Myth in African-Indian relations

Myth in African-Indian relations
Photo : Ravi Dev

ROAR of Ravi Dev

Last week, the Kaieteur News essayed an editorial; “Local Government Elections and racial voting” wherein it sought to discuss the “racial voting” that characterised Guyanese politics. The Editorial claimed, “The animosity between Indo-and-Afro Guyanese is historical; it can be traced back to the freed blacks becoming suspicious of the arrival of indenture East Indian servants from India whom they feared would have compromised their bargaining rights with the planter class in British Guyana.”

Now there is no question that the planters introduced indentured labour because they wanted cheap labour. But in Guyana (and Trinidad) it was primarily because the planters feared the freed Africans would move off the plantations due of the availability of land to provide a means of self-employment. In islands such as Antigua and Bermuda where there was no alternative, the planters didn’t even introduce the “apprenticeship” transition period but gave the slaves immediate ‘freedom”.

Since the later nineteenth century, many African leaders in Guyana opposed Indian immigration for several good reasons, not the least being that taxes into the Government coffers (of which a considerable sum came from African pockets) were used to partially fund the cost of bringing the Indians to Guyana. However, the charge that Indians undercut African wages on the sugar plantations directly after the abolition of slavery is not borne out by the facts. The charge was built on a myth that remained unchallenged for so long that it has become “history”.

In 1990, I noted in my paper, “Aetiology of an ethnic riot”: “It was not Indian labour that broke the back of African attempts to wrest higher wages from the planters. Rather, if labour were to be “blamed”, it was more the Portuguese and, ironically, fellow Africans from both the W.I. and Africa, who played key roles. The ex-slaves called the strike of 1847 at a point of financial crisis for the planters who, encouraged by the indentureship of 15,848 Portuguese, 12,898 Africans from the W.I. and 6,957 Africans from Africa compared with only 8,692 Indians, held off the demands for higher wages. People of African descent outnumbered all other immigrants during this critical period of “undercutting” wage demands by the Guyanese ex-slaves.

After 1848, the unskilled ex-slaves, by and large, decided to make their living off the plantations. Even though Indian indenture was suspended between 1848-1851, there was no movement back to the plantation by the Africans, nor was there any increase in the wage scale. The latter was precipitated by the removal of preferential tariffs into Britain for WI sugar, in 1846, and caused freed Africans from Barbados and the smaller islands to migrate to British Guiana, where the wages were higher.

While the Portuguese did first arrive in1835, during the “apprenticeship” period of the freed slaves, their immigration continued until 1881-82, with the bulk arriving by 1858. There is no question the Portuguese died in considerable numbers as did the Indians. In 1849, a planter gave evidence to a committee of the House of Commons: “A good many of the Portuguese died, and a good many of the Coolies have died; they wandered about the Colony. I should think a vast number have died, but I have no means of stating the exact number.”  In the key years of 1846-47 when the efforts of the African efforts to raise wages ultimately failed, we should note that 9736 Portuguese arrived as opposed to 7480 Indians. In terms of work-output, the Portuguese were even more industrious than the Indians. In 1847 on an East Coast plantation, Portuguese earned an average of $28 compared to the $21 of Indians.

The point I have been making is that we are going against the analyses of history made by eminent West Indian historians such as Eric Drs. Eric Williams and Walter Rodney (among others) when we lay blame to the immigrants – whether Portuguese, Indian, Chinese, West Indians or Africans who were all indentured. It was the working of the labour and political systems imposed on us by the British, whether political, economic or cultural, to extract our labour at the cheapest price that kept us all in thrall. Today we are still busy blaming each other for our mess and not questioning whether those bequeathed systems are not contributing to our problems.

And that we should get busy, as a first step, in modifying those systems to assist in leading to greater equity and justice for all of us.