Photo Courtesy: National Archives
The indenture system under which over a million Indians were taken to work as agricultural labour in the British, French and Dutch colonies under an indenture contract came to an end in 1917. The centenary of the end of indenture is being commemorated in several countries around the world with a variety of events through the month of March 2017.
When slavery was abolished in 1934 in the British colonies, indentured workers were brought in to fill the labour shortage on the sugarcane plantations. The indenture system was finally ended in 1917 after a long struggle against it by Indian nationalists.
The end of indenture celebrations began in Guyana on March 6. The commemorative events include seminars, discussions, cultural and literary events. Trinidad and Tobago held an international seminar and cultural event beginning on March 17. The Indian Diaspora Council held a commemorative event early this month in New York.
There is a large community of people of Indian origin settled in and around New York, who are descendants of indentured workers in Guyana, Suriname, Trinidad, Jamaica, South Africa and other countries. Descendants of indentured workers have migrated to Australia, New Zealand, UK, Canada and the US. A commemorative function was held in Sydney, Australia which has a large community of Fiji Indians. The University of London, UK plans to organize an international seminar on indentured workers on October 6-7, 2017.
Fiji’s end of indenture event is a week-long commemoration from March 20, it includes a two-day national seminar on March 22-24, a girmit film festival, book fair, a music and art festival and a pilgrimage to the site of the wrecked ship, Syria that sank with its indentured passengers. 'Girmit' was the term that came to be used for the indenture agreement by the indentured workers. Last year, Fiji marked the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the last ship carrying Indian indentured workers with a series of functions. The ship, SS Sutlej had sailed from Calcutta and reached Fiji on November 11, 1916.
Inaugurating the end of indenture function in Georgetown, Guyanese President David Granger said that the celebration of the centenary of the abolition of Indian indentureship was a timely tribute to the struggles of the foreparents of Guyanese of Indian ancestry. “We celebrate the contributions of persons of Indian ancestry to the development of our country. It is a fitting foundation for the building of a more cohesive nation,” he added.
Speaking at the international conference in Trinidad, Prime Minister Keith Rowley said that it was the British who extracted people from India and exported them to the Caribbean as replacement labour after the end of slavery in 1984.Trinidad remained grateful, he added, to the Indians who chose to remain in Trinidad and made the country their home after indentureship ended, he added.
The Indian indentured workers movement was an important trans-oceanic transfer of labour which changed the life and economy of the colonies in the Caribbean, South Africa and Fiji Islands. The history of the indenture system and its abolition had disappeared from public memory and academic research. History of indenture was not taught in schools in Fiji and several other countries; young people of Indian origin had a vague knowledge of girmit as a period of severe hardship and shame for their ancestors. But in the past decade or more, the memory of indenture has revived and girmit is celebrated as the triumph of the spirit over a bitter period of adverse conditions. Many of the countries that brought in indentured workers mark Indian Arrival Day with celebration and festivity. Indian Arrival Day is a national holiday in countries like Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname where the Indians form a sizeable section of the population.
In the past decade, the small Caribbean islands like Granada, St Vincent and Grenadiers, St Lucia, Martinique and Jamaica have also begun annual Indian memorial day celebrations. Arrival Day functions include presenting floral tributes to honour the ancestors followed by cultural functions that showcase Indian music, dances and cuisine. For those of Indian origin it is the moment to connect with their Indian roots and remember the ancestors who braved adversity to make new lives in distant, unfamiliar lands.
(Shubha Singh can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)