During the month of May, Indian Arrival Day is celebrated in both Guyana (May 5) and Trinidad (May 30). The two countries are home to the largest populations of Indo Caribbeans. The holiday commemorates the arrival of Indian indentured labourers to the Caribbean. In each respective country, the day is celebrated by the Indo Caribbean community who comes together to share food and engage in cultural events. It is a day to pay homage to a historic event in Caribbean history as well as our ancestors bravery and resilience— yet something about this celebration hasn’t always sat right with me. Why do we celebrate the beginning of our ancestors' oppression?
After the abolition of slavery, the British were in need of cheap labour. Take the arrival of Indians in Guyana for instance. On May 5, 1838 the S.S. Hesperus and the S.S. Whitby landed in Berbice, Guyana with a group of 396 Indian migrants, known as “Gladstone Coolies.” The group—which only included 22 women, had come from the Chota Nagpur plateau.
This first wave, also known as the Gladstone experiment, was a test to see if Indians were a strong and adequate replacement for the African slaves.
On May 30, 1845 the Fatel Razack arrived on othe Gulf of Paria, Trinidad with 227 migrants from Calcutta.
The British recruited those who were most vulnerable for their new proposition. Those who were facing poverty and struggling to get by. The lure of riches in another land, riches they could return to their families with was promising. Each Indian was given a 5 year year contract to work on the British sugar plantations. At the end of their term, they were told they’d be given passage back to India— this wasn’t honoured.
The ratios between men and women were extremely uneven. With women in high demand, those in vulnerable situations were preyed on. Women who were facing domestic violence in their homes, runaways, prostitutes, or simply just poor. Those who had nothing to lose, only something to gain but taking the journey overseas to the Caribbean. The voyage to their new world didn’t pass without hardships. Passengers suffered from cramped spaces, diseases, mental health problems and death. Women giving birth lost babies and other small children.
Those travelling alone were at risk of rape and other violence without a male family member to protect them.
But they made it. Despite the trouble of their previous lives in India, despite the treacherous conditions during months at sea and despite the dehumanizing treatment that greeted them on the plantations, and the violence that followed. It is without question that our ancestors and our people are lion-hearted.
Gaiutra Bahadur tells many of the horror stories faced by women during indenture in her book Coolie Woman. Many women died at the hands of their partners and ex-partners on the plantation grounds, the sexual leverage they held due to the uneven gender ratios. Cutlassed to death, bodies parts chopped off and raped in some cases when they exercised their leverage and liberation. This toxic legacy of domestic violence started during indenture and still plagues our community today. Alcoholism and anti- black racism were also born during this time period. Perpetuated by our colonizers as a way to keep us from rebelling, keep us from breaking away from their system and keep us from banding together with our Afro Caribbean comrades.
Given the circumstances that brought our people to their Caribbean homes, it’s strange for me to want to celebrate the holiday.
To celebrate feels like I’m commending experimentation and colonialism.
Indians were exploited in order for the British empire to gain and grow. Even in today’s world, the British rule is strong. Most Caribbean countries didn’t gain their independence until the mid to late 1900s— it hasn’t even been 100 years for most. Indenture wasn’t abolished until 1917, again making it only slightly 100 years since our freedom. I often think about how we aren’t so far removed from these events.
Indian Arrival Day also marked the start of something new. It was during this moment in history our stories began and our culture was cultivated. Remembering this, I feel wrong for not wanting to celebrate. Our ancestors created something beautiful and rich out of the ashes. Because of them we exist today and their sacrifices deserve to be recognized and taken pride in. While we suffered hardships, not everything was a negative. Indenturers played games, made music and songs, created new language and ultimately reinvented themselves. We can enjoy a chicken roti, a chutney song, a Bollywood movie because of them. They created a space in their landed countries, contributing to our modern day Caribbean culture.
Throughout this time, I prefer to reflect on everything that brought us to where we are. I think about my great-great-grandparents who carried only one name—the name that became our family last name. My great-great-grandparents who had numbers branded on their terracotta skin. My grandparents made the decision to leave their home countries and made the journey to Canada for a better life, just as our ancestors did when they left India. My parents who left behind fruit trees and warm sun, family up and down the streets to come to a new country that didn’t understand them. I think of myself, trying to understand all of these people who came before me, in an attempt to better know myself.
We have survived so much— I may not be able to celebrate, but I will take pride in each of their accomplishments.
This article was written By Tiara Chutkhan. Tiara is a writer, "booktuber" and a "bookstagrammer." With a versatile taste, Tiara gives you a look into hundreds of interesting titles. Follow her at @bookwormbabee