Reflecting on Indo-Caribbeans on Arrival 2018
Photo: Dr. Vishnu Bisram
Indian Arrival was celebrated across Trinidad in May 30, a national holiday. Arrival was also observed in other territories. I attended several arrival activities in Trinidad over the last week including in Central and South Trinidad hosted by varied community organizations.
Indian Arrival related activities were also held in various communities and at government offices during the preceding week. In several villages, especially along coastal areas, there were re-enactments of the first ship (Fatel Razack) arriving in Trinidad with indentured laborers (girmityas) along with staging of cultural variety concerts. Indians performed stage plays that reenact their arrival not only in Trinidad but also in other countries where they were indentured such as Guyana. Separately, Indian arrival was also celebrated in other countries (Jamaica, Grenada, St. Vincent) and this coming June 5 in Surinam.
Indian arrival should not only be a day to celebrate but also a day of remembrance as well as reflection about the state (of affairs) of the Indian people in the Caribbean. How are they being treated by other groups? Indians have contributed significantly to the region’s development. Indians toiled and enriched the land and provided their children with education to improve their lives. They have worked very hard contributing large amounts of taxes that have helped to educate and feed others as well as creating employment of others not of their ethnic groups. So after almost 180 years what is the state of the Indians? Where are they going as a people? What is their future? What are they doing to secure their presence in the region and in obtaining equity?
Indian Arrival celebrations have been held to commemorate and remember the sacrifices and immense contributions Indians have made to the societies where they were indentured between 1838 and 1920. The celebrations included entertainment by Indian orchestras, singing, dancing, tass drumming, speeches, cook outs competition, and award presentations to individuals who made outstanding contributions to development of the village or the nation.
In remembering the indentured labors and their early descendants, it is noted that their living conditions were almost the same as if not worse than those of the slaves who they replaced on the colonial plantations in 1838 or later. The indentured Indians (girmityas) and their early descendants endured mental and physical abuse while on the colonies. They lived in deplorable conditions. They experienced very harsh weather. They were not provided sufficient ration to meet daily nutritional requirements. They suffered from hunger and malnutrition and inhumane living quarters. They were fined and flogged if they left their villages without a permit. Very often, they would be fined so that the plantation owners could recover his labor costs – in short by cheating the girmityas. They faced many other challenges including varied diseases and health ailments that were contracted from the Europeans and from the local environment. Tens of thousands died on the plantations as a result of harsh labor and sicknesses. But many survived – overcoming the challenges they faced. They established communities. The Indians laid down their culture, religions, tradition, customs, dress, music, cuisine, dance, etc. These have become fully integrated into the way of life in Trinidad, Guyana and Surinam. In other societies, their culture is rapidly disappearing as the governments seek to marginalize Indians and to creolize them.
It is indisputable that Indians have made a remarkable contribution to their immediate community where they live in the Caribbean and to each country where they have re-settled – including the newly adopted homelands of Canada, England, USA, France, Holland, etc. It is the success and achievements of the ancestors and what they have left behind that we celebrate and remember them in marking Indian arrival.
There is need for increased public awareness about indentureship which is a very important aspect of a nation’s history and heritage that received girmitya laborers. The contributions of Indians need to be widely disseminated not only in the mass media and in books, magazines, journals, etc. so that the public becomes knowledgeable of this important part of human history. The history and experience of indentureship should be taught in schools – part of public education similar to how the slave experience has been taught in public schools across the Caribbean and in Europe and North America. The Indians have achieved eminence and prominence in every aspect of national life in every society where they settled. Scholars and educators must instruct students about the indenture experience.
It is indisputable that Indians transformed the Caribbean societies where they were indentured. The Indians have been a major contributor to the economy. They helped to enrich the Europeans and to provide food for the varied ethnic groups in the society. Without Indians, many would have starved for Indians saved the sugar industry and built the rice industry as well as provided plenty of fruits and vegetables never seen in the Caribbean prior to Indian arrival. I salute the girmityas and their early descendants for the noble resistance to various forms of abuses and oppression on the plantations. Their struggles and their ability to overcome repression were legendary and incomparable to the struggles of other persecuted groups. Some 180 years later, the Indians are still being persecuted in several societies. In Guyana, for example, it is noted that 180 years after they rescued the sugar industry, a plan is underway to shut down the industry driving Indians into mass unemployment and starvation perhaps with the hope to drive them out of the country.
The Indian future is bleak in several of the countries where they were indentured. The leadership of Indians has let them down. The leadership needs to take an assessment of the state of the community and construct a plan to address their problems to pull them out of their dire situation.