Sunday, May 4, 2008

In tribute to our ancestors: 170th Anniversary of Indian Arrival in Guyana

In tribute to our ancestors
By Sarada Singh
TOMORROW commemorates the 170th Anniversary since the arrival of East Indian indentured immigrants in Guyana, the former British Guiana, a colony of Great Britain.

HERE for sada roti: These two men knew exactly what they wanted – hot “sada” roti and Baigan choka. They were at the National Stadium for the start of Indian immigration day celebrations.

This day also celebrates the contributions of the Indian immigrants and their descendants’ efforts which spanned many facets of Guyana’s development, despite their numerous struggles.

For over three quarters of a century (1838-1917), Indian indentured labourers were imported from the sub-continent of India to the West Indian colonies, ostensibly to fill the void created as a result of the mass exodus of ex-slaves from plantation labour following the abolition of the despicable system of slavery, and moreso, the premature termination of the apprenticeship scheme in 1838.

Their descendants today comprise over 50 per cent of Guyana’s population of over 750,000. Overall, where the English speaking Caribbean is concerned, substantial numbers of indentured Indians were imported. Based on statistical evidence, Guyana was the recipient of 239,909 East Indian immigrants until the termination of the system in 1917; Trinidad 143,939; Jamaica 36,412; Grenada 3,033; St. Vincent 2,472; St. Lucia 4,354; and St. Kitts 337.

INSIDE a typical mandir of long ago. Several of these have been set-up at the National Stadium for Indian immigration celebrations which continue today.

In addition, the non-English speaking Caribbean imported Indian indentured labourers during this period. Of the French colonies (now French Overseas Departments) Martinique received 25,509; Guadelope 45,844 and French Guiana 19,276. Neighbouring Suriname, while under Dutch rule, imported a total of 35,501 immigrants.

Following the abolition of slavery in 1834 and the termination of the apprenticeship system in 1838, a state of fear, uncertainty and gloom was uppermost in the minds of the then British Guianese planters. They were very conscious that a grave labour shortage on the estates would certainly mean economic disaster to themselves and the sugar industry in general.

The mass exodus of ex-slaves from the plantations during this crucial period of ‘crisis and change’ merely served to confirm planters’ fear and uneasiness. This movement was not entirely surprising as several decades of slavery had resulted in the plantation being seen as the symbol of dehumanisation, degradation and demoralisation, and the victims, quite naturally wanted to rid themselves of white planter class, social, cultural and political domination, and to assert their economic independence. With great enthusiasm and in the face of tremendous odds, they started the village movement and peasantry.

A panchayat (village court) in session at the National Stadium. Have a case to plead?

The importation of indentured labourers from the Indian sub-continent was part of the continuing search for a reliable labour force to meet the needs of the powerful plantocracy. In the case of Guyana, East Indian immigration had its origin in the ‘Gladstone Experiment’. John Gladstone, father of British statesman William Gladstone, was the owner of the West Demerara plantations, Vreed-en-Hoop and Vreed-en-Stein, at this juncture of the country’s history.

East Indian indentured labourers and their descendants toiled, and continue to toil, unceasingly to ensure the survival of the sugar industry in the 19th , 20th and 21st Centuries. The vast majority of the workforce in the sugar industry are Indo-Guyanese, and sugar remains one of the most important foreign exchange earners in the country in the face of grave global challenges.

These folks mused at the cow tied in the “cow pen” at the National Stadium. The fun continues today.

Guyanese of Indian origin are largely responsible for the prominence of Guyana’s rice industry. The Indian indentured labourers in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries began to cultivate rice on a large scale and this was linked to the almost exclusive Indian village settlements which emerged at the time. They are integrally involved in cattle rearing, the selling of milk, and cash crop farming.

Ever since the 1880s, Indian immigrants have displayed a high occupational profile in a number of off-plantation economic activities including cab-drivers, barbers, tailors, carpenters, boat-builders, charcoal makers, sieve-makers, goldsmiths, porters, small scale manufacturers and fishermen.

Today, Guyanese of Indian origin are found in every sphere of activity including business, the professional class, politics, religion and trade unions.

East Indian immigrants and their descendants have ensured there is a rich cultural heritage in this multi-cultural and pluralistic society of ours. Indian customs, values and traditions have survived over the years. They brought with them their main religions, Hinduism and Islam.

Approximately 83 per cent of the immigrants were Hindus, while another 14 per cent were Muslims. The remaining three per cent were Christians. Mosques and temples began to dot our coastal landscape from the late 19th Century. Related to this were the introduction of languages -- Hindi and Arabic and several other Indian dialects.

A woman makes “sada” roti at the National Stadium. She will be there today too, and can serve it up with Baigan choka!

The Ramayan, the Bhagwat Gita and the Holy Quran are prized holy books in many households today.

A significant contribution is in the area of dress. Traditional Indian wear such as the shalwar, sari, kurta and dhoti are popular today. Some of these have taken on nationalistic flavour. The Indian ritual marriage form and the extended family system have continued over time with very few changes.

Indian music, songs, films dance and other art forms have taken root in Guyanese society.

Indian foods like roti, puri, curry, dhal, pholouri, bara, keer and vegetable dishes are regularly consumed by every ethnic group in society.

Indian festivals are widely celebrated too. These include the colourful Phagwah, Deepavali (festival of lights), Ramnoumi, Shiv-Ratri, Youman Nabi, Eid-ul-Fitr. Four of these are today celebrated as truly Guyanese national holidays, a testimony to their significance.

Hindus and Muslims regularly perform their religious or thanksgiving ceremonies. Evidence of this development among Hindus is reflected in the numerous Jhandi and other flags and Murtis which are proudly displayed in devotees’ yards and homes respectively.

East Indian immigrants and their descendants were able to survive largely due to their resilience, perseverance, custom, tradition and commitment to family which invariably promotes thrift, industry and self-esteem. They continue to make valuable contributions to the overall progress and development of Guyana. Their strong cultural ties are undoubtedly a motivating factor, as they march forward into this new millennium of ours with a great sense of purpose and maturity.

After all, Guyana relentlessly seeks to have greater economic benefits, socio-political stability and national cohesiveness at this juncture of its history. All its people are faced with this ongoing struggle in the face of harsh global realities.