Remarks by Ambassador Odeen Ishmael at the Indian Arrival Day Commemoration Organised by the Florida Hindu Cultural and Religious Association at Lantana, Florida on June 8, 1997

I am indeed very happy to be with all of you today to participate in your programme by which you commemorate "Indian Arrival Day" for the first time in South Florida. Let me from the onset congratulate the executive and members of the Florida Hindu Cultural and Religious Association for having the vision to organise such an activity which highlights the history, culture and achievements of people of Indian origin in the region of the Caribbean.

Of course, when we talk about "Indian Arrival Day" we refer to the commemoration of the arrival of the first Indians in the Caribbean, and not in the United States. I want to get that part very clear since as we all know, there has also been a large migration of people from the Indian subcontinent to the United States, particularly after 1960.

The migration of Indians to the Caribbean has a greater meaning to us since that process established new roots in a new land and chartered a new chapter in the history of people of Indian origin. It also posed new and difficult challenges to the early migrants and succeeding generations to maintain cultural traditions which have been buffeted by other existing and invading cultures. In the process, Indians in the Caribbean have, as a result of various factors, lost the gift of the languages of their ancestors, but have managed to cling to their religions and family traditions, and have made positive advances in solving caste differences while blending their culture forms with a variety of other culture patterns found in their respective countries into a generally solid unit.

Unfortunately, I can only speak of the historical experiences of Guyana. For us, Indian Arrival Day is celebrated on May 5, for it was on that day in 1838 -- 159 years ago -- the first batch of Indian indentured immigrants landed in Guyana.

You will recall that in 1838, in the Caribbean region, most of the people were Africans who had been brought as slaves by the European plantation owners. By that year, slavery had lost its usefulness, and the British Government, which ruled many of the Caribbean territories, abolished slavery on August 1, 1834. But the slave owners were not willing to let their African slaves go, so their friends in the British Parliament allowed them to continue extracting more labour from them for four more years.

Since the slave owners now knew that they would no longer have free African slave labour, they began to look around for new sources of cheap workers on their plantations. In 1834 they managed to recruit small groups of Portuguese from the islands of Madeira and the Azores and they were put to work as indentured labour on the sugar plantations of Guyana. But these people were by no means agricultural workers so their productivity level was very low. A payment of about 10 cents a day was also not very encouraging to them as well. So, as soon as their indenture was completed, they moved to the towns to find other better paying jobs or went into the interior region to look for gold.

The sugar planters and the British Government then began a new task of looking elsewhere for further inexpensive replacements. They initially thought about China, but because of the distance, their minds turned to India. The economic situation in some Indian states at that time was very depressed. This was particularly so in Bihar, near to Calcutta, which continued to be ravaged by flooding, cyclones and the occasional famine. It was therefore easy to recruit indentured migrants from this state especially when lucrative promises of easy working conditions and good wages were made to them.

There is no doubt that most of the recruits were fooled by the recruiting officers, many of whom were Indians themselves. Since most of the migrants were illiterate and had probably never ever travelled more than a few miles from their own home villages, they were also misled to believe that the new place where they were being taken to was not very far away. They did not have the concept of distance, and maybe they felt that they would have the opportunity to see their relatives and their friends and their home villages on a fairly regular basis.

They marked their indenture contracts -- most could not sign their names -- and these were duly witnessed by the Indian recruiters. In most cases, the indentured Indian was bonded for five years during which he or she would be housed and given a daily wage, which ranged from about 8 to 24 cents. At the end of the indenture, return passages would be guaranteed and a small lump-sum of money would be given. Later, those who opted to remain in the new land were each given small plots of land instead of the lump-sum of cash.

When the first batch of returnees went back to India and reported the harsh conditions under which they lived and worked, the recruiters had a more difficult time to convince people to migrate to Guyana. The result was that some people were kidnapped, and there were even stories of arrangements being made for convicts to be sent. People who ran the jails made some money on the side in furnishing recruits for indenture.

Those who recruited the migrants then moved to other states to carry out their operations. The result was that indentured labourers were collected from other states such as Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Mysore and Kerala and parts of what is now Pakistan.

There are stories, too, that some Indian soldiers who participated in the Indian Mutiny of 1857 were indentured to Guyana as part of their punishment.

What were the realities the immigrants encountered when they arrived in Guyana? They were herded in logies (or barrack ranges) with very little sanitation facilities. Significantly, some of these logies were the very ones in which the African slaves used to live. Further, they were prevented from leaving the plantation to which they were bounded under penalty of the law. These penalties included fines and imprisonment. The amount of days lost from work due to this imprisonment was added to the indenture period. Permission had to be sought from the plantation owner in order to visit places outside of the plantation.

