I am glad my ancestors made the decision to leave India

Dear Editor,

May 5th marked the 181st anniversary of Indian Arrival Day (IAD) in Guyana. There had been some debate about whether to call this event a “celebration”. In Guyana it is called simply, “Indian Arrival Day”. Celebration or Observance – it makes little difference.

Reflecting on these last 181 years in Guyana (as well as in Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa, Suriname, Trinidad, Jamaica and elsewhere), and on the development and progress of Indians – socially, economically, culturally, levels of freedom enjoyed – I would say it was a good decision our ancestors made when they signed up to go to the sugar colonies. I have visited some of the villages in the Indentured Belt (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal), saw economic and social conditions there, and formed my considered opinion that we, the descendants of those indentured are better off today than had our ancestors never left. (I suspect this statement will stir debate and argument – that would be a good thing to stimulate thought).

Indians now settled in former sugar colonies around the world came at a heavy price, sacrifice and toil, and “much punishment”. Those Indentured Labour Contracts were designed to put them in jail for the slightest “violation” and to make them sweat and bleed for every shilling they earned.  The conditions of servitude and living were maybe one or two steps above slavery which had already been abolished. Our ancestors were tough mentally and physically – they survived and together with the older settled population helped to build a new economy and forge a new diverse culture. 

I am glad my ancestors made the decision to leave India. Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal are still today the poorest region in the Union of India. The public schools are in terrible condition; the unemployment rate in the region is above 15%; and these States are run by the most corrupt leaders compared to the rest of India.

Dr Ramesh Gampat’s recent book on “Plantation Hinduism” is chockful on details of Indian life in Guyanese villages – an evolutionary study of their development. Too much detail. Much to his credit. 

He reported that 25% of all indentured Indians to Guyana returned to India upon satisfactory fulfillment of their contracts. Eric Williams (From Columbus to Castro, page 352) provided identical stats as Gampat’s – 25% repatriated from British Guiana, 16% from Trinidad. (You may speculate that conditions in Guyana were worse than Trinidad’s). 

On this IAD anniversary, I’d share two interesting stories. I got to Calcutta, hired a guide to help me find two villages – great grandfather’s and great grandmother’s – who left Calcutta on the Pandora in 1873.  The guide studied the documents. He asked: “Were these people husband and wife?” I said, yes. He said, “Not possible.  One village is Katwa in Burdwan, West Bengal; the other is 400 miles away in Mohenidabad, Azamgarh in UP”. No one gets married to another 400 miles away.

How could they have met? From the literature, we learned of “depot marriages” – hundreds and probably thousands of such marriages. I am now certain my great grandparents had a “depot-marriage”.

Elders saw a “young boy and girl”, each age 20 – and made an easy marriage-match. Communication with each other may have been difficult at first – one spoke Bhojpuri Hindi, the other Bengali. I would have loved to know the details. Regrettably – little oral history passed down.

My grand-father and father (born in British Guiana) and their siblings had always passed on the same story – they were married, recruited together and travelled to BG on the same ship. Now I know I have discovered some new information. What else we don’t know – for both, this could have been their second marriage. (At that time the average marriage age was probably 15 or 16). Each could have been running away from his/her own family crisis. Famines were sweeping the region in 1873, it wouldn’t have taken much for the recruiters (Arkatees) to entice them with “easy jobs, good pay” in the sugar colonies. 

Second story: One guide phoned another guide speaking Hindi, one telling the other my documents were all fake, saying ‘it was not possible for my great grandparents to have been married to each other’. Why not? They were from different castes – Bagdee and Ahir – and there could have been no intermarriages between these castes. I thought to myself, “What the hell do these guys know?” 

Gaiutra Bahadur, author of the seminal book, Coolie Woman, explained: “As the ships sailed off from Port Calcutta, many of the indentured cut their caste threads and threw them in the river”.  And, many of the caste beliefs and customs ended just as dramatically. This was too much for those Guides to comprehend. We the descendants know differently. It was a sort of liberation from India’s 3,000-year-old caste beliefs. 

Bahadur also wrote of another type of liberation – women’s lib – a theme that ran throughout her book. Women whose marriages fell apart, women with child out of wedlock or thrown out of parents’ homes for whatever reason were terribly oppressed by that old society’s mores. They needed liberation and freedom. What a boon Indentureship was? Many of these women went to the sugar colonies – single but free – found new husbands, worked in the sugarcane fields, rebuilt their lives and in many cases prospered. Now that’s something to celebrate.

The vast majority of Indentureds completed their labour contracts through discipline and hard work, saved money (the literature says they were “notorious for their thrift”) and invested in land and cattle and as the statistics showed 75% settled in the British Guiana colony. Travelling through the Coastland of Guyana today, the evidence is abundant that the descendants of our Indentured ancestors have flourished in this land.

I am proud of our Indian ancestors and their contributions to Guyana. I do not condemn nor praise the British Colonial power and the Sugar Planters. I say only that the British government today (still a world power) has some  moral responsibility for the welfare of these Indians in whatever former colonies they live.

Yours faithfully,

Mike Persaud

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