Indians also helped to build Guyana

Indians also helped to build Guyana

Photo : Dr. Vishnu Bishram

Afro nationalist, Eric Phillips, suggests that only Africans built Guyana and are deserving of state land. The truth is all ethnic groups have helped to build Guyana and the population should treasure the contributions of all the groups and not pit one against the other. Focusing on the historical contributions of only one ethnic group in the Guyanese society does a disservice to the nation as it leads to division of the society. For balance, writers must focus on the contributions of all groups. The truth is Indians have made substantial record contributions in building the agro economy of Guyana.

The Afro nationalist Eric Phillips claims: “History has recorded that African Guyanese had driven back the sea and had cleared, drained and reclaimed 15,000 square miles of forest and swamps, equivalent to 9,000,000 acres of land. Meaning, all the plantations now turned villages and cities were built by unpaid African labour”. He adds: “The Venn Commission reported that, ‘to build the coastal plantations alone, a value of 100,000,000 tons of earth had to be moved by the hands of African slaves without machinery)’.”

These figures do not appear on any documented history and contrary to what Phillips penned, African labour alone did not clear all the land. (For the record, Amerindians, Chinese, Portuguese and Indians also cleared land). Nevertheless, let us assume Phillips numbers are correct.

What is recorded is that when slavery ended in 1834 (1838), there was about 100K (ex) slaves in Guyana. Phillips claim that over 400,000 lives were lost prematurely during slavery plus others died from natural causes. So that would be in excess of 500,000 Africans during the period of slavery. They cleared 9,000,000 acres of land. Contrast those numbers with Indians. They started coming to Guiana in 1838. By 1860, there were about 80,000 indentured labourers (including minors). Indian labourers were required to clear land to expand sugar production. By 1860, plantation acreage under cultivation had increased phenomenally -- there was three times the amount of acreage under sugar cultivation and much more land under cultivation of other crops (rice, fruits, vegetables, etc.) when the slaves were freed in 1838.

As the Africans did, the Indians had to build the coastal plantations to prepare the land for cultivation of sugar cane. Going by Phillips logic of tonnage of earth moved by Africans, Indians had to move more than 300,000,000 tons of earth by hands (as the Africans did) without machinery. Contrasting the stats, over 500,000 Africans moved 100M tons of earth whereas 80,000 Indians moved three times that amount -- 300M tons of earth. Readers should also be reminded that Indians did not work in factories or as clerks or as security officers for plantation owners. They worked only on the land and while they worked the land, some African security presided over the Indian labourers to ensure massa work was done. The Indians worked in what was called shovel gang and they moved a lot more earth during the indentured period (that ended in 1917, some 77 years) – over four times – than under the 200 years of slavery.

Contrast also production statistics. In1830, some 20K tons of sugar was produced and began to decline especially during apprenticeship rendering the plantations almost bankrupt. By 1860, with indentured labourers, 100K tons of sugar was produced plus hundreds of tons of other crops. One can draw one’s own conclusion from those stats about land clearing, productivity and contribution to economic development by various ethnic groups. By 1917, when indenture ended, in addition to clearing an estimated 3.5 M acres of land for cane cultivation, they cleared another 2 million acres for rice, coconut and other crops. And by 1917, in addition to producing over 100,000 tons of sugar, Indians also produced over 100,000 tons of rice and thousands of tons of coconuts and other farm produce; the colony started exporting rice around 1903.

While it is true that all groups did not contribute equally to the development of the state, all deserve to be treated fairly by the government. The Amerindians, Portuguese and Chinese played a meaningful role in the development of the colony and the country. They must also receive relatively equal benefits from the state. One group should not be favoured over another except in the hinterland and rural areas where the population has been continuously neglected. They deserve affirmative action for being marginalized by the colonial and all subsequent rulers.