The Majestic Kolkata Memorial - Fitting Tribute To Our Brave Indentured Ancestors Far & Near

By Bina Mahabir

Bina Mahabir is a Guyanese East Indian, living in New York

They were a group of brave, resilient, courageous and adventurous men, women and in some cases, children, who bore unspeakable hardships for a better tomorrow for themselves, their children and ultimately, generations to come. Whether it was the sugar plantations in British Guiana (now Guyana), Fiji, Jamaica, Mauritius, Trinidad & Tobago, Suriname or any of the other sugar producing British colonies around the globe, our indentured ancestors stood up to the cruelties of the British masters with dignity, faith and determination. Their compelling stories began over 172 years ago when they crossed the great “Kala Pani” in search of a brighter future away from home—India.

They were lured and in many instances, tricked into believing that in places far away from home, life as they knew it, were almost like “beds of roses.” Great promises of plenty of money, clothes, foods and other necessities were made to them by the deceitful recruiters. Little did they know what really awaited them. Their collective future was painted with a bright, promising stroke; only to be reduced to a life of tremendous pain and suffering once they disembarked on the sugar plantations. Their unbearable day-to-day struggles: the endless barefooted treks for miles upon miles to and fro sugar fields on rough “dutty” dams, in brilliant sunshine or torrential rain; the fixed meager wages they were paid for their long hours of hard labor; the sometimes brutal whippings meted out to them mercilessly; the rule of suppression and fear they were forced to endure—it was as if their very souls were trapped in a huge cage without any means of escape. But, they endured… Their commanding history has to be told to the world. Their rich legacy will live on in all of us. Their indomitable pioneering spirit and endurance as a people will live on for all eternity in the annals of history. They staked their lives and happiness for our brighter future. 

Mother Kowsillia, from British Guiana, was just one of the many unsung heroes among our courageous ancestors. This simple East Indian woman was working equally hard like her men counterparts in the sugar fields to feed her family. The frustrated workers had organized a strike at that sugar plantation to bring attention to their deplorable working and living conditions. The workers were told to return to work by their superiors. Mother Kowsillia refused to return to work and laid down on the ground in protest. A tractor was ordered to drive over her still body. She was unceremoniously crushed to death instantly. Mother Kowsillia was no ordinary woman. This barbaric act committed against her was meant to electrify a bolt of fear in the hearts and souls of the indentured laborers. Their dreams were crushed in a split second. They meekly returned to the sugar fields – a place where their “blood, sweat and tears” enriched the fertile soil that produced sugarcanes for the British masters. How, then, can we honor our ancestors for the many sacrifices they made for our happiness? 

The Kolkata Memorial is indeed, a fitting tribute to a people whose spirit, though badly bruised and battered by the harsh reality of life on the sugar plantations, never gave up hope of a brighter tomorrow. They literally carved a brighter future with their “blood, sweat and tears” scattered all over the fertile lands of the sugar fields, where the sugar canes were the silent witnesses to their deep anguish and agony. Such was the caliber of our indentured ancestors. They are our unsung heroes. They are the men and women we need to pay homage to for making the ultimate sacrifice for our better tomorrow. Generations to come must be told of the vibrant history of their brave ancestors. Here is where the Kolkata Memorial will be of great assistance to descendants of the indentured laborers. This project is long overdue.

The Kolkata Memorial will serve as a sacred sanctuary where the spirit of our indentured ancestors will live on. It is a memorial to honor and pay homage to our most deserving ancestors who asked for nothing in return for the wretched conditions they suffered in their lifetimes. The Kolkata Memorial will give the descendants of East Indian Indentured Laborers a place to offer silent prayers for the souls of their ancestors long gone. It will be the truest and closest to a sanctuary the descendants will have to feel and experience the unconquerable spirit of their ancestors in real time. 

This memorial for our indentured ancestors will house all the artifacts, writings, paintings, documentaries, statistics and data, including the years and names of ships and the many journeys that were made between the time of Indenturedship to when it officially ended in 1920 and all matters concerning our Indentured ancestors who had left the shores of India. The Kolkata Memorial will provide a send of “closure” to many wondering families both in India and other countries where indentured laborers went to “sweat and toil” on sugar plantations. It will serve as the storehouse for our ancestors’ history—a place where the descendants could go and find out more about their ancestors. 

The Kolkata Memorial will make it so much easier for descendants to trace their roots in India and go visit their relatives if so desired. This memorial will help to bridge the wide gap between the motherland and the adopted countries our ancestors called homes for years now. This memorial will also provide the Sub-continent with the brand new opportunity of fostering closer and better relations with her other families around the world. Understanding is one of the keys to a happy relationship: the Kolkata Memorial will help to create a new understanding between India and other countries adopted by our ancestors. It will generate a positive synergy and a brand new dynamism between motherland and countries adopted by our indentured ancestors. Maybe, just maybe, the motherland will finally embrace us as her own. 

Many, many thanks especially to Mr. Ashook Ramsaran, Executive Vice-President of GOPIO International, ably supported by prominent researcher/historian Ms. Leela Sarup and the group of diligent community leaders who are working round-the-clock to see this project become a reality. The time, effort, energy and money involved in making such a huge project as the Kolkata Memorial into a reality are indeed great, yet, Mr. Ramsaran and his team make it seems and feels seamlessly effortless. The courageous spirit of our ancestors is visible in Mr. Ramsaran, as he and his team are working assiduously to create history in the making for all our ancestors. Generations to come will thank Mr. Ramsaran and his team for their making this memorial a reality. The Kolkata Memorial is indeed, a great way to honor to our ancestors. May their indomitable courage live on in all of us. Kudos to our ancestors! 


December 2010

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