Two ships sailing out of Calcutta (now Kolkata) port on the eastern coast of India, the Whitby and Hesperus, reached British Guiana (now Guyana) on the northern coast of South America on May 5, 1838 after a perilous sea journey that lasted 112 days. More than 17 decades later, Guyana – a part of the Caribbean – is set to hold commemorative functions in early May to mark the 175th anniversary of the arrival of Indians in the country.
The celebrations will begin with a function at Highbury village on the river Berbice, which was the site of Plantation Highbury, the sugar estate to which the first group of Indian workers was assigned. The ship Whitby dropped off 128 indentured workers at Plantation Highbury before taking the rest to other plantations in the British colony.
A replica of the Kolkata Memorial to the Indian indentured workers at the Garden Reach jetty from where they embarked on their journey will be unveiled at Highbury on the east bank of the Berbice river. Another replica of the memorial will be unveiled at the Monument Gardens, which commemorates the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Indians in Guyana.
‘The two replicas will be unveiled on May 5, at 10.30 am at Highbury and during the evening function of Pushpanjali at the Monument Gardens in Georgetown,’ said Sasenarine Sankar, a member of the Indian Commemorative Trust (ICT) that is organising the celebrations. ‘The replicas will link the two ends of the sea voyage that took the indentured workers to the new land.’
Regular, organised celebrations of the anniversary of the arrival of Indians in Guyana began in 1987. As part of the celebrations, the ICT Foundation decided to create a Monuments Garden.
In 1988, on the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Indians in Guyana, the ICT Foundation requested the government of India for a monument depicting the Indian indentured migration to the colonies. An imposing bronze sculpture – a model of the Whitby was presented by the Indian government to the people of Guyana.
The sculpture stands at a prominent location in the Monuments Garden; it was formally unveiled after the landscaping of the area. The Monuments Garden has now been given a facelift for the 175th anniversary celebrations with a new amphitheatre that would be a permanent fixture for cultural events.
Various Indian organisations in Guyana and among the Indo-Guyanese diaspora in the US, Canada, Britain and Australia have plans for year long events to mark the 175th anniversary with a series of lectures, seminars and cultural events with music, dance and theatre. May 5, designated as Indian Arrival Day is a national holiday in Guyana.
Guyana has among the highest rate of migration in the region. Emigration began in the 1950s and increased during the 1980s, when economic distress due to a stagnating economy forced thousands of Indo-Guyanese to leave home in search of better opportunities in North America and Britain.
The Indo-Guyanese diasporic communities are very enthusiastic in celebrating Indian Arrival Day. Among the events planned in Canada is a stage drama titled ‘The Journey’, which reflects the experience of Indians crossing the ‘kala pani’ and establishing themselves in the West Indies.
Adit Kumar, who heads the organising committee in Toronto, explained that an exhibition is being prepared ‘with artifacts from the indentured period, including a model ‘logie’ – the hut that the immigrants lived in.
The Indian workers were brought to replace the slave labour on the sugarcane plantations after slavery was abolished in British colonies. Over next nine decades, 239,909 Indian workers were taken to British Guiana till the indenture system was abolished. About a third of the Indian arrivals returned home after the end of their indenture contract, the rest stayed on in British Guiana. Guyana is now a multi-ethnic society where Indo-Guyanese form just over 40 per cent of the population.
(28-04-2013-Shubha Singh can be contacted at [email protected])