Suriname Celebrates 150 Years of Indian Presence


By Dr Vishnu Bisram

June 5 marked the Sesquicentennial or 150th anniversary of the presence of Indians (from India) in Suriname. The first or maiden voyage of indentured Indians from India to Suriname arrived aboard the Lalla Rookh.

Indian indentured laborers (girmityas) first arrived in Suriname on June 5, 1873. Indentureship to Dutch Suriname thru 1916. More than 34,000 were taken as indentured laborers or girmityas to the colony. Indentureship was no better than slavery as the girmityas were dehumanized. Indians faced enormous obstacles during indentureship and after. This June’s commemoration, Suriname and her diaspora and descendants of girmityas around the globe recognize not only the overcoming of those obstacles that Indians faced but also the incredible breadth and depth of their contributions to society. The nation of Suriname and her diaspora are celebrating the memory of the girmityas whose determination, enterprise and personal sacrifice (along also with those of the African slaves, Javanese, and indigenous people and all otehrs) made the territory of what it is today.

During the indentured period, at the end of their contract of five years or ten years, some freed laborers returned to India while others stayed on making Suriname their new home. The indentured and their descendants have left a lasting influence on the territory that is still felt till this day. From Suriname, the Indians have settled in other countries – mostly Holland (Netherland) and neighboring European countries and in North America and the Dutch Caribbean.

The President of India, Her Excellency President of India Droupadi Murmu is the Chief Guest in a state visit on June 5 and 6 in the capital Paramaribo. President Murmu hosted and honored Suriname President Santokie last January in Indore, Madya Pradesh. President Chan Santokie is host this time around in welcoming the Indian President. Several agreements are expected to be signed between Suriname and India.

Besides the official state celebrations to commemorate the girmitya presence, there will be an international academic conference on indentureship and slavery at the national university from June 6 thru June 10. The conference is being organized by Prof. Maurits Hassankhan and others. There will also be daily cultural programs. Delegates from around the globe are expected to present papers at the conference.

As is written about Indian indentureship, destitute (unemployed) Indian laborers desperate for work and recruited by agents arrived in Suriname with hearts full of hope and dreams of earning quick money to fund a better lifestyle in their homeland. But this was not to be as they had to do back breaking work for very little earnings. In India, the indentured were deceived and misled by agents or recruiters (arkatiyas) who promised them quick wealth if they signed up for work in various parts of the globe. They were not told they would be signing up for human enslavement. With grit and determination in the colonies, they worked hard on plantations and saved their measly compensation. After completing their contracts of five or ten years, some returned to India where they experienced isolation and difficulties having crossed the Kala Pani making them unwelcomed to their native home. Others have stayed on making Suriname their home and building a beautiful multi-cultural society. And from Suriname, hundreds of thousands have migrated to Holland for studies and work eventually settling down there.

As the indentured laborers and descendants built their lives, they helped build Suriname and Holland and wherever else they migrated — never forgetting where they came from, always remembering the courage and pride they brought with them from the old country of India and of Suriname and passing these traits down to each new generation. That pride lives on today in the hearts of Indian Surinamese in Holland, other parts of Europe, North America, Curacao, Aruba, St. Martin, and other places. They continue to practice their cultural (music, language, garment, etc.) and religious traditions brought from Mother India. And wherever they have settled, they have made enormous contributions to national development.

The contributions of Indian Surinamese to wherever they are present live on in business persons, scientists, politicians, labor leaders, educators, engineers, musicians, singers, bureaucrats, civil servants, soldiers, police, sporting personalities, among other professions, who hold dear the (Hindu) Indian ancient cultural value that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity, equality and respect. In particular, every realm of endeavor in Suriname and Holland, from economics to politics and religion and culture, education, music and literature, has seen involvement of Indian Surinamese descended hands and minds. Theirs was a magnificent contribution to the making of modern Suriname and Holland and other societies.

The Indian diaspora at large and Caribbean people in USA stand truly proud to recognize the enormous role played by Indians (and others) in developing Suriname whose 150th anniversary of the presence of Indians is commemorated this year June 5 onwards.


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