The NR EYE: Remembering the indentured non-resident Indian

In an article in The Peninsula Qatar, Moiz Mannan describes plans for a project commemorating the millions of Indians who left their homeland to work as indentured servant.

When hundreds of overseas Indians from Kolkata make their annual trip home for the pooja celebrations next year they will probably have a tangible reminder of the trials and challenges faced by the first migrants who left these shores as indentured workers. The historic but abandoned Demerara dock on the Hoogly river will soon have a landmark in the form of a monument erected as a tribute to millions who became the first non-resident Indians (NRIs) in modern history. A commemorative plaque will be installed at the site at the conclusion of the annual diaspora meet – the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas – on January 10, 2011 to mark the beginning of the project which will include a museum.

According to media reports, there will be two phases to the project. Phase One involves installing a memorial plaque at Kidderpore (Demerara) depot clock tower, which is intact. President Bharrat Jagdeo of Guyana and leaders of several other nations will be invited for the ceremonies. Phase Two is for the museum and resource centre containing records of Indian indentured labourers’ emigration (1834 —1920), literature, works of art, documentaries, films, artifacts, photographs and emigration records relevant to that era and those who left as indentured labourers. The museum will be constructed from donations by descendants of initial migrants.

In fact, the Demerara depot in Kolkata was named after a region planted in British Guiana where sugarcane was planted. Guyanese nationals Ashok Ramsaran and Vishnu Bisram, along with nationals of other countries, lobbied the Indian government for the monument through Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (Gopio) and the central government as well as the government of West Bengal have agreed to the proposal. The state government will provide the land for the proposed monument. The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs has supported the proposal.

It was on November 2, 1834, that the first batch of indentured Indian labourers landed in Mauritius. Now, each year an annual commemorative ceremony is performed on this date at what is called the ‘Apravasi Ghat.’ Mauritius was then ruled by the British.

When slavery ended in the British Empire in 1833, plantation owners turned to indentured servitude for inexpensive labor. These servants emigrated from a variety of places, including China and Portugal, though the majority came from India. This system was pioneered at Aapravasi Ghat in Mauritius and was not abolished until 1917. As a result, today Indo-Caribbeans form a majority in Guyana, a plurality in Trinidad and Tobago and Suriname, and a substantial minority in Jamaica, Grenada, Barbados, and other Caribbean islands.

The islands of the Indian Ocean, especially Mauritius, specialized in sugar cane plantations, badly needed this intensive labor cheaper than the emancipated workforce negotiating for higher wages.

Mauritius was to act as a plaque tournante for this coolie or indentured population, dispatching hundreds of thousands of coolies to Africa and the Indies.

These workers were not slaves, in that, they were bonded by their employers for a fixed contracted period during which their transportation, logdging, food and clothes would be taken care of in lieu of their labour at the plantations. At the end of this period, they would be freed unless they renewed the contract.

Each of the labour importing colonies had to appoint an agent and set up a depot where the indentured recruits stayed while they waited for the ship to take them across the sea. There were separate depots and jetties for each colony.

One is reminded of some modern day examples where workers generally from poor nations are forced to pay recruiters in their own countries for the promise of work abroad. Once they enter the host country their passports are taken from them and they are not told when they will get them back. The ‘indentured’ workers are provided with lodgings, transportation to the place of work and basic foods, along with a meager salary.

In those days, the British government in India is reported to have actually encouraged indentured labour and recruiting depots were established in Calcutta and Madras. Recruiting agents were paid significantly less, per recruit, than for European workers. Most Indians who signed contracts did so in the hope of returning to India with the fruits of their labour, rather than intending to migrate permanently. The British government appointed a Protector of Immigrants in Jamaica, although this office tended to protect the interests of the employers rather than the workers. Although technically the workers had to appear before a magistrate and fully understand their terms and conditions, these were written in English and many workers, signing only with a thumb print, did not comprehend the nature of their service.

To be sure the memorial museum would be like a place of pilgrimage to the descendents of those initial migrants. In fact, many of the present day migrants, now called ‘NRIs’ would also be able to identify their own stories with those that were lived nearly 175 years back.

For the original report go to

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