Huist T'Dieren: An experiment in East Indian Land Settlement Scheme in 19th century colonial British
By Tota C. Mangar
July 8, 2004
A more effective system is for the Government to foster spontaneous settlement by rendering available for it the abandoned estates...no artificial means are required to stimulate the settlement of the East Indian population.
East Indian indentured labourers were imported from the sub-continent to the West Indian colonies ostensibly to fill the void created as a result of the mass exodus of ex-slaves from plantation labour following the abolition of the despicable system of slavery and moreso the premature termination of the apprenticeship scheme in 1838. This influx into the Caribbean in the post-emancipation period was only one segment of a wider movement of Indian labourers to other parts of the world including Mauritius, Ceylon, Fiji, the Strait Settlements, Natal and other parts of the African continent.
Following the abolition of slavery and the termination of the apprenticeship system a state of fear, uncertainty and gloom was uppermost in the minds of the then British Guianese planters. The exodus from the plantations during this crucial period of 'crisis and change' merely served to confirm planters' fear and uneasiness. This movement was not entirely surprising, as several decades of slavery had resulted in the plantation being seen as the symbol of dehumanisation, degradation and demoralisation. The victims quite naturally wanted to rid themselves of white planter class social, cultural and political domination and to assert their economic independence. With great enthusiasm and in the face of tremendous odds they started the village movement and peasantry.
The importation of indentured labourers from the Indian sub-continent was part of the continuing search for a reliable labour force to meet the needs of the powerful plantocracy. In the case of Guyana, East Indian immigration had its origin in the "Gladstone Experiment" and the first batch of immigrants arrived on board the steamships 'Whitby and Hesperus' in May, 1838. This immigration scheme involving East Indian immigrants was temporarily halted from July 1839 to 1845 after which it continued virtually uninterrupted to 1917 during which time 239,909 immigrants landed in Guyana. Of this figure 75,547 returned to the land of their birth while those who survived the system chose to remain here and make this country their homeland.
BACKGROUND TO HUIST T' DIEREN
The system of Indentureship as experienced by the Indian immigrants in the colony could be characterised as one of 'struggle, sacrifice and resistance.' On the estates the indentured labourers experienced the harshness of the labour laws and it was obvious that the powerful plantocracy had effective control of the immigrant labour force. Labour laws were easily varied and very often abused to suit their 'whims and fancies.'
Immigrants were faced with meagre wage rates and unrealistic tasks, there was a persistent problem of being penalised in relation to the muster roll which was held every morning, court trials were sometimes farcical, fines and imprisonment were rife and vagrancy laws imposed a serious restriction on their movements.
It was not surprising therefore that from the late 1860s onwards the myth of Indian docility was to be seriously challenged. Indentured labourers began to openly defy the system and there was a steady deterioration of industrial relations, increasing working class protests and imperial investigation.
In 1870 a Royal Commission of Inquiry was appointed to examine alleged abuses of the immigration system. It subsequently made a number of recommendations and as a result certain changes were made in the immigration laws. Among those changes were wider powers of the Immigration Agent-General, the formation of immigration districts each with a resident agent, district medical officers to be paid by government instead of estate authorities, the right of immigrants to give evidence on their own behalf and the Immigration Agent-General becoming an ex-officio member of the Court of policy.
Thereafter the re-indenture scheme which emerged in the 1850s began to decline and at the same time encouragement was given to immigrants to take up small plots of land in lieu of return passages. Such an initiative came from both the Government of the colony and the plantocracy in general and according to Bisnauth "to discourage repatriation was in effect encouraging East Indians to settle in the colony." It was Potter's contention that time-expired immigrants increasingly chose to move off the estates. Obviously it was the increasingly high cost of repatriation for those who had completed their periods of industrial residence and were entitled to a free return passage which led the government and planters to give serious consideration to the establishment of East Indian settlements. By 1869 an estimated 30,000 immigrants were entitled to a free return passage to India at a total cost of $250,000.
It was against the foregoing that some East Indian immigrants moved from the plantations and settled along the public roads in areas adjoining the sugar estates. Their movement was averaging 3,000 yearly between 1872 and 1876 and they were mostly found in "straggling, unorganised settlements" along the coastland.
A definite attempt was made in 1871 to settle immigrants when government purchased Plantation Noot-en-Zuil, an abandoned 578-acre cattle and provision farm on the East Coast of Demerara. The proposal was to settle time-expired immigrants in lieu of their return passages by offering them half an acre to build a house, one and a half acres for farming and half an acre for common pasturage.
