May 5 – Indian Arrival Day in Guyana

Posted on May 5, 2016

Like Trinidad and Tobago and several other nations in and around the Caribbean, Guyana celebrates Indian Arrival Day.

Does it seem surprising to learn that Caribbean nations celebrate the anniversary of people arriving as indentured laborers from India?

Perhaps it is not so surprising when you learn that a large percentage of these nations' populations are descended from the Indian laborers. (And, remember, we are not talking about Amerindian – we are talking about East Indians, from India.)

Amerindians make up only about 9% of Guyana's population. Afro-Guyanese, descendants of slaves from Africa, make up about 30%; Guyanese of mixed heritage make up almost 17%. Indo-Guyanese – the descendants of the laborers from India – make up the largest group, at almost 44%!

Why were Indians brought to Guyana and other Caribbean nations? Slavery was abolished in Guyana in 1834, and many former slaves left the plantations where they had worked, eager to start their own freeholdings. The sugar planters, who were by and large British, began to recruit people from Africa, Portugal, and other places to come work on the plantations, but they could not interest enough people to work the plantations.

One of the plantation owners asked if he could bring over Eastern Indians for a 5-year period of indenture. (That means that the planter and the laborer had a contract that the laborer had to work on the plantation for five years.) Since Britain controlled India, it was perhaps natural for the British planters to recruit from the populous sub-continent.

On this date in 1838, the first small group of Indian laborers came to Guyana. Eventually, over the course of some eighty years, hundreds of thousands of laborers were imported from India. Of course, some of them returned to India with their earnings; many chose to (or had to) stay in Guyana.

Just as some Americans celebrate the Mayflower,
the ship in which some early colonists
to the New World,
some Indo-Guyanese people
 celebrate the Whitbythe first ship that brought 
Indians to Guyana.

Indians in Guyana were allowed to keep
and practice their culture, even back in the
1800s. Many modern Indo-Guyanese
celebrate Hindu holidays and keep
Indian traditions.
I bet you are wondering if the planters, who were used to having slave labor at their disposal, treated the Indian workers well. As in anything dealing with people, the answer is “some did, some didn't.” 

However, the Anti-Slavery Society visited Guyana to make sure that a new kind of slavery was NOT being introduced. 

On some plantations they observed bad treatment of workers, including flogging and imprisonment, and they also found that some workers were being paid less than a third of what they were promised. After the members of the Anti-Slavery Society investigated, they gave a report to the Governor, who ordered the prosecution those guilty of mistreating the Indians.

Guyana is on the northern coast of South America. To learn more about Guyana, check out this earlier post.

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