Indian Arrival: The Early Days

By Guyanese of Indian Ancestry Association (GIAA)

In January 1836, John Gladstone, owner of plantations Vreed-en-Hoop and Vreed-en-Stein, wrote to the Calcutta firm of Messrs Gillanders, Arbuthnot and Company enquiring whether the firm could supply 100 “young, active, able-bodied” labourers on contracts for his estates. The exporters replied that they did not envisage any recruiting problems, “the natives being perfectly ignorant of the place they agree to go to, or the length of the voyage they are undertaking.” This reply virtually set the stage for the deceit, fraud, coercion and kidnapping which permeated the whole recruiting system.
After some correspondence, two sailing ships – the Whitby and the Hesperus – landed in British Guiana on May 5, 1838, with 396 Indians of whom only 22 were women. This shortage of women was to continue throughout indenture with disastrous social consequences in the Indian community. Inter alia, it produced unstable marital relations and an alarming incidence of Indian wife murders in nearly all the recipient colonies. The revelation that Indian women were leading immoral lives in the sugar colonies produced bitter resentment in India and galvanised articulate Indian nationalists into a massive anti-indenture campaign which paralleled the anti-slavery movement a hundred years earlier.
Despite social conservatism, caste prejudices and the traditional non-migratory nature of the Indian populace, villagers left India for a variety of reasons. Among these were the socio-economic plight of landless labourers, rack renting by landlords, rural indebtedness, exploitation by Banias (moneylenders) and the loss of a traditional livelihood due to the importation of cheap manufactured goods from Britain. Recurrent famines in North India were another significant factor in colonial emigration. Famines often broke the morale of villagers and produced a state of complete desperation. Indeed, there was a strong correlation between economic distress and high migration and a good harvest and recruiting difficulties. The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 also gave a great fillip to colonial emigration as the total number of emigrants shipped from Calcutta (Kolkata) between 1857/1859 jumped from 31,184 in 1854/56 to 88,895 or an increase of some 185 per cent. On arrival in British Guiana, indentured Indians quickly came under the rigid discipline of the plantation system. The plantation is often described as “a total institution where a large number of individuals, cut off from the wider society for a long period of time, together lead an enclosed and formally administered life.” On the plantation, Indians and other groups were controlled largely by the Labour and Vagrancy Laws which, inter alia, subjected them to heavy penal sanctions, circumscribed their movements even during leisure and denied them access to the Immigration Office to air their grievances. These two sets of laws reduced workers to a state of helplessness and dependence akin to slavery. The various disabilities on arrival aggravated their plight. Strikes and demonstrations, assaults on managers and estate subordinates, coupled with such passive resistance as malingering and deliberately doing sloppy work, seemed the only forms of protest through which Indians could give expression to their grievances. The most violent strikes in the indentured period occurred at Devonshire Castle, Essequibo, in 1873, Non Pareil in 1896, Lusignan in 1912, and Plantation Rose Hall in 1913 where 15 Indians were killed including a woman, Gobindai. The many confrontations with a repressive state apparatus seemed to destroy the myth of Indian docility and demonstrated forcibly that Indians were capable of responding appropriately to pressures. They used the Tadjah celebrations to demonstrate their power in the community. Tadjah devotees in their inebriated state frequently attacked, with their hackia sticks and other lethal weapons, any European or traveller who failed to dismount from his horse. Since 1845 when colonial emigration became state-controlled, the Government of India adopted a policy of benevolent neutrality which was maintained throughout the 19th century. With the growth of nationalism in India, a change of policy occurred when in 1910 the Indian Government assumed power to prohibit emigration to any country which failed to give sufficient guarantees about the future treatment of Indian residents there. The assumption of such power followed Mohandas Gandhi’s exposure of the abominable conditions under which Indians laboured in South Africa, and the refusal of the South African Government to abandon its discriminatory laws. It was Lord Hardinge, Viceroy of India (1910-16), who attacked the ineradicable evils of the system, namely the grave recruiting irregularities, a high mortality and suicide rate on the plantations, “indescribable” sexual immorality in the immigrant camp, and mounting planter prosecutions for minor infractions of the law. Indenture, too, was considered an affront to the national honour of India that must be abolished. At the same time, the Indian Government was finding it extremely difficult to defend a system which aroused so much bitterness among articulate Indians. It took a massive anti-indenture campaign largely confined to India, and punctuated by speeches, petitions, pamphlets and propaganda, to ensure its abolition. A subsequent attempt to introduce Indian workers on a colonisation scheme did not materialise because of its financial implications and strong opposition in India. By 1920 indenture officially came to an end.
Indians must seize the opportunity to highlight their economic, political, educational, cultural and scientific achievements so that their manifold contributions could be placed in their proper perspective.
Extracted from Basdeo Mangru writings dated May 4th, 2013
Today marks 183 years since the arrival of Indians in Guyana. It’s an opportunity for us to learn and understand the enormous contributions and struggles of the Indian forefathers to our beautiful nation.