Coming Full Circle: The Kolkata Memorial as a Tribute to Indentured Laborers

By Ashook Ramsaran

Born in Guyana, resides in the USA. Executive Vice President of GOPIO Int’l and advocate of interests of PIOs, spearheading the Kolkata Memorial project

There come certain times in life when we try to connect with the past in order to understand those circumstances of history that helped shape the present. Such yearning persists unless and until we can connect with those who came before us, those who paved the way for us and made it possible for us to stand tall on their shoulders. There is this belief among most of us—that if we know about our yesterday, then our today and our tomorrow can be better understood and shared. Moments in history are unique and are rarely duplicated in their entirety. Specifically, for those of us whose ancestors came from India as indentured laborers, we bear a unique responsibility to document their special history —our history, in fact—for ourselves and for posterity. 

The fact that we, the descendants of Indian indentured laborers, are scattered across continents and oceans apart, speaking various languages and living among diverse populations and ethnic groups and cultures, further behooves us to document the realties of our past. Else, we would have failed in our obligation to past, present and future generations. Therein lie our obligation and duty to connect to our past and, in so doing, connect to ourselves, among ourselves from various countries globally and to the motherland of India. We share a common thread, one of the many branches of a huge tree with deep roots. We are now coming full circle by preserving the history of our forebears.

The Kolkata Memorial 
The Kolkata Memorial project has meaningful significance to millions of descendants of those who left India as indentured Indian laborers from 1834 thru’ 1920. The plan to begin with the installation of the inauguration plaque on January 11, 2011 followed by the memorial museum and resource center, has been received with overwhelming emotional sentiments and enthusiastic support from all corners of the global Indian diaspora, in particular from persons of Indian origin (PIOs) in destination countries where Indian indentured laborers emigrated from 1834 thru’ 1920. 

This will be a lasting legacy for present and future generations. “A noble effort indeed”, said writer and historian Dr Anand Mullo of Mauritius; “An extra ordinary service to the Indian Diaspora”, said Indian emigration roots researcher Shamshu Deen of Trinidad & Tobago; “A commemoration tribute whose time is overdue”, said Prof Mohan Gautam of The Netherlands; “We are all deeply indebted for the Kolkata Memorial which is a tremendous achievement”, said prominent Indo-Caribbean Diaspora icon (Dr) Yesu Persaud of Guyana.

The Global Indian Diaspora Heritage Society (GIDHS) has been established and registered in Kolkata, West Bengal. GIDHS is the Kolkata based organization to plan, coordinate and manage the museum/resource center to be constructed some time after the installation of the commemorative plaque as Phase 2 of project. An international team of GIDHS is being formulated with representation from all destination countries where Indian indentured laborers emigrated from 1834 to 1920. GIDHS membership will include prominent persons throughout the global Indian Diaspora as patrons and benefactors, as well as historians, researchers, planners and supporters. 

I feel so honored and privileged to be actively working in prominent leadership role to see the Kolkata Memorial become a reality. I have remarked previously that, “our ancestors who left those shores truly deserve their place in the annals of Indian history and the journeys of people of Indian origin. We owe them due recognition and a lasting remembrance—and that is what the Kolkata Memorial will be”. The vision of a single, suitably significant place of emotional and physical connection for the descendants of indentured workers is finally becoming a reality. 

The significance of the Kolkata Memorial transcends all boundaries and can become an example for other groups who emigrated from India during and/or subsequent to the 1834—1920 period. The message of the Kolkata Memorial should be disseminated to as many as possible to inform others as well as generate support for its museum and resource center plans.

Personal Perspectives
My goal is to establish a commemorative memorial in Kolkata on January 11, 2011 followed by a museum and resource center that would emotionally and physically connect the descendants of indentured workers with the history of their ancestors who left India from 1834—1920. This will be a lasting legacy to present and future generations of their descendants, and I feel so honored and privileged—truly so fortunate and blessed—to be doing this.

My great grandfather left India in 1853 and it took him over 100 days by ship to reach Guyana (originally named Demerara, then British Guiana). By contrast, it took me less than 24 hours by airplane from New York to reach Kolkata. During my journeys to Kolkata, I made several visits to housing sites, holding areas, processing offices and the docks that are still standing in Kolkata even more than 150 years later. All through those visits, it was on my mind that perhaps it was by beckon call and some special guidance I was being led to that place, doing what should be done as a lasting tribute to all those who left those shores. A personal quest was quickly transformed to a universal one, representative of the descendants of those who left India from the ports of Kolkata (Calcutta), Chennai (Madras) and Mumbai (Bombay). That gave me an enormous sense of courage and determination to succeed in installing the commemorative memorial plaque to be followed by the museum. There is an overwhelming sense of personal obligation and responsibility that I must make sure that quest is fulfilled. In that process, I intend to use all available support, collaboration and good intentions of the governments of India and West Bengal, governments of countries with persons of Indian origin (such as Guyana, Trinidad, Suriname, Jamaica, Guadeloupe, South Africa, Fiji, Mauritius, Malaysia and others), indenturedship researchers and historians, authors, film and documentary producers, archivist, patrons and well wishers throughout the global Indian Diaspora.

While our ancestors left those shores with barely the clothes they were wearing but emboldened with lots of hope, promise and courage, we, their descendants, can proudly walk today in those very same depots and docks, reminisce and marvel—while expressing our gratitude and, yes, become quite emotional —at their courage and determination. Today we all stand tall on the broad shoulders of our ancestors who bore the initial burden and sacrificed so much for our well being. Our strength and freedom of spirit come from them who bravely made the journey, courageously walked ahead of us and cleared treacherous pathways so that we can live better lives today.
On the long airplane return journey from Kolkata on July 12, 2010, with lots of emotion, vivid recollection and personal perspective in mind, (and, oh yes, with some wine and Kleenex), I drafted the following inscription to be placed on the memorial plaque, an inscription that reflects common feelings among the global Indian Diaspora: 

By thousands they journeyed from other parts of India by boat, bull cart and by foot to this port city, bound for their long and arduous journeys on the treacherous seas of the “kala pani” by ships to places unknown to them and despite many false promises, travail they did with unwavering spirit and hope for a better tomorrow. In honored tribute, with due recognition, gratitude and lasting remembrance of all those who left these shores from 1834 - 1920 as Indian indentured laborers to far away lands seeking better livelihoods for themselves and their descendants; for their pioneering spirit, determination, resilience, endurance and perseverance amidst the extremely harsh and demeaning conditions they encountered; for their preservation of sense of origin, traditions, culture and religion, and their promotion of the Indian culture; for their achievements and successes despite insurmountable odds; for the many sacrifices made individually and collectively; for the invaluable contributions they have made to the diverse culture and economic development of the lands they adopted and where they lived; and for triumph of the spirit of Indianness that they maintained and passed on to their descendants.
Our ancestors who left those shores truly deserve their place in the annals of Indian history and the journeys of people of Indian origin. We should all be very proud of our ancestors who made the first journey that has become an integral part of our history as well. We certainly owe them a lasting tribute, recognition of their sacrifices and a truly worthy remembrance.


December 2010

click here to enlarge

 >> Cover Story
 >> From the Editor