There is no question that the Arrival of Indians on May 5th 1938 was a seismic event in the history of our country. After the horrors of slavery, which the Europeans justified by claiming that Africans were not fully human, they were slowly forced to reevaluate their legal imposition of chattel slavery and abolish it finally on August 1, 1838. The British planters made it very clear that they would not tolerate the freed Africans bargaining for wages and reintroduced the institution of Indentureship that had been used in the 17th and 18th centuries to induce European labour into their American and West Indian colonies. As such they brought in indentured labour from Madeira (Portuguese), Barbados and other small islands where the freed slaves did not have much bargaining power for lack of alternative means of livelihood. In 1847, the ex-slaves’ strike for higher wages after a 25% reduction was broken by the 15,747 Portuguese, 12,898 West Indian (mainly Barbadians), 6,957 African indentureds and 8,692 Indian brought in to work for the lower wages. Unlike what is popularly preached today, Indians were the minority of the unwitting “strikebreakers”.
The Indian immigrants were eventually also joined by Chinese indentureds but they formed the bulk of the labour force until Indentureship was abolished after the last ship SS Ganges in 1917. What is often forgotten is that the Indian indentured did not just undercut the wages of the freed Africans but that of the 165,000 who remained and their descendants. Consequently, the wage of one shilling per day for males to perform a task that took for dayclean to sundown was the same throughout the 79 years of Indentureship, even as inflation eroded its purchasing power. Yet even after the abolition of Indentureship, African Guyanese into the present express resentment as if Indians deliberately “undercut” their wages. It is time that we all accept that we were pawns on an imperial chessboard.
Another move that the Colonial state made was to pit one group against another. By 1838 exactly 5000 WI indentureds has entered Guyana mostly from Barbados. And when the state decided to form a Police Force to stave off any rebellion by the freed slaves, they hired almost exclusively Bajans. This hiring practice continued for decades until gradually they realized there would be no local rebellion from freed locals. However, the Indian immigrants were now defined as potential rebels and they were excluded through the artifice of physical criteria such as height and chest measurements which they could not fill. This skewed ethnic recruitment has sedimented structural debris in the Indian Guyanese populace, which the PNC 1964-1992 regime further augmented, that proved to be problematic into the present.
Another sore point arising from Indian arrival is the claim that Indian Immigrants received “free land”. What actually happened was that unlike the case in European Indentureship, a land grant was not one of the terms of Indian Indentureship but rather a return trip to India that was worth $60. As the planters did not want to bear this expense, in 1950, five years after Indentureship was resumed, the government passed an ordinance that offered “to grant to such immigrant (who completed his five-year Indentureship) out of the Crown lands of the colony a piece or parcel of land equal in value, at the upset price of Crown lands, to the amount of the cost of such return passage, such immigrant shall have the same in lieu of his right to a free passage.”
However, because the quality of land and its drainage were invariably so poor over the course of Indentureship of the 163,964 Indian immigrants that remained in Guyana and qualified, a mere 3134 (1.9%) exchanged their return passage for land on five settlements developed from the emigration fund.
The largest impact was generated in the development of political representation in the run up to taking Guyana to independence. The inchoate cleavages became manifest and remain so in the mobilization for elections.