May 07, 2021 Letters
One of the anomalies of the commemoration of Indentureship in Guyana has been the refusal to acknowledge the role of Africans in the labour system that had been introduced after the Abolition Act of Slavery in 1934. People of African Descent (PAD), however, were also recruited as indentured servants: first, from the West Indies and secondly, directly from Africa. While the system was launched with the arrival of 40 Portuguese labourers from the island of Madeira starting on May 3, 1835 on the Louisa Baille followed later in the year by another 389, freed PAD’s from the West Indies had also been recruited in that same year when 137 of them arrived. Wages in Guyana (and Trinidad) were much higher than in the islands and the immigrants came voluntarily.
While there were no further Portuguese brought in until 1841, indentured African West Indians continued to pour in: 1,427 in 1836 and 2,150 in 1837. In 1838 when 396 Indian Indentured labourers arrived on the Hesperus and Whitby on May 5 as an “experiment,” another 1,266 African West Indians arrived. Most pertinently, however, they were joined by 91 Africans brought directly from West Africa. Research needs to be done in our National Archives to discover when and the name of the ships on which the first of these indentured Africans and PAD West Indians arrived.
African indentureship arose after Britain’s 1807 abolition of its trans-Atlantic slave trade when its navy sometimes intercepted slave ships from other nations that continued the trade to destinations like Cuba and Brazil. They would seize the “Liberated” human cargo and land them in St. Helena or more frequently Sierra Leone or when closer from Brazil, to colonies like Guyana, where they would be indentured. Indian indentureship would be halted until 1845 because the “Gladstone Experiment” was shown to have violated the original agreement. But Indentured labourers from Africa and the West Indies continued to be brought in. In 1841 when Portuguese indentureship resumed with 4,297 Maderians, a further 5,645 African West Indians and 1,192 Africans arrived as Indentured labourers.
As the Sugar Planters bemoaned the cessation of Indian Indentureship after 1838 and worked assiduously for it to resume, they simultaneously pursued immigration from Africa. In 1843 a local ordinance was passed to recompense expenses incurred by ships hired by the British Government to transport Africans to Guyana. This ordinance was modified on order from the British Government which insisted that these African immigrants would be entitled to a return passage after five years of service. These conditions were then extended to any importation of labour from India and China. The return passage was first instituted for immigrants from Africa.
The first African return ship, the HMS Growler left Guyana on August 21, 1847 with 121 persons to Sierra Leone. They were from the 2,931 who had been “rescued” between 1841-42. This means that most of the indentured Africans remained in Guyana, like the other immigrant groups – including the PAD West Indians. The Africans and PAD West Indians, however, would have moved from barracks directly into the newly formed villages and settlements of the freed enslaved Guyanese, among whom no new slaves had arrived since 1807. By 1874 when the last 388 “liberated” Africans were liberated into indentureship in Guyana, 13,355 of them had arrived here. These Africans would have never been enslaved.
We can hypothesise therefore, that those who chose not to return to Africa brought and practiced their West African cultures. And not facing the same kind of violence from the authorities as had the original enslaved PAD’s prior to 1838, would have been living exemplars of African culture. From the records, some of them ended up in the villages across the coast where we see a higher African cultural retention.
Indentured labour from the West Indies continued with stops and starts as late 1892 by which time an astounding 40,783 had arrived. Even after the abolition of Indian Indentureship in 1917, a new arrangement of “contracted” labour from the West Indies was instituted and a further 1,729 PAD West Indians arrived by 1928 when the system was abolished. These individuals lived in the “Bajan Quarters” on several sugar estates. Six hundred and seven (607) Indians were also brought in on this “contracted” arrangement. Analogous to the Indian indentured labourers, the West Indian PAD Indentured labourers were immigrants with that cohort’s drive for economic success and it would make an interesting study to test this hypothesis. Anecdotally, the persons from the “Bajan Quarters” in my village of Cashbah, Uitvlugt, were noticeably upwardly mobile.
There is a record of some conflict between these indentured PAD’s and the ex-slaves because of complaints that they were lowering the wages. When the Police Force was launched in 1839, there was a preference to recruit Bajans, who the authorities felt, would have less compunction in arresting local PAD’s.
We must explore this facet of our history.
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