition of slavery.
Firstly, the occasion is not mandated to be “celebrated”, but to be “commemorated”. This is not an idle semantic distinction. Occasions are commemorated in a manner intended to inculcate some value into the participants related to the occasion. It is from this perspective that we have been criticising some events in Mashramani, which we feel do not serve to promote the values necessary for the authentic realisation of Republican status.
“Holocaust Day”, which has been proposed by ACDA as a holiday (and supported by the Select Committee on Holiday in 2004) is meant, I am sure, to commemorate, and not celebrate, one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the world – the uncountable deaths of so many Africans during the Middle Passage. I believe that the way that ACDA has been commemorating the event over the past few years is most touching and appropriate, and inculcating a palpable ethos of overcoming in the African Guyanese community.

The arrival of Indians – especially because of their relatively large numbers and the decision of most of them to remain – has impacted on the rest of Guyanese society in profound ways, and other groups can reflect on these to commemorate Indian Arrival Day. In the economic realm, apart from the early undercutting of wages, the Indian immigrant’s drive for material accumulation has been transmitted to their descendants, and has influenced how they exploit economic opportunities in the present.
This is not unique: when African Guyanese emigrate to the US, they exhibit these same immigrant values, and stand out in their new communities. Maybe the same resolve and wherewithal can be reinforced right here through activities and events on Indian Arrival Day. A similar argument can be made for dealing with the political consequences of the demographic changes precipitated by Indian Arrival – about which ACDA has been very vociferous in highlighting.
But there is a deeper level at which the whole society might deal with the question of arrival. After all, every group that now inhabits this Land of Many Waters came from somewhere else. It is taught to us from our earliest lessons in primary school – but we seem to forget this as soon as the school doors close. Even the Amerindians came across the Bering Straits. So, in the most mundane geographical sense, we all arrived by merely setting foot on this land.
We have posited before, however, that “arrival” can also be looked at from an aspirational perspective: arrival becomes not a “where” but a “what”. What is it that each one of us, individually, sectionally and collectively want to become? When we have achieved that, then and only then we would have “arrived”.
As a start, I believe that we all want to live in dignity and in peace. On May 5th, let us therefore at least spare a thought as to what we can do as citizens and as groups to create the conditions in this land of immense possibilities to move us closer to that goal.
Arrival can thus become a notion that can bring us together, rather than divide us, as it does presently.