Address to the 158th Anniversary of Indian Arrival in SVG – At their Award Ceremony and Cultural Event at Rawacou Beach Resort on Sunday, June 2. Topic,
“The Significance of the Indian People in SVG today after 158 Years”
I begin by expressing thanks to the organisers of today’s event for the invitation to be part of your anniversary ceremony and to be allowed to share some thoughts with you. Let me also state that I intend to take some liberties with the topic that was suggested to me and to work around it. I am sure that it has dawned on you that your celebration this year is taking place at a time when our nation is about to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the recovery of its Independence. This is the context within which I want to direct my conversation.
Because this is about the anniversary of the arrival of your ancestors to this country there will always be need for continued reflection since each period seeks answers to different questionsabout those with whom you are connecting. It is important that all of us have a sense of history and of identity. You did not drop out of thin air. A number of factors have shaped you as you are today. It is important, too, that your children be part of this. Without a sense of self, of identity, like the rest of us, you will be lost in this rapidly changing world that is being transformed so radically by technology and where globalisation challenges our sense of self and of nation.
You are here today because some of your forebears decided for whatever reason to remain part of this land to which they were brought. Others took a different path and accepted terms that led to their return to the land of their birth. I am saying all of this to make the point that you are an essential part of this nation and that over the years in a variety of ways you helped to shape and build it. This is why I have highlighted the issue of the 40thanniversary. Your children, as you have, must begin to realise that things did not come easily, that your foreparents struggled amidst trying conditions and enormous challenges to ensure you are who you are today. I want to reflect a bit on this because those who first set foot on this country, colony as it was then, met horrific conditions with which they had to contend to ensure their survival. The Lieutenant Governor in 1882 noted that your forebears were never hesitant to bring their complaints. They did not accept things as they were.
What was St.Vincent like when they arrived?
St.Vincent in the 1860s was in a state of economic decay caused by a depression in the Sugar Industry, the main backbone of the economy. Some estates, among them, Orange Hill, and Waterloo, had stopped production. Many others were in difficulty. Workers on the estates were dissatisfied and had been showing so immediately after emancipation, disgusted with the wages they were being offered and the general conditions that existed. The planters first response was not to reorganise their estates, but to reduce the cost of production through low wages. This did not go down well with the workers who were becoming increasingly militant. Some began moving away from the estatesinto villages that they were beginning to establish. They stilldepended, however, on work on the estates. Those not living inestate houses were in a better position to bargain for wages. This antagonised the planters who did not want to give into theirdemands, and so lose the control they always had.
Having indentured labourers was a way out of that situation. It is said that Indian immigrants came here to fill gaps created by a shortage of labour. The story was not that simple, rather not true. Remember, too, that preceding your ancestors, were African and Portuguese indentured immigrants who had been coming from the 1840s. The first arrival of Indians was, as we acknowledge today, on June 2, 1861. Interestingly by October, the Lieutenant Governor was complaining that despite the eagerness for immigrants there was an unwillingness to readily accept them when they arrived, each hoping that their neighbours would take. What the planters intended to do, was to play off Immigrants against Creole labourers and to provide competition,hoping to maintain an equilibrium in wages. The creole labourers understood this and had become animated. It was alsoan aspect of the colonial divide and rule approach.
The Indian indentures who arrived in 1861 and 1862 found themselves in an explosive situation in 1862. Creole labourers began strikes over reduced wages and in some cases because of the inability to find work. What followed were riots between September 22 and October 1, 1862 on many estates in the Charlotte and St. Georges parishes where most of the large estates were located. They were sparked initially by attempts to break a workers’ strike. Among the estates were Mt.Bentinck, North and South Union, Sans Souci, Adelphi, and Mt. Grennan. Planters houses were damaged and looted at Argyle, Calder, Akers Hill, Colonaire and Carapan. Disturbances also occurred in the Mesopotamia Valley and in Ashton Union Island. At Mt. Bentinck, Sans Souci and Adelphi Indian and African immigrants were forced out of the fields. In Mesopotamia, Portuguese owned shops were targeted.
Although the target were the planters the immigrants also suffered from their dissatisfaction. This was not focused on Indians and Portuguese but on Immigrants generally since African immigrants on some of those estates also became victims of the strikers. As late as 1882 Goodluck Clarke, a labourer indicated to the Royal Commission set up in that year,that they were willing to work “but since the introduction of Indian immigrants they are unfairly dealt with and have no protection even before some of the police magistrates.”
