Slavery and indentureship were not similar in nature
May 19, 2002
Letters on race
Indian Arrival Day has come and gone for the year 2002. Its advent had been marked with an ever increasing level of consciousness over the years. But this year it would have seemed as though some of its promoters and advocates were determined to encapsulate the very essence of genesis of Guyana, as we now know it, in the event of the arrival of their ancestors.
The letter of Ms Aaliyah Hooper which was carried in the issue of Stabroek News for 8.5.2002 under the caption `Stabroek News ignored Indian Arrival Day,' is symptomatic of the all-consuming desire which has apparently seized some of our citizens of Indian ancestry to completely dominate the life and vital organs of this society. They and their activities it would seem must be overwhelmingly emphasised, to the almost total exclusion of citizens of other lineage. The editorial reply to Ms Hooper was both practical and factual. There exists no need to humour that correspondent further. But, it is quite apparent that no thought has been devoted to the consideration of the sentiments which motivated Ms Hooper's outburst in the first instance. Or to the pernicious philosophy of historical revisionism which now animates the promulgation of facts and circumstances relating to the reality of the East Indian presence upon this land mass.
If one were to be guided solely by the offerings of some of our indigenous new world supremacists of East Indian descent, the persuasion would be, that prior to the arrival of East Indians in this new world, all was dank and that there existed naught but darkness and dereliction. In brief, the new historiography seems to be positing as reality, a claim that the civilization of Guyana actually began with the arrival of the East Indian immigrant upon these shores.
Without in any way attempting to diminish the contribution which the ancestors of our citizens of East Indian descent have made to the development of this country it must be borne in mind that when they were arriving -
1. The sea had already been held in check through the labour and frightening mortality rate of the black slaves who had preceded them.
2. This inhospitable and disease-ridden coastland had been empoldered, and criss-crossed by drainage and irrigation canals which had cost the lives of hundreds of blacks in the process of being manually excavated.
3. Plantations had been carved out and had been under cultivation for years before their advent. And immigrants they were. Contrary to the slaves who were not afforded the luxury of an opportunity to ponder the question, the overwhelming majority of East Indians who came to this then colony, did so as a result of considered opinion and consent given.
Even those who were press-ganged were accorded the courtesy of being offered the opportunity of entering into legally binding agreements with the labour recruitment agents.
Thus, the arrival of East Indians in Guyana, so far from being the genesis of civilization in this part of the globe, merely marked a transition in the formulation of economic arrangements within the colony. They were to be paid for their labour.
To the extent that their arrival also contributed to the injection of new and authentic cultural and religious modalities into the social fabric, these must be viewed in the context of being a product of the nature of the new economic principles which governed their introduction here. They did not deliberately set out to enlighten the benighted.
The slaves came as chattels. Common property similar to cups and clothes and sheep and dogs. They were not considered as being human beings and therefore were not credited with the possession of either souls or intellect of the higher order. They were certainly not considered initially as being capable of bargaining for the sale of their labour or for the determination of conditions under which any such exchange would have taken place.
The East Indian immigrant on the other hand was signatory to a contract. He had his rights which included the maintenance of his religious and cultural practices and most importantly, his native language(s). He could appeal to Crosby and to India.
The slaves were diligently flogged when caught communicating in any of their several native tongues or engaging in any practice which the white massa could not understand or did not approve. They were cut off from Africa completely.
Thus, this new encyclical which dispenses the myth that slavery and indentureship were merely period pieces that were similar in nature, is wholly
misleading and is likely to result in the false equation of the two experiences.
History has decreed that ours is now a pluralistic society. The need therefore exists for each group to understand the historical nuances which have served to contour the fortunes of the others. Imperialistic hegemony and ethnic triumphalism are not the best recipes for the maintenance of social harmony.
Whenever neo ethno-supremacists feel inclined to imply the denunciation of the other inhabitants of our land as being mere spectators and hangers-on, they should spare a moment and reflect upon the ethnic identity of those who tutored their ancestors in the skills which were necessary in order to ease their transition from a rural, peasant based, patriarchal, endogamous grouping, into the mainstream of contemporary society.