All across Guyana on May 5 Indians have been commemorating 184 th Indian Arrival Day”. On May 5, 1838 the Whitby and the Hesperus, 184 years ago – landed on the shores of British Guyana with a cargo – our fore parents –of 396 Indians, 18 having died o the way. Only 5% were women, or just 22 out of 396.
The concept of “arrival” in the context of diaspora movement is a profound one. If Indo-Guyanese want to know what is “Arrival”, and whether they have “arrived”, they have to inquire as to why their ancestors left India and what were they seeking. For You cannot know whether you have arrived unless you know your destination and what exactly you were seeking. The Indians who came to Guyana starting from 1838 were overwhelmingly from Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
It is called the “Bhojpuri” district because of the particular Hindi dialect spoken there. They also practiced a distinct culture. This part of India was conquered very early by the British and the economic devastation of that conquest is still visible there.
Millions of villagers had lost their jobs as the Indian cotton and indigo industries were destroyed by the British, who shipped the raw cotton to Lancaster in England and forbade the importation of weaving machinery into India. Millions more were thrown off their land as a system of taxation was imposed that tied the output from the land to ownership and production (the word “loot” is a Hindi/ Bhojpuri word, with obvious implications!) Some who resisted the British depredations were “pacified” by various means – the most popular being uprooting the rebels and relocating them into some remote and desolate region. In fact, the Indian immigrants of the first decade into Guyana that came from Chota Nagpur had been “relocated” into those hills because of sustained anti-British activities.
What a heritage has our fore-parents bequeathed us! It is a study in courage, fortitude and resolute character. It is a study of pain and sacrifice.
It is a study in overcoming. Let us today remember and reflect from whose loins we have sprung. After the emancipation of slavery in the 1830’s, there was a great need for labor in that British colony. The Indians of British India was the answer. How were the British to accomplish their task of getting the poor Indians to leave their land? There were the the tricky Arkatis (recruiters) who spun tall tales of easy money in “Damru Tapu” (Demerara Island). But that alone did not work, for Indians are almost literally yoked to their land, culturally and religiously. Every Indian was filled with trepidation, and even fear, to cross the Black waters (Kala Pani) because it meant expulsion from their ancestral group and this meant a loss of belonging and even identity.
We have to look much closer at conditions in India of the mid nineteenth century to understand the mindset of our forefathers. It is not coincidental that the parts of India, which provided most of the immigrants – Bengal, Bihar, Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Madras – had been ruled the longest by the British and were the most devastated. Our fore-parents made a conscious decision to seek a better life abroad, out of the desolation wrought by the British in India.
Sepoys (soldiers) would have left after the First Indian War of Independence (1857) to escape the vindictiveness and harsh retribution of the British. All would have left because they made a decision to seek a life of dignity (Izzat), which was denied them in India, because of British avarice and greed. Our ancestors survived the horrors of the passage across the Indian and Atlantic oceans in small ships in which they were packed like sardines for months. Thousands died and were unceremoniously (literally, since they did not have their pandits and imams to perform ceremonies of last rites) thrown overboard.
New bonds of “jahaji bhai and bahen”, which proved to be very resilient, were forged during the passage. As they arrived, they were assigned to various sugar planations living in logies which was just vacated by the African slaves.
Plantation life was dehumanizing, not much different from the conditions of African Slavery. What was most challenging was how our forefathers survived and kept their traditions of strong family life,
In the early days, conditions took a tremendous toll on the community. Our foreparents have not been given enough credit for stupendous achievement of creating strong family bonds that survived to this day! We have to try to appreciate what strength and forbearance it took to create those bonds out of the worst possible initial conditions.
Ridiculed and scorned for being uncivilized, illiterate and heathen, our ancestors did not allow themselves to be bought out to discard their culture.
Out of the recesses of their minds and memories they pieced together their religious and social practices and philosophies and recreated the institutions that sustain a civilization. Mandirs and Masjids sprung up all across the land from as early as the late 1860’s. The practice of religion was a major part of life for Indians who were brought into the Caribbean. When forbidden to continue the practice of this aspect of their culture on the plantation, Hindu and Muslim religious practices then took on a deeper meaning for these early arrivals. Through religion and dance, they were able to release themselves to their gods and at the same time engage in a form of passive resistance. At the forefront of all this were our Indian womenfolk, who passed down and kept alive a disproportionate amount of the cultural heritage of India that survived to this day even in this second Diaspora to America. They did so through their roles as mothers and healers, daughters and workers. They were, in short, strong women who felt it their duty to uphold traditional values.
They rid themselves of many of the pernicious practices that had sprung up in India, and which had hindered social progress. Caste, regionalism and religious bigotry were practically abolished.
Our great grandparents established great industries such as rice, timber, and jewelry, which have survived to this day to keep the country afloat.
Know that most of the thousands of acres of rice- land were cleared, leveled and cultivated by blood, sweat and tears. They were not whiners about their lot: they went out and created their destiny.
Contrary to what others would have us believe (and this history is blanked out in the history books?) our forefathers were fierce fighters for their rights. As early as 1869 riots at Plantation Leonora forced the Government to introduce reforms to alleviate the immigrants’ abysmal conditions. There were countless other protests during indentureship and dozens of Indians were gunned down during uprisings at Devonshire Castle (Essequibo, 1872), Non Pariel (Demerara, 1896), Friends (Berbice, 1903) and Rose Hall (Berbice, 1913).
These uprisings let to the abolition of Indentureship, which was effected in 1917.
I wish to conclude with two valuable messages.
First, the value of appreciating cultures. In the Caribbean for the most part, the various ethnic groups were given space and respect and protection in their cultural diversities. I assert that Cultural Awareness is the foundation of communication and it involves the ability of standing back from ourselves and becoming aware of our cultural values, beliefs and perceptions. Why do we do things in that way? How do we see the world? Why do we react in that particular way? On the other hand, cultural diversity becomes an advantage when organizations and individuals expands their solutions and its sense of identity, and begins to take different approaches to problem solving. Diversity in this case creates valuable new skills and behaviors because of the presence of what has been called “cultural inventories” contributed by the various groups.
Secondly, I wish to emphasize that your parents or grandparents have made a hard and difficult choice in immigrating to the US. Just like their foreparents centuries ago, they have made the life changing choice to leave the comfort of their homeland, friends, families to move to a strange land, abandoning that land that our foreparents died for. And that choice has obvious implications for their children, all of you here.
I urge you to recognize the terrible sacrifice your parents made in leaving that community and lands that their fore parents built with their bare hands to start life anew, in many cases, living in basements and working for demeaning wages and conditions to improve the lot of their children.
As each of you go on to create your own destiny and personal history in this vast multicultural society, I assert that You will be stronger and more resilient for keeping at the back of your minds that heritage of hard work, sacrifice, indomitably resilient spirit of the our forefathers, that heritage of perseverance that they bequeathed us. That is your history too; savor it, run with it, own it, for it will make you a stronger person as you face the dark and vicious trials and vicissitudes of life that will inevitably come your way. As a Indian, with full confidence and respect for identity, you WILL persevere.
By Dev Persaud