After 179 years in Guyana and after 100 years since the abolition of indentured labor, people of Indian origin still struggle for acceptance. Just as the first indentured laborers were treated as imposters and interlopers, their descendents today still struggle for equal citizenship in Guyana, still resist second-class treatment, still regarded as outsiders. Just as our indentured forebears had to struggle, sacrifice, resist to survive, their descendants today have to struggle, resist and be resilient to overcome. As we mark the 100th anniversary of the end of indentured labor, we celebrate the remarkable achievements of Indo-Guyanese, in spite of massive adversities.
I stand here today, unapologetically, a proud Indo-Guyanese. Disavowing my ethnicity as a pre-requisite for being Guyanese is a false premise. I insist on my right not to choose between being an Indo-Guyanese or just a Guyanese. I will not succumb to pressures to rank which I am first, Guyanese or Indo-Guyanese. I see these labels as an inseparable part of me. Its asking me to chose between my right eye and my left eye. Its idiotic. I am less with one or the other. I value my compatriots. Our diversity is an asset, enriches our country.
I am a Madrasi Indo-Guyanese. Being a Madrasi Indo-Guyanese does not make me less a Guyanese. The Madrasi culture is a rich part, an enhancing fabric of the tapestry that we all celebrate as Guyanese. I will always reject any notion which suggests that embracing my Madrasi Indo-origins with fervor and passion somehow makes me less a Guyanese. Any demand that I relinquish my origins in order to stamp my legitimacy as a Guyanese is antiquated, confounded nonsense.
We have different heritages and racial make-ups, but we are part of a rich tapestry that has become the Guyanese people. The true Guyanese spirit demands that we acknowledge and celebrate the rich diversity of our individual heritages. I can be proud of Cheddi Jagan and Walter Rodney, genuine Guyanese heroes, and the fact that Cheddi was an Indo-Guyanese does not make him more or less a Guyanese than Walter who is an Afro-Guyanese. Forbes Burnham is a hero to many Guyanese and him being an Afro-Guyanese does not make him more a Guyanese than Cheddi Jagan. Rohan Kanhai must not have to disavow his Indian origin to be a Guyanese hero, just as Clive Lloyd did not have to diminish his African origin in order to be celebrated as a Guyanese hero.
Sisters and brothers, ladies and gentlemen, it is a distinct honor to be your keynote speaker on the 100th anniversary of the ending of Indian indentured labor. The indentured laborers (Gitmitiyas) might have been unfortunate soujorners, but they and their descendants endured hardships and overwhelming challenges to nurture and promote a positive impact on their indentured destinations and other places they continue to sojourn to since the end of indentureship. The descendants of indentured laborers have become assets to their communities, whether those communities are in Guyana or in some other countries they have sojourned to.
The first indentured immigrant ship, the SS Whitby landed at Highbury, Berbice on May 5, 1838. They were the first Indian indentured immigrants in the Western Hemisphere. On May 5 this year, a week from now, we will be celebrating the 179th anniversary of the arrival of Indians in Guyana and in the Western Hemisphere. Guyana and the Western Hemisphere were enriched by the arrival of Indian indentured laborers. The last indentured immigrant ship, the SS Ganges, landed in Guyana on April 18, 1917, exactly 100 years and 11 days ago. The agreement (Girmit) to end indentured labor was signed on March 12, 1917 when Governor General Hardinge declared the end of all recruitment for Indian Indentured immigration, but the SS Ganges had already left Calcutta a couple of weeks before that. The last Indentured labor contracts lapsed on January 1, 1920 when the British Parliament declared that all existing indentured contracts should come to an end. The Sojourners who landed in Guyana as indentured laborers became free men and women and children after that. But freedom did not bring acceptance or ended their sojourn.
There can be no doubt that indentured labor was a brutal experience of unmitigated hardships and abject penury. After all, indentured labor was merely a redesigned, re-engineered model of slavery, a system of waged-slavery.
Governor Light in 1840 captured the essence of the new system: it was a concoction to continue slavery. In February 1840, he stated: “I confess I should be unwilling to adopt any measure to favor the transfer of laborers from British India to British Guyana, after the failure of the former experiment. Admitting that the mortality of the Hill coolies first sent may have been accidental, I am not prepared to encounter the responsibility of a measure which may lead to a dead loss of life on the one hand, or, on the other hand, to a new system of slavery. Corporal punishment is not unknown to those poor people, and I have heard no argument used in favor of enabling the crowded population of India to take advantage of the high wage of Guiana, which remove the danger I apprehend.” Chief Justice Charles Beaumont, in the second half of the 19th Century, aptly described it as “a rotten, monstrous system rooted in slavery.”
