Cover Story: US Diaspora

Sketch of the building that housed married couples on the ground floor, and unmarried women on the floor above (demolished in May 2004)


There is history in the making as the site that housed depots for thousands of emigrant indentured workers from Kolkata bound for colonies of the British Empire has been declared a heritage property

By Sayantan Chakravarty
Hundreds of years later, drawn by the powerful pull of history, they head to what came to be known, somewhat dubiously, as the shopping streets of Africa. Every year, thousands oHowrah station, and the old pontoon bridgef Afro Americans and Afro Europeans visit the slave posts of Ghana, the starting points of some of the greatest crimes of man against man. Slavery started its cruel journey from these parts to the West across the Atlantic, initially to Brazil, the Caribbean, USA, and Europe. It was a time in history when the colour of a man’s skin determined whether he would be a part of the suffering herd, or master of the flock. These men and women have no chance of finding where their ancestors came from within Africa. But still they visit Ghana, mostly to understand the tumultuous past of their forefathers in order to connect to the reality of their present. Ghana Airlines offers non-stop flights once a week from New York and Washington to Accra, and British Airways flies through London. Hundreds of years later, the slave posts, the historic castles, forts and trading points continue to pull, more emotionally than in any other way.

There is a similar history in India. A sizeable segment of the Indian diaspora left the sModern day Babu Ghathores of India as indentured workers, after the abominable practice of slavery was abolished in the early 19th century. Many of these indentured workers who survived the gruelling journeys and went on to work in sugar plantations owned by the British, never returned. Some were lured by offers of small plots of land to stay back, after their period of indentureship was over. Others were simply too disconnected to their villages to even attempt a comeback to India. And yet, through all that they went through, they never let go of the one thing they valued the most, their Indian-ness. The descendants of indentured workers grew up on stories of the desperate and hazardous journeys undertaken by their ancestors, to unknown lands. Those stories combined with their Indian-ness have kept alive the curiosity about their motherland and forged their desire to connect with India.

For the Indians, one of the major ports of embarkation for the voyage across the seas was Calcutta, from where they were mainly taken to the West Indies, Indian Ocean rim countries, South Africa, and Fiji by the British rulers. But while the slave posts have helped draw thousands of people of African origin to Ghana, and to other parts of Africa (like the late author Alex Haley, and his famous visit to his ancestral village in The Gambia before he penned his timeless classic, Roots), there are no such earmarked points in India where the descendants of the indentured workers can visit. A place that lets them just be and reflect on the circumstances of their ancestors’ departure, that which led them to shape the destinies of their adopted lands.

But now there is hope. That such a place might come up soon. It should turn out to be a place that will attract thousands of PIOs, as it was the starting point for new dreams, and new destinations.

Thanks to the painstaking efforts of Leela Gujadhur Sarup, an Indo-Mauritian based in Kolkata, the wheels of the Government are finally moving. Soon, either the Government itself, or the people of Indian origin themselves, may be able to raise a monument at the place where it all started. Much of the credit for the impetus within the Government has to go to Malay Mishra, currently a joint secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs who until late 2007 served the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs’ diaspora division with much distinction.

Sketch of the residence of the emigration agent (demolished) Sketch of sheds for male emigrants (demolished in December 2004)

The Bhowanipore Depot
Kolkata 700059.
14A, D.L. Khan Road.
The Bhowanipore Depot.
This address is now set to revisit history.

In the first half of the 19th century, those Indians, mostly from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh who arrived in Calcutta by ferry to take their chances in a foreign land, would alight at the Babu Ghat, opposite the Howrah Station. Immigration agents who wouldn’t let these men and women off their sights would then walk them over the pontoon bridge, across the Maidan, and on to the Bhowanipore Depot, and nearby depots in the Garden Reach area. When the ships were ready to sail, they would be sent to the wharf where the Surgeon-Superintendent would muster them for medical examination. Unfit people were rejected and not allowed on board. The rest would be put on ships, moored in the river. Those that were unhappy and had a last-minute change of mind would jump off the ships, and swim ashore.

The Surgeon-Superintendent was the most important person on these remarkable, history-making voyages, his overall control making him even more significant than the captain. He was responsible for the inspection of the ship and for reporting on its ventilation, as well as for ensuring that there were proper arrangements for cooking and medical facilities on board.

The Bhowanipore Depot was set up in 1845, following a period of unregulated emigration when emigrants were lodged, and even at times locked up in the houses of duffadars and jemadars. Initially meant to house those headed for Mauritius, the Bhowanipore Depot soon began to accommodate emigrants to Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Demerara. Later, separate depots for men and women destined for Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji, Demerara, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts, Saint Helena, Natal (South Africa), Suriname, Guadeloupe and British Guyana came up and were located at 5,8,11,20 and 71 Garden Reach.

