A historic journey

A historic journey

A historic journey. If modern cities of oil-rich Sheikhdoms of Arabian Gulf were built with sweat and blood of cheap Indian labour and the digital...

If modern cities of oil-rich Sheikhdoms of Arabian Gulf were built with sweat and blood of cheap Indian labour and the digital world in the US by white-collared Indian techies in recent decades, some countries as far away as South America had built their economies with this country’s indentured labour more than a century ago.

As hordes of skilled and unskilled workers and top brains migrate to distant lands for better employment opportunities and lucrative salaries, some of their ancestors too had left India on similar missions when the British was ruling the roost in this country. But the way they had travelled to unknown lands by sea with little geographical knowledge and on a wing and a prayer was heroic compared to the modern air travel and with inputs from a zillion sources.
Everyone who had reached an alien land and toiled to survive and prosper had a story to tell. But most of the sagas of success or failure might have gone up in flames when they were cremated if they happened to be Hindus and buried if they were Muslims. Still, some details of perilous journeys of indentured workers and their hardships had survived the time, largely because they had been passed on from generation to generation, enabling historians to piece together the slavish system of shipping manpower from India in the early 18th century.
It all began with the abolition of slavery (of Africans) in British West Indies in 1838, when 396 Indians, known as Gladstone Coolies, landed in British Guiana, now Guyana, from Calcutta. From that time, shiploads of mostly illiterate Indians had been transported for three-quarter of a century. According to records, nearly 350,000 people, drawn from the Eastern India region and then the Madras Presidency (which included Telugu people) were shipped to Guyana to work in sugar fields and tea gardens.
Guyanese planters had appointed local agents to recruit workers who must be docile, reliable and amenable and be prepared to work in treacherous tropical conditions. According to Wikipedia, intimidation, coercion and deception were often used to recruit Indian laborers. When they were difficult to enlist, the recruiters resorted to such illegal practices as kidnapping and forced detention. Women were vulnerable targets. The immigrant workers were employed on contract basis and when their contractual obligation was over some had returned to India while a good number of them had stayed back and became part of Guyanese ethnic mix.
The ‘original settlers’ from India in Guyana were generally credited with developing the economy and in later years they had assumed political roles after the abolition of indentured labour system in 1917. More important is the assimilation of successive generations of immigrant children in Guyanese society making it more homogeneous. A book, entitled 1838, written by well-known Guyanese author and novelist Dennis E Adonis, has documented the travels and travails of Guyanese Indians.
In an e-mail message, Adonis said he had decided to write the book because of his commitment to Guyanese culture, to which six races have contributed significantly in their own right. However, while there is a vast collection of historic literature regarding the journey of Africans to the British West Indies, among others, little is known about the perilous journey that early Indian immigrants would have endured in their quest to get to the then British Guiana.
Born and brought up in Guyana, Adonis has deplored the fact that even though Indo-Guyanese formed the larger sector of the Guyanese population, there is no proper or extended historic information on their journey to their adopted home.
The writer, who penned 19 books so far, stressed that during his research to write the book, he was agitated to learn that the Whitby and Hesperus ships that brought the Indian indentured servants to Guyana were actually designed with a torture chamber and two sealed-off rooms where many Indian women on the journey were believed to have been raped by the merchants who duped them or their husbands into traveling to the then British Guiana from Calcutta during the May 1838 journey. Archival data also suggests suicides during the voyage.
Adonis avers that by today’s standards, early British merchants may have more than likely been guilty of crimes against humanity and human trafficking during the shuttling of indentured labour from India to Guyana. He argues that the British immigrant records are more than likely manipulated, while the arriving Indians were certainly suppressed by plantation owners back in 1838. Hence, the rapes, torture and working conditions were never reported or were never properly documented.
In his book, Adonis seeks to relay these occurrences in a chronological story format. But even though some readers may view his book as historic facts, others may consider it as suggestive history or as nothing more than a piece of historic fiction.
But regardless of whatever context the 1838 book may be viewed, Janata Seetahal, a researcher member of the Association of Asian Studies, has suggested that it would nonetheless ignite a healthy debate regarding exactly what may have happened to the many Indian indentured servants during their journey from Calcutta to the then British Guiana aboard the Whitby and the Hesperus.
The book is scheduled for release in India on April 20, with plans to officially unveil it in Guyana on May 5. With historic information collected from the Royal Commonwealth Society at the University of Cambridge in England, and the Indian Organisation for Diaspora Initiatives, among others, the book is being published in English and Hindi by Learning Tree Publishing in the UK.
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