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Indians Attitude To Education During And Immediately After The Indentureship Period In British Guiana (Now Guyana)

By Harry Hergash

Guyana Journal, May 2013

Over the years, the view has been perpetuated that the indentured Indians to British Guiana, now Guyana, were not keen on education for their children. Instead, they preferred to send their children to work as child labourers on the sugar plantations to earn wages to supplement the family earnings. While it is true that during and immediately after the period of indentureship, Indian parents indulged in this practice, the causative factors have often been misconstrued to fit the negative stereotype of the Indians as money grabbers. This article looks at this matter from the perspective of the Indians and their reality at the time.

The majority of the Indians worked as agricultural labourers on the sugar estates, working long hours, for little compensation, with no injury or sick benefits. In fact, most of the strikes on the sugar estates from the time of indentureship up to the Enmore martyrs' strike in 1948, which led to major political changes in the colony, involved complaints over poor wages. Out of necessity, many workers had to seek additional ways to boost their income. Often an indentured immigrant would be involved in kitchen gardening, cattle raising for milk, and rice cultivation for personal consumption while, at the same time, maintaining a regular job on the plantation that lasted from eight to ten or twelve hours per day. In such an environment, it was a matter of struggle for survival, and education for children was not a priority. Instead of attending school, children had to be engaged in tasks to help supplement the family's meagre income.

The immigrants' plight is reflected in the observations of Messrs. Pillai and Tiwary, who were members of a three-person Government of (British) India delegation to the colony in 1922. Their findings are recorded by Peter Ruhoman, Centenary History of the East Indians in British Guiana 1838-1938 (Reprinted by The 150th Anniversary Committee of the Arrival of Indians in Guyana May 5, 1838). A few quotes, as reported by Ruhoman, are informative, page 83, “at the current rate of wages the debit side shows a considerable excess over the credit side and it is clear that the average earnings of a shovel-man must be raised by 80%, of a male weeder by 83% a week, before they can even make both ends meet... if the above increments were to be granted, even then the labourers could not be said to be earning a living wage, since after ten years continuous residence in the Colony they would return to their native land as paupers,” and, page 85, “ the case of the vast majority, it may be said that they are just above the poverty line, some below and others slightly above,” and those among the lot who had succeeded in saving money had done so by “continuously stinting and starving themselves”.

Present day psychologists will recognize that the behaviour of the emigrants at that time fitted neatly into Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who developed his theory in the 1940s and published his book Motivation and Personality in 1954 in which he introduced the concept of Hierarchy of Needs. His original hierarchy identified five sets of human needs and these he arranged in a pyramid with the most important being at the bottom of the pyramid and those with decreasing importance forming successive layers above. In his scheme, food, clothing and shelter are included in the bottom layer, i.e., the most important. Based on the observations of Pillai and Tiwary in the preceding paragraph, it is clear that the earnings of children were critical for the basic needs to survive.

It is interesting to note that while the immigrants have been the object of derision for putting their children in the workforce to supplement family income, the behaviour of the poorer classes in England and the United States in similar circumstances was never called into question by local critics and historians. During and subsequent to the Industrial Revolution in England, it was commonplace for children under the age of ten, some around seven, to be found working in factories and coal mines for long hours under dreadful conditions. Peter Kirby, in a chapter titled “The Historic Visibility of Child Labour and the Mines Act of 1842” in the book, A thing of the past, edited by Michael Lavolette, notes that in some marginal coal districts “the threat of poverty resulting from the exclusion of children induced both miners and owners to turn a blind eye to violations of the Act” and “in some primitive coal districts, the harsh working conditions of which the Children's Employment Commission complained lingered into the twentieth century”. As well, for the war years of 1914-1918, he quotes the report of the Chief Medical Officer, Board of Education, Sir George Newman, who stated that during these years boys and girls of eight and nine years worked in a variety of jobs for long hours with low wages under unfavourable conditions.

And in the United States, an Eastern Illinois University article captioned “Childhood Lost: Child Labor During the Industrial Revolution” ( provides the following excerpts: “In the years that followed the Civil War, known as the “Rise of Industrial America, 1876 - 1900” on the American Memory Timeline of the Library of Congress Learning Page, the United States emerged as an industrial giant... This era of industrial growth transformed American society creating a new class of wealthy entrepreneurs and a comfortable middle class. The increase in industry resulted in a growth among the blue collar working class. This labor force was made up of millions of newly arrived immigrants and vast numbers of families migrating from rural areas to cities with the hope of job security and prosperity... With a dream of a better life, rural families relocated to the cities to find work. Sadly, most were disappointed when they arrived and discovered that the truth was not as “rosey” as they had been led to believe. The jobs available required long hours and offered little pay. In most situations, every able family member was needed to work to simply keep the family above the poverty level. Those working included children as young as three.”