Leela Gujadhur Sarup

Leela Gujadhur Sarup, 70, has a penchant for doing things out of the ordinary. She offered to drive me down over 1,400 km between Delhi to Kolkata, via the Grand Trunk Road. She’s done that before, on her own, and doesn’t mind doing it again, the hazards of driving through large bitumen-free stretches notwithstanding. When she set her mind to writing the history of her family (the Gujadhurs became the wealthiest Indian emigrant family in Mauritius), she couldn’t quite do so without knowing how they reached Calcutta from Bihar, then onward to Mauritius, the kind of ship they sailed in, the terms and conditions of their journey, the kind of diet they had, and the stuff they wore. Instead of trying to find out through hand-me-down stories, she spent 10 years collecting 95 kilograms of photocopied documents from the Mauritius Archives alone, and then taking copious notes on hundreds of documents (no photocopying was permitted) from the Calcutta National Library, West Bengal Archives, National Archives in New Delhi. At the end of her research she found out not only about her ancestors’ trip to Mauritius, and all its associated details, but also how like them thousands of emigrants made their way to different colonies in the British Empire. She then wrote down six books on colonial emigration in the 19th and 20th centuries, each one a unique piece of work and huge body of evidence. The Bhowanipore Depot developments are mainly because of her tenacity. Anyone who can drive down from Delhi to Kolkata on her own surely must have plenty of that.

All this Leela Gujadhur Sarup found out while on a different project. She had wanted to know how and why her ancestors had come to Mauritius. They were the Gujadhurs, a trading household from Bihar that had successfully created in Mauritius one of the wealthiest Indian diaspora families found anywhere in the world. To find out about the how and why, Sarup had to do some serious research. It was five years of painstaking research (she was not allowed photocopying, but only taking notes) at libraries across the country. “Information and records were scattered all across,” she says. She worked away at the records in places like the National Library in Kolkata, the West Bengal Library, the National Archives in New Delhi, among others and not only found out about the journey by her ancestors to Mauritius, she was also able to compile six volumes on colonial emigration—a fascinating and comprehensive body of work on Indian indentured workers who left for different parts of the British Empire.

The Bhowanipore Depot itself became an abandoned place after indentured workers ceased to be sent by the British. As records show, somehow the ownership of this place on D L Khan Road passed on to the Royal Calcutta Turf Club (RCTC) that used the sheds for housing racehorses in the 1950s, before shifting them to Hastings in the early 1960s. When Sarup took up the ownership issue with the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, it surfaced that no municipal taxes were paid for years by the RCTC. The structures that housed emigrants had been razed, with not the slightest regard being shown for history. And then it turned out that one day, quite suddenly and mysteriously, the premises were given away for a song to one Mr Chamaria.

The Government’s Initiative
The subject of creating a symbolic place of visit for the PIOs gained currency at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in the January of 2006. Soon after, Mishra visited the sites, and Sarup guided him around, as by then she had researched almost everything about the abandoned Bhowanipore Depot, the Port area and its whereabouts. The importance of what he saw dawned on Mishra, and he took up the matter immediately with the top echelons of the West Bengal bureaucracy. Meetings were held in March 2006 with the state Government’s chief secretary and home secretary. A joint partnership between the state and central Governments was discussed for piloting the project. In any case, first the land needed to be acquired.

Communication channels had now opened up between the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the West Bengal Government and Sarup, who played the part of a willing and scholarly intermediary as she saw in the project a worthy cause, and one very close to her heart. Her persistent efforts forced some concrete action. The West Bengal Government decided to acquire the property. Notices were placed in leading newspapers in Kolkata, asking claimants to lodge their responses and objections, if any. Not a single claimant came forward within the stipulated time period. Not even Mr Chamaria.

The next step was to safeguard the Bhowanipore Depot land for the purpose for which it was intended. On October 30, 2006, the West Bengal Heritage Commission declared 14A, D.L. Khan Road, as a Heritage Property. This was a huge step, one that can now facilitate the setting up of a heritage monument at the site. “This was the single most important action for which a large amount of ground work needed to be done,” says Sarup. “The place will be precious for thousands of PIOs,” she adds.

Both Governments have since begun talking about evaluating the cost of the plot of land. The West Bengal Government in a letter to the MOIA on June 12, 2008 indicated that it was taking necessary action in that direction. That was the last communication, though, on the subject. The MOIA, on its part, has indicated that it is ready to partner the state Government in the project, but it does seem that after Mishra’s repatriation back to the Ministry of External Affairs (in 2007), the momentum has been somewhat lost.

Firm Action Needed
From the dilly-dallying of the last several months, it is clear that the Government may not be entirely willing to fund a project of this nature. The tremendous impact that such a project can have on the Indian diaspora is somehow not really enthusing the Government as of now.

Even a country like Mauritius built an Aapravasi Ghat (essentially a flight of 14 wharf steps) in memory of those who crossed the seas from Calcutta and other Indian ports and arrived there to begin a new life. In 2006, it was included in the World Heritage List, and runs under the country’s Ministry of Art and Culture. At Annapolis, Maryland, stands the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial. It commemorates the place of arrival of Haley’s African ancestor, Kunta Kinte. The plaque says that Haley’s book, “Roots, inspires all peoples to embrace their heritage. As we discover our personal history, we realize that all members of the human family share a universal bond.” Thousands visit Annapolis and Aapravasi Ghat each year to share this bond.

Given the pace of things, it might not be worthwhile to wait for the Government to take the initiative. The Indian diaspora itself can now find ways to fund a project at the site that can have a monument, and a museum, dedicated to their ancestors. It can be a collective effort for posterity, through a common trust, or a private-public initiative. Once the initiative is taken, a dedicated airlines service, and associated tourism, can work its way in. If Haley could do it, so can a few inspired men and women.

Who knows, in times to come, the powerful pull of history could lead several thousand people of Indian origin, descendants of indentured workers, to 14A D L Khan Road.

January 2009

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