Hardships Faced by the Indians

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The planters, after finding that they could no longer punish the Indian immigrants by flogging, used their political clout to pass in the Court of Policy the Immigration Ordinance in 1864. This Ordinance declared that employers must provide suitable houses, hospital accommodation and medical attention for the Indians. It also stipulated that wages were to be same as those paid to Africans who worked on the plantations.

But the Ordinance also spelled out the obligations of the Indian labourers and punishments for breaking the laws. If an indentured Indian refused to attend daily roll call, or to do work given to him, he was placed before a magistrate and faced a fine of $24 or up to two months in prison. He would also forfeit his wages if he was drunk on the job or used insulting language to his supervisors. If he was absent for seven consecutive days, or found more than two miles from his workplace on a work day, he was also charged for deserting and faced a punishment of up to two months in prison. The law also specified that an indentured labourer must obtain permission from the manager if he wanted to visit any area away from the plantation on which he was indentured.

While the Indian indentured labourers were forced to carry out their obligations, they rarely obtained the benefits stated in the Ordinance. Their housing conditions were extremely poor and they continued to live in barrack ranges - referred to as "logies" by the Indians - which afforded almost no privacy to families. Medical attention was rudimentary and was not always provided.

It was also usual for homes of the indentured labourers to be forcibly entered by supervisors to compel them to go to work, to search for stolen goods, to make arrests, all without warrants. The Indians voiced their complaints over the treatment they received, but very little was done by the plantation owners to improve the situation.

Work stoppages began to break out from time to time and they were sometimes led by ex-soldiers who had served in the Indian army and had taken part in the famous Indian Mutiny of 1857. In 1869, a strike broke out at Leonora and the deputy manager was assaulted during the demonstrations by the workers. The police eventually broke up the demonstration and arrested the leaders who were later sentenced to prison.

The manager of the plantation could make life difficult for the indentured Indians. He could force them to move from their residence to one which was more inconvenient, and he could suspend them from work, impose fines and even expel them from the plantation.

On the other hand, the estate owner encouraged the Indians to practise their religions, and even donated land and money to help them build their temples and mosques.

One of the chief problems that faced Indians during the early years was the shortage of women of their own ethnic group. This shortage often led to murders; there were situations in which wives were killed by their jealous husbands after the wives deserted them for other men.

In general, the East Indians were isolated in their communities on the sugar estates and many of them wanted to remove themselves from this seclusion. One of the ways open to them was to return to India after their period of indenture. (Actually there was a steady return to India until 1949 when the last batch of 311 left Guyana. Between 1843 and 1949, a total of 75,547 Indians left Guyana for India and they took with them over five million dollars in cash and jewellery).

Some Indians also moved to Georgetown and New Amsterdam to search for better jobs. While some gained success, others who possessed no skills resorted to begging and sleeping on the pavements.

In an effort to obtain economic freedom, peasant farming was seen as a positive avenue. Those who managed to save some money purchased plots of land from the African landowners and involved themselves in vegetable farming and rice cultivation.

Some plantation owners, realising that more and more Indians were attracted to independent peasant farming, tried to prevent them from leaving plantation work by influencing the Court of Policy to enact legislation in 1853 to halt this process. This law forced the Indians to serve as indentured labourers for the first five years, and for the second five years as either a free labourer or as an indentured labourer. This regulation was amended in 1858 to allow for a payment of $50 to each Indian adult (or $25 to a minor) who re-indentured himself. The aim behind this law was to keep the Indians on the plantations and prevent them form competing on the free labour market.