Indo Caribbean Diaspora
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From 1838 to 1917, over half a million Indians from the former British Raj or British India and Colonial India, were taken to thirteen mainland and island nations in the Caribbean as indentured workers to address the demand for sugar cane plantation labour following the abolition of slavery.
Much like cotton, sugarcane plantations motivated large-scale near-enslavement and forced migrations in the 19th and early 20th century.
Following the passage of the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, many formerly enslaved people left their enslavers. This created an economic chaos for European planters in the Caribbean and Indian Ocean. The hard work in hot, humid farms required a regular, docile and low-waged labour force, which led to the creation of the Indian indenture system. Poor economic conditions in India led to many Indians to look for sources of work. In this system, Indians were taken to British, French and Dutch colonies around the world, including in the Caribbean, to work on cash crop plantations.
The first ships carrying indentured labourers for sugarcane plantations left India in 1838 for the Caribbean region. In fact, the first two shiploads of Indians arrived in British Guiana (modern-day Guyana) on May 5, 1838, on board the Whitby and Hesperus. These ships had sailed from Calcutta. In the early decades of the sugarcane-driven migrations, the working conditions for the indentured Indian workers were abysmal, due in large part to the lack of care among the planters.. They were confined to their estates and paid a pitiful salary. Any breach of contract brought automatic criminal penalties and imprisonment. Many of these were brought away from their homelands deceptively. Many from inland regions over a thousand kilometers from seaports were promised jobs, were not told the work they were being hired for, or that they would leave their homeland and communities. They were hustled aboard the waiting ships, unprepared for the long and arduous four-month sea journey. Charles Anderson, a special magistrate investigating these sugarcane plantations, wrote to the Colonial Secretary declaring that with few exceptions, the indentured labourers are treated with great and unjust severity; European planters enforced work in sugarcane farms so harshly, that the decaying remains of immigrants were frequently discovered in sugarcane fields. If indentured labourers protested and refused to work, they were not paid or fed by the planters.
The sugarcane plantation-driven migrations led to ethnically significant presence of Indians in Caribbean. In some islands and countries, these Indo-Caribbean migrants now constitute a significant proportion of the population. Sugarcane plantations and citizens of Indian origin continue to thrive in countries such as Guyana, formerly, British Guiana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Martinique, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, St. Kitts, St. Croix, Suriname and Nevis. By some estimates, over 2.5 million people in the Caribbean are of Indian origin. Many have ethnically blended with migrants from other parts of the world, creating a unique syncretic culture.
Though production was centered in the Caribbean, sugarcane production played a significant role in pre-World War II global politics and population movements. France, for example, negotiated with Britain leading to Act XLVI of 1860, whereby large numbers of Indian indentured labourers were brought for sugarcane plantation work in French colonies in the Caribbean region. The Caribbean colonies of the Netherlands too benefitted from the indentured laborers from India.
n recent years, attempts to commemorate the Indian presence and contributions have come to fruition:
Indian Arrival Day is a holiday celebrated on May 30 in Trinidad and Tobago each year since the 1990s. It was first celebrated in Trinidad and Tobago and then other countries with significant Indian people whose ancestors came as indentured laborers. It commemorates the first arrivals from India to Trinidad and Tobago, on May 30, 1845, on the ship Fatel Razack
In 1995, Jamaica started to celebrate the arrival of Indians in Old Harbour Bay, St. Catherine Parish on May 13.
In 2003, Martinique celebrated the 150th anniversary of Indian arrival. Guadeloupe did the same in 2004. These celebrations were not the fact of just the Indian minority, but the official recognition by the French and local authorities of their integration and their wide-scale contributions in various fields including agriculture, education, and politics, and to the diversification of the culture of the Creole peoples. Thus, the noted participation of the whole multi-ethnic population of the two islands were in these events.
St. Lucia and many Caribbean countries have dedicated commemorative days to acknowledge the arrival and important contributions of their Indo-Caribbean populations. St. Lucia celebrates its Indo-Caribbean heritage on May 6. Other dates when India Arrival Day is celebrated in the Caribbean include May 5 (Guyana), May 10 (Jamaica), May 30 (Trinidad and Tobago), June 1 (St. Vincent), and June 5 (Suriname).