The indentured labourer had the so-called right to complain about his treatment to the Immigration Department in Georgetown, but for him to do so he had to obtain permission to leave the plantation. If he decided to go without permission, he was punished for breaking the law.

The arrival of the Indians in Guyana brought about a new set of social relations in the country. First of all, it brought about distrust between the Indians and the Africans. When the Africans were freed from slavery, most of them left the plantations, but they felt that they now had some bargaining power to demand reasonable wages for paid employment there. However, the arrival of the Indians on the plantations undercut this bargaining power since the Indians were working in the same jobs for very meagre wages.

Second, when Africans were freed, they were given no compensation -- no money or land. On the other hand, when Indians finished their indenture, they were given return passages to India or plots of land if they preferred to remain. Obviously, this bred some form of ill feeling since the Africans felt that they were given a raw deal while the Indians benefitted from the bargain.

Third, rudimentary primary education was offered to Africans in schools run by Christian denominations. There were no such facilities offered to Indians who also were suspicious of the Christian churches whose aim was also to convert Indians to Christianity. As a result, Indian children were not educated and the Africans saw themselves as socially superior since they were given jobs in the Government service because they were educated according to British standards.

Some Indians who had completed their indenture became successful in business and sent their children to these schools. To climb the social ladder, some of these educated Indians converted to Christianity and managed to obtain jobs in the civil service where they were nurtured as favourites of the British rulers. The sad aspect of this development was that some of these educated Indians from the late nineteenth century adopted the British class attitudes and looked down on their Hindu and Muslim working class uneducated counterparts. This class of Indians proved to be allies of the British colonialists in promoting the continuation of Indian indentured immigration from India to Guyana.

Fourth, the police recruited by the British were Africans and they were the ones who arrested Indians and locked them up when they breached the regulations. Further, when the Indians took protest actions on the estates against poor working conditions, African policemen were let loose on them

These actions were obviously the beginnings of strained relationships between Indians and Africans. They were perpetrated by the British colonialists who use these tactics to divide and rule.

But Africans and Indians also displayed strong bonds of unity on the sugar estates when in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century they supported each other to struggle for better wages and improved working conditions. So despite differences, the seeds of unity were already planted and they now need to be properly cultivated to continue the improvement of relationships.

Hundreds of thousands of Indians were transported to Guyana and Trinidad, and smaller numbers were taken to Jamaica and Grenada, and also to the non-British territories of Suriname, Martinique and Guadeloupe. Where larger numbers lived the better were the chances to maintain their culture. Unfortunately, with succeeding generations, the ability to speak the main Indian languages of Hindi and Urdu have become lost talents.

Finally, indentured immigration ended in 1917 after strong demands by the Indian Congress Party and Mohandas Gandhi in particular. A delegation of rich Guyanese Indians was sent by the British authorities to lobby Gandhi to allow it to continue.

Without a doubt, the descendants of Indian indentured immigrants have left, and are continuing to make, positive marks on the intellectual, cultural, economic, social and political landscape of the Caribbean region. Some who have continued the migration movement from the Caribbean to North America are also registering their mark. I do not need to give you a listing of those who have made their mark in these various fields. But one name stands out like a flashing beacon. Cheddi Jagan strode onto the stage of world history from the beginning of the 1950s and challenged the might of the British Empire which allied with the CIA to force him in 1964 from continuing the work of improving the social and economic welfare of all the Guyanese people. He bore the burden of his people in the struggle against dictatorship and tyranny, and led his people back to the victory seat in 1992, after nearly three decades during which many Caribbean leaders patted the dictators on their head and tried to dismiss the legendary Guyanese leader as irrelevant. But the masses of the people are the movers of history, and in Guyana they followed Cheddi Jagan as he propelled history and the Guyanese nation forward and onward to better times. His death on March 6 was a dagger blow to all Guyanese of all ethnic groups, but his spirit and his principles and his struggle for national unity remain a guiding force for generations to come.

This guiding force gives the Guyana Government the determination to carry out its task of rebuilding the country and treating all citizens equally without any discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity or anything else for that matter. This the Government of Guyana will continue to do without any apologies.

On May 5, 1838, the first group of indentured Indian immigrants disembarked from the British ship, the Whitby, in Georgetown. On May 5 of this year, an Indian Immigration Monument was declared open in Georgetown, Guyana, and it depicts the Whitby in full sail. While this monument causes us to reflect on more than 150 years of the history of the Indians in our country, the ship in full sail is also symbolic for the future, since it indicates to all of us that the descendants of the Indian immigrants to Guyana, to Trinidad, to Suriname and elsewhere in the Caribbean region are decisively moving forward to conquer more horizons and win greater achievements in various fields of endeavour. These will be positive factors which will certainly determine the destiny of our region in the years to come.