Home Letters East Indians’ contribution to Guyana’s development is of fundamental importance
Most of us know that ‘Arrival Day’ is about the ‘arrival’ of ‘indentured servants’ to labour on the sugar plantations after the abolition of slavery.
‘Indentured labour’ was but one of various guises under which individuals across the globe were conscripted to provide labour in the development of the ‘capitalist’ mode of production that developed as Europe began to exploit the worlds it had ‘discovered’ – and more germanely, conquered – after 1492.
There were indentured labourers from Europe starting from the 17th century, long before the Indians from India. With the abolition of slavery, plantation owners in the British West Indies were desperate to find a new source of labour for their sugar estates.
Emancipation had conferred on the Guyanese labourers both physical and occupational mobility. They could withhold their labour temporarily or permanently, and vacate the estates if living and working conditions did not satisfy them. In fact, a gradual exodus from the plantations began soon after emancipation. The planters desired an alternative and competitive labour force which would give them the same type of labour control they were accustomed to under slavery.
On May 5th 1838, the very year of final slave emancipation (Abolition of Slavery) in the British West Indies, a small batch of 396 Indian immigrants landed at Highbury, Berbice from Calcutta, India aboard the Whitby and Hesperus. This was the beginning of the indenture system, which was eventually abolished in 1917, by which time a total of some 240,000 indentured servants from India had come to Guyana under a system with essential features very reminiscent of slavery. They were distributed to various locations on the coastland of Guyana. The plantation system and conditions were not favourable at all.
The immigrants worked from sunrise to sunset, and were so poorly paid that they were just able to exist. They slaved and provided luxurious living for their masters. They brought with them a rich culture and heritage, together with a language.
The indentured immigrants were disciplined, and found satisfaction in honest and productive work. They were kind, hospitable and generous, and lived contented lives. They made tremendous sacrifices so that their descendants would be able to enjoy a better standard of living.
The foremost characteristic of the struggle of the East Indian immigrants against indenture and plantation system was their unity. Their unity had been forged aboard ship. Those who came on the same ship were considered as ship brothers and sisters. A contributing factor to unity was that everyone came with an inter-faith mind of mainly Hindus and Muslims, and there was also a belief that the caste system had been lost through the crossing of ‘Kaala’ Pani (Black Water).
Through the years, the community spirit has manifested itself in various situations – forming groups singing Ramayan, Bhajanas reading of the Holy Quran, and observing the various festivals and holi days etc. The plantation owners and the colonial administration feared the unity of the workers, and used several techniques to destroy it.
By January 1830, there was evidence that the Indian labourers were being mistreated. Far more significant were the uprisings, which frequently led to tragic deaths of immigrant workers protesting illegal wages, bad conditions, and the exploitation of their women.
There were eight main disturbances on sugar plantations leading to shootings by colonial Police from Devonshire Castle in 1872 to 1948 at Enmore. At Vreed-en-Hoop, West Coast Demerara, English nurse Betsy Ann testified that she had witnessed the flogging of immigrants with the cat-o-nine tails; and another woman, Elizabeth Caesar, witnessed the flogging of immigrants under the manager’s house, after which salt pickle was rubbed on to the backs of those who were flogged.
Figures show that one out of every five immigrants was brought before the courts, not for offences of a criminal nature, but for resistance to a plantation system which was supported by the judiciary and colonial administration.
There was no trade union, until recent times.
The East Indians have contributed in a significant way to build Guyana’s economic and social structures. It was indeed the unity of principle and action among East Indians that brought overwhelming success to our dear land of Guyana.
Within a decade, East Indian immigration was largely responsible for changing the fortunes of the sugar industry, the mainstay of the economy, from the predicted ‘ruin’ to prosperity.
East Indians have evolved over the years to become the single largest ethnic group in Guyana, and have branched out of sugar into all aspects of economic and political life in Guyana.
East Indian contribution to development and creation of modern Guyana has been of fundamental importance. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Indian labour sustained the sugar industry on which the colony’s economic survival depended. They were also the founders or main players in other agricultural industries such as the rice industry, the coconut industry, the fishing industry, the dairy and meat industry, and in increasing the production of ground provisions, fruit and vegetables.
Schools were never established on the sugar estates, since it was the assumption of the ruling classes that the role of Indians was to supply agricultural labour. It was only when they left the estates that they and their children were able to access secondary and tertiary education. The turn of the 20th century saw an increasing number of Indians entering commerce and industry and the learned professions such as Law, Medicine, Engineering and Accounting; adding another dimension to their contribution to national life.
The Indian cultural contribution to national life is of notable importance. They introduced new foods and recipes, new festivals, music and dance, and above all Hinduism and Islam as established religions. This has given Guyana the unique position of having the three greatest world religions established here side by side and existing in the greatest amity, unlike other countries in the world.
In recognition of their contribution to the overall development of Guyana, The Government declared May 5, Indian Arrival Day, a day which was ostensibly to commemorate the peopling of Guyana in the 19th century by indentured immigrants from various countries in the world. Guyana’s experience in this regard was not singular, since there were other countries in the Americas which were going through a similar experience.