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The First Batch of East Indians Arrived in Guyana on May 5th, 1838

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Published: 6th of May, 2024 by Patrick Carpen.

Last updated: May 6, 2024 at 23:09 pm

Cover Photo thanks to Teamsda Photography.

The first batch of East Indians arrived in Guyana on the Whitby and Hesperus ships from Calcutta, India on May 5th, 1838. The Whitby brought 249 passengers (233 men, 5 women, and six children). The Hesperus brought 165 passengers, also mostly men. The ships docked at Plantation Highbury on the East Bank of Berbice, Region 6. Consequently, the East Indian Community revisits the site at Plantation Highbury each year to celebrate their arrival.

Cultural Event at Plantation Highbury. Photo by former Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo 2017.

A total of 18 persons died from both ships. Nearly 240,000 Indians immigrated to British Guiana between 1838 and 1917, when indentured immigration ended, to labor on the sugar plantations for a low wage.

Cultural Event at Plantation Highbury. Photo by former Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo 2017.

Most of these made Guyana their new home, starting new families and proliferating their kind. A small fraction intermarried with other ethnic groups contributing to the 7th mixed race of Guyana. Many East Indians migrated outwards of Guyana to foreign places such as the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and other countries. Through educational advancement, the East Indians now occupy the highest offices of Guyana. Guyana’s President, Dr. Irfaan Ali, and his wife, Arya Ali, are both of East Indian descent.

President Ali and First Lady
Cultural Event at Plantation Highbury. Photo by former Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo 2017.

On May 5th each year, Guyanese of all ethnic groups celebrate the arrival of East Indians to Guyana’s shores. The holiday gives Guyana’s East Indians a chance to reflect on their history and their contribution to Guyana’s rich cultural heritage.

The Indian Immigration Monument is located in a garden delimited by Camp, North, Alexander and Church Streets, Georgetown. The monument, a bronze replica of the vessel Whitby resting on a rectangular base, was unveiled on May 6, 1997 in commemoration of the arrival of the first East Indians in British Guiana. The vessel was one of two which brought the immigrants to the country on May 5, 1838.

The East Indians contributed greatly to Guyanese rich cultural heritage, especially in the culinary department. Some East Indian food contributions to Guyana include:

  • Curry powder
  • Masala
  • Geera
  • Dhall
  • Rice
  • Eggball
  • Bara
  • Polourie
  • Roti
  • Moringa
Crab curry with dhall and rice – an East Indian Tradition
Roti infused with split peas is called dhal puri – an East Indian tradition

The East Indians brought their religions, Hinduism and Islam, and their cultural traditions such as Phagwah, Diwali, Eid, and others, to Guyana. Many East Indians converted to Christianity shortly after arrival, while others converted over time. Conversion from East Indian based religions to Christianity is an ongoing phenomenon in Guyana.

The East Indians also introduced several fashion trends or dress styles to Guyana. These include the shalwar and sari.

East Indian wedding attire. Photo: Teamsda Photography
East Indian attire. Photo: Althea Hoodith

Guyanese East Indians have maintained their cultural connections with India in many ways. Guyanese regularly watch Bollywood films, perform Indian songs and dances, and attend East Indian based cultural events. In 2023, Guyanese born Aruna Sukhdeo, pictured below, was crowned Miss India Worldwide.

Aruna Sukdeo – Miss India Teen Worldwide 2023
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