Another pertinent point relating to the apathy of the Indians over education in general is the fact that job openings were not available for educated children of most immigrants. Up to the mid 1950s, qualified children of Indian immigrants or their descendents had to convert to Christianity in order to become a teacher in the colony's school system. Likewise, children of the immigrants or their descendents had great difficulty gaining entry into the country's Civil Service although they were very well qualified. In fact, those who came from the countryside from parents who were agricultural labourers were almost totally excluded from entry, irrespective of qualification. Education was only beneficial to those extremely brilliant students who converted to Christianity and were able to gain scholarship for study in medicine or law.

Computations from data provided on page 214, Table 23 of Dwarka Nath's, A History of Indians in British Guiana, provide useful information. These show that in 1931 Indians made up 8.1 % (241 out of 2,982) of the Public Service and of these, nearly a half (118) were employed as “Messengers and similar grades”. Among teachers, 7.1 % (100 out of 1397) were Indians. However, in the Medical Profession Indians accounted for 15.7 % (129 out of 820) of the total and in the Legal Profession, Indians were 15.7 % (14 out of 89) of the total. One cannot help but note that in both medicine and law, independent professions, the proportion of Indian representation was almost twice that of their representation in the Public Service or in Teaching.

The barriers to entry into Teaching and the Public Service likely caused Indians to focus on Medicine and Law and by 1935 (according to the earlier referenced work of Dwarka Nath, page 190, 52 % (85 out of 165) of the medical practitioners were Indians and 50 % (110 out of 220) barristers and solicitors were Indians. The experience of Dr. Cheddi Jagan, a dentist and former Premier and President of Guyana, is relevant and informative. In his book, The West On Trial, (Hansib Caribbean edition, page 43) he wrote: “As it turned out, going abroad to study dentistry was purely accidental. The fact was I could not find work. Armed with an Oxford and Cambridge School Certificate at the end of the school year 1935, I tried to get a job. But trying became hunting. My father and I knocked at many doors. The civil service was closed. A teaching job was proposed, but the salary offered was only $20 a month. Besides, there were suggestions that if I wanted to become a teacher, I would have to become a Christian, and my parents would have none of this.”

One final point worth considering is parents' fear of conversion of their children to Christianity in the school system. At that time, there was a concerted effort to Christianize Indians and because the schools were all operated by various Christian denominations, parents were suspicious of the school system. This would have simply fortified the immigrants' belief formed in their homeland. The majority came from the United Provinces and Bihar, areas that were the battle grounds of the 1857 Indian Mutiny, and the Mutiny, which had horrendous consequences to both the British and the Indians, was partly due to the belief that the British were surreptitiously trying to get Indians to break their Hindu and Muslim dietary codes in attempting to Christianize them. Consequently, the fear of conversion was a major, long standing concern which must be factored in any analysis.

Of all the Christian denominational schools in the colony, the most successful in attracting Indian students were those operated by the Canadian Mission, an arm of the Presbyterian Church of Canada. The Canadian Mission focused entirely on the Indians, taught the Hindi language in the schools and encouraged the Indians to retain aspects of their culture, instead of becoming Europeanized. Conversion was not a prerequisite for entry to these schools. However, education was intended to aid conversion of the Indians and, not surprising, in the standard text (Hindi Ki Pahili Pustak - Hindi First Book) used to teach the Hindi language, one detects evidence of Christian proselytizing – The Ten Commandments in Hindi, and morning and evening prayers to “____
” (“Masih”, being the Hindi word for Christ). Thus, even in these schools, parents had to be on guard.

It is apparent that a number of factors were responsible for the absence of keenness for education by Indians during and immediately after the indentureship period. Money was a critical factor for a family's survival and the Indians, like the British and the American people in similar circumstances, took a practical approach to child labour. In addition, fear of conversion of their children to the Christian religion, based on reasonable grounds, was a compelling factor also. However, within a relatively short period of time after the ending of Indentureship, Indians were able to overcome these disadvantages and make rapid progress in all spheres of life in the country.

By 1945, many Indians had established themselves financially through ownership of small businesses and development of the rice and cattle industries. Many moved up the social ladder into the middle-class and, through agitation under the leadership of the British Guiana East Indian Association, education of Indian children became a priority. Historian Dwarka Nath, reports that by 1950, Indian children accounted for over 50% of the total number of children in primary schools although Indians were less than 50% of the country's population. Progress continued with the People's Progressive Party in government during the period 1957-63 when barriers to entry into the civil service and especially the teaching profession were removed, and government secondary schools were built throughout the country, making secondary education more accessible to Indians who are more heavily concentrated in rural areas. It is noteworthy that when the University of Guyana held its first convocation in 1967, 18 (67%) of the 27 graduates were Indian-Guyanese.

The descendants of the indentured Indians have come a long way since the end of indentureship. They have held the highest political office in the land; they have a major presence in commerce and industry; and they are well represented in the independent professions. Their numbers are on the increase in the civil service and teaching profession but still very low in the security forces. Overall, as a result of historical and cultural factors, they have dominance (in terms of net worth and corporate control) in the private sector where risks and rewards go hand-in-hand, but are under-represented in the public service where job security is more valued.