By Pat Dial
Kaieteur News – Last Wednesday, 5th May, Indian Arrival Day was commemorated countrywide. The University of Guyana and the High Commission of India conducted a high powered Symposium and the Media, both print and electronic, carried multi-dimensional stories on indentured immigration and on the descendants of the immigrants. Moray House also made its contribution.
In this offering, we will touch on a few myths concerning indentured immigration which had not been considered by the otherwise comprehensive media spread.
In 1838, Emancipation came to the slaves who had been toiling on the plantations. With the advent of Emancipation, the freed men began leaving the plantations which had been the places of their terrible suffering and humiliation and moved to villages which they created from abandoned sugar plantations purchased with their savings accumulated over many years. This was of course, the Village Movement.
Some freed men had remained on the plantations but refused to receive the absurdly low wages they were offered and in the 1840’s they struck twice but both strikes failed after which they made their final exodus from the estates. The sugar industry and indeed the colony were on the verge of collapse and the planters frantically and desperately began to search for a new labour supply. They tried several countries including China, Madeira, the West Indian islands and India. They eventually settled on India as providing the kind of labour they wished to use.
The conditions under which the early immigrants lived and worked were very much a continuation of those of slavery. They were housed in the same slave barracks; the food they were given barely kept them alive; they had no medical attention; and were subject to whipping if they did not work hard enough.
As the century progressed however, conditions slowly improved but these still remained oppressive and there were regular worker protests which were harshly suppressed. There were seven large labour protests which were designated “riots” which licensed the Police to use firearms on the protesters. Workers were killed in all of them and at the last one which happened at Enmore on the East Coast Demerara, seven workers were shot by the Police. These seven workers are remembered as the “Enmore Martyrs.”
On the completion of their indenture contracts, several workers left the estates and set up as small farmers and were responsible for the establishment of several agricultural industries including the Rice Industry, the Coconut Industry and the Dairy Industry.
Indian immigration had initially saved the country from economic collapse and had greatly helped in its economic development. It had enriched Guyanese Culture and had established Hinduism and Islam making Guyana one of the few countries where the three great world religions existed side by side in the greatest amity.
Several myths have been concocted which seemed to be aimed at causing national discord and especially, to generate adversarial feelings among Indo and Afro Guyanese. These myths could be sourced from colonial times and sections of the planter class may have been responsible for them since if there was a united working class, they would have less opportunity of exploiting them. Owing to the constraints of space, we will mention only a few of these myths.
One of the most widespread myths which had even found its way in CXC text books was that Indian indentures were so poorly paid that they depressed the wages of African sugar workers who were forced to leave the estates. The facts belie this myth: After Emancipation, there was an exodus of the freed men who went on to create villages. Many of them had however remained on the estates which until about 1860 had more Chinese, Portuguese and West Indian workers than Indian indentures. Indian indentures only became the main workforce on the plantations after 1860 by which time Africans had long left the estates so there could not have been any competition between Africans and Indians.
Another myth is that Indo Guyanese are the richest community in Guyana and in particular better off than their Afro compatriots. This myth was first generated by the planter class to have indentures themselves and others believe indentureship was a lucrative employment and later, to create feelings of jealousy among the communities and divide them. The statistical facts belie this myth. The overwhelming majority of Indo Guyanese are as poor as their Afro compatriots and the few wealthy high profile business persons all started their lives as poor men and the biographies of such persons like Yesu Persaud and Toolsie Persaud testify to this.
The Royal Commission under the chairmanship of Dr. Venn had mentioned in passing that African slaves were responsible for digging up millions of tons of earth to create the infrastructure of the sugar estates. This created the myth that the indentured workers who succeeded the Africans on the estates did much less backbreaking work. This myth is belied when it is considered that the indentures and their descendants had to redig and maintain the canals and dams and in any case, since at least twice as much new land was taken in with the expansion of the sugar industry, the indentured workers had to dig up as much earth as was done as when the original estates were created. Workers of all communities were equally responsible for maintaining and expanding the estates’ infrastructure.
The final myth we will mention was that there were always conflicts between Afro and Indo Guyanese. The sugar planters tried to segregate these communities and tried to induce adversarial feelings among them, but despite this, there were numerous friendships and even familial relations between these communities. Later, the political parties tried to mobilise support by trying to resuscitate the vestiges of this colonial racism but it is now clearly seen and understood that the only persons who talk about race and racism are politicians and those affiliated with them. The rest of the population now recognise the interdependence of all groups and calls for racial support by politicians are finding electorates less responsive than two or three decades ago. Racial calls for political support are not awakening the response they once had and from indications will disappear in less than a decade.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.)
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