I am indeed very happy to be with all of you today to participate in your programme by which
you commemorate "Indian Arrival Day" for the first time in South Florida. Let me from the onset
congratulate the executive and members of the Florida Hindu Cultural and Religious Association
for having the vision to organise such an activity which highlights the history, culture and
achievements of people of Indian origin in the region of the Caribbean.
Of course, when we talk about "Indian Arrival Day" we refer to the commemoration of the
arrival of the first Indians in the Caribbean, and not in the United States. I want to get that part
very clear since as we all know, there has also been a large migration of people from the Indian
subcontinent to the United States, particularly after 1960.
The migration of Indians to the Caribbean has a greater meaning to us since that process
established new roots in a new land and chartered a new chapter in the history of people of
Indian origin. It also posed new and difficult challenges to the early migrants and succeeding
generations to maintain cultural traditions which have been buffeted by other existing and
invading cultures. In the process, Indians in the Caribbean have, as a result of various factors,
lost the gift of the languages of their ancestors, but have managed to cling to their religions and
family traditions, and have made positive advances in solving caste differences while blending
their culture forms with a variety of other culture patterns found in their respective countries
into a generally solid unit.
Unfortunately, I can only speak of the historical experiences of Guyana. For us, Indian Arrival
Day is celebrated on May 5, for it was on that day in 1838 -- 159 years ago -- the first batch of
Indian indentured immigrants landed in Guyana.
You will recall that in 1838, in the Caribbean region, most of the people were Africans who had
been brought as slaves by the European plantation owners. By that year, slavery had lost its
usefulness, and the British Government, which ruled many of the Caribbean territories,
abolished slavery on August 1, 1834. But the slave owners were not willing to let their African
slaves go, so their friends in the British Parliament allowed them to continue extracting more
labour from them for four more years.
Since the slave owners now knew that they would no longer have free African slave labour, they
began to look around for new sources of cheap workers on their plantations. In 1834 they
managed to recruit small groups of Portuguese from the islands of Madeira and the Azores and
they were put to work as indentured labour on the sugar plantations of Guyana. But these people
were by no means agricultural workers so their productivity level was very low. A payment of
about 10 cents a day was also not very encouraging to them as well. So, as soon as their
indenture was completed, they moved to the towns to find other better paying jobs or went into
the interior region to look for gold.
The sugar planters and the British Government then began a new task of looking elsewhere for
further inexpensive replacements. They initially thought about China, but because of the
distance, their minds turned to India. The economic situation in some Indian states at that time
was very depressed. This was particularly so in Bihar, near to Calcutta, which continued to be
ravaged by flooding, cyclones and the occasional famine. It was therefore easy to recruit
indentured migrants from this state especially when lucrative promises of easy working
conditions and good wages were made to them.
There is no doubt that most of the recruits were fooled by the recruiting officers, many of whom
were Indians themselves. Since most of the migrants were illiterate and had probably never ever
travelled more than a few miles from their own home villages, they were also misled to believe
that the new place where they were being taken to was not very far away. They did not have the
concept of distance, and maybe they felt that they would have the opportunity to see their
relatives and their friends and their home villages on a fairly regular basis.
They marked their indenture contracts -- most could not sign their names -- and these were duly
witnessed by the Indian recruiters. In most cases, the indentured Indian was bonded for five
years during which he or she would be housed and given a daily wage, which ranged from about
8 to 24 cents. At the end of the indenture, return passages would be guaranteed and a small
lump-sum of money would be given. Later, those who opted to remain in the new land were each
given small plots of land instead of the lump-sum of cash.
When the first batch of returnees went back to India and reported the harsh conditions under
which they lived and worked, the recruiters had a more difficult time to convince people to
migrate to Guyana. The result was that some people were kidnapped, and there were even stories of arrangements being made for convicts to be sent. People who ran the jails made some
money on the side in furnishing recruits for indenture.
Those who recruited the migrants then moved to other states to carry out their operations. The
result was that indentured labourers were collected from other states such as Uttar Pradesh,
Tamil Nadu, Mysore and Kerala and parts of what is now Pakistan.
There are stories, too, that some Indian soldiers who participated in the Indian Mutiny of 1857
were indentured to Guyana as part of their punishment.
What were the realities the immigrants encountered when they arrived in Guyana? They were
herded in logies (or barrack ranges) with very little sanitation facilities. Significantly, some of
these logies were the very ones in which the African slaves used to live. Further, they were
prevented from leaving the plantation to which they were bounded under penalty of the law.
These penalties included fines and imprisonment. The amount of days lost from work due to this
imprisonment was added to the indenture period. Permission had to be sought from the
plantation owner in order to visit places outside of the plantation.
