Conscious poetry and the post-independence era

They Came in Ships


They came in ships

From far across the seas

Britain, colonising the East in India

Transporting her chains from Chota Nagpur and the Ganges plain.

Westwards came the Whitby

Like the Hesperus

Alike the island bound Fatel Rozack.   [. . .]

Some came with dreams of milk and honey riches.

Others came fleeing famine

And death,

All alike, they came –

The dancing girls,

Rajput soldiers – tall and proud

Escaping the penalty of their pride.

The stolen wives – afraid and despondent.

All alike,

Crossing dark waters.

Brahmin and Chamar alike.

They came

At least with hope in their heart.

On the platter of the plantocracy

They were offered disease and death.    [. . .]


Creole gang, child-labour –

Second prize.

I remember Lallabhagie.

Can I forget how Enmore rose in arms

For the children of Leonora?


Remember one-third quota

Coolie woman.

Was your blood spilled so that I might reject my history?

Forget tears in shadow – paddy leaves.


Here, at the edge of the horizon

I hear voices crying in the wind.

Cuffy shouting – Remember 1763.

John Smith – At least, if I am a man of God,

Let me join forces with black suffering.

Akkarra – I too had a vision

Before I lost it.

Atta – in the beginning, I was with the struggle.

And Des Voex cried

I wrote the Queen a letter

For the whimpering of the coolies

In their logies would not let me rest.   [. . .]


The Commissioners came

Capital spectacles with British frames

Consulting managers

About the cost of immigration.

They forgot the purpose of their coming.

The Commissioners left,

Fifty-dollar bounty remained.

Dreams of a cow and endless calves

And endless reality, in chains.


Mahadai Das



The collection They Came In Ships – An Anthology of Indo-Guyanese Prose and Poetry, impresses itself upon consciousness more than it ever has as an extremely important document at this time when the 100th Anniversary of the Abolition of Indian Indentureship is still being commemorated throughout the year 2017.

It impresses as the most useful documentation of the creative imaginative consciousness of Indentureship – a most comprehensive coverage of the experience. More than that, it is the most thorough coverage of Indo-Guyanese literature to date, taking us a very long way since the collection – The Anthology of Local Indian Verse – attempted to document the poetry in 1934.

They Came In Ships, which was published by Peepal Tree Press in 1998, took its title from a poem by Guyana’s foremost female poet Mahadai Das, reproduced at the commencement of this article. Although the poem lends the book its title, it is not included in the anthology. But Das’ “They Came in Ships” is the most celebrated, the definitive signature poem, the anthem if you wish to prolong the metaphors, of Guyanese Indian Indentureship. It is quite a notable poem generally, but remarkable for its very post-colonial reading of the immigration experience.

Another work of this ilk is the short story “Cent and Jill” by Rooplall Monar, which is included in the anthology, and is exceptionally outstanding as a piece of short fiction for its post-colonial quality and linguistic achievements.

The anthology was edited by Joel Benjamin, Laxmi Kallicharan, Ian McDonald and Lloyd Searwar, who, by their diverse backgrounds, brought various perspectives to the volume. But what is definitely uniform is the depth and informed nature of the critical analysis contained in the introduction to five of the six sections of the book. There is an attempt to represent the development of the Indo-Guyanese literature from 1917 to the end of the twentieth century.  There are gaps, particularly in the period 1930s to about 1970, but it has sharp critical insights and a keen sense of history.

This history has a particularly interesting input from McDonald in the ‘Afterword’.

“Sugar was first crystallised from the cane plant in India. It is an irony of history that 2,500 years after that event, Indians left their native land to travel thousands of miles across the world to pursue the manufacture which their far ancestors had first discovered. In fact, if you had told the first Indian indentured labourers who came over to British Guiana in 1838, indeed all those 238,979 who are recorded as following them over the years right up to 18th April, 1917, when the S.S. Ganges docked in Georgetown – if you had told any of them that it was their ancestors who had originally discovered and developed sugar manufacture they would hardly have believed it.  There is little doubt that to them the sugar business, like so much else in the world, was the discovery and preserve of the Europeans who were in charge of both their old and now their new homeland.”

Such ironies have continued even in the history of the poet Das and her considerable contribution to Guyanese literature. She started her career during a period of recharged nationalism in Guyanese post-independence literature. Nationalism had been there from since the late pre-independence period, but it took a different turn under the PNC in the early 1970s with the introduction of national service. Writer, mentor and matriarch Rajkumari Singh was a leader in the cultural movement arising out of the Guyana National Service (GNS) and she helped to develop a number of writers, most of them East Indians, who became prominent in a significant literary movement that outgrew the GNS and its predominantly black consciousness. Ironically, it also thrived in spite of the destructive political turns made by the PNC and its creature the GNS.

That political era was largely responsible for the rise of a new period in the development of Indo-Guyanese literature with Das, Monar, Shana Yardan, Gora Singh, Jan Shinebourne, Arnold Itwaru and Sasenarine Persaud prominent in this. Das, in particular, was ideologically strong with her first poetic voice “I Want to be A Poetess of My People”. As the ironies multiplied, she soon found herself in opposition to the PNC and her service in the GNS was used against her when she was denied a University of Guyana degree in Economics. (She later went to Columbia in New York). Another phase of development in the literature was the rise in the 1990s of work by East Indian writers in exile turning out poetry and fiction very critical of that same Burnham era.

They Came In Ships makes reference to these political factors that helped to shape the literature, but the anthology does not really include much of the work that developed in that period. Yet the value of the anthology is greatly increased because of the extensive and comprehensive bibliography that it provides. The words of David Dabydeen, one of the important writers included in it are very appropriate. He correctly describes it as “utterly indispensable”.

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