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Celebrate ‘Indian arrival’ or ‘Indian deliverance’? (2)

by Chaman Lal

The second largest contingent of Indian indentured labour went to now called Guyana from 1838 to 1916. First ship Hesperus with Indian labour arrived in Demerara on May 5, 1838 and total of 238,909 Indians arrived in ships. Trinidad & Tobago was the third country to receive large numbers of Indian labour from May 30, 1845 onwards and here 147,596 Indians came as per Sat Balkaran Singh. First ship to arrive in Trinidad was Fatel Razack from Calcutta, a total of 154 ships undertook 320 voyages from Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, to bring Indian indentured labour up to 1917. Out of these only 20 per cent or so, went back to India after indentured system was abolished.

South Africa also started receiving Indian labour, mostly Muslims from Gujarat 1860 onwards. Here the first ship Truro with Indian labour arrived from Madras on 16th November 1860. South Africa received 152,184 Indian labourers in indentured act period. French and Dutch colonisers also made agreements with British Indian Government to recruit Indian indentured labour with similar agreements as issued by British colonisers. Thus French colonialists recruited Indian indentured labour for French Guyana, Martinique, Guadalupe etc. Dutch colonisers got Indian indentured labour for Dutch Guyana, now named Suriname from 1873, the first ship Lala Rookh from India arrived here on 5th June 1873 and a total on 34,304 Indians arrived here till 1916.
Fiji under British regime was the last to recruit Indian indentured labour, where the first ship Leonidas arrived on 14th May 1879 and it got 60, 995 Indians till 1917. Other countries to receive Indian indentured labour in this period were, Jamaica-36, 412, East Africa, including Kenya and Uganda-32000, mostly Sikhs from Punjab, for building Uganda-Kenya rail link; Reunion-26, 507, Seychelles-6315, St Vincent-2472, St Kitts-337, St Lucia-4350, Grenada 3200 etc. A total of nearly 1.2 million or 12 lakh Indians travelled to different parts of the world during this period. In all countries, Indian indentured labour went through hell, a lot of sufferings and Indian newspapers reported about these cruelties on Indian labour.

Since Mahatma Gandhi was invited in South Africa as a lawyer to defend the rights of Indian business men there, the other countries also came into focus. In 1909, Mahatma Gandhi spent few days in Mauritius on his way back to India through sea journey. Dr Mani Lal, a young advocate, who was later married to the daughter of Dr Mehta, a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi, was sent to Mauritius in 1907. Dr Mani Lal started a paper, Hindustani, from Mauritius in Gujarati and English, Hindi replaced Gujarati soon. Mani Lal spent few years till 1910 in Mauritius and defended Indians rights. Later Dr Mani Lal played a similar role in Fiji, where he went in 1912; he was treated very harshly by British colonial authorities in Fiji and was made to leave the country in 1920.

Sufferings of Indian indentured labour are well documented in the creative Hindi literature of Mauritius and Fiji. Abhimanyu Anat is most celebrated Hindi writer of Mauritius and he through his many novels like Lal Pasina (Red Sweat), the introduction of its French translation was written by French Noble Laureate Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, depicted the horrible sufferings faced by Indian indentured labour at the hands of sugar planters, mostly Europeans and their Indian agents, colonial police and other officials. Same way Joginder Singh Kanwal in his novels like Savera and Karvat depicted the hardships and struggles of Fiji Indian labour.

Munshi Rehman Khan, writing in Hindi and Urdu, did it for Suriname Indian labour. Unfortunately Trinidad and Guyana Indian descent people lost their languages as well and their sufferings in these countries were depicted in English language much later, when their second or third generation became well versed in the language. Peter Jailall from Guyana wrote about Indian indentured labour’s sufferings in his English poetry collection of recent times under the title Sacrifice-Poems on the Indian Arrival in Guyana. V S Naipaul did not focus much on Indian indentured labour’s sufferings in Trinidad & Tobago, though he was born and brought up there, but had references to the sufferings in his classic novel A House for Mr Biswas.