The indentured labourer had the so-called right to complain about his treatment to the
Immigration Department in Georgetown, but for him to do so he had to obtain permission to
leave the plantation. If he decided to go without permission, he was punished for breaking the
The arrival of the Indians in Guyana brought about a new set of social relations in the country.
First of all, it brought about distrust between the Indians and the Africans. When the Africans
were freed from slavery, most of them left the plantations, but they felt that they now had some
bargaining power to demand reasonable wages for paid employment there. However, the arrival
of the Indians on the plantations undercut this bargaining power since the Indians were working
in the same jobs for very meagre wages.
Second, when Africans were freed, they were given no compensation -- no money or land. On
the other hand, when Indians finished their indenture, they were given return passages to India or
plots of land if they preferred to remain. Obviously, this bred some form of ill feeling since the
Africans felt that they were given a raw deal while the Indians benefitted from the bargain.
Third, rudimentary primary education was offered to Africans in schools run by Christian
denominations. There were no such facilities offered to Indians who also were suspicious of the
Christian churches whose aim was also to convert Indians to Christianity. As a result, Indian
children were not educated and the Africans saw themselves as socially superior since they were
given jobs in the Government service because they were educated according to British standards.
Some Indians who had completed their indenture became successful in business and sent their
children to these schools. To climb the social ladder, some of these educated Indians converted
to Christianity and managed to obtain jobs in the civil service where they were nurtured as
favourites of the British rulers. The sad aspect of this development was that some of these
educated Indians from the late nineteenth century adopted the British class attitudes and looked
down on their Hindu and Muslim working class uneducated counterparts. This class of Indians
proved to be allies of the British colonialists in promoting the continuation of Indian indentured
immigration from India to Guyana.
Fourth, the police recruited by the British were Africans and they were the ones who arrested
Indians and locked them up when they breached the regulations. Further, when the Indians took
protest actions on the estates against poor working conditions, African policemen were let loose
These actions were obviously the beginnings of strained relationships between Indians and
Africans. They were perpetrated by the British colonialists who use these tactics to divide and
But Africans and Indians also displayed strong bonds of unity on the sugar estates when in the
late nineteenth century and early twentieth century they supported each other to struggle for
better wages and improved working conditions. So despite differences, the seeds of unity were
already planted and they now need to be properly cultivated to continue the improvement of
Hundreds of thousands of Indians were transported to Guyana and Trinidad, and smaller
numbers were taken to Jamaica and Grenada, and also to the non-British territories of Suriname,
Martinique and Guadeloupe. Where larger numbers lived the better were the chances to maintain
their culture. Unfortunately, with succeeding generations, the ability to speak the main Indian
languages of Hindi and Urdu have become lost talents.
Finally, indentured immigration ended in 1917 after strong demands by the Indian Congress
Party and Mohandas Gandhi in particular. A delegation of rich Guyanese Indians was sent by the
British authorities to lobby Gandhi to allow it to continue.
Without a doubt, the descendants of Indian indentured immigrants have left, and are continuing
to make, positive marks on the intellectual, cultural, economic, social and political landscape of
the Caribbean region. Some who have continued the migration movement from the Caribbean to
North America are also registering their mark. I do not need to give you a listing of those who
have made their mark in these various fields. But one name stands out like a flashing beacon.
Cheddi Jagan strode onto the stage of world history from the beginning of the 1950s and
challenged the might of the British Empire which allied with the CIA to force him in 1964 from
continuing the work of improving the social and economic welfare of all the Guyanese people.
He bore the burden of his people in the struggle against dictatorship and tyranny, and led his
people back to the victory seat in 1992, after nearly three decades during which many Caribbean
leaders patted the dictators on their head and tried to dismiss the legendary Guyanese leader as
irrelevant. But the masses of the people are the movers of history, and in Guyana they followed
Cheddi Jagan as he propelled history and the Guyanese nation forward and onward to better
times. His death on March 6 was a dagger blow to all Guyanese of all ethnic groups, but his
spirit and his principles and his struggle for national unity remain a guiding force for generations
This guiding force gives the Guyana Government the determination to carry out its task of
rebuilding the country and treating all citizens equally without any discrimination on the grounds
of ethnicity or anything else for that matter. This the Government of Guyana will continue to do
without any apologies.
On May 5, 1838, the first group of indentured Indian immigrants disembarked from the British
ship, the Whitby, in Georgetown. On May 5 of this year, an Indian Immigration Monument was
declared open in Georgetown, Guyana, and it depicts the Whitby in full sail. While this
monument causes us to reflect on more than 150 years of the history of the Indians in our
country, the ship in full sail is also symbolic for the future, since it indicates to all of us that the
descendants of the Indian immigrants to Guyana, to Trinidad, to Suriname and elsewhere in the
Caribbean region are decisively moving forward to conquer more horizons and win greater
achievements in various fields of endeavour. These will be positive factors which will certainly
determine the destiny of our region in the years to come.