Finding Roots: Indentured Labour Route Project

One feature of Indian immigration to Guyana as indentured labour is the painstaking records that were kept by the colonial regime following the abolition of slavery. Technically, the Indians recruited to work on the sugar plantations were subjects of the (British) Indian Government, which had to try to be consistent to “protect” their rights – beginning with recording their “passage” to their colonies – to keep track of them.
Each indentured worker, including children, had his particulars recorded, including name, date of birth (or more frequently an approximate age), father’s name, caste, village, district, nearest police station, height and any distinguishing marks. The records from each ship were all bound together and now reside in the Walter Rodney Archives. The Birth Certificates of the first generation born in Guyana would include the name of the Ship that brought their parent and the year it arrived. So for instance, my Nana, Ramlagan, born on Nov 19, 1986 and who raised me, was the son of Rambisoon who arrived in Guyana in 1888 on the ship Allan Shaw. He came from the village of Ishmailpur in the District of Gaya (where Buddha received enlightened) and was 5’2” with a scar on his inner left thigh.
In this manner the records of all 238,979 Indians who arrived in Guyana between 1838 and 1917 are there in the archives and can be physically retrieved if anyone wants to know their ancestry. But unfortunately, after more than 150 years for most of the “ships’ records” are crumbling and there is a need to preserve them so that future generations – here and in our diaspora – can trace their roots. Back in 2012, there was a project – funded privately and by UNESCO – to digitize those records but for various reasons that need not detain us at this point, the project was aborted.
Fortunately, there is hope. In 2011, an International Scientific Conference entitled “NEW PERSPECTIVES ON INDENTURED LABOUR (1825 – 1925)” was held at the University of Mauritius. Two resolutions were adopted: the creation of an International Committee for the establishment of the International Indentured Labour Route Project (IILRP); and the creation of the Indentured Labour Global Database Initiative (ILGDI) consisting in the elaboration of an International database of indentured migration. In 2014, this initiative received the imprimatur of UNESCO and by 2017 a detailed Plan of Action was announced.
“The aim of the Indentured Labour Route project will be to bring together all countries having experienced the migration of indenture and other forms of contract labour in the 19th and mid-20th centuries. It will strive to contribute to nation building efforts and to a greater understanding among peoples and societies across the indentured diaspora as well as within the countries themselves.
The project would also give indentured labourers and their descendants a voice. The indentured and their descendants need to have the opportunity to present their version of their experience. In other words, it is important to look for the indentured thought and experience as seen, felt and witnessed by the immigrants and their descendants. The project may benefit from experiences, lessons learnt, resources, experts from the UNESCO Slave Route Project. The focus is the indentured labourer and their descendants.
In line with the recommendation of the World Heritage Committee to gain a greater understanding of the global impact of the indentured labour system, the International Scientific Committee defines the objectives of the Indentured Labour Route Project as follows:
1. Share current research to establish international research networks and programme at the basis of the Indentured Labour Route project;
2. Tighten the links among countries where indenture took place and better appreciate the existing historical interrelations between these countries;
3. Better appreciate these links to support the discussion on the Indentured Labour Route Project and substantiate the bases onto which it will rest;
4. Develop and implement projects and activities via national committees for the dissemination and promotion of the history of indenture;
5. Establish new research perspectives and disseminate knowledge and recognition of indenture as an international phenomenon.
6. Promote the history of indentured labour as it is an under-researched topic.
National Committees would be formed in each country and their first order of business would be to digitize the intent urged records in our National Archives.