One of last survivors of indenture system dies in Rotterdam

Shubha Singh reports for the

One of the last survivors of the Indian indenture system in the Latin American country of Suriname is no more. Ninety-eight-year-old Goeroepersad Girbaran died in the Netherlands without being able to fulfil his lifelong dream – visiting the country of his forefathers.

Goeroepersad was among the last Indian immigrants to arrive on a ship carrying indentured workers to Suriname.

He was among the thousands of Indian men, women and children who were transported to the Dutch colony in the northern part of South America in the late 19th and early 20th century to work on the plantations. Since his death, there have been demands to honour the memory of the last of the indentured migrants who came to Suriname from India.

He passed away peacefully at the family home in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, two weeks ago.

According to Goeroepersad’s son Deo, his father had always wanted to go to India for a visit, but circumstances did not allow his wish to be fulfilled.

‘He always had this wish of one day returning to India to visit his family…he had never been to India. But it would never be,’ Suriname’s leading daily Dagblad Suriname quoted him as saying. ‘But he always felt Surinamese.’

Goeroepersad was a babe in arms when the steamship Chenab ll docked at Paramaribo, in Dutch Guiana (now known as Suriname) on July 7, 1913. He was most likely to have been born on board the ship and was barely 21 days old when his parents disembarked in Paramaribo.

Goeroepersad was ‘a soft spoken and quiet person’, his family and friends say. He grew up in Nickerie at Van Drimmelan Polder and lived there for the most part of his life. Over the years most of his family moved to the Netherlands.

In 2001, at the age of 88 years, he was persuaded to go to the Netherlands as most of his family lived there. He passed away Jan 22, 2011, and was cremated four days later.

The story of his life, in fact, encapsulates one of the most remarkable chapters of Indian history.

Over one million Indians were taken to the British, Dutch and French colonies to work as agricultural labour on the plantation estates after the abolition of slavery in the colonies. About 34,000 indentured workers were taken to the Dutch colony and about 11,000 of them returned to India after completing their indenture contract.

The first ship, SS Lalla Rookh, carrying Indian workers destined for the plantations in Dutch Guiana reached its capital Paramaribo in 1873. The steamship Chenab ll, that carried Goeroepersad Girbaran and his parents to Suriname, was among the last of the indenture ships to reach the Dutch colony as the indenture system was abolished in 1916.

The Chenab was a new ship, commissioned just three years ago, and it made two trips in 1912 and 1913 from Kolkata, where the indentured workers embarked for Paramaribo. A memorial to the indentured workers was inaugurated last month at the Kidderpore Docks in Kolkata.

Suriname became independent in 1975. There is a large population of Surinamese of Indian descent living in the Netherlands as about one third of the Indian population of Suriname had exercised the option to migrate to the Netherlands about the time of its independence.

Girbaran was a farmer and lived close to the land. He had six sons and two daughters and is survived by 42 grandchildren, 49 great grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren.

In 2008, on his 95th birthday, his family staged a play ‘The Last Kantraki’ based on his life story. A few years ago, the Suriname government had honoured other surviving Indian immigrants from the indenture period.

Even though Goeroepersad had been living in Rotterdam for the past 10 years, many people in Suriname feel he should not be forgotten in their country.

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