In Honour of Indian Arrival Day, May 5th 2014: Oral History and Documentation on Indian Indentureship as seen through the story of Immigrant Surujbali

By Harry T. Hergash

Harry Hergash, a graduate of the University of Guyana, taught at the Annandale Government Secondary from 1964 to 1969. He immigrated to Canada in 1974.

 

Arrival Day, now celebrated annually in Guyana on May 5 as a national holiday to commemorate the arrival of various indentured immigrant groups in the country, was first observed by the Indian-Guyanese community under the name Indian Arrival Day. The history books inform us that between 1838 and 1917 around 239,000 emigrants from India were recruited to work as labourers on the sugar plantations of the then colony of Britain called British Guiana.

20131028diasporaOver the years, oral history passed down by elders in the Indian-Guyanese community indicates that not all the Indian immigrants who were brought into the country were agricultural labourers. In the absence of documentation to prove the alternative, scholars in academia have been reluctant to consider this view. Yet, Rev. Bronkhurst in 1883 (The Colony of British Guyana and its Labouring Population) notes “All the immigrants in the Colony are of course looked upon as Coolies or day labourers, and so they are, … In their own native land they were doctors or physicians, clerks, schoolmasters, teachers, sirdhars, shop or bazaar keepers, etc…”. In addition, Jenkins’ book of 1871 (The Coolie, His Rights and Wrongs: Notes of a Journey to British Guiana) and more recent research by Bates and Carter of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, suggest that ex-sepoys (former Indian soldiers) were among the immigrants. This article looks at the oral history and documentation surrounding immigrant Surujbali of whom three of his grandchildren have played important roles in the history of the country.

Surujbali arrived in 1891 and fathered two children in the country, a son, Joseph, and a daughter, Bhagwandai. In the mid 1950s, his grandson, Harry Singh, through his daughter, became one of the first two Cadets of the British Guiana Civil Service. Later in 1967, Harry became the first Guyanese to be appointed Director of Bookers, the largest and most politically influential business entity in the country at the time that was said to control the lives of Guyanese from birth to death. The magnitude of this appointment is reflected in the article in the then Guyana Graphic announcing his appointment, “A young Guyanese who grew up on a sugar plantation, has created history by being the first person to be appointed to the top post of an Executive Director of the Bookers complex in Guyana. Mr. Harry Singh, at 36, is the first Guyanese to be a member of what is regarded as the “Cabinet” of this concern”.

On the son’s side, three grandsons also made their indelible mark. Compton Singh rose through the ranks in the Guyana Civil Service and reached the position of Chief Labour Officer before immigrating to Canada. Benedict Singh was ordained a priest in the Catholic Diocese of Georgetown and in 1972 became the first and only Guyanese to date to be appointed Bishop of Georgetown. Following his retirement, he is now Bishop Emeritus. Fielden Singh, a lawyer and Deputy Leader of the United Force in 1964, was appointed a Minister of the coalition government that led the country into Independence in 1966 and later, he succeeded Mr. Peter D’Aguiar as Leader of the United Force.

I first heard of Surujbali when I lived in Annandale, East Coast Demerara, in the late 1950s. An area south of the then railway line and between Annandale and Buxton was referred to as “Baabu-lan” (Baabu-land). I then learned that “Baabu” (a term of respect for a gentleman or male of high social status), referred to Surujbali Singh, a former Head Driver (Head Sirdar) of Lusignan Estate who was instrumental in getting the Estate’s management to allow certain workers to grow rice and graze their cattle in this area adjoining the cane-fields. Thus the area became known (in Guyanese Creolese) as “Baabu-lan”.

In later years, I married a grand-daughter of Surujbali Singh through his daughter. In time, I heard from elders who shared stories about Surujbali. I was told that as Head Driver of Lusignan Estate he was a man who wielded great power. Two pertinent stories are recalled. When Surujbali went to Lusignan Estate he was given a mule to ride to the canefields. He refused the mule, demanded a horse like the European overseers, and was given one. Next, when my mother-in-law was a young lady, she was whistled at by a young man living in the estate and Surujbali had the young man banished from the estate.

I have been living in Canada since 1974. In September 2013, I visited Guyana and decided to check the indentureship records held at the Walter Rodney National Archive on Homestretch Avenue, Georgetown. For Surujbali’s and records of others, I visited the Archive on four or five occasions. On each visit, I was the only person or one of two persons requesting documents. The staff were always business-like, courteous and helpful. I should add too that, considering that the records, huge books dating back over a hundred years with hand written entries, were given proper storage conditions only recently, they were in reasonably good condition.

I knew my mother-in-law was born in Lusignan Estate and I knew her date of birth. These two pieces of information were all I needed to access the relevant records. I first looked at the Birth Register for Lusignan Estate, and found the entry for my mother-in-law which showed her Father’s Name, Immigration Number, Year of Entry and Name of Ship. One of the staff members took the Immigration Number and quickly produced the binder with the Emigration Pass, the official document used as a passport at that time, that provided more detailed information on Surujbali.

Over the course of my visits, I looked at the records and Emigration Passes of other individuals, using different sources of information to initiate the process. While each of the other individuals, apart from Surujbali, had his/her Immigration Number written on his/her Pass, Surujbali’s did not have his number. Again, each individual had his/her “Caste” stated in the line provided for this piece of information but Surujbali’s Pass had an additional notation, “caste chuttri”, at the top of the document, and this differed from what was shown, “Kurmi”, in the line provided. Finally, unlike the others and more interesting, there was a second document for Surujbali. This document has no title but seems to be a special delivery record from the ship that shows his Immigration Number and identifies him as Sirdhar Surujbali.

The documentation on Surujbali seems to indicate firstly, official attempts to manipulate the information on his caste. Was he a Kurmi or a Kshatriya (Chuttri), the former being an agricultural caste of lower status than the latter which is the soldiering/governing caste? To his fellow immigrants he was a known kshatriya (chuttri) and he asserted his caste status, including using the last name “Singh”. Also, at 5 feet 8 inches, he was far taller than the average agricultural labourer at around 5 feet 2 inches, and physically more robust. Secondly, the delivery document indicates some type of special arrangement for his delivery from the ship. Thirdly, his identity as Sirdar on the delivery document suggests that his status as a “Sirdar”, a supervisory personnel, was pre-determined in India right at the time of his recruitment.

 

The reported concessions accorded Surujbali and the official documentation on him lead one to conclude that aspects of the oral history of Indian indentureship in Guyana may be true and, indeed, some of the Indian indentured immigrants were recruited under special circumstances, possibly, in some cases, for work other than agricultural labouring. Hopefully further research will shed light on this matter in the future.

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