By Chaitram Aklu
Immediately following the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, a new system was introduced to fill the labor shortage created when former slaves began leaving the plantations. The new system, was known as indentureship, (recruitment of people for labor on contract), under which workers were brought from China, Madeira, and India, to satisfy the demand for labor of the mainly sugar plantations.
Recruitment of persons for labor from India under the Indentureship System began in 1834 and ended March 20, 1917. The Indian indentured laborers or girmityas, (girmitiyas) were taken from Indian port cities and transported to British overseas territories in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.
According to reports, the number of girmityas range from 1,194,957 to 2 million and were contracted or ‘bound’ to 19 colonies including Fiji, Mauritius, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Trinidad, Guyana (British Guiana), Malaysia, Uganda, Kenya, and South Africa.
Girmityas like other indentured workers suffered tremendous abuse under the system. Plantation work was relentless and demanding, involving digging, planting, dredging, harvesting and repairing machines all year round. Overtasking, (extending work assignment after it was given without additional compensation) was common. Harsh discipline for even trivial breaches of the labor contract was meted out to them – flogging, fines, and imprisonment. Indenture can easily be described as a dehumanizing and degrading experience which led Indians to call it ‘narak’ which means ‘hell’.
Unlike slaves, indentured workers could look forward to being free at the end of their contract and return to their homeland.
And while some indentured workers did returned to India at the end of their contract, girmityas and their descendants made and continue to make significant contributions to the growth and development of these countries in every respect.
Reports of the abuse and brutality from the various territories began reaching India. There were investigations, the results of which led to protests and demands to end the system. In 1910, Gopal Krishna Gokhale of the Indian Congress introduced a resolution to stop emigration from Natal, one of the port cities. Then in 1917 Mohandas Gandhi demanded the abolition of the system by March of 1917 and threatened a Satyagraha (passive resistance) if it was not ended. That same year the Indian Congress issued a statement, part of which reads, “nothing short of complete abolition of indentured labour, (sic) whether described as such or otherwise, can effectively meet the evils which have been admitted by all concerned to have done irreparable harm to the labourers. (sic)”
Recruitment under the system came to an end on March 20, 1917, leaving tons of documents pertaining to the girmityas located in various buildings and other locations in the former colonies, but have been neglected or simply left to deteriorate. Colonial and later national governments have not been kind to these documents.
Period documents include disembarkation records, immigrant registers that documented new arrivals, births and deaths on the various plantations, “letter books” that document the correspondence sent by immigrants to their relatives or other contacts, immigration agents annual reports that summarizes the state of immigration for a particular year, estate records, hospital records of treatment, and even Court records.
Now over 180 years after Indian indentureship began, a Guyanese Member of Parliament – Dr. Frank Anthony has thrown out a challenge to the New York Chapter of the Global Organization of Peoples of Indian Origin (GOPIO) to get involved and help save these primary documents from total destruction. GOPIO, an international organization, is made up of people of Indian birth, descent, or origin who live outside of India.
Dr. Anthony made a point to note that while he was talking about Indian immigration records in the case of Guyana, he had to note that all historical records should be preserved.
He was the guest speaker at the GOPIO special event in Queens, New York on April 27, and spoke on the theme: Cultural Preservation and Adaptation in the Diaspora. He told the gathering, “These types of papers have documented the harshness of life in the colony. The rates of imprisonment were extremely high during indentureship, prison terms were imposed for all kinds of trivial offenses such as failure to produce a pass when traveling from one estate to another.” — “The records from institutions such as the estates’ dispensaries have not been adequately collected and stored, in many instances these records have disappeared.” He noted further that “records for those indentured to Guyana are mostly intact and the majority is still available. However “The state of these paper records vary, some are in good state, while others have deteriorated to the point where the ink has faded, or pages of some of the registers have been torn, or the paper has become extremely fragile.”
He called on GOPIO to “mobilize the technical professionals who can help to promote the nomination and inscription of the indentureship records into the Memory of the World Register” – a UNESCO project established in 1992 and aims: 1. To facilitate preservation, by the most appropriate techniques, of the world’s documentary heritage; 2. To assist universal access to documentary heritage. This will include encouragement to make digitized copies and catalogues available on the Internet, as well as the publication and distribution of books, CDs, DVDs, and other products, as widely and equitably as possible; 3.To increase awareness worldwide of the existence and significance of such documentary heritage.
The task would involve locating, sorting, preparing, repairing, digitizing, photographing and all the technologies needed to save the treasure trove of this documentary heritage.
So far Guyana, Suriname, Trinidad & Tobago, and Fiji have been nominated to the Program.
The world’s documentary heritage belongs to all, should be fully preserved and protected for all, and with due recognition of cultural mores and practicalities, should be permanently accessible to all without hindrance, according to the Memory of the World Program.
All is not lost but the task is urgent!
The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.