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Celebrate ‘Indian arrival’ or ‘Indian deliverance’? (1)

by Chaman Lal

While attending some programmes on August 1, 2011, and around, in connection with ‘Emancipation Day’ celebrations, which came this year with the declaration of year 2011 by UNO, as ‘year of the African Descent people’, I remembered participating in various functions/seminars on the occasion of ‘Indian Arrival Day’ in Trinidad & Tobago on and around May 30, 2011. In one of the international conferences on the theme of ‘South Asian Diaspora’ organised to mark the occasion at The University of the West Indies, St Augustine campus, during May 31—June 4, 2011, I presented a paper also on V S Naipaul.

Yet going through the background of the two events, something did disturb me. African background people, who were brought here in Trinidad as slaves from many parts of Africa, never celebrate their ‘Arrival’ in Trinidad or in many other countries of the world, whereas people of Indian descent celebrate Indian Arrival day, not only in T&T, but in nearby Guyana and Suriname; also in Mauritius and Fiji, far away, may be in some other countries too. One reason could be that there may not be any record of slaves being brought to Trinidad and many more countries of the world. The exact date of slavery is also difficult to identify, yet generally slave trade is on record from 1440 AD onwards in many European countries. It took almost four hundred years hard and harsh struggles, including many revolts like that of Spartacus, to get slavery abolished.

While France under the Jacobins as First republic abolished slavery as early as in 1794, later reinstated by Napoleon in 1804, but finally abolished in 1848; Britain did it in 1834/38, USA under Abraham Lincoln abolished it in 1863; in Tibet, slavery could be abolished only after Dalai Lama left and Chinese Communist Government abolished it after 1949, ironically Arab countries are the last to abolish slavery, thus Saudi Arabia, Oman, Niger, UAE etc abolished slavery only in sixties and Mauritania is the last country to abolish slavery as late as in 1981. Even if there could be a record of Black/African arrival in different countries, I doubt that they will ever be willing to ‘celebrate’ their ‘arrival’ as ‘slaves’!

The question which disturbs me is: Is the Indian arrival in these countries as ‘indentured labour’ during 1834-1923, an occasion for ‘celebration’? The conditions of ‘indentured labour’ in most of these countries were more like that of semi-slavery and Indian descent people everywhere went through most cruel sufferings at the hands of sugar planters and colonial authorities of the time. Let us have a look at this phenomenon of Indian arrival in various countries.

As the emancipation act was promulgated from August 1, 1834, giving six years of a time called ‘apprenticeship’, meaning transition period for clear emancipation from slavery. On August 1,1834 Governor of Trinidad addressed few elderly Africans to mark the occasion at Government house, there were slogans raising—‘no six years, no six years’ and within four years, Trinidad became, in fact, the first British colony to be completely emancipated from slavery, other colonies followed. Although as per Trinidad historian Bridget Brereton, none of the 20,656 slaves emancipated, was given any compensation to start new life, where as slave owners were given massive state funding.

As the emancipation act came into existence and thousands of slaves of African descent became free, large numbers of them refused to work at their ex masters, mostly sugar planters, in many countries, colonised by British, French, Dutch and Spain and Portugal. In Caribbean region itself, Trinidad, Demerara (part of Guyana now), Jamaica etc were British colonies, French Guyana, Martinique, Guadaloupe etc were French colonies, Dutch Guiana, now Suriname were Dutch colonies—all having sugar planters, now facing the lack of labour. Under the circumstances, India being a huge British colony with immense population, European colonialists looked towards Indian labour, then given name of ‘Indentured labour’.

British colonial Government in India made certain rules called Colonial Emigration Acts V and XXXII of 1837 regarding ‘indentured’ conditions. Five years was the minimum term of indentured labour, after which a labourer could return to India at his or her own expense. To earn a return ticket, he or she was to perform ten years indentured labour. Regulations differed somewhat in different countries. Though on paper some safeguards were created, in practice these were never followed, the real conditions of the indentured labourers were just close to the conditions of ex slaves. The masters and their agents used to treat them in most cruel manner, beating-thrashing in blue for little things, raping their women, making women work in most advanced pregnancies, sometime births taking place on work sites, making women work even if the new born or grown child died same morning.

Because of these cruelties, indentured labourers in Mauritius use to commit suicide from a particular hillock, which got the name of ‘suicide hill’, now turned into a monument. Hundreds of indentured Indian labour committed suicide by jumping down from this hill during the period, when indentured labour act was in force. The condition was no better in Fiji, though it may have been slightly less cruel in Caribbean countries. The first emigration from British India started to Mauritius as early as 1834, immediately after the abolition of slavery act was promulgated on August 1, 1834.

First ship Atlas from Calcutta, brought Indian labour to the shores of Mauritius on November 2, 1834. And till 1923, even after the indentured labour system was abolished from 1920 onwards, Mauritius received the maximum number of Indian indentured labour from the ports of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. A total of 453,063 Indians landed in Mauritius, during 1834-1923, maximum in any part of the world.

Prof Chaman Lal is a visiting Professor at Hindi Chair in The University of the West Indies, St Augustine campus. He is on deputation from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, India.
He can be contacted at ¬or at 369-2687.

[to be continued]

[from The Guardian, 23-10-2011]

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