Indentured Slavery and the Indian Experience in British Guiana

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By Amarnauth Samaroo, PhD

(AUGUST, 16, 2023) – The recent uproar by VP Kamala Harris over the Florida school curriculum and slavery prompted reflections of my ancestors’ experience in British Guiana with debt slavery, or indentured servitude as it was called back then. But first, what is this brouhaha in Florida that provoked my reflections?

VP Kamala Harris claims that the new curriculum will teach children that people benefited from slavery”. But in an ABC interview, Dr. William Allen, former Chair of the US Commission on Civil Rights and co-author of the curriculum, contends that the vice president is telling a lie. Dr. Allen, an African-American academic said and I quote: “As I stated in my response to the vice president, .it is categorically false. It was never said that slavery was beneficial to Africans. What was said, and anyone who reads it will see this with clarity, that it is the case that Africans proved resourceful, resilient, and adaptive and were able to develop skills and aptitudes which served to their benefits while in slave and after enslavement” (end quote). Dr. Allen continued: “This curriculum is devoted to telling the truth whereas Kamala Harris has retell a lie. Now it may have only been a falsehood the first time she stated it, but when you repeat a falsehood it becomes a lie”.

So what of our ancestors’ experience with indentured servitude in British Guiana? As a first principle, one must define that experience. Indentured servitude was a glorified name for slave labour. Dr. Alan Adamson in his celebrated work, The Political Economy of British Guiana 1838 – 1904 wrote that the Indians were subjected “to the same tyranny and discipline reminiscent of slavery” (Adamson: Sugar without Slaves 1972).

In the cattle pens at the ports in India; in the hull of the slave ships (the very ones that brought the blacks from Africa), and finally on the sugar plantations in British Guiana, the indignity and dehumanizing experience of Indians were no different than those of slavery regardless of their caste or birth.

Did our ancestors proved resourceful, resilient, and adaptive, and were able to develop skills and aptitudes which served to their benefits while on the plantation and later after indentured servitude? The answer is an unequivocal yes. Mind you, none of this is to minimize the dehumanizing experience, or the injustice and indignity of indentured slavery.

But surviving that trial by fire, the Indians proved their resiliency in adversity. Psalm 66: “For you, O God, have tested us; you let men ride over our heads; yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance”. Or as Nietzsche puts it: “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

I do not need any Kamala-come-lately to speak for me. My great grandfather, and thousands like him, was lured to British Guiana through fraudulent inducement only to find himself an indentured slave. But our ancestors had no time for pity party. Instead, they looked to the future; they adapted and applied the skills, resiliency and resourcefulness borne out of their experiences to become successful. Equally important, our ancestors passed on those same traits to their children, and their children’s children who today continue to mould their destiny rather than clamor for handouts. My parents, like most of their generation, were illiterate, but they instilled in us those inherited traits – hard work, sacrifice, resiliency, resourcefulness, and that indomitable will to succeed. And it was those very traits that enabled them and later generations to survive the indignity and injustices of the Burnham regime, and the misguided policies of Dr. Jagan.

For the Kamalas of this world, we’ll leave the last word with countryman, Bob Marley: Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds…

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The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.