The decision of various areas of the Government of India to collaborate with the Global Organisation of Peoples of Indian Origin (GOPIO) to install a memorial to the 1.4 million girmityas (agreement signers) who left India between 1834 and 1917 as indentured labourers, many bound for the Caribbean, is a significant milestone in the story of the Indian diaspora’s achievement. I thank the Government and people of India for keeping the memory of its indentured sons and daughters alive. To locate such a memorial at the Demerara Dock at Kidderpore on the Hooghly River demonstrates that the planners were cognizant of the long years of departure from those docks and the others in the Garden Reach area which was a receiving centre for hundreds of thousands who were huddled there after their long treks from Bahraich and Lucknow, from Kandahar and Gonda. Almost one half of these “bonded coolies” some 500,000, were dispatched to the Caribbean, the largest numbers being sent to Guyana and Trinidad. The first two ships, the Hesperus and Whitby landed their first two batches of human cargo at Georgetown in May 1838. These were destined to the Gladstone Estates but the further transference of labourers was suspended thereafter because of the poor treatment of the Indians.
By 1845, the British felt that conditions had been sufficiently improved to resume the trade to the Caribbean and from that year to 1917, there was the transportation of some half a million people. Indentureship finally came to an end in January 1920.
In commemorating the 176 – year old Indian presence in the Caribbean, it would be good for us to remember that India’s loss was the Caribbean’s gain. In the first place, the Indians did in fact fulfill the purpose for which they had been brought here. That was the resuscitation of the sugar industry particularly in the areas of new cultivation in the Southern Caribbean such as the Rosehall Estate in Canje, Berbice, Guyana, which to this day is a thriving centre of sugar production.
They functioned not only in the sugar industry, but equally in the various colonies, in other areas such as the introduction and cultivation of many varieties of swamp rice. They revived moribund coconut and cocoa estates and in their Jahagi Bandals (ship’s belongings) they brought an extensive array of seeds and cuttings which transformed the host environment: mango, Indian guavas, pomegranate, and many varieties of spinach (bhagi), lentils (dhalls), a wide range of spices, tamarind, jackfruit (cowa), Indian drumsticks (saijjan) and other fruits. The Indian Zebu cattle and the water buffalo (bhaisa) became regular replacements for the less sturdy estate mules as major means of sugarcane transportation. These animals were brought as accompanying baggage on the indenture ships; these ships also brought members of the cattle-rearing caste (ahirs) who would tend these treasured animals.
The Indians also brought considerable engineering “know how”, gleaned from thousands of years of experience in land reclamation and water control in the vast Indo-Gangetic plains from which most of them came. With those skills, they were able to continue the vast drainage schemes in Guyana and Suriname which had been initiated by the early Dutch settlers, thus creating new cultivable land for principally rice production in the narrow coastal regions of the Guyanas. Guyana became the rice bowl of the Caribbean. Similarly they created many villages (now towns) in the swamps of Caroni and Naparima in Trinidad, in the Westmoreland wetlands of Jamaica or the Mesopotamia valley in St. Vincent; here they planted rice in the wet season and vegetables during the dry season: melons, bodi, ochroes, ginger, pumpkins and mustard all with seeds brought from India. After their period of bondage , thousands of them reverted to their original caste occupations and in this way added to the variety of occupations in the receiving countries (sonars) jewelers, kisans (cultivators), bhandaris (cooks), kumhars (potters), darzis (tailors) and religious leaders. A few returned and died in the motherland,