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Indians in British Guiana, 1919 -1929: a study in effort and achievement

By Clem Seecharan

Abstract

From the 1830s to 1917, despair in India drove a small minority into indentureship overseas. These were probably men and women of considerable initiative and extraordinary courage. Their achievements in British Guiana suggest this. Men, women, and children toiled relentlessly on the sugar plantations, while exploiting every conceivable niche to supplement meagre wages. They built a stable family life. They adapted rice and cattle to the plantation environment, thus adumbrating the character of future Indian villages; but they also resisted the injustices of the system. Indians founded villages throughout coastal Guiana, from the late nineteenth-century. In spite of endemic malaria, a hazardous environment requiring elaborate drainage and irrigation, poor sanitation, an undercurrent of Black envy, and the remorseless hostility of the plantocracy and the State to Indian enterpise in rice and cattle, they progressed. Indians adapted their rich material and religious culture, recreating aspects of their ancestral villages. At the hub of their tradition was the family: although most migrated alone, a modified joint-family structure evolved. Their thrift, industry, judicious delegation of family labour, and an exemplary commitment to their families, sustained them in activities which others considered unremunerative. The practice of Hinduism and Islam was costly; it encouraged saving. Cultural security strengthened their self-confidence and sustained effort; it bred a sense of purpose. By the 1920s, rice, cattle, commerce, etc., had spawned an Indian middle class. These set standards for the community: they established an entrepreneurial tradition; their professional achievements undermined Indian indifference to education; some promoted intellectual curiosity; and facilitated Indian participation in organised cricket, the most eloquent manifestation of arrival. The middle class expanded conceptions of attainable goals. But Indian adaptation was shaped profoundly by a resurgence of pride in the achievements of ancient India and the rise of Gandhi. A separate Indian community, differing significantly in their basic assumptions from those of the Blacks, developed in British Guiana. The implications for race relations were already ominous in the 1920s

Topics: JV, DS
OAI identifier: oai:wrap.warwick.ac.uk:2700

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