EAST INDIAN IMMIGRATION, 1838–1917
By Tota Mangar
May 6, 2007
THE bronze sculpture of the steamship `Whitby’ which brought some of the first Indian indentured labourers here, in the Indian Monument Garden, Camp and Church Streets, Georgetown.
FOR over three quarters of a century, East Indian indentured labourers were exported from the Indian sub-continent to the West Indian colonies, ostensibly to fill the void created by the mass exodus of ex-slaves from the plantations 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 of the nineteenth and early 20th centuries was only one segment of a wider movement of Indian labour to other parts of the world including Mauritius, Sir Lanka (formerly Ceylon), Fiji, the Strait Settlements, Natal and other parts of the African continent.
Overall, where the English-speaking Caribbean is concerned, substantial numbers of indentured Indians were imported. Based on statistical evidence, Guyana (the former British Guiana), was the recipient of 239,909 East Indian immigrants up to the termination of the system in 1917; Trinidad 143,939; Jamaica 36,412; Grenada 3,033; St. Vincent 2,472; St. Lucia 4,354 and St. Kitts 337.
In addition, the non-English speaking Caribbean also imported Indian indentured labourers. For example, the French colonies (now overseas departments) Martinique received 25,509; Guadeloupe 45,844 and French Guiana 19,276. Suriname while under Dutch rule imported 35,501 immigrants.
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.
As far as Guyana is concerned, the “Gladstone Experiment” proved to be the basis of East Indian immigration. John Gladstone, the father of liberal British statesman, William Ewart Gladstone, was the proprietor of two West Demerara Estates, Vreed-en-Hoop and Vreed-en-Stein at precisely the time when the British Guianese planters were beginning to experience an acute labour shortage as a consequence of the mass withdrawal of ex-slaves from plantation labour during this period of ‘crisis, experimentation and change’ in the 1830s.
John Gladstone wrote the Calcutta recruiting firm, Gillanders, Arbutnot and Company inquiring about the possibility of obtaining Indian immigrants for his estates. The firm’s prompt reply was that it envisaged no recruiting problems and that Indians were already in service in another British colony, Mauritius.
Subsequently, Gladstone received permission for his scheme from both the Colonial Office and the Board of Control of the East India Company. The first batch of Indian indentured labourers arrived in Guyana on board the steamships “Whitby” and “Hesperus” in May, 1838.
This initial experimentation was not confined to Gladstone’s two estates but it involved plantations Highbury and Waterloo in Berbice, Belle View, West Bank Demerara, and Anna Regina on the Essequibo Coast as well.
This immigration scheme to Guyana involving Indian immigrants commenced in 1838 with a temporary halt 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 the remainder who survived the system chose to remain here and make this country their homeland.
Indo Guyanese Contribution
East Indian indentured labourers and their descendants toiled and are toiling unceasingly to ensure the survival of the sugar industry in the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The vast majority of the work-force in the sugar industry are Indo-Guyanese and sugar remains one of the most important foreign exchange earners in the country in the face of grave global challenges.
Guyanese of Indian origin are largely responsible for the prominence of Guyana’s rice industry. The Indian indentured labourers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries began to cultivate rice on a large scale and this was linked to the almost exclusive Indian village settlements which emerged at the time. They are integrally involved in cattle rearing, milk selling and cash crop cultivation.
Ever since the 1880s Indian immigrants have displayed a high occupational profile in a number of off-plantation economic activities including cab-drivers, barbers, tailors, carpenters, boat-builders, charcoal makers, sieve-makers, goldsmiths, porters, small scale manufacturers and fishermen.
Today, Guyanese of Indian origin are found in every sphere of activity including business, the professional class, politics, religion and trade unions.
East Indian immigrants and their descendants have ensured there is a rich cultural heritage in this multi-cultural and pluralistic society of ours. Indian customs, values and traditions have survived over the years. They brought with them their main religions, Hinduism and Islam.
Approximately 83% of the immigrants were Hindus while 14% were Muslims. The remaining three per cent were Christians. Mosques and temples began to dot our coastal landscape from the late nineteenth century. Related to this were the introduction of languages, Hindi and Arabic and several other Indian dialects.
The Ramayan, the Bhagwat Gita and the Holy Quran are prized holy books in many households today.
A significant contribution is in the area of dress. Traditional Indian wear such as shalwar, sari, kurta and dhoti are popular today. Some of these have taken on nationalistic flavour. The Indian ritual marriage form and the extended family system have continued over time with only few changes.
Indian music, songs, films dance and other art forms have taken root in Guyanese society. Indian foods like roti, puri, curry, dal, polouri, bara, keer and vegetable dishes are regularly consumed by every ethnic group in our society.
Indian festivals are widely celebrated. These include the colourful Phagwah, Deepavali (festival of lights), Ramnoumi, Shiv-Ratri, Youman Nabi, Eid-ul-Azha and Eid-ul-Fitr. Four of these are today celebrated as truly Guyanese national holidays, a testimony to their significance.
Hindus and Muslims regularly perform their religious or thanksgiving ceremonies. Evidence of this development among Hindus is reflected in the numerous Jhandi and other flags and Murtis which are proudly displayed in devotees’ yards and homes respectively.
East Indian immigrants and their descendants were able to survive largely due to their resilience, determination, custom, tradition and commitment to family which invariably promotes thrift, industry and self-esteem. They continue to make valuable contributions to the overall progress and development of Guyana. Their strong cultural ties are undoubtedly a motivating factor as they march forward into this new millennium of ours with a great sense of purpose and maturity.
After all, Guyana relentlessly seeks to have greater economic benefits, socio-political stability and national cohesiveness at this juncture of its history. All its people are in this ongoing struggle in the face of harsh global realities.
A Happy 169th Anniversary of Indian Arrival in Guyana.