Photo : Vishnu Bishram
University of West Indies Vice Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles comments that the Caribbean is celebrating the centenary (March 1917-2017) of the end of Indian indenture. But evidence to support such a pronouncement is unfounded. Only Indians, without significant support from governments, except for a token amount from Guyana government, have been commemorating the historic event. And not a single university in the Caribbean has marked the historic event with a conference. Even Sir Hilary himself, as an academic and as head of very large university, is not remembering, memorializing, or celebrating the defeat of Indian indenture or honoring the countless victims with a public activity.
Indeed, indenture has not been a part of Beckles’s vocabulary in his countless global speeches on reparations for slavery. Nevertheless, one must commend Beckles for his courage in describing the indentureship system, to which Indians were subjected, as “neo-slavery.” Other Africanists have not gone so far. I also salute Beckles for publicly stating - for the first time - that Indians and Amerindians "are entitled to reparatory justice" for the inhumane practices associated with indentureship and genocide against indigenous people. It should be noted that Beckles have led the charge for reparations for African slave labour since 2013, but not for indentureship, as Chair of the CARICOM Reparations Commission.
A case was made, by myself and others, for united action for reparation for victims of slavery, indentureship and genocide of indigenous people, and for the matter to be addressed as one issue. But Sir Hilary and Black nationalists wanted “their reparations” to be treated separately and distinctly from Indians and others. Dr. Beckles became Chair of that Caricom Committee and reparations for Indians, Amerindians were thrown on the wayside by Caricom governments.
Vice Chancellor Beckles’ speeches were devoted almost exclusively on the merits of reparations for slavery with occasional references to indigenous people. Now, four years after the establishment of the Caricom Commission on reparations, he stated clearly that Indians and Amerindians are deserving of reparations. To reparations for enslaved Africans, Indians and Amerindians, should be added Portuguese and Chinese who also suffered under the indentureship system of labor.
It should be clarified that the indentured system continued long after 1917. And the socio-economic and political conditions of the descendants of indentured laborers are not something to celebrate as most are in dire straits throughout the region. An act was passed in March 1917 ending further recruitment of Indian indentured laborers to the colonies. Similar to how slavery continued after the abolition Act in 1834, official indentureship continued for almost three more years. Those who "signed" the indentured contract prior to the act were required to fulfill it for five years. However, the British government decided to officially end indentureship on Jan 1, 1920 terminating all contracts. The estate owners were compensated for loss of labor, similar to what happened after slavery was abolished. But the indentured laborers were not compensated even though their contract was also violated; and virtually none was given lands, one of the expected condition for signing the contract. Also, de facto, indentured continued years after the 1920. The law was not fully enforced to end this brutal system of human exploitation. Injustice continued long after.
Photo : Sir Hilary Beckles
Contrary to what Sir Hilary stated, there have not been any celebrations throughout the Caribbean per se. Who is the VC seeking to misinform? How, when and where did the Caribbean community celebrate the defeat of indenture? Which government or which university or ethnic group (other than Indians) in the Caribbean region or the diaspora organized celebration or plan to celebrate this 100th anniversary? Not UG! Not UTT! UWI, of which Beckles is the VC, did not organize a lecture or seminar on the occasion and he did not provide financial support for research on the subject. UWI was not supportive of requests to host or co-sponsor a conference on the occasion of the 100th anniversary. The office of Principal Brian Copeland was approached by myself and others for a conference, but he showed no interest and did not respond to requests. The Heads of Social Science Departments of UWI St. Augustine said they could not get funding from Principal Copeland or VC Beckles for a conference or seminar on the 100th anniversary. Why has not Beckles provided financial support for research on the subject or on the many issues affecting the descendants of indentured laborers?
As a member of CARICOM, Suriname and its Anton de Kom University (AKU) are also guilty of discrimination against Indians. A private organization, NCIC, hosted a conference without any support from government or UWI in spite of repeated requests.
The Indian community in Guyana and Trinidad and their diasporas in the US and Canada organized commemorative activities to mark the historic milestone. While ending bonded labor is an epochal event to celebrate, as should have happened with government support or government taking the lead, similar to celebrating the end of slavery, that has not happened in the Caribbean region. Support from governments for commemorating the 100th anniversary of end of indenture was badly lacking.
To his credit, Guyana President David Granger's office did reportedly provide $3 M (about US $15K) to help fund a celebration in Guyana. But ten times that amount was doled out on Emancipation Day celebration last year in Guyana. The Guyana government denied additional funding to NGOs that wanted to celebrate the defeat of indenture. The governments of Grenada and St. Vincent were supportive of commemorative events and the Culture Minister of Grenada did attend the commemoration in Trinidad. St. Vincent also sent a rep. Jamaica and Guyana High Commissioners did attend the commemoration in Trinidad. The Guyana PM was a keynote speaker. Prime Minister Rowley delivered the keynote address. The Jamaican government did not provide funds for a celebration in Old Horbour Road on May 7th although the Culture Minister attended.
Queens College in New York, a largely White University, hosted a celebration organized by the Asian Studies Department and the Indian government provided space for a celebration in Manhattan; American politicians of various ethnicities patronized both events; contrast that with lack of support in the Caribbean and poor attendance by politicians at the celebrations in Trinidad, Guyana, and Jamaica. I must also note that at the conferences in NYC, Guyana, Trinidad, and India, hardly an academic was present from UG or UWI. Neither UG VC nor the UWI VC for UTT or AKU provided funding for academics to attend any of the conferences. But the VC of both universities provided funding for conferences and or reparation meetings relating to slavery outside of the region. Even Beckles himself attended reparation and emancipation presentations in NYC and London. But similar funding was not provided to intellectuals to discuss or to attend events relating to indentureship. The UG VIC found funds for a UG reach out conference in NYC but not for indenture.
It is not too late for UWI, AKU, UG, UTT, or Principal Copeland or Dr Beckles himself to host a seminar or conference on the 100th anniversary. I will be honored to assist in organizing it as I did for all of the conferences in the region and in NYC and India and as I am now doing for the conference being planned for Mauritius next month. This would be one way to truly show that the Caribbean is celebrating the defeat of indenture.
Dr. Vishnu Bisram