Shri Cliff Rajkumar of Toronto, formerly of Mahaica, Guyana, delivered the keynote address at the commemorative event to mark the 185th anniversary since Indians first arrived in Guyana in 1838.
Speech by Shri Cliff Rajkumar at Arrival Day Commemorative Event:
BACKGROUND: THE END OF SLAVERY BY THE BRITISH EMPIRE IN 1833.
British Guiana, now known as Guyana, was a former British colony in South America that depended on the production of sugar by colonial planters for its economy. The abolition of slavery by Britain in the Caribbean with the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act on August 28, 1833, necessitated the urgent requirement for colonial planters to find cheap alternative laborers to replace the freed African slaves. This led to the introduction of Indian Indentureship as a more suitable alternative to meet the planter’s manpower labor needs in British Guiana.
Understandably, the African slaves were only too happy to be finally free from the loathsome abomination, impoverishment, and the abject despicable strangulation of their freedom. Indeed! they had already endured almost 200 years of horrifying marginalization and brutality under the yoke of the despicable colonial planters. Relishing their deservingly joyous freedom from the whips and cruelty of the inhumane colonial ‘massa’ overlords, resulted in many of the former African slaves moving away from the revolting and deplorable ‘loges’ to the villages that were assigned to them. Further, as per the terms of the Slavery Emancipation Act, they were to be provided with land for housing and subsistence farming in these villages.
This sudden loss of manpower created a critical labor crisis for the colonial planters and caused the sugar production of British Guiana to fall by more than 60. Resultantly, many of the planters went bankrupt and were forced to close their estates. Given the detrimental financial calamity that the surviving planters were now confronted with, the urgent quest for new and cheap substitute labor became a high priority. To mitigate their losses, the colonial sugar planters first attempted to source European laborers to bridge the manpower shortage and secured a batch of Portuguese workers in 1835. This experiment did not solve the Guiana labor crisis. India then became the focal point and preferred source for “coolies” with its teeming millions who were entrapped under the heavy hand of the British Raj. The freedom of the African slaves opened the gateway for another form of subjugated servitude to fill the cheap labor needs of the British Empire
THE INDIAN INDENTURESHIP SYSTEM – A NEW FORM OF SLAVERY:
The influential British Guiana planters then engaged the British East India Company (EIC), who were then the supreme overlords of India, to help them resolve this critical labor crisis in Guiana. The EIC agreed to come to the rescue of the Guiana planters by supplying them with cheap Indian labor under a five (5) year Indentureship renewable term contract. The East India Company’s Regulations guidelines of 1837 laid down the conditions and guidelines for the supply of labor to British Guiana at the request of William Gladstone – an influential British politician and planter in the British Caribbean colonies. The oppressive and ruthless unethical rule of the East India Company paved the way to legitimize this inglorious new system of Indian enslavement…under the guise of a contractual Indentureship system in the Caribbean, starting with British Guiana in 1838.
On May 5th, 1838, the Whitby landed in Guyana with 249 Indian Indenture laborers and on May 8th the Hesperus landed with 150. However, the hardships of sailing across the great (Kala Pani) Atlantic Ocean from India through the frigid Cape of Good Hope to British Guiana resulted in very high mortality rates on account of cholera, dysentery, poor food, limited water, overcrowding, and inadequate warm clothing for the wretched Indians. As a result, the Indentureship program was suspended in July 1838 and was resumed in January 1945. Notwithstanding, from May 1838 to 1917 over 238,909 Indian laborers came to British Guyana under the Indentureship system created by the British East India Company – of this amount, 66,140 contract laborers had chosen to be repatriated back to India.
THE CREATION OF A NEW ETHNIC ECOSYSTEM WHICH REVITALIZED GUIANA WITH THE END OF THE INDENTURESHIP PROGRAM IN 1917.
