By Ryhaan Shah
The SS Ganges was the last ship to bring Indian indentured labourers to British Guiana. It arrived in Georgetown on April 18, 1917 with 437 men, women and children destined for various plantations.
The ship had left India just four days before the Abolition Act was signed in the Indian Parliament on March 12, 1917. After sailing from Calcutta with 124 persons, or just over a third of the labour contingent, it then docked in Madras to pick up the rest of the indentured workers before setting sail for the Caribbean.
Among the last arrivals there were 39 children, 22 of whom were boys; and of the adults, there were 268 men and 130 women.
The largest contingent of 218 (including their children) was contracted to 11 Demerara plantations stretching from Cane Grove to De Kinderen. The largest batch – 28 persons — went to work at Non Pareil; and just two persons, most likely a married couple, were contracted to Diamond Estate.
Nine Berbice plantations received 150 of the last arrivals, with the majority — a group of 26 — being contracted to the Port Mourant Estate; and 69 of the labourers were assigned to four estates in Essequibo.
The SS Ganges sailed on to Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, where 389 adults and 32 children disembarked. With this final stop, the transportation of Indian indentured labourers to the British colonies ceased.
Interestingly, this last group of labourers served a shortened period of indentureship. An Act in the British Parliament brought the scheme to an official end, and all indenture contracts were cancelled on January 1, 1920.
However, the scheme’s contractual nature had always meant that each labourer had a personal contract to complete, after which their own indentureship would have come to an end.
By 1917, the country’s population had comprised 42% Indians. That percentage rose to as high as 51% before undergoing a steady decline over the past 50 years to drop to the 1917 census figure again.
The reasons for this decline are varied, but have much to do with the cultural and political hostility faced by the Indian population; hostility which erupted into episodes of ethnic violence over those 50 years. Within the Caribbean region, Indians comprise about 20% of the population, and this minority status gives impetus to the regional marginalisation of this community.
Indians in the Caribbean, as the late Professor Rex Nettleford of UWI once stated, had to “learn to be West Indian”. Though he later corrected his remark to be more politically correct vis-`a-vis Caribbean diversity, his utterance does align closely to the truth of the region’s policy towards race and cultural relations pertaining to its Indian populations.
In the islands with smaller groups of Indians, like Jamaica, the Indian presence has largely been assimilated, reflecting Nettleford’s experience; but in Guyana and Trinidad, Indians, as large populations, continue the struggle for recognition and for their cultural and human rights.
Our presence in Guyana is being made invisible even by the reluctance of successive governments to digitise and preserve the Indian immigration and indentureship records, which languish and steadily deteriorate in the National Archives. Of the Indian diaspora communities, Guyana is the only one where this preservation project attracts little or no state support.
Marking the end of the indentureship programme is bittersweet. While many of the descendants of our fore-parents have made good lives here and in North America, the facts of the poverty and famine in India that drove them to board ships to seek a better life, and the facts of the brutality and hardships they faced on the sugar plantations can never be glossed over.
And that history is not yet over, as sugar estates face closure and the consequent loss of the traditional estate work on which many still depend. While some closures might be justified in a changed global economy, the Granger Administration’s lack of concern about the future of the retrenched workers is a grim reminder of the ruthlessness of the colonial era.
Except for the First Nations, we are all here because of sugar, and when the SS Whitby dropped anchor off Plantation Highbury on the Berbice River on May 5, 1838, it was an historic occasion. The labourers who stepped off that ship stepped into history. They were not only the first Indians to arrive in British Guiana, but were the first to arrive in the Western world.
Since President David Granger has declared days of special observances for the arrival of the Chinese and Portuguese to Guyana, perhaps he would now correct the official name of the May 5th holiday and give it its rightful title of “Indian Arrival Day”.