Terre-de-Haut (Guadeloupe), June 7 (IANS) A newly revealed historic site where 35 Indian indentured labourers, including a woman, were incarcerated and left to die would be part of a 1.8 million euro ($2.36 million) restoration plan in Guadeloupe in French West Indies.
The glad tidings for the Indian community came after a ceremony here over the weekend to pay homage to the 35 who were deported to “L’ilet a Cabris”, or the Islet of Goats, a little islet off this picturesque commune in les Saintes archipelago, in the mid-nineteenth century.
Financed by European, French and local funds, the “big project” will include linking the various historic sites by an electric boat, a small structure near the dilapidated prison and a restaurant, Mayor Louis Molinie announced to a community gathering in his office.
Molinie, who also participated in the ceremony in a park in front of the municipality, said he had been working for a long time with Michel Narayninsamy, a prominent Guadeloupe businessman and president of the local unit of the Global People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) to build a memorial for the Indian immigrants.
The descendents of over 43,000 Indians, who came to verdant Guadeloupe between 1854 and 1889 to work on contract on sugar plantations, wanted to build a seven-metre-high marble memorial for the 35 who had refused to submit to the dictates of their French colonial masters.
The authorities had agreed to the proposal to build a “luxurious” pavilion in Indian architectural style, but the cultural czars in Paris objected and suggested the use of local volcanic stone for a small tablet with the names of the courageous 35 etched on it, Narayninsamy told a group of visiting Indian journalists.
The final word came only three weeks ago with environmental authorities asking the Indian community to “wait more”, according to Molinie. But since there was little time to build a monument, the ceremony was held in the park, where a memorial stone with the names of the 35 was built in August 2012.
Shastri Rajendra Pandya came from Gujarat to lead the hour-long “yajna” complete with a fire made with mango wood and specially made cow dung cakes to give “jalanjli” to the dead, or do the last rites to pray that their souls may rest in peace.
Narayninsamy said they decided to build the memorial to tell the real story of Indian immigrants after Michel Rogers, a civil engineer turned genealogist, made the shocking discovery of the fate of 35 “who resisted the times, the isolation and humiliation” at the hands of colonial settlers and paid the ultimate price.
“Valiame daughter of Virapin”, who came from Madras was only 27 when she died. Vingadraien was the youngest to die, at 20, and Moutin, at 56, the oldest. But there is no record of where they came from, according to Rogers.
Indians were brought to the island as “workers” after the slaves fled the farms after the abolition of slavery April 27, 1848, leading to a sharp drop in sugar production. Indians, however, were often treated worse than slaves.
Le Raizet, the largest importer of slaves, started getting labourers from then five French territories in India: Pondicherry, Karaikal, Mahe, Yanaon, and Chandernagore in Bengal. Even British subjects were imported in a clandestine manner.
Planters ordered Indian workers like cattle.
Once hired, the workers were treated as property and sold or rented out to others at will. And when they died, the certificate of death also listed the name of the “owner”, said Rogers, citing records he found in the archives.
And yet, today, the descendents of those hardy Indian immigrants making up just about 10 percent of the island’s total population of 450,000 control 40 percent of its economy, engaged in transport and construction, vegetable trade, higher education and other professions.
(Arun Kumar can be contacted at [email protected])