The end of the East India Company’s servitude program in the 20th century marked the beginning of a new era for the Indian community and for that matter all the people of British Guiana. This provided the impetus for a dramatic social and cultural shift with the Indians rapidly moving from the odious dilapidated loges to form new progressive communities. Also, by this time, most of the estates were consolidated by the Bookers brothers with a more sustainable and coherent approach to cane farming and sugar production. This transition presented several adaptation challenges and, also opportunities for the East Indians. Their natural entrepreneurial tendencies and resourcefulness saw the emergence of a more vigorous community spirit. Their vibrant culture, zestful appetite, and respect for life energized and infused a more engaging and forward-thinking dynamism to the national character of Guiana.
The principal challenges that the East Indians faced were equal opportunities and limitations in the socio-economic fabric of the nation. Also, the suppression of their participation in the civil services without first being converted to Christianity. As well, the missionaries had firmly embedded themselves in the school systems to covertly carry out wide-scale conversions of the Hindus. In the 80 years that the Indians had spent sweltering in the confines of the sugar plantations, the Africans, Portuguese, and Chinese had already carved out their defined niches in the social and economic structures of Guyana. This, at first, presented some tensions but did not limit the ambitions of the East Indians to boldly forged ahead and established their own footings and relevance in Guyana’s national agenda.
The Africans, by 1917, had become the backbone of all the civil services jobs, such as the police, post office, teachers, nurses, etc. The Portuguese dominated the business communities, the Chinese operated restaurants, supermarkets, and some farming. The native Indians stayed in their tribal villages and traded, as need be to supplement their subsistence. However, the principal challenge that the Indians faced was discrimination on account of their non-Christian beliefs. They were basically shut out from all public service job opportunities unless they converted to Christianity. This resulted in the Christianised name changes of many Indians, especially the Hindus, to be qualified to join the public service.
The Indians, however, dedicated their efforts and engagements to farming and entrepreneurship. They focused on land acquisition and rapidly consolidated many parcels of land to become the nation’s suppliers of rice, vegetables, fruits, and fish. They eventually became the de-facto breadbasket of the nation with their appetite for hard work and resourcefulness. Eventually, as they became more successful, they made higher education for their children to be their highest priority. Indeed! many made great sacrifices to send their ambitious and capable offspring to study abroad to become doctors, engineers, accountants, and lawyers. This contributed significantly to their acceptance and participation in the political life and agenda of the nation. For instance, as early as 1947, Dr. Jagan was a member of the legislative council of Guyana. He successfully achieved the premiership of the nation in 1957 only to be derailed by the CIA who disapproved of his socialist ideology.
Indians are generally very resilient and adaptive with a very progressive and forward-thinking outlook on life. They seek community integration and respect for a more responsible and symbiotic close-knit family unit. This is due, in part, to a strong cultural bond that emphasizes the need to be progressive and economically self-reliant. In this regard, most Indians prefer to be self-employed and will seek to participate in subsistence gardening, large-scale farming, fishing, trading, carpentry, and other entrepreneurial means which will help them to achieve this goal. As well, the Indian culture and traditions, encompassing cuisine, music, apparel, dance, and celebratory festivals like Holi and Phagwa are now indelible and embedded in the landscape of the Guyanese cultural ethos. Interestingly, despite the seething race conflicts and visceral time-to-time confrontations between the Africans and the Indians, there is no doubt that, despite the indifference, a shared social cohesion is now rooted in the tapestry of the social structure of the country.
It is logical to see and accept that the cultural dynamics, co-dependency, and the bonds that were formed in many of the integrated communities have now established some level of understanding and acceptance that the country is stronger together. Likewise, the national motto of “one people, one nation, one destiny” does provides for a strong conceptualized bonding to foster a more cohesive and unitized nation-building agenda; providing that the politicians can drop their discord and self-serving divisiveness. It is unquestionable that if the best talents from Guyana and the diaspora can be harnessed to work as one for the best interest of the nation, it can be expected, that Guyana will very quickly become one of the most progressive and successful nations on planet Earth. The abundant natural resources and exceptional talent and resourcefulness of the Guyanese people can rapidly transform the nation and empower every Guyanese to successfully achieve their dreams.
April 29, 2023.