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The Diasporic Indian 172 Years After

The Major D.G. Pitcher Report

By Basdeo Mangru

Guyana Journal, May 2010

During the course of this year Indians in the Diaspora, especially in Guyana, will commemorate the 172nd year of their presence in the region. The observance will take various forms - conferences, speeches, book-launchings, and cultural presentations depicting the multifarious contributions of these resilient people, who today form roughly 20% of the English-speaking Caribbean and an increasingly influential one too. Yet for decades their history, culture and contributions have been overshadowed by an emphasis on the majority African-Caribbean community, especially their forced transplantation to the New World and their experiences on the plantation under slavery. It was only with the commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of Indian arrival in 1988 that scholarly attention has been given to these industrious, enterprising Indian people.

Within a period of 80 years (1838-1917), Indians had been migrating to nearly a dozen countries scattered over the habitable globe. Of the approximately one million who left their Matribumi, the majority went to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, with Guyana importing 238,879, followed by Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji, Jamaica and Suriname. When the Indian indenture system had officially ended in 1920, thousands had returned to India although many remigrated under assumed names. The majority, however, remained in the recipient colonies and built permanent homes. Today Indians form majorities in Mauritius, Fiji, Guyana and Trinidad, and a significant proportion of the population in Suriname, East Africa and East Asia.

For the past two years I have been working on an 1882 unpublished Report which is not even catalogued in the Emigration Proceedings of the Government of India, housed in the India Office Collections of the British Library in London. Besides Hugh Tinker, the pioneering Historian in the field, very few scholars and researchers, including those in academia, have utilized this primary source which has a wealth of information and key statistical data. The Report was written by Major D.G. Pitcher, a Judge in the Small Cause Court in Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh, the largest state in the Indian Union with a population of roughly 180 million.

Pitcher was commissioned by the Government of India to undertake a comprehensive study of recruiting operations from British India, particularly the North-Western Provinces and Oudh, modern Uttar Pradesh, to certain French and British colonies. He was mandated, inter alia, to detail depot arrangements and management, ascertain the class and character of colonial recruiters, evaluate the state of the labor market, assess the attitude of Indian women towards emigration overseas, evaluate depot registration process and suggest remedial measures. Additionally, Pitcher was instructed to report on the key issues of family emigration and female recruitment, assess the various local objections to emigration and determine why emigration was more popular in some districts than in others. Following a three-month tour, by both rail and road, examining recruiting operations, Pitcher produced a voluminous Report cum Diary which will surely fascinate scholars and researchers and those interested in their roots.

This study is valuable in several respects. It provides new insights into emigration issues which are hardly mentioned in the literature. That the sub-agency business was “to a strident extent” monopolized by Jews, who first arrived in India over two thousand years ago and evolved as three different communities, is certainly revealing. It highlights also the fact that many villagers disposed to emigrate came from even Native States not under the British Raj and from different socio-economic backgrounds, and were not always the “dregs” of Indian society. It provides, for example, evidence of emigrants displaying an entrepreneurial spirit, investing small fortunes in such luxury items as tika for women, attar and scents to resell to Indians resident in the colonies. It details up-country depot operations and physical conditions, the various obstacles to emigration provided by government officials, zamindars, banias and others, rail transportation facilities (a distance of roughly 576 miles from Kanpur to Kolkata), and exposes the intimidatory and extortionary practices of rural policemen. The disclosure that prostitution was prevalent in the depots and that women recruiters were employed in the service, albeit on a limited scale, throws fresh light on the recruiting process as such information is conspicuously absent in the published sources.

A fascinating aspect of the Report was Pitcher's candid interviews with several emigrants who returned to their respective villages with small fortunes. Ganga Din Misr, for example, spent eight years in Demerara and returned to Lucknow with 500 rupees. He invested in land and cattle, paid off his wife's liabilities and settled down. Three other returnees spent between 12 and 13 years each in Trinidad. They did not amass wealth but exaggerated prevailing conditions in the island: “Hindustan, a country of thieves and liars, while in Trinidad every one is honest and tells the truth…. Magistrates very just, and do not favour creoles more than Indians (Creoles pronounced kirwal). No obstacle to letter-writing beyond the rates of postage.”

The returnee, Khan Muhammad, was a conspicuous example of success and an excellent advertisement to emigration. A Punjabi and former police cavalry sowarduring the Indian Mutiny of 1857, Muhammad left his wife and son and emigrated to Demerara in 1862. He spent 18 years, made a fortune, received several commendations for tact and industry, married again and returned with his second wife and family in 1881. He bought '10 ploughs of land' in his native village, settled his wife there and began a search for his first family. He wanted to establish a subagency as he was convinced that he could recruit more successfully than current subagents. Pitcher affirmed: “I talked with him for a long time, and found him in his common sense and independent way of thinking far more European than native. He had a large silver medal presented to him by his employers and engraved with a flattering testimonial, of which he was proud.”

Even more significant is the insights into the grief and trauma in rural India emanating from the departure of friends, families and loved ones for unknown lands. This largely neglected field of inquiry is only now engaging scholarly attention since for decades the focus on Indian diasporic research largely concentrated on their transplantation and experiences under the iniquitous indenture system. Accordingly, the trauma of colonial emigration in Village India had been ignored. Within recent years scholars, particularly in Suriname where the Bhojpuri culture and tradition predominate and continue to flourish, have alluded to the pain and pathos surrounding such separation. It seemed to produce “a distinct folk culture” in the Bhojpuri-speaking regions of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Accordingly, the term Bidesia affectionately encompasses not only those in the diaspora but also the folk culture created in their memory. Pitcher's conversations with parents and wives longing (some for nearly 18 years) to hear from departed ones, his concerns at their plight and his willingness and determination to provide relevant information through Indian authorities, will hopefully produce a spurt in research activities on the Bidesia.

This study, scheduled to be published by the end of the year by me, is divided principally into two main segments. The first is the Report proper containing several Appendices providing significant statistical data and crucial recommendations. The second is the copious Diary which not only complements the Report but also contains invaluable information on a number of key immigration issues. Although not part of his mandate, Pitcher pronounced on the provisions of the Indian Immigration Bill of 1883 which was largely for the consumption of Indian authorities.

Recommended Reading

Mangru, B., Benevolent Neutrality. Indian Government Policy and Labour Migration to British Guiana, 1854-1884. London: Hansib Publishing, 1988.

_________. Indians in Guyana. A Concise History from their Arrival to the Present. Chicago: Adams Press, 1999.

Pitcher, D.G., 'Report on System of Recruiting Labourers for the Colonies', 1882.

Saha, P., Emigration of Indian Labour, 1834-1900. New Delhi: Peoples Publishing House, 1970.

Tinker, H.R., A New System of Slavery. The Export of Indian Labour Overseas 1830-1920. London: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Dr. Basdeo Mangru is an Associate Professor at York College, CUNY where he researches and teaches Caribbean Studies.