Basdeo Mangru
INDIANS IN GUYANA — A concise history from their arrival to the present.
Adams Press, 1999, 108 pages, illustrated

Concise but informative book about Indians in Guyana

A Review by Prof. Frank Birbalsingh, York University, Toronto

The subtitle of Indians in Guyana spells out the author’s intention as clearly as any reader could want. So it comes as no surprise that rather than being divided into chapters the entire text of Indians is presented as one continuous narrative broken by boldly printed subheadings, each representing an important aspect of Indo-Guyanese history, and all arranged chronologically from the arrival of Indians in Guyana in 1838 to the modern, post-Independence, post-Burnham era.

Conciseness is the name of the game, and the book is clearly structured to present basic facts and statistics within a closely packed and detailed survey of Indo-Guyanese history. It is almost like what one might expect from an encyclopedia or handbook. And such indeed is its factual richness, that some readers might very well regard Indians simply as a work of reference, one that is handy for quickly checking out facts and statistics; but Dr. Mangru is too skilful an historian to be contented with mere facts: whatever else it might be, his book is also a very readable and flowing narrative that tells the whole Indo-Guyanese story in the fewest possible works.

The story begins with the disappearance of African slavery by the middle 1830s, and the consequent need for people to do the work that the African slaves used to do on the sugar plantations of Guyana. Dr. Mangru reminds us that India was by no means the only source of immigrant workers brought in to fill this need, for plantation owners tried to get workers from many other places, for example, other West Indian territories, Madeira and the Azores, China, Malta, the Southern states of the US, Europe, and even West Africa itself from where slaves had already been procured for three centuries; but the plain fact is that workers from India proved the most suitable, and in the end numbered almost 240,000, more than twice as many as workers brought from all the other places put together.

As with other immigrant workers, those from India were brought under terms of indenture or contract which entitled them to work in Guyana for a period, usually five years, before returning to their homeland. Some Indian workers did return to India, but most — about three-quarters — remained in Guyana. One gets an idea of the information about these workers that is given in Indians by looking at some of the subheadings considered by Dr. Mangru — Historical Background, Origin of Indians, The Voyage, The Plantation System, The Indenture System, Estate Drivers, Religion, Missionary Activity, Social Life, Education, Politics, The Second Migration. Although this list is merely a selection of subheadings, it hints at the comprehensiveness of the volume in covering the Indian indenture experience from its very beginning to "The Second Migration" — the post-Burnham era when thousands of Indo-Guyanese (as well as other Guyanese) migrated from Guyana mainly to North America.

Are we to regard the Indians who came between 1838 and 1917 as having saved the sugar industry and, by extension, the whole economy of Guyana from collapse, or were they merely pawns in the hands of the sugar planters who used them to control their restive labour force of freed Africans by beating down their demands for higher wages? This is a question that will probably never be answered to universal satisfaction.

Indians supplies much data relevant to this question although it has no room for extensive debate. This is precisely the appeal of the book: that it is a compendium of basic information held together in a simple, straightforward and coherent narrative. The reader is thus saturated with interesting facts and figures that may entice him or her into further exploration and study.

The facts and figures speak for themselves. How interesting to learn that up to 1920 as many as 75% of Indo-Guyanese spoke at least one Indian language. Yet, within two or three decades, the incidence of Indian languages sharply declined while English became increasingly dominant. As Dr. Mangru writes: "Indian parents who decided to set up permanent homes in Guyana recognized the advantage of an English education for professional advancement in the society." Was the eventual dominance of English inevitable or did Indo-Guyanese have an option to preserve their ancestral languages? It is a fascinating question especially when we consider the resentment shown toward Indo-Guyanese because of their "alien" customs and languages. This is another fundamental issue in Guyanese history which cries out for further exploration.

Questions or issues like this abound in Indians, and they are essential to our understanding of the main story in the book: of a people — Indians — arriving in Guyana, scarcely knowing anything, including the language (English) or their new environment, and after all their problems of settlement and adaptation, finally emerging as full-fledged citizens of Guyana claiming equal rights with other Guyanese. We are told, for instance, that in the 1890s, nearly fifty years after Indian indenture began, Afro-Guyanese still controlled the skilled jobs on the sugar plantations: they were blacksmiths, mechanics, carpenters and engineers, as well as the best shovel men who could dig drains and canals. Here one can see a potential for ethnic rivalry with Indo- and Afro-Guyanese competing for the same jobs.

`It is again interesting to learn that in 1923, nearly one hundred years after the beginning of Indian indenture, 71% of Indo-Guyanese children did not attend school whereas only 21% of Afro-Guyanese did not attend school. Also, in 1925, when Indo-Guyanese accounted for 40% of the country’s population, they accounted for only 13% of the country’s registered voters. These sobering statistics appear remarkable when we are later told that 56% of Indo-Guyanese had become literate by 1946. What is even more remarkable is that one year later, in 1947, with the election of Cheddi Jagan to the Legislative Council, the governing body in the colony, the Indo-Guyanese community had produced someone who would later prove to be Guyana’s most notable politician.

Of course, there is much more information, for example, about the British Guiana East Indian Association (BGEIA) which was founded in 1916, and about resistance by Indo-Guyanese plantation workers to oppression by their employers. In the end, one is simply amazed at how much information Dr. Mangru has succeeded in compressing into a book that is barely one hundred pages in length. Such a feat is only possible because of the author’s magisterial grasp of his subject and impressive skills in scholarly writing. If Indians is not exactly similar in length and depth to Dr. Mangru’s previous works, notably, Benevolent Neutrality: Indian Government Policy and Labour Migration to British Guiana, 1854-1884 (1987), or A History of East Indian Resistance on the Guyana Sugar Estates (1996), it is because of the aim of conciseness and the specific purpose of producing a text which might appear as a handbook, but will also give yeoman service both to students in the classroom and the ordinary, general reader.


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