Grassroots Talk

By Jagnarine Somwar

On the evening of Friday, March 3, the Guyana Indian Indentureship Abolition Association (GIAA) held a programme to observe the centennial anniversary of the end of indentureship in Guyana.

This marked the beginning of activities to coincide with March 12, the 100th anniversary of the Abolition of Indian Indentureship and also Phagwah 2017.
The ceremony featured several speakers, including Indian Rights activists, Ryhaan Shah and Ravi Dev, People’s Progressive Party, Member of Parliament, Adrian Anamayah and the Indian High Commissioner to Guyana, V. Mahalingham.

Rightfully so, the three speakers made scathing presentations as follows:
“The essence of democracy must be nourished through protest and through the populace, who have earned and fought for their freedom, to guard their freedom jealously… and to take actions that would reverse the uncertain future and security of Indo-Guyanese.”
The urge was also to “stand firm and resist” marginalization as “Indian businessmen are being penalized for their success”

Those remarks could be attributed to the draconian measures inflicted on the mainly East Indian Guyanese businessmen and the witch hunting by the State Assets Recovery Unit (SARU) and the Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU).

To add insult to injury, as the Guyanese population, especially the Hindus were preparing to celebrate Phagwah, the Minister of Culture made the most damning and insulting remark that Phagwah is the Festival of Lights and that the Guyanese population was preparing to celebrate Diwali on March 12.

The month of March marks the suspension of the indentureship scheme, which brought an end to
the importation of Indians to the slavery driven plantations of then British Guiana. On March 12, 1917, the Governor General of India stamped down on this act of dehumanising their nationals, which at that time had already supplied the West Indies with a new workforce, after slavery was outlawed.

One hundred years later, Guyana celebrated the landmark of not only the end of this callous system, but also the diversity which emerged and continued to develop as a result of the coming of the East Indians.

East Indians in Guyana are no less than any other race, thus they must be treated with the respect they deserve like every other Guyanese and not as third class citizens. Like the African slaves, the East Indians contributed immensely towards the development and progress of this nation through blood, sweat and tears.
Indo-Guyanese are entitled to land for housing, agriculture and mining like other citizens, therefore, their applications for their birth right entitlement must find favours with the powers that be and not be side-lined  for that which their fore parents made sacrifices.
History would remind us that more than 120 years ago, land for settling and other purposes were made available to the indentured servants, who forfeited their return passage to India to remain in Guyana, by the then established Return Passage Committee.

In 1885, a Commission was appointed, headed by the Attorney General, J. W. Carrington, to determine how a land settlement scheme could be established for Indians in compensation for their return passages to India.

The Commission met with plantation owners, groups of Indians and other interested persons, and visited a number of places suitable for settlement. The Commission subsequently established a Return Passages Committee in September 1896 to obtain the sites and to select the settlers.

In 1896, Helena, an abandoned sugar plantation on the west bank of the Mahaica River, was surveyed and divided into lots, and the old drainage canals were also cleared. Distribution of house lots and cultivation plots to the selected indentured settlers began in April 1897, and by the time this process was completed, 1,206 persons were in possession of land in the settlement. However, all the persons granted land in Helena did not move from their former places of residence to reside there. The Carrington Commission felt that the indentured servants could not manage Helena without Government support. The Governor, Sir Walter Sundall, therefore, appointed Rev. James Cropper of the Canadian East Indian Mission as superintendent of Helena, and also of Whim, another Indian settlement which had started on the Corentyne.

The Whim settlement started in September 1898 when land for housing and cultivation was allocated to settlers. By March 1899, land was shared out to 574 persons.
Many of the persons granted land at this settlement previously resided at the nearby sugar estates of Port Mourant and Albion where they had jobs, mainly as cane cutters, when they were not working on their own lands. The long drought in 1899 forced many of them to abandon their plots and return to Port Mourant and Albion, but they gradually returned to Whim as the weather conditions improved. Some of them also experienced severe economic problems because they incurred heavy debts after borrowing from money lenders to finance the building of houses. It took some time before they could eventually pay off these debts.

The settlers cultivated mainly rice, but also planted coconuts, coffee and fruit trees. With their earnings from the sugar estates, they were able to erect better houses than their counterparts at Helena.

A third settlement for Indian indentured servants was established at Bush Lot in West Berbice. Comprising of an area of 1,306 acres of which 463 acres were waste land, it was handed over to the Return Passage Committee in March 1897.

The early settlers of Bush Lot experienced the problems associated with the drought of 1899 and their rice crop was severely affected. Even though house lots and cultivation plots began to be distributed from 1899, it was not until February 1902 that Bush Lot was officially declared an Indian settlement. A sum of $40,000 acquired from the immigration fund was spent on laying out the settlement and the digging by shovel-men of a canal, over three miles long, to the Abary River to obtain water supply.

Maria’s Pleasure, on the island of Wakenaam, started in 1902 when 168 lots were distributed. However, only 40 persons built homes and rice and coconuts were cultivated.
In 1905, the Government abandoned the scheme to settle Indians in exchange for their return passages, and agreed instead to assist them in purchasing land. In 1912-13, the Government purchased the abandoned estates of Unity-Lancaster on East Coast Demerara from their owners and improved the drainage and irrigation canals. The land was then divided into one-acre plots which were sold for $20 each.

Around the same period, Clonbrook, another abandoned estate, west of Unity-Lancaster, was also purchased by the Government and divided into house lots and cultivation plots. Each house lot was sold for $30 while a cultivation plot cost $20.

On the West Coast Demerara, Windsor Forest and La Jalousie, with a combined area of 3,000 acres, was offered for rent at a rate of one dollar per acre for the first year and six dollars for each subsequent year. The tenants had the option of purchasing the land by paying $8.50 per acre for 25 years. The nearby estate, Hague, was also leased out in lots and offered under similar terms.

Thus, the establishment of East Indian communities had immensely improved over the formative years despite the colonial hardships. However, after Independence from the colonial masters and self rule under the People’s National Congress, the suffering of the East Indians maximised to a point of mass migration and then after a resettling period from 1992 to 2015, the migration of East Indians to North America and elsewhere had recommenced.