Sharing Arrival Days

Last year, over Zoom, I delivered this message to the Indians of South Africa:
I greet you from Guyana on this, the 163rd Arrival of Indians to South Africa, on 16 November, 1860, on the ship Truro. My earliest ancestor, Doerga from Bengal, also arrived in 1860 to then British Guiana — on 2nd February to be exact — on the ship Kirkham. There is much truth in the observation that “Men make their own history, but not in circumstances of their making.” So, what were those “circumstances” in which we Indian indentureds had to make our history?
The plunder of the Indian economy by the British gave the English language the Hindi word “loot”, as millions of landless peasants became “labourers”, desperately seeking survival within, and us without, India. The British made them fungible for the cheap labour demands of their colonies in their far-flung Empire. Having self-righteously “abolished” slavery, they revived the indentureship “agreement” – the defining characteristic of which was the terms of the contract or agreement that bound them to work at specified times and conditions at specified rates of pay in the country to which they were transported for free.
But in our case, they added the unique feature of penal sanctions for “violations” – which ordinarily is a civil matter. We were not free, but “bound”. This agreement was pronounced “girmit” by the indentureds of Fiji, who, in a seminal act of agency, called themselves Girmitiyas rather than “coolie”. Eventually more than 1.6 million of us Girmitiyas were shipped to some eighteen colonies. There was a right of a return passage to India first after five, then 10, years and part-payment.
We know it was a one-sided contract – but they “Kammar bandhnewale”/“banded their belly” to fulfil their side of it, because prospects seemed better than the ravished India they had left. And to which most chose not to return – positive that after they finished their five years, “they would create better”. They knew they had the ability to produce “two blades of grass where there was but one”. They were labelled “docile” merely for “keeping their word”, but when the planters broke theirs, they rebelled. These are demonstrated by the number of court cases filed against Girmitiyas, and the number of strikes they staged – even in the face of the “leaden argument”, as the deadly shootings were called in Guyana.
We are Girmitiyas – people of that peculiar “agreement” that marked the transition from a world in which slave-labour had been abandoned – but into a world of  so-called “free labour” that had not yet been born in the evolving capitalist world system. It was not for humanitarian reasons, as the colonizers would have it, but for the fundamentally more prosaic reason of greater profit for the empire, that we were kept in that state of indeterminacy: not slave, but certainly not freedmen. We must explore this indeterminacy, because of its lingering effects on our present predicament.
As immigrants escaping landlessness, joblessness, famines, caste and debt, we were determined to work our way up and out – even in the abysmal conditions the other groups in the countries rejected. One other commonality of us Girmitiyas is that the groups we met were encouraged to reject our claim to equal legitimacy to the lands we chose to remain in and develop. Our motto, as one scholar put it, became “laboro ergo sum” – I am, because I work! It led to the stereotype, as the anthropologist Brackette Williams studying Guyana reported, “Indians live to work, while Africans work to live.”
We became the first “Indians”, since, in the colonies it didn’t matter which region or caste one came from – we were all othered as “coolies” and “Indians”. When a group is ostracized, it becomes more cohesive; it is a matter of survival: solidity of the group is directly proportional to the pressures imposed. We became also less bogged down by the deadweight of caste etc. as our crossing induced positive changes, such as cross-caste “Jahaji” friendships, which we deepened as we attempted to recreate a less restrictive life than we knew in village India. While increasingly integrated after the end of Indentureship, we remain connected to our heritage through embodied knowledge, traditions, and artifacts we brought.
Let us embrace our unique Girmitiya identity that allows us to positively confront the modernity into which all have been conscripted.