Contrary to popular myth, the brutality experienced by our ancestors did not find a docile reception. We today can stand as a proud people because of a legacy of resistance to injustice during and after indentureship. During indentureship, there were more than 100 riots, uprisings and disturbances, as Indentured laborers mounted persistent resistance against starvation wages, sub-human, appalling living conditions and abuse of their women. The indentured laborers paid with their blood – for example, five were killed at Devonshire Castle (September 1872), six killed at Non Pariel (1896), five killed at Friends (1903), one killed at Lusignan (1912), 15 killed at Rose Hall (1913). After indentureship, the resistance persisted. For example, 13 killed at Ruimveldt (1924), 4 killed at Leonora (1939) and 5 killed at Enmore (1948). It is important to note that women played a significant part in these struggles, both during indentureship and after. Women stood with the men in the over 100 revolts, strikes and disturbances on the plantations during indentureship and after. Three of them – Gobindei, Sumintra, and Kowsilla – lost their lives in those resistance events. GAWU and the PPP have had annual pilgrimages to Kowsilla, honoring her sacrifice and her courage as a National Heroine.
Since the interests of sugar and the Guyanese State were coterminus during this time frame, the struggle against the exploitation against sugar was a struggle against the State. It is not coincidental that it was the State’s police that shot and killed the striking workers, as opposed to drivers inflicting punishment during slavery.
The struggle led directly to the independence for Guyana. In 1938, protests on West Indian sugar plantations caused the British Government to send a Royal Commission (Moyne) to investigate. They were in Guyana in February 1939 when the workers were shot and killed. The Moyne Commission recommended an increase in the franchise and amelioration in living conditions.
After the 1948 shootings at Enmore, Cheddi Jagan vowed to bring justice to Guyana and launched the PPP in 1950. Universal franchise came in 1953 and the rest, as they say, is history. Sugar workers, descendants of indentured laborers, catalyzed our path to independence.
Resentment, despise, non-acceptance have been a part of our history from the beginning. Indian indentured laborers arrived in Guyana and immediately confronted resentment and despise. The freed slaves resented the new arrivals because they saw the Indian indentured laborers as “taking bread from them and lowering wages”. The indentured Indians were also despised because they brought a culture alien to Western culture. The derisive term “coolie” captures the despise.
Those original resentment persist today. But the descendants of indentured laborers still harbor their vision and ambition, their faith and values of hard work, dignity and crafting a more prosperous future for the generations to come. We can truly claim today that each generation since our indentured forebears have lived lives more prosperous than the preceding ones.
The indentured laborers toiled under harsh and unforgiving conditions to secure the survival of the sugar industry and to develop the rice industry in Guyana. Guyana’s first export of rice was in 1903. Indian indentured laborers played pivotal roles in the development of village commerce, cash crop cultivation, cattle-rearing, a dairy industry, fishing and other economic activities during the period of indentureship. In spite of massive constraints, Indian indentured laborers became immersed in several off-plantation economic activities including bankers, tailors, carpenters, boat-builders, charcoal makers, goldsmiths, porters, small scale manufacturers and fishermen.
After indentureship, the former indentured laborers and their descendants continue to make tremendous strides in the social, economic cultural, education, political and trade union fields. From their humble beginning, the descendants of indentured laborers have emerged in the professions to become teachers, headmasters, doctors, lawyers, accountants and civil servants. Many of them are today leading politicians, entrepreneurs, bankers, educationists, writers, sports personalities, and trade unionists. Three descendants of indentured laborers have been Presidents of Guyana. Descendants of the original Indian immigrants are actively engaged in every facet of life in Guyanese society today.
Our story as Indian Sojourners represent the story of Garv Aur Izzat – Pride and Dignity.
But, in spite of our impressive achievements as Guyanese, we sadly still struggle today for acceptance. The centennial celebration of the abolition of indentured labor arrives at a time when Indo-Guyanese feel discriminated and under political assault as the foreshadow of dictatorship looms once again, just like we felt during the first three decades after independence The civil service is closed to them and sugar, rice and business where people of Indian origin have excelled face uncertain future in the hands of a government determined to restrict their growth.
The closure of sugar estates and the possible closure of the sugar industry is calamitous for Guyana and all ethnic groups will be negatively impacted. But it has particularly serious implications for the sugar belt where Indo-Guyanese mostly live. What is emerging in the sugar industry today has a close parallel to what happened during indentureship. Just like the indentured laborers were often promised much and then robbed of their wages and punished by trumped-up charges when they complained, so today sugar workers are punished. Only four times in our post-indentured history have sugar workers not received an annual wage increase – twice in the 1980s under Burnham and now in both 2015 and 2016 and most likely there will be a fifth time in 2017. Three successive years of no wage increase, after some of these workers voted for APNU+AFC which promised a 20% increase. In 1946 sugar workers negotiated annual production incentives with Bookers. This continued unbroken to 2015 when the government reduced the API to its lowest rate ever and denied any API in 2016 and there is no chance of any in 2017.
