Surviving Indentureship: Cattle and milk

By Ravi Dev

The indentured labourers from India brought a wealth of skills with them, generally centred around agriculture, since this was the mainstay in their villages. We have seen how their knowledge of wet-rice cultivation gave a new industry to Guyana – even when official attempts had failed. Another area of expertise was in cattle rearing, which was not confined to only the Ahir caste, but to most of the rural indentureds.

Indian milk sellers

Factories and logies on sugar plantations were located about a mile from the Atlantic, behind successively a sea dam; the public road; then salt-infused, unsuitable land for sugar cane. During slavery, provision grounds were allocated here, and with indentureship, each plantation defined the portion immediately north of the factory and managers’ quarters as a “pasture”, where the indentureds could rear cattle for a small fee, and also where small acreages in other sections were rented for rice cultivation. These activities subsidised their starvation wages, so they could labour on the plantations.
To encourage the indentured to remain in Br. Guiana, a $50 bounty was offered up to 1873 for reindenturing for another five years. Many who took up this offer bought cattle, sheep and goats to rear. By 1890, there were 20,631 head of cattle and 5000 sheep and goats on the plantations. By the end of indentureship, however, these numbers were lower, since the plantations placed restrictions on the number permitted. In one account by Luckhoo, in 1918, there were 12,475 head of cattle owned by both indentured and free immigrants, and 3,178 sheep and goats.
Bulls were used to plough and prepare the rice fields, as well as for threshing the paddy. The indentureds also supplied milk to indentureds and free immigrants on the plantations, the villages, and even in Georgetown and New Amsterdam. Cows were reared for this purpose in areas surrounding the city, like in Campbellville, La Penitence, and Bel Air. This gave free Indians their first entry into the city, and, not coincidentally, forced regulations controlling the purity and handling of milk.
Through rice, cattle and milk production, Indians slowly lifted themselves out of the poverty of plantation life and into the middle class on their own terms. It was not uncommon for parents to sell a few head of cattle to send their children to Georgetown and abroad to study.