Today is Indian Arrival Day. 181 years ago, two ships — the Whitby and the Hesperus, which had left the Port of Calcutta more than two weeks apart — serendipitously arrived off port Georgetown on the same day, May 5th 1838. The receiving depot was not ready to process them, so the Whitby was sent to Highbury Plantation, up the Berbice River, to disgorge some of its human cargo. The first Indian set foot on Guyana soil – and in fact in the entire Western Hemisphere — in Berbice.
The arrival of Indians to the then colony of British Guiana was a momentous occasion, one that would irremediably alter the trajectory of its social, economic, cultural and political development. Socially, the society was already “plural”, with the freed African ex-slaves and Portuguese (brought in since 1835) adding to the White planters, overseers and government officials. There were also the Indigenous Peoples sequestered in the interior, and a “Coloured” strata issuing from the miscegenation between the White planters/overseers and African slave women. They formed a buffer zone between Whites and Blacks.
The Indians, however, with their vast numbers pouring in for the next 79 years, qualitatively altered the nature of the society; but it was economically that the Indians had their greatest impact. Even before the abolition of slavery, the planters were petrified at the prospects of sugar’s survival in a post-slavery economy in light of the vast tracts of land that were available for the freed slaves to occupy and make their own “living”.
And it was this fear at the loss of a stable labour force that drove them to reintroduce “indentured” labour into the industry. In many of the small West Indian islands, there was not even the transitional “Apprenticeship” scheme for the freed slaves: they had nowhere to go but return to the cane fields. In fact, over 30,000 of them would be enticed to emigrate to British Guiana, since the conditions here were better.
But the planters had to also cater for the loss of their preferential British market. In addition to a stable work force, they needed a cheap one; and this was where the Indians’ greatest economic impact was felt. While the Portuguese and the Chinese (arrival in 1853) quickly abandoned the sugar fields at the expiration of their indentureship, the Indians stayed on and facilitated more than a doubling of the production of sugar than in the heyday of slavery.
But how could the Indians survive on wages that the ex-slaves, Portuguese and Chinese balked at? They supplemented their meagre sugar wages by cultivating rice on swampy lands leased or bought from the plantations, and by planting cash crops and rearing cattle to sell their milk. These endeavours, in time, became substantial industries on their own, and lowered the cost of living for the entire colony.
Culturally, the Indians’ different practices from the “Creole culture”, which had evolved between the African slaves and the White ruling class over hundreds of years, served the interest of the planters, since it helped to nip any ties that might be formed with the freed Africans who remained on the plantations. Interestingly, most of the latter were the small- island immigrants, who were all dubbed “Bajans”.
There were thus two apposed cultural tendencies at work with Indians: encouragement of cultural retention by the planters versus encouragement of cultural assimilation by the educational system, run by the Christian Church. Today, with no real multicultural education that includes Indian culture, the latter is slowly being eradicated.
But it is politically that the Indians suffered the greatest exclusion. Until the advent of the universal franchise in 1953, they were disproportionally excluded by the poll requirements of education and income. After 1964, they were then severely discriminated against by the PNC Government in all aspects of national life, which led to mass migration to the US and Canada. Since 2015, those discriminatory policies have returned with a vengeance.
There is precious little to celebrate this Indian Arrival Day.