There was dissatisfaction by all workers. The indentured immigrants and those who had completed their indenture allsuffered tremendously and confronted many challenges. With continued low sugar prices up to the late 1880s estate managers warned non-indentured Indians and those whose indenture was about to expire that their services were no longer needed. The Lt. Governor, however, concerned that an exodus of Indian labourers would upset the labour market urged planters to retain services of the Indians. Housing and health conditions were also deplorable. That was the kind of climate that existed and affected the state of workers, indentured and non-indentured. By the middle 90s an increasing number of immigrants were claiming back passages and over the whole period of indenture almost a half of the immigrants had returned to India. Then there were the natural disasters at the turn of the century that added to the disastrous state of affairs. I refer to the 1898 hurricane and the 1902 volcanic eruption where about 2,000 persons, including Indians were killed, mostly in the North Windward area.
The 20th century saw a changing scenario. The indentured scheme had ended. Sugar was to a large extent, replaced by Cotton and Arrowroot and Government sponsored land settlement schemes prompted some more planters to begin selling land, especially on the boundaries of their estates. They were hoping to retain and attract workers to their estates.
The 1911 census stated that the Indian population had become quite naturalised, most of them having been born in the colony, 263 of a total of 376. A process of creolisation had been taking place through the churches and schools. Many Indians had become Christians as can be seen with the names they had to adopt, the non-Christians being among the older ones. With a small population scattered in different villages and on plantations it was a natural development for them to blend in with the general creole population.
In 1882 Lieutenant Governor Gore had noted that free Indians and creole labourers were living in homes in yards in little villages. He said that they seemed to like it “on account of the Breadfruit trees under the shelter of which those little villages have sprung up as well as the sake of each other’s company.” It is important to note that at least on one ship bringing your indentured forebears here, were 14 liberated Africans and certainly some bonds would have been built. This continued when they were put on some of the same estates.
Most of the Indians like the rest of the creole population continued to be involved in agriculture as labourers or peasants. According to the 1911 census, some had become carters with their own donkey carts and some, shopkeepers. They had thrown in their lot in the country and despite their small numbers continued to make their contribution especially in small communities where their numbers might have been significant.
At the dawn of what I consider the birth of a democratic Vincentian society Evans Morgan was elected to the legislative Council in 1951 as part of Ebenezer Joshua’s so-called Eight Army of Liberation. He won overwhelmingly securing 1834 votes as opposed to his opponents Ronald Brisbane of the McIntosh party’s 314 votes and Jonathan Deane, running as an independent 137. He was, I believe, the youngest of the elected members. I had an interesting interview with him in Toronto where he described for me events leading up to those historic elections of 1951. Many others would have made contributions in different areas, something that is recognised by your honouring of members of your community. On this note, I want to make special mention of the work of Junior Bacchus with whom I was associated in advocacy for our first national hero,and with his work generally in the National Youth Council and NGO community, he having been a part of the Projects Promotions and CARIPEDA NGO network. (This is not a plea for him to be honoured but just a personal connection note)
As you reflect on the past and on the issues that faced your forebears, you do so not to be trapped in the past but to be liberated from it. Having known about the sacrifices of your ancestors who have prepared a way for you, it is your obligation to carry on this message and to prepare a path for your children and grandchildren. I note that among your objectives is to engender positive changes in the Indo-Vincentian community. This of course is a very important undertaking, but this country belongs to you as much as it belongs to me. I am therefore suggesting that you need to go beyond this because you are an essential part of the broader society and the success of your efforts within the Indo-community depends ultimately on what is happening in that broader society. For if there are obstacles in Vincentian society, your efforts can be undermined.
You speak about providing a means of preserving your culture. This is always very difficult because culture emerges out of a particular set of circumstances and evolves as circumstances change. Where a lot of it is lost it is always a herculean, if not impossible task but an appreciation of the culture of one’s ancestors contributes to a building of self. Over the years, even without recognising it, some of what might have been part of your culture would have crossed over through the process of creolisation and filtered into the mainstream Vincentian culture, particularly in agriculture and in the culinary area. But it has, at the same time to be recognised, that you are not simply a product of a creolised society but have a history that must always be remembered and be told.
The work of your ancestors represented an investment in this country, and by extension, a commitment to it. It has provided you with a stake in this country which you have built on in your many pursuits. This is not the end of the story for the path started by your forebears must be built on . Today as happens at this time every year, is an occasion for you to make a connection with the past and to be strengthened and build on what was handed down to you. The journey is a long and continuing one and that understanding of self has always to be strengthened. This will be a source of strength that will provide some of the tools for impacting and assisting in the growth, not only of your own organisation and people but of Vincentian society.
As I close, I want to salute you on the efforts you have been making, particularly since 2006, to remind us that you are part of the different peoples who came here, under different circumstances and have laid down their roots. Your story needs to reach as many Vincentians as possible, for there should be little doubt about your contribution and your ‘Vincentianness’.
My congratulations on the celebration of another Arrival Dayand those who are going to be honoured today! Thank you for listening!