This article was first published on the 5th of May, 2020 by Patrick Carpen.
A Little Background Information
The first people to have arrived in Guyana were the Amerindians who came from Asia via the Berring Straight in search of food. This ice passage later melted. After the Amerindians came the Europeans in search of the Golden City of Eldorado. The Europeans never found El Dorado. However, they set up sugar plantations in Guyana.
To fulfill the labor needs of the plantation, the despicable practice of slavery, particularly the enslavement of Africans, was accelerated. Slaves were brought from Africa to labor on the plantations. But when slavery was abolished in 1838, the need for cheap labor caused the Europeans to set their sights on India.
The East Indian Indentureship System
As mentioned above, when slavery was abolished, the plantation owners in Guyana needed laborers to fill the void. They created a system of indentureship. This saw the arrival of the first batch of East Indians in 1838. India provided a steady supply of laborers who were able to stand up to the hard labor of the plantations, particularly manual cane harvesting. These unskilled laborers were often colloquially referred to as “coolies.”
The East Indians were transported via ships from 1838 to 1917 in a voyage that lasted three months. After failed experiments with Portuguese and Chinese indentured laborers, the East Indians, of all races, proved most able to tackle the hard labor of the sugar plantations in searing heat. They were also willing to work cheap. In exchange, they were facilitated with houses to live in and also paid a low salary. At the end of the five years period, they had the choice of either renewing their contract or return to India. Most chose to stay in Guyana.
The stories of indentureship vary significantly and are often contradictory. Some East Indians express great satisfaction, relating that indentureship in British Guiana rescued them from a life of drudgery and stagnation in India while others tell stories of a harsh life meted out to them in early British Guiana.
It is my personal opinion that indentureship was a good thing. It brought new opportunities and provided a better life for those who migrated from India. Many East Indians took advantage of the opportunities in Guyana to advance their education, create businesses, and migrate to the United States and other first world countries.
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