CULTURAL PERSISTENCE OF INDIANS
BY PREM MISIR
May 3, 2004
Slave revolts in Barbados in 1816, in Demerara in 1823, in Jamaica in 1824, in Antigua in 1831, and again in Jamaica in 1831 together with the Anti-Slavery Movement, and fluctuating sugar profits, created the ingredients for the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1834. Abolition of slavery gave freed slaves a capacity to bargain for better wages on the sugar plantations.
However, increased wages would have resulted in higher costs and reduced profits for the planters. At any rate, the planters were not interested in paying higher wages, and so were motivated to seek a better alternative source of labor to increase profits. Planters led by John Gladstone masterminded the creation of a new system of slavery, later became known as indentureship. At the earliest point in the indenture process, the planters' strategy was not to replace the entire labor force, but to diminish the bargaining power of freed slaves. The Indians were to be utilized as a reserve labor pool.
John Gladstone, owner of the Vreed-en-Hoop slave plantation, first wrote to Gillanders, Arbuthnot, & Co., a British firm in Calcutta in January 4, 1836, about ferrying Indians to Guyana; this firm had previously shipped human cargo to Mauritius. Gladstone received a response on June 6, 1836, and letters exchanged between the two parties in 1837 set the stage for the first shipment of human cargo to Guyana. The ship 'Hesperus', owned by Gladstone, started off with 170 indentured immigrants, but reached the Demerara River with only 156, with 70 earmarked for Vreed-en-Hoop. A second ship the 'Whitby' docked in the Demerara River in the early morning of May 5, 1838. And so began the Indian connection with Guyana which is 166 years old.
As with Africans under slavery, Indians lived on the sugar estates within a 'logie' framework that could very well be referred to as a total institution. Generally, a total institution is like a prison or a mental hospital, in which the participants are physically and socially isolated from the outside world. It's remarkable that the Indian way of life was not significantly impacted by this total institutional framework that invariably produces resocialization, intended to eliminating a person's culture. Cultural similarity, especially in language and religion could explain the persistence and continuity of their culture, notwithstanding the impact on their lives in a total institution. By the beginning of the twentieth century, this persistence and continuity were further enhanced, since about three-quarters of Indians in Guyana were from Uttar Pradesh. Cultural persistence and continuity enhanced ethnic mobilization, a precondition for effective active struggle.
During the indenture period, Indians demonstrated that they were not docile and, in fact, were involved in active struggle. Contrary to the planters' thinking that Indian labor was reliable, Indians showed volatility and resistance when necessary. Indian resistance and resilience have not faltered throughout Guyana's history. A few examples of Indian resistance are:
* Violent clashes with the Police at Leonora (early 1870s)
* Plantation Devonshire Castle (5 killed, 7 injured, 1872)
* 5 small strikes (1884); 31 strikes (1886); 15 strikes (1887); 42 strikes (1888); 12 strikes (1889); 2 strikes (1890)
* More violent disturbances, including strikes at Leguan, Farm (EBD), Success, Skeldon, La Bonne Mere (1894); Golden Fleece, De Kinderen, Cornelia Ida Nismes, Goedverwagting, Mon Repos, Cane Grove, Melville, Blairmont (1898); Blairmont, Peter's Hall (1900); Leguan, De Kinderen, Wales, Diamond, Peter's Hall, Success, Cane Grove, Friends (1903); Lusignan, Non Pareil, Friends, Leonora, Wales, Vriesland, Marionville, Springlands (1905).
The family system
Indian resistance was a rallying point for cultural continuity. But there also were other factors that fused this cultural permanence. Through the characteristics of the Indian subculture, inclusive of the family system, religious organizations, and educational institutions, Indians have been able to uphold their culture and contribute to societal development. Malik (1971:27) argues that the unit of the Indian community is not the individual but the joint family. At marriage a girl leaves her ancestral family and becomes part of the joint family of her husband...A very important feature of this social unit is that all property is held in common" (Madan:10-11). The joint family system and kinship pattern were effectively relocated to the Caribbean from India, demonstrating a continuity between cultures. This continuity was significant in enabling the family to socialize the child in the formative years.
Klass (1961:93) shows that "...an East Indian's first allegiance is to his family, his next to his wider circle of kin." Indian life revolves primarily around the family, and secondarily encompassing social and public life. The family-centered approach, according to Malik (1971:30), promotes particularist and ascriptive values, and strong ethnic identification as attachment to family, village/estate, and religion. This attachment, however, gets transformed into primary tasks for the individual, and encourages ethnic politics. In indentureship, some Indian leaders, notwithstanding their localized psychological attachment and restrictive interaction with Africans, used their ethnic base to reduce ethnic conflict and integrate ethnicity, race, and class into political activism.
Overestimation of conflict among ethnics
The 'total institution/logie' lifestyle experienced by Indians induced a forced type of ethnic division whereby there was minimal social interaction between Africans and East Indians. But this interaction whenever it occurred invariably had quality and was tied to each group's value system. Consolidation of each group's value system promoted their cultural persistence.
Smith (1965:82), however, a plural theorist, saw each ethnic group in society as self-sustaining ethnic enclaves for its members, with no common value system, and producing conflict among themselves. Therefore, absence of a common value system meant that the dominant group had to control the social order.
Smith, nevertheless, may have overestimated the conflict generated by minority ethnic groups, by excluding class in the analysis. Excluding class enabled Smith to show practically no meaningful social interaction among the ethnic communities. But each community had a stratification system based not only on race and ethnicity, but on class, too. Both African and Indian communities were comprised of upper, middle, and lower classes. A lower-class Indian was more inclined to interact with a lower-class African as well as with other lower-class Indians than with Africans and Indians of the upper classes, and vice versa. Interaction only occurring within one class is a manifestation of class division that produces the following two situations: the situation where Indians only interacted with other Indians of the same class, is referred to as intra-ethnic class cleavage. The situation where Indians and Africans of the same class only interacted with each other can be called inter-ethnic class cleavage.
Considerable Indian marginalization in the People's National Congress era motivated Indians to regroup and produce a cultural renaissance that today has paid off. Paradoxically, education once covertly denied to East Indians, subsequently, became the instrument of social mobility for them on a grand scale, especially in the medical and legal professions. For instance, today, Guyana has 295 medical practitioners, 148 (50.2%) are East Indians, 107 (36.2%) Africans, and 40 (13.6%) Others. Among the 50 Medex personnel, 21 (42%) are East Indians, 26 (56%) Africans, and 1 (2%) Others. Among the 9 Sick Nurses/Dispensers, 5 (55.6%) are East Indians and 4 (44.4%) Africans. With 8 Optometrists, 3 (37.5%) are East Indians, 3 (37.5%) Africans and 2 (25%) Others. Judgeships of East Indian and African ethnicity are shared equally between the two groups. Among Magistrates, 2 (27%) are East Indians, 8 (72%) Africans, and 1 (1%) Others.
But Indians should not now let their guard down, because today amid orchestrated and unjustifiable attacks constantly unleashed on Indians, especially Hindus, cultural gains will have to be protected. If not, Indian cultural persistence will become Indian cultural vulnerability.