The British Guiana Centenary Year Book, 1831-1931, edited by E. Sievewright Stoby, was published in 1931 to celebrate the centenary of the unification of the colony of British Guiana in 1831. The Year Book contained a series of essays under the title “Our Place in Guiana,” written by four prominent citizens – African, Chinese, Indian and Portuguese. Guyana Review reprinted the essay on “The East Indians” exactly as it appeared in the Yearbook seventy-eight years ago. It was written by the Honourable Dr Jung Bahadur Singh, a prominent East Indian member of the Legislative Council.
British Guiana, with an area of 90,000 square miles [sic], has only a small population of 300,000 people made up of Europeans, including Portuguese; Africans; mixed races; Chinese; Aboriginal Indians; and East Indians. The climate is equable. Her northern sea-shore faces the Atlantic Ocean.
The early settlers were the Europeans and the Africans; later, through a system of immigration, Portuguese, Chinese, and East Indians were introduced. The East Indians, who today total over 120,000 or 42% of the population of the colony, were first attracted to immigrate in 1838 when the Hesperus with 156 souls arrived on the 5th May. Fourteen days prior to the sailing of the Hesperus, another ship the Whitby had sailed for Berbice; but, as was often the case in those days of uncertain sailing time, the Whitby did not arrive until long after the Hesperus.
The need for the East Indians had been created in Guiana not only by the sparsity of the colony’s population but by the emancipation of slavery. And it seemed as if there could be no more suitable race to train as agriculturists and colonists than the East Indians who were essentially attracted to the soil and already possessed some knowledge of sugar planting.
The first batch from the Hesperus and Whitby were disposed amongst several plantations, principally Vreed-en-hoop, Vriedestein, Anna Regina, Bellavue, Waterloo, and Highbury. How familiar those names sound and yet how few remain in active cultivation to-day. However, in this first year, over 406 East Indians arrived and, although little time was given them for becoming acclimatised to their surroundings, they soon proved capable and efficient labourers.
Unfortunately, a great deal of controversy arose over the treatment of the East Indians on some of the estates, resulting in a Commission of Enquiry being appointed and the abolition of East Indian immigration until 1845. It is interesting to note that during this cessation of immigration the planters were active in protesting against what they considered an unjust measure and, possibly, it was this agitation which resulted in such increased immigration in the succeeding years.
The East Indians were recruited from nearly all parts of India the greater number coming from the North Western provinces. The indenture contract confined them to labour on the sugar plantations for a period of five years after which they were at liberty to discontinue their stay on the plantations and go elsewhere. Sirdars were to be paid a monthly wage of seven rupees, and ordinary labourers five rupees. Further, they were entitled to a free passage back to India – a concession granted to no, other immigrant race.
In later years, it became usual for a great many of them to leave the estates for the neighbouring villages; these periodical drafts of unindentured persons have greatly augmented the numerical strength of the villages and have also been responsible for the improved social and intellectual advancement among the East Indians. It also gave them the opportunity of making full use of their initiative and perseverance. They have built up the rice industry, and they are continuing to show keeness in all agricultural pursuits. They are the owners of coffee, cocoa, coconut, and rice plantations.
Some are merchants, others are doctors, lawyers, dentists, surveyors, teachers, chemists and druggists, interpreters, dispensers, tailors, and petty shop-keepers. Today, all over the colony, they form the nucleus of the labourers on sugar plantations. Others again are cattle farmers, and milk vendors.
Through religion, the East Indians may be classified under two heads, the Mohammedans and Hindoos. Up to the present time, Mohammedans and Hindoos have been living side by side, each performing their own religious rites, without giving cause for any misunderstanding. Mohammedans and Hindoos have always lived together as neighbours in the spirit of true brotherhood, and this is commendable. There are evidences, from the inception of immigration, that in all functions, Mohammedans and Hindoos invite each other, and this prevailing social custom will no doubt continue. East Indians (Mohammedans and Hindoos) are showing great activities in furthering their religious teachings. Should one travel about the country districts, one would find an increasing number of mosques and temples all over the colony.
Through the help of all races in the colony, the Hindu Religious Society of Albouystown has built a large Dharma Sala (home for the indigent) which provides accommodation and one free meal a day for about 200 poor people irrespective of race, creed, or caste.
The East Indians have realised the value of education. Within the last decade, three East Indians have won the British Guiana Scholarship worth $960 per year, tenable for three years in any British institution and, if medicine is taken, a further extension of the scholarship is granted should the student merit it.
In sport the East Indians are showing a keen interest, having recently acquired a spacious ground near the sea wall and built a beautiful pavilion which commands a good view of the Atlantic Ocean. The B.G. East Indian cricketers are now figuring in first-class tournaments and it is hoped that, in the next inter-colonial contest, at least one member of the B.G.E Indian Cricket Club will find his way into the team representing the colony.
There is in this colony a Ladies’ Guild which is formed for the social and intellectual improvement of the ladies and which was responsible for staging a very interesting play entitled “Sairtri,“ taken from the “Mahabharata.” Lady Denham is now taking a keen interest in this body.
In the political arena there is a definite sign of awakening, and many are now determined to exercise the franchise which was neglected in the past. In this colony there is one common franchise for all classes, irrespective of race and that is a knowledge of one language. The ballot papers are now printed in Urdu, Hindi, and English. There are now three elected East Indian members in the Legislature, one of whom is also a nominated member of the Executive Council.
The British Guiana East Indian Association is the only political body in the colony which advocates the cause of the East Indians.
The East Indians, in general, by dint of industry and hard labour, have proved themselves an indispensable factor in shaping the destiny of British Guiana.