Coming up in Kolkata, memorial for Indian indentured workers

August 6th, 2010 - 2:52 pm ICT by IANS  

By Shubha Singh
Kolkata, Aug 6 (IANS) An abandoned dock on the Hooghly river, once known as Demerara dock, is being spruced up to act as a link between the descendants of Indian indentured workers in the 19th and early 20th centuries and their ancestral homeland. The memorial will be a pilgrimage point for those persons of Indian origin (PIOS) around the world who cannot trace their ancestral homes in India.

This was the last point of contact for the migrants before they set sail for the sugarcane plantations of British Guiana, which is today Guyana.

Though the dock in the Kidderpore area is no longer in use, it has a clock tower that is in good physical condition with a relatively fresh coat of paint. A memorial plaque is to be installed at the Demerara Clock Tower to commemorate the over one million indentured workers who sailed from similar depots.

Edged along by the keen interest shown by a group of Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) as well as the governments of Mauritius, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, the Indian government and the West Bengal state government have speeded up efforts to locate sites for a museum of indenture. The museum will relate the history of indenture and the stories of the people who left home to work in distant lands.

The memorial and museum proposal will be a joint project of the central and West Bengal governments. The Demerara Clock Tower memorial would be an emotional and physical connection for the descendants of the indentured workers.

Once the area around the clock tower is cleared up and landscaped, the memorial would be inaugurated at a special function with high level representation from Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana.

A team of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the West Bengal government, its archaeology department, historian Leela Sarup and GOPIO vice president Ashook Ramsaran toured the area in a motorised launch last month to identify the sites which are linked to the migration of indentured workers.

The team travelled down the Hooghly river and inspected the sites from where the indentured workers began their journey across the seas. The officials used old maps, local information and details provided by Sarup to identify the Demerara Depot, the Garden Reach Depot and the Surinam Jetty at Kidderpore.

The team also visited Alipore and Bhawanipore in Kolkata to identify the site of the barracks where the indenture recruits stayed while they underwent a medical examination that would certify their fitness for agricultural labour. The team was looking for sites that were free from legal encumbrances.

Each of the labour importing colonies had to appoint an agent and set up a depot where the indentured recruits stayed while they waited for the ship to take them across the sea. There were separate depots and jetties for each colony.

Demerara was the name of the region where sugar was planted in British Guiana; it gave its name to high quality natural brown sugar, Demerara sugar, which was produced in the region.

The governments of Guyana, Mauritius and Trinidad and Tobago have expressed a keen desire to have a memorial in India for indentured workers who came to their country.

The descendants of indentured workers, now citizens of Guyana, Mauritius, Fiji, South Africa, Trinidad, the US, Canada and Britain, who come to visit India are often deeply disappointed to find nothing that can be associated with that phase of India’s history.

Many of them discover that ordinary Indians have no knowledge of the great migration that took place in the 19th and early 20th century.

“We are the forgotten children of mother India. Mauritius, Trinidad, Suriname, Guyana and Fiji celebrate Indian Arrival Day and have memorials for the Indian workers. But in India no one remembers them,” said David Sheoraj of Trinidad, a visitor to the annual Pravasi Bharatiya Divas function.

There is a strong emotional connection between PIOs and their ancestral homeland. Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam of Mauritius, former prime minister of Trinidad Basdeo Panday and President Bharrat Jagdeo of Guyana are proud descendents of indentured workers. Each of them sought Indian government assistance to locate their ancestral villages and paid an emotional visit to the villages while on official visits to India.

In 2008, Ramgoolam had touched a chord with the hearts of the villagers gathered to welcome him when he bent down and reverentially touched the soil of