Indian Indentured Survival: Rice

Ravi Dev, IHM

The wages paid to the Girmitiyas were never sufficient to cover their basic needs. As was shown earlier, they ended up with a deficit at the end of the year, when income and expenditure were balanced. So how did they survive, even as they “squeezed their bellies” and wore rags while living in the hovels called logies?
Like the enslaved Africans they replaced, they were forced to find additional means of sustenance – the former on “provision grounds” they were allowed to cultivate, and the latter on small, swampy acreage they rented from the plantations to do the same. Only a minority were lucky not to pay rent.

Threshing paddy by hand

The two major crops the Indentureds cultivated were rice and vegetables. Most of them had originated from North India, where wet rice cultivation was widespread, and most understood the technology and regimen required. In the beginning, the plots were quite small – from a quarter to half an acre – plowed by bulls, and seedlings were grown in a small plot planted by hand. The paddy was also reaped and threshed by hand, milled in the logies with the traditional mortar and pestle, and then sifted to separate the rice from the chaff. In the 20th century, the plantations installed mills, where the indentureds would have their paddy milled for a fee.

Milling paddy with mortar and pestle by foot

The first large-scale rice cultivation was done at Edinburgh, WCD, when sixteen acres were rented to a number of Indentureds by the Plantation Overseer William Russell in 1865. The venture was successful, but, for lack of labour due to management refusing to allow a clash with cane demands, ceased in 1872. Around that time, Chinese Indentureds were encouraged to plant rice at Anna Regina. They were extremely successful, and grew 200 acres. By then also, time expired Indians purchased land and began cultivating rice in the basins of the Mahaica, Abary, Canje and Mahaicony Creeks.
By 1898, there were 6500 acres under cultivation with the easing of restrictions on purchasing Crown Lands.
According to the Pillai Report of 1924, “Between 1903 and 1919, the area under rice cultivation had extended from 17,000 to 61,000 acres; and whereas prior to 1893 the average annual import of rice into the Colony was 18,000 tons, this import ‘had by’ 1917 been converted into an export of 14,000 tons.” The indentured Indians had launched an industry.