Culture still acts as a bridge between Guyana, India – High Commissioner
The history of all nations contains certain significant junctures which have reshaped society. This is according to India’s High Commissioner to Guyana, Dr K J Srinivasa. His comments came as he delivered an address on the East Bank of Berbice on Monday, to mark the 185th anniversary of the arrival of the first set of East Indians on the shores of Guyana.
Addressing hundreds at Highbury, Region Six (East Berbice-Corentyne), Dr Srinivasa said one of those junctures for Guyana was the arrival of the ship “Whitby”.
“This day is a very important day for India-Guyana relationships, the High Commissioner said.
“The culture that was brought by the Indians still remains and it acts as a bridge between Guyana and India even now.”
Whitby arrived at Highbury on May 5, 1838, where 182 East Indians entered the country. They were the first set of East Indians to set foot on the shores of the country. They left Port Calcutta, in India, about three months prior and had come to serve as indentured labourers.
The annual pilgrimage to Highbury is organised by the Berbice Indian Cultural Committee (BICC). The first observance of the arrival of the first set of East Indians to Guyana took place in 1988 to mark the 150th anniversary. Since then, there has been the annual pilgrimage and in 2002 a monument site was constructed.
BICC President, Chandra Sohan pointed out that when the Indians arrived, they met the Africans who had their own culture but they were able to live in unity.
“The racial strife in our country only started around the 1950s when there was a split in the major political party,” he pointed out but alluded to the fact that the two major ethnic groups in Guyana have been able to embrace each other’s culture even down to this day.
Initially, May 5, was referred to as Ramakhan Day. This was because the two most senior East Indians who arrived at Plantation Highbury were Ram and Khan. Subsequently, it was called Indian Arrival Day.
The name was later changed to Arrival Day to include and pay tribute to the other ethnic groups that came to these shores; Europeans, Chinese, Portuguese and Africans.
However, the event at Highbury focuses on the arrival of East Indians to Guyana.
Between 1838 and 1917, over 500 ships arrived, bringing 238,000 Indians to work on the sugar plantations in Guyana. Of that number, about 70,000 returned to India when their contracts were up.
Region Six Chairman David Armogan, also speaking at the event, pointed out that the British planters were able to arrange with Indian business persons to bring persons to Guyana from 1838. However, in 1917 the system of indentured labour was abolished.
“Our fore-parents had to adapt to plantation life because they were hard workers, they came from poor families in India, they came from a background where they were prepared to work to make a living and to build for themselves and their families and so when they came here, they decided that they have to work hard. So, they made lots of sacrifices. They lived in logies but they were a contented people,” Armogan said.
“We are a resilient people, we do not give up easily, we work very hard, we build on what we have and above all we are resistant to people who try to exploit us,” Armogan continued, noting that East Indians were taught courage by their fore-parents.”
He said the descendants of East Indian indentured labourers have made their fore-parents proud.
The Indians were part of the ‘tri-trade’ which involved trade from India to Africa and then the West Indies and the Americas.
The Indians who came were not told that they were coming to Guyana to replace the slaves who had rebelled and fought to have slavery abolished, in fact, many of them were told that they were coming to the city of El Dorado where they could walk the streets and find gold.
According to the Indian High Commissioner, it was a choice of life or death for those who decided to journey to Guyana.
“The conditions which say Indians coming to Guyana and other countries were actually manmade. The British Colonial in India had caused a number of Indians to be thrown into destitution and they were forced to choose between life and death. They choose to work hard and to move out of India.”
In India, in those days, the High Commissioner shared, there were many manmade famines because of greed, resulting in the loss of life of more than 10 million persons. That figure represents a third of the population of the three provinces where the labourers came from.
“That is how we ended up with lots of people being willing to move out of India. So, many countries like British Guiana, Suriname, Trinidad, Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa – all provided an opportunity for those people who were looking for jobs and were enticed by agents.”
According to the High Commissioner, the Indian diaspora in Guyana has been playing a crucial role in the economic, political and social landscape of the country.
“This is due to your ancestors – you must salute them.”
India and Guyana
Over the years, Guyana and India have partnered in many projects and in recent years India has been providing both technical and financial support to Guyana.
Listing some of these, the High Commissioner noted that the Indian Government provided US$30 million to Guyana for the purchase of an Ocean-going vessel.
“We are working on the road from Ogle to Diamond. We are working on the operation of three hospitals. We are working on the solar energy system for thirty households. We are working on providing exports in agriculture and aquaculture. We are working closely with the Government of Guyana on various aspects of training and capacity building.”
He said one of the major aspects of collaboration between the two countries is that of education. Of the 6000 annual Guyana Online Academy of Learning (GOAL) scholarships, more than 4500 are at Indian universities.
The Asian country had also provided training for members of the local Police and Defence Forces.
“We are also working on climate change with your Government; we are working on disaster relief. We are also working on the culture front to promote Indian dance, music, yoga and we are also conducting outreaches to various mandirs and other cultural organisations. We are here to work with Guyana,” High Commissioner Srinivasa reassured. (G4)