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The history of Indian arrival in Guyana 167 years ago


Georgetown, GINA, May 4, 2005

East Indians celebrating Indian Arrival day at the National Park.

After the abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean (1834) the agriculture production in the then British Guiana had fallen by 60 percent (1838). Plantations were being closed down at an alarming rate. Plantation owners feared the loss of cheap labour after the enslaved Africans were freed and most of them chose to leave the plantations. The freed slaves headed for the villages and towns; refusing to work for their Plantation owners because of the inhumane conditions they worked under.

Plantation owners in British Guiana then turned to immigrants from England, Germany, Ireland and the British West Indies. The start of the indentured system (coolie system) was on its way in British Guiana, but these workers did not last on the plantations due to the extreme heat and strenuous working conditions.

The British looked for cheap labour to continue the work that many freed slaves refused to do. They recruited contract labourers from India through a Calcutta agency, to help save an ailing sugar industry. During this period, the British plantation owners also turned to Portugal, and later to China, (1853), for contract labourers.

These workers were paid wages. The contract labourers were also given a passage to this country and a roof over their heads. After the person's contract was up, he was free to leave. But, often, circumstances forced them to renew their contract and to continue with the work they were doing.

On May 5th, 1838, the first group of East Indians set sail to the Americas on the Whitby, (British ship). Then 244 Indians landed on Guyana’s soil. The journey to the New World began on January 13th 1838, from the Calcutta port with 249 Indians, and lasted five months. The long voyage across the oceans brought seasick, hunger and diseases to the Indians onboard the ship and five people succumbed. Shortly after the arrival of the Whitby, another ship the Hesperus, which left India on January 29th 1838, landed with 165 Indians.

Most Indians, who left their motherland, had no concept of where they were going. They did not realize that they would never see their motherland and their families again as many had planned to return home with their savings. Unlike the Africans who were kidnapped, chained and forced into slavery, most of the Indians boarded the ship voluntarily. However, many were also tricked and lied to.

The living conditions for the Indians on the sugar plantations were appalling and workers were compelled to work 12 hours a day. The Indians lived in barrack-type buildings, 100 feet long and divided into 10-foot long sections. One family was crammed into this small area.

For many, the sun was extremely hot, especially for the ones who came from places like Uttar Pradesh and Punjab where it snows in some regions during the winter and has altitudes that vary from 100 to over 3000 metres above sea level. Guyana is below sea level, at the equator and hot throughout the entire year. The Indians adjusted to their new environment and endured the strenuous conditions.

Many Indians who remained in Guyana progressed, holding top positions in some of the country's political parties and businesses. Many are also the proud owners of businesses having benefited from the sacrifice of their ancestors- the people of the ship or “Jahan” who crossed the great oceans as contract labourers, to escape poverty, unemployment and decaying economic conditions of the Indian-subcontinent.