This scheme failed largely because of poor drainage and excessive flooding and the immigrants felt that the site was badly chosen. In the end Government was forced to abandon the project.
It was not until 1880 that another attempt was made towards the establishment of an immigrant village settlement. This time around government purchased Plantation Huist T' Dieren, a partially abandoned estate on the Essequibo Coast, three miles south of the Adventure Ferry Stelling.
Following the purchase of Plantation Huist T' Dieren, a partially abandoned estate on the Essequibo Coast, by government, the land was divided into two-acre cultivation plots along with quarter acre residential lots and then distributed to immigrants in lieu of their return passages to India. Initially seventy-three immigrants took up the offer. In the beginning the settlement of Huist T' Dieren was placed under the supervision of Veeraswammy Mudaliar, Chief Interpreter in the Immi-gration Department. But by 1882 so serious were the problems experienced by residents that the settlement had made virtually no progress. Maintenance of sea defences and public roads became too burdensome and backdams, kokers and drainage trenches were all in a deplorable condition.
Henry Turner Irving assumed duty as Governor of the colony of British Guiana in May, 1882. Within a few weeks after his arrival, he acquainted himself with several aspects of immigration. He was obviously conscious that East Indian immigration was by then firmly established and it had become the mainstay of the sugar industry. Hence he promptly made an innovation to the land settlement scheme. In this regard he must have been influenced by both the difficulties confronting the settlement of Huist T' Dieren and the rising cost of repatriation, and his earlier experience as Gover-nor of Trinidad, where a significant Indian immigration population was already in existence.
As early as May, 1882 the Governor suggested that instead of issuing grants of land to immigrants and confining them to land settlement schemes, it would be more satisfactory to provide them with the opportunity to purchase land in localities best suited to their individual tastes. He was of the view that a more effective system was for government to "foster spontaneous settlement by rendering available for it the abandoned estates", as "no artificial means are required to stimulate the settlements of the Indian population."
According to him, settlement brought about in this manner would be more likely to succeed than those established through grants of land in lieu of return passages. Moreover, it was his view that someone establishing himself and his family on a homestead of his own would hardly attempt to claim his right to a return passage.
The administrator very realistically argued that government should embark on effecting crucial infrastructural works, including roads, dams, bridges and sea defences, before offering lots for sale and he was confident costs incurred would be recovered. It would seem that Governor Irving had made a careful study of the immigrant psyche at that point in time. Consequently, grants of land in commutation of return passages ceased and in their place came the sale of lots.
In the case of Huist T'Dieren the original system was scrapped and infrastructural works were effected. The land was then divided into 2-acre cultivation lots and ¼-acre residential or house lots and these were advertised for sale. Immigrants were afforded the opportunity of purchasing by way of a system similar to that of modern hire-purchase. The initial payment was $10.00 and this was followed by five annual instalments of $10.00 each.
The immediate response was satisfactory as sixty-two immigrants took up lots. Governor Irving was hailed for his vision. Even so the Huist T'Dieren experiment was far from being a success story in the short term. A number of problems continued to beset the settlement. Among them were encroachments from the sea, flooding from backland water and periodic failure of crops, especially rice. This is borne out in the fact that a mere 116 residential and 136 cultivation lots were sold during the 1883-1887 period under the new system. Similar steps were taken for sale of lands at an abandoned estate at Cotton Tree, West Coast Berbice and elsewhere during the remainder of Irving's tenure in the colony.
In any event a seemingly rewarding feature of this experiment at Huist T'Dieren was its long-term impact in inducing immigrants to remain in the colony. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries free immigrants were gradually beginning to buy, rent or even squat on lands along the coastal belt and of great significance was their interest in the emerging rice industry, cash crop cultivation, cattle rearing, milk selling and other economic avenues.
Indeed, in the years that followed the Huist T'Dieren experiment a number of predominantly East Indian settlements were to surface throughout the country, although under slightly different conditions. These settlements included Helena in the Mahaica district, Whim and Bush Lot on the Corentyne Coast, Maria's Pleasure on the Island of Wakenaam in the Essequibo River and Anna Regina on the Essequibo Coast. By 1891 approximately 32,000 East Indian immigrants had settled outside of the sugar estates.
Today, Huist T'Dieren is a densely populated and well-established rural community in the country. It is a pioneer in the field of East Indian land settlement schemes. It paved the way for the further diversification of Guyana's economy in the late nineteenth century. Its free immigrants and their descendants continue to contribute in all facets of society today, be it economic, religious, cultural, social or political life.