Now three sugar estates are being closed and a fourth is supposedly being privatized. A fifth is under threat for closure if workers from Wales refuse to take up jobs at Uitvlugt. The ethanol plant at Albion is closed and the packaging plant at Enmore is closed too.
Clearly, a new struggle against injustice in the sugar industry has emerged. Just like the struggle of indentured laborers against the State played out in sugar, our resistance against the State must now begin with sugar workers. Today I ask that we affirm our support for sugar workers in Guyana and stand in solidarity with them.
Rice is also under assault. After reaching 250,000 tons with 200,000 tons export in 1964, rice collapsed to under 90,000 tons by 1990. It recovered in the 1990s and surpassed 600,000 tons with a target for 700,000 tons in 2015. We failed to reach the 700,000 tons and then fell below 600,000 tons in 2016. But rice farmers are now losing their subsidies and after promising rice farmers $9000 per bag of paddy, rice farmers today face prices as low as $1500 per bag.
Businesses where many Indio-Guyanese are engaged are reeling. Crime that appears to be directed against Indo-Guyanese is spiraling.
Many Indo-Guyanese in the civil service have lost their jobs, are being harassed to leave and are targeted with trumped-up charges. Politicians in the PPP, mostly Indo-Guyanese are being hounded with spurious allegations and charges as a police state is being reinforced. The recent targeting of Bharat Jagdeo and other leaders of the PPP is the kind of recrimination Indo-Guyanese have had to endure since indentureship.
I draw your attention to the recent establishment of a Land Commission. There is sinister motives afoot. It is set to elevate the ancestral land claims being pushed by organizations such as ACDA. It is similar to the post-independence Coop Scandal where coops, mostly made up of and controlled by Afro-Guyanese were assigned huge amount of land which they then rented to Indo-Guyanese. There has been no mention of the land that indentured laborers were supposed to receive as payment for not returning to India.
Indo-Guyanese contractors and suppliers are today marginalized and only those who are co-opted and collaborate and “pay to play” are allowed to be part of the procurement system. Thus, we see massive corrupt deals. Qualified Indo-Guyanese contractors in Region 6 were abandoned for a contractor from Linden to build the monument at Palmyra to mark the Arrivals of Indians in Guyana. It was intended that it would be commissioned on May 5 to mark the 179th arrival of the Indians in Guyana. The structure collapsed this week, even before the construction is completed.
Incidentally, money owed to indentured laborers were used by the Indian government to construct what was supposed to be the Indian Cultural Center. It is today Guyana’s Cultural Center, a gift to Guyana and to ALL Guyanese, from the Indian indentured laborers. The main street leading to the Guyana Cultural Center was named after the great Nelson Mandela. That junction represents the indomitable fighting spirit and pride of two of our Guyanese ancestry – African slaves and Indian Indentured laborers.
In the face of discrimination and abuse of our rights, there is an expectation of silence and acquiescence. Any resistance to attacks and assault on the welfare of Indo-Guyanese is seen as being recalcitrant and disloyal to our Guyanese citizenship. But I defiantly posit that silence and acquiescence is a disavowal of our ethnicity and culture and a repudiation of the legacy of resistance by our indentured ancestors. Our ancestors from India came as indentured laborers, sojourners who stayed and became citizens. Their children were born in these countries and for generations now have contributed to the economic, social and cultural development of their countries. While full citizens by birth in these countries, the legitimacy of Indo-Guyanese citizenship is still questioned; largely we are regarded as imposters and interlopers. At best we are still sojourners. It is a narrative we must change once and for all.
Ryhaan Shaw puts it nicely: “We came as sojourners huddled and brutalized in ships and we reluctantly continue our sojourn leaving in jet planes.”
I resent the fact that 179 years later and 100 years after the ending of indentured labor we remain still sojourners. This is in spite of the fact that only one-third of indentured laborers returned home and the vast majority stayed to be part of the Guyana story. It is in spite of the fact that 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th generations of descendants from indentured laborers now work and live in Guyana as lawyers, doctors, engineers, big farmers, businessmen, bankers, contractors, etc., the largest producers of food in the Caribbean, over 90% of families owning their own homes, more than 50% owning their own vehicles.
The legacy of our unending sojourns in seen in Guyana’s population. By 1917, the country’s population had comprised 42% Indians. That percentage rose to as high as 51% before undergoing a steady decline over the past 50 years to drop to the 1917 census figure again.
Our sojourn continues. We face massive adversities still, different from those faced by the original Indian sojourners, the indentured laborers, but still sinister and repugnant. Yet like the indentured laborers, their descendants continue to build on their values and continue to accumulate successes. We can be disappointed that our place as legitimate Guyanese citizens is still questioned, but we can hold our heads high because we have succeeded beyond what the pioneering Indian sojourners could have imagined. More gratifying is that we have defied the expectations of our colonial masters, equaling them in every sphere of human activity.
Garv aur Izzat.
Dr. Leslie Ramsammy