What ought to be done to improve Indian indentured Caribbean historiography?

This is my final column on indentured immigration to Guyana. I do hope my write-ups on the topic over the preceding months have been informative and inspiring to readers. My larger hope is that the various symposiums planned during early March on addressing 100 years of indentured emancipation as well as how Indians have evolved since this time will be well-supported, well-attended and beneficial to Guyanese society at a time when ethnic divisiveness is at the deepest.

I am pleased to announce that there have been some determinations or new developing trends in Indian indentured historiography in the Caribbean. Most notable is a peasant rebellion and resistance discourse against plantation power and dominance, which has essentially analysed indenture from the position of the labourers or from a non-elite perspective. This is an achievement we should be proud of since it underscores the urge of regaining the reins of our history.

The general argument of the developing historiographical trends is that while Indians were abused by their overlords, they also used various forms of resistance techniques to improve their lives. They possessed the adaptive and adaxial capacity to deal with the throes of indenture, to speak back to the power holders of indenture, to look out for their unfortunate brothers and sisters of indenture, and to plan a better life beyond the institutionalisation of indenture.

Likewise, Devi Hardeen argues that there are significant studies on the Black Atlantic, White Atlantic, and other Atlantic Studies but practically nothing on the Brown Atlantic, or brown people from India in the Caribbean. Hardeen asks for more macro-level analyses of Indian indenture. Do I agree? Absolutely! But when this will happen appears to be, in my judgment, an exercise in waiting.

While the above new approaches are encouraging, the study of Indian indenture in the Caribbean must be supported by scholars and institutions in the field. One priority should be to tackle the problems of insularity and inconsistency not only within the discipline but also among writers of indentureship. The lack of comparative analyses of indenture, a concept common to other disciplines, should also be addressed. The spirit of community and cooperation in the study of indenture should be preferred rather than the preference for insular objectives.

Academic institutions within the Caribbean, especially in Guyana, Trinidad, and Suriname with large Indian populations, must go beyond their current support and participation in the study of indenture. More young individuals should be encouraged through promotion, advisement, and financial assistance to study indenture. They should be encouraged to take field trips to various plantations as well as gravesites in these countries to reconstruct memories of indenture rather than relying solely on archival records. To be fair, the University of the West Indies in Trinidad, and to a lesser extent, the University of Suriname, has made some significant strides in the study of indenture under the leadership of most well-learned scholars in the field. The same cannot be said of the University of Guyana where the study of indenture has practically ceased.

I argue that a revised and forward-looking programme for the study of Indian indenture can only be practical when actions match declared intentions and when policies match realities. So in this regard, a journal on indenture should be developed to go beyond the current scattered attention given to indenture in a few journals. Few individuals would argue against the thought that a journal of indenture based in the Caribbean would likely resolve the problems of indentured studies dispersed in various journals around the globe, which has become a nightmare for researchers and doctoral students to access even in the age of globalisation. Additionally, a clear focus of the journal will potentially relieve the burden of journal editors to reject submissions of articles on indenture on the basis that they are unsuitable for their journals. Moreover, it might also reduce the disappointment among writers on indenture who are unable to find a suitable place for their work.

By any measurement, until there is a journal for indenture studies in the Caribbean, the field of indenture studies will most likely remain loose and uncoordinated, searching for a home. But more importantly, a journal of indenture studies will serve as a platform for rigorous debates, international engagement, openness, the introduction of new modes and models of thoughts and ideas, among other things. It might attract financial assistance through various international agencies and advertisements, which in turn can be used to set up an indenture fund for emerging students and scholars in the field. Of course, all of what has been discussed so far will not materialise without financial support. There must be first and foremost a radical approach of investigating what happened to the unclaimed remittances submitted to the colonial banks by deceased Indians during indenture. Retraction from this prerogative would reveal a shameful display, particularly from the perspective of our deceased ancestors, how little we have achieved and how far we still have to go. So far, the silence on this matter is frightening. These funds, if reclaimed, should be used wisely to study indentured servitude in the Caribbean, and hopefully, iron out some of the deficiencies in Indian indentured historiography.

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