Tuesday, April 18, will mark the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the last ship from India — the SS Ganges which brought indentured labourers to Guyana. It slipped out of Calcutta a mere four days before Governor-General Hardinge of the Indian Government had ordered the cessation of all recruitment and shipments, on March 12, 1917. The mere five weeks it took to make the journey across the seas, as compared to the sixteen weeks by the Whitby (Jan 13 – May 5th, 1838) would remind us of the changes wrought by the shift from sailing ships to steam ships.
Steam ships made of iron, like the SS Ganges which was commissioned by the Nourse Line in 1906, were also much larger. On this “last voyage” it left with 858 men, women and children, compared to the 249 on board the Whitby. One significant change was that the number of women in the Ganges was just about half that of the men — a much higher ratio than the usual one out of three over the course of immigration. The Ganges also seemed to recapitulate the immigration experience by bringing immigrants from BOTH the major ports of Calcutta and Madras. Unlike the earlier immigrants, the “northern” and “southern” Indians would have begun to mix on board the ship or “jahaj”, rather than when they were on the plantations.
Another recapitulation was that the Ganges dropped off only 437 of her immigrants to Guiana, then proceeded to Trinidad, where the remaining 421 disembarked on April 22. This is a reminder that each one of us in the Indian Diaspora are in a particular country only because of the luck of the draw. We could have just as easily been sent to Fiji, or Suriname, or South Africa etc.
The immigrants in that last shipment from the SS Ganges were sent to plantations in each of the three counties. Twenty-four of them — including 2 infants — were sent to Uitvlugt, the plantation where I was born and raised. It is very possible that some of the half-dozen old immigrants who lived at one end of my street as bachelors were from that ship. I never did find out. The three cottages they lived in were replicas of those I would see later in the villages of Bihar: thatched roofs over mud walls with a framework of “wattle” without fences between them. They eked out lives of quiet misery.
But as part of the contract that was signed by the immigrants, they were entitled to a return passage to India, which was paid to a large extent by the Government. As early as 1869, when 30,000 individuals qualified, the Government of British Guiana decided that this was getting too costly and that, additionally, the planters would rather retain the seasoned workers. From this time onwards, the Government began to encourage the immigrants to remain in Guiana by exchanging their “right of return” for land. Near the plantations, some marginal swampy land was accepted by immigrants, who cultivated rice to buttress their meagre wages. The old immigrants in my village had been bought off by two small lots.
In 1880, the Government purchased Huis’t Dieren, an abandoned estate in Essequibo, and divided it into lots which were offered to some Indian families in exchange for their return passages to India. Two years later, the Government took another tack by dividing up land it owned (Crown Land) at Cotton Tree (West Berbice), Brighton (Corentyne) and Maria’s Lodge (Essequibo), among other areas, and selling it to immigrants at reasonable rates But these immigrants still retained their ‘right to return” passages.
In 1894, still trying to encourage immigrants to remain, the Government reintroduced the programme of exchanging return passages for land, and thus Helena (Mahaica), Bush Lot (West Berbice) and Whim (Corentyne) were created in 1897. In the meantime, over 75,000 immigrants exercised their contractual right to be returned to India – even after the abolition of Indentureship in 1917.
The last return ship, the MS Resurgent, left for India on September 4, 1955 with 243 men, women and children.
But in this era of seeking justice for past exploitation of labour, might it be time for the descendants of Indian indentured labourers to Guyana to submit claims for all the land they were entitled to in exchange for their unused return passage?