Indentureship abolition

The month of March marks the centenary of the end of Indian indentureship. It was temporarily suspended first on March 12, 1917, although around two weeks later on March 27, this interim decision was confirmed. The movement which brought an end to Indian indenture did not really have its origins locally, neither was there any group campaigning for its termination in the UK. It came about because of pressure applied to the British authorities by the Indian nationalists in India itself. They had been converted by Mahatma Gandhi and his crusade against indentureship arising out of his experience in Natal, South Africa. The First World War was in progress at the time, of course, and that was an additional factor playing into the decision of the British to accede to nationalist demands, first temporarily, as said above, and then on a permanent basis.

The local planters unsurprisingly, were distinctly unhappy about this development, and along with others from territories like Trinidad, came up with various proposals for the continuation of the supply of Indian labour. They had no success, however, and in any case, by this time the nationalists were taking aim at the indenture contracts which remained extant. While no more Indian labourers had been shipped out of India after March 12, 1917, there were still some who had arrived in the colonies before that date but who had not as yet worked out their contracts. According to Trinidadian historian, Dr Radica Mahase, Gandhi threatened to go on hunger strike if these remaining contracts were not cancelled, and the British Parliament duly capitulated, voiding all contracts on January 1, 1920.

The end of indentureship was the last of the three major transformations which contributed over an extended period to creating a society of citizens out of an aggregation of bondspeople.  The first was the Dutch abrogation of Amerindian slavery in 1793, the second was the Abolition Act of 1834 which led four years later to the emancipation of Africans, and the final one was the termination of indentureship, freeing the last remaining bonded Indians.  Of course, even after that stage had been reached, this was still not in any sense a free society in so far as it remained under colonial domination, but the end of indenture made possible the social and political evolution which in due course set us on the path to self-determination.

When Guyana finally became independent in 1966, there were still people alive who had had personal experience of indentureship. But they are now gone, and the world they knew no longer forms part of our direct collective memory; it has slipped from our grasp to enter the pages of the history books, making its contribution to the shared story of our past.

It is often said that barring the Indigenous People, sugar brought us all here. This is a little less than the truth. Tobacco was probably the crop which brought Dutch and Africans here first in the 1620s, and Berbice under the Dutch was always a mixed economy. In addition, for a time the coastal planters took to growing cotton on a large scale, with the small estates growing coffee. By the 1830s, however, sugar was once more king, and this indeed was the crop which brought the Indians here in 1838 – and, it might be added, all the other groups who were subject to indenture as well.

A great deal has been written about the trickery involved in inducing many indentured workers to come here, and the harsh conditions they faced when they arrived.

The local laws relating to indentureship were draconian, and they were often employed illegitimately by the planters, while the appalling working and living environment was a source of disturbances and strikes. For all of that, the Indians managed to recreate key elements of their cultural world, which they transmitted to their descendants, and which have influenced all the other groups with whom they shared the country’s living space.

But aside from their major contributions to all forms of agriculture and at a later stage, commerce; their cuisine, their wonderful festivals like Phagwah and Diwali in which other residents join, etc, the Indian immigrants brought something else less tangible. In a colonial society which was fairly monolithic in its approach, they introduced new structures of thought, new ways of perceiving the world and different values. For the authorities this represented a challenge to their certainties, and they addressed this problem, as they saw it, by attempting to convert the newcomers to Christianity. This effort, of course, had very limited success at best.

All the groups who have come here have brought their culture with them, and have retained elements of it to a greater or lesser degree, but it was the large number of Indians – 240,000 – which ensured they would place their imprint on this society. It is largely because of them that we have a plural society, and working out the terms of that plurality is a project which is still under way. Are we clear about what the common values we share – or should share ‒ are, for example, or which of these define us as Guyanese, and which should underpin our laws, etc?

We are of necessity a secular society, and by implication that has opened us to the adoption of international human rights prescriptions, although not everyone is prepared to accept all of these.

Were it not for the distortions and animosity which our politics, with its perverted struggles for power, has imposed on us, we could devote more of our energies to discussions on fashioning the kind of society we would like to see that would make the word ‘plural’ meaningful.

In the meantime, occasions like these offer the opportunity for the children in our schools to learn something substantial about the contribution of the Indian foreparents to our society, rather than the usual glossed over textbook offerings.

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