In India also people like C F Andrews, who visited almost all countries, where Indian labour migrated, at the behest of Mahatma Gandhi, Benarsidas Chaturvedi, Hindi writer and journalist, Lakshman Singh, husband of celebrated Hindi writer Subhadra Kumari Chauhan and member of All India Congress Committee (AICC) wrote plays like Coolie in Hindi, basing on Indian labourers sufferings in Fiji, the play was immediately proscribed by British authorities. Tota Ram Shandilya, who returned from Fiji, wrote My Twenty One Years in Fiji, in Hindi, which is translated in English and now an important reference book in Fiji. In these countries freedom struggles against British colonialism started, which were mostly close to Indian National Congress in India, like movement by Shiv Sagar Ramgoolam in Mauritius, who became the first Prime Minister of independent Mauritius.

Dr Cheddi Jagan was one of the most important organisers and leaders of freedom struggle in British Guiana as leader of People’s Progressive Party, a party with Marxist ideas. In Kenya, Comrade Makhan Singh, a Communist, fought alongside Jomo Kenyatta and his other colleagues for the freedom of Kenya. Monuments of struggles by Indian indentured labourers, along with other communities are found in many countries. In Guyana, where Hesperus, first vessel from Calcutta brought 156 souls on 5th May 1838, out of 170 boarded, 14 died on the way by sickness and drowning.

There have been conflicts, rebellions in 1872, 1903 and 1912, 1913, 1924. Walter Rodney, one of the brilliant radical scholars of Guyana, depicted the conditions of Indians and other countries indentured labour emigration to Guyana in books like Lakshmi out of India. Rodney was assassinated in the young age on 13th June 1980 and Guyana national archives are now named after him. In Trinidad & Tobago, massacre of Jahazis, as the east Indian indentured labour were called, as they came on ships, took place in 1884 at the time of holy Eid.

CLR James, the radical Marxist scholar-writer of Trinidad & Tobago had focussed upon Black and East Indian indentured labour conditions in his writings and during March 1970 Black Power movement in Trinidad, there were banners and calls for Indo-African unity, though some people tried to scare Indians with rumours that Blacks would attack East Indians, to counter it Black Power movement took a massive march in Caroni sugar plantation area and home of large number of Indians, who did not join the march, but showed warm hospitality to the marchers, thus frustrating the designs of those, who wanted to turn this most progressive movement as a Black-Indian conflict.

Strangely Trinidad & Tobago has no monument in memory of Black and Indian sufferings in the country, whereas neighbouring Caribbean countries-Guyana and Suriname have number of monuments for both communities’ sufferings in their countries. In Suriname there is a monument in memory of 16 Indians and Indonesian indentured labour, who was martyred at sugar factory site, struggling for better wages and living conditions. At suicide hill site in Mauritius, now stands a grand monument in memory of those poor indentured labourers, which died due to the worst cruelties inflicted upon them by colonial authorities and sugar barons. In Fiji, workers struggled in February 1920, even after the abolition of indentured labour system and Fijian authorities in revengeful manner crushed workers strike and forced Dr Mani Lal out of the country.

Struggles in these countries and pressure by the national movement in India in favour of this struggling migrated Indian labour, British Government had to finally abolish ‘indentured labour’ system in 1917, through legislation to this effect, as they had to do in case of slavery in 1834/38. Indentures system was also given lease/transition till the end of 1919 and from 1st January 1920, indentured Indian labour system came to a complete stop. So 1 January 1920 was hailed as Deliverance day, as was end of slavery was hailed as Emancipation Day by Africans.

Irony is this that Indians in these countries never focussed upon Deliverance Day, which is much more historic day of their life, particularly of present generation people of Indian descent in Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, Suriname and Fiji, than so called Indian Arrival Day, which is the day to mark the beginning of untold sufferings, deceit, as most of Indians recruited for this scheme of indentured labour, were recruited by agents by telling all kinds of lies, like they are being taken to the countries of goldmines and they will become rich with gold, once they are there, or lies like Mauritius is a country of Ramayana character Marich, trapping innocent but poor, needy Indian rural folk into their trap of prolonged suffering for them.

[from The Guardian, 24-10-2011]

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1 comment to “Celebrate ‘Indian arrival’ or ‘Indian deliverance’? (2)”

  • grandson of an indentured labourer arriving in the seychelles in 1902 i still need some datas regarding the ship they travelled on the village they came from.i still have relatives in india and i will like to meet them thanks for your help

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