By Ralph Seeram
June has been designated “Caribbean Heritage Month” by the United States Congress. West Indians throughout the United States have been showcasing their heritage with cultural events. Last week in Orlando, Florida, Indo West Indians celebrated their Indian Arrival Day highlighting the arrival of Indentured servants (which was a fancy term for slavery) to the Western Hemisphere from India.
Judging from the various performances, there is no doubt that the Indo American Community is making organized efforts to preserve its culture. There are performers aged from five years and upwards. In fact I was told that there are at least five dancing studios in Orlando devoted specifically to Indian dancing.
It was a sweltering 94 degrees but that did not deter the large multi ethnic crowd, consisting mainly of Guyanese, Trinidadians and Surinamese, with Guyanese being the largest segment of the crowd.
In addition to Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Suriname, it was surprising to learn that Indentured Indians also went in large numbers to other West Indians Islands like Jamaica, Guadeloupe, and Martinique as well as French Guiana.
Various speakers appealed to the younger generation to remember the hardships their forefathers suffered and exhorted them to make optimum use of all opportunities available to them in their new homeland.
Listening to the speeches, my mind flashed back to my grandmother who came to Guyana as an Indentured servant in 1908.I grew up with my grandmother; I really loved her ( I was told she spoilt me) and to this day I always remember her on the anniversary of her death. She died over fifty years ago.
The day she died she did something out of character; she told me to go outside and play. When I came back she was dead. She was so protective of me, that she did not want me to see her die.
This was a remarkable woman who showed the “white man” that she was just as equal as them and would accept no less treatment. In recalling her life I went in search of the one piece of document that I considered part of her. It was her Emigration Pass, the document given to them on their departure from India.
It reveals that she boarded the steam ship S.S SUTLEJ at Calcutta on August 13, 1908. It lists her name as Gujratia and mentions her caste as Chamar which I think might have been considered one of the lower caste in the context of the time. Her district was listed as Azamgarth and Town as Uncheganon. This did not tell me what state she was from.
Thanks to the Internet I was quickly able to determine that she was from the State of Uttar Pradesh.
Naturally the thought was could there be any relatives there. I have read where some folks went to India and were able to reconnect with relatives. It is an item on my “bucket list”.
She was assigned to Springlands Estate on the Corentyne and after completing her indentureship which I believe was five years, she visited a “Jahaji”sister at Blairmont and subsequently remained there before moving to New Amsterdam.
I was told that while working at Blairmont Estate, a white overseer made a sexual advance to her. It was generally known that the overseers had their way with the women in the fields as there was no one really to complain to.
As I recall, my grandmother was a physically strong women. I was told that the overseer was at the receiving end of several lashes from her hoe. Naturally she was fired. She later got married and she and my grandfather owned a baker shop where the old Blairmont Primary School stood, not very far from the factory.
The marriage produced three beautiful daughters, including my mother. One day my grandmother received a request (more like a command) from the Blairmont Estate Manager to send one of my aunts to work at his house as a maid.
This was a code to say I want your daughter so that I can sleep with her. It was common for them to do this. My grandparents knew this and flatly refused. This did not sit well with the manager who retaliated by ordering them to break down the baker shop and move off the estate property.
My grandmother moved to New Amsterdam and that is where my recollection of her started. She was a fruit vendor who travelled across the New Amsterdam ferry from N/A to Blairmont market to sell her fruits.
Now there were two forms of transportation, the Government owned ferry and the launch owned by the Blairmont Estate. Because the estate owned launch uses the Government owned stelling they were obligated to ferry the general public also. The launch which was named “Dragoman” normally took the white folks and some white collar workers while labourers, cane cutters etc. were forced to use a wooden punt towed by the launch.
This launch was equipped with cushion seats in the rear reserved for the expatriates. My grandmother was way ahead of Rosa Parks. She would go and deliberately sit on the cushion seats, yours truly in tow. The captain, I think Capt Britton, would come pleading with her to remove; she would not budge, and none of the whites would sit on the seats near to her, which caused her to make herself more comfortable.
These battles over the seats went on for a while until they got fed up and never bother her. Sometimes a token request was made for her to relocate, but they might as well be speaking to a statute; she would not budge.
You see, she knew that there was no law compelling her to sit on wooden seats; it was an unwritten rule. In those days the regular ferry had a first class and second class; you pay a little more for first class, but generally only certain sections of the society would go to first class.
If the regular person goes to first class he was looked upon as “what is this inferior person doing here”. You know who the exception is going to be; my grandmother only uses first class. Here she is with her basket full of fruits and her sugar bag to spread her fruits on.
She was a very feisty person not afraid to speak her mind interspaced with a few choice words. She became such a familiar figure that the Captains decided not to get into a tussle with her. As far as they were concerned it was a losing battle.
Unfortunately she did not live long enough to see the discriminatory practice abolished by Dr Cheddi Jagan when he came into power in the late fifties.
As I remember the speeches about sacrifices our forefathers made, and to build on their efforts, I recall that it took my grandmother 40 years to buy her own property, which was in Smithfield, New Amsterdam.
She left that property for me, which I reluctantly sold when I was immigrating to the U.S. Here is the strange twist, the money from that property helped give me a start on a new life in another country.
This woman came to Guyana with nothing but her Immigration Pass, but left me with the means to immigrate to another country to start a new live for my children. I have distributed a copy of her Immigration Pass to my children lest they forget from whence they came.
Ralph Seeram can be reached at email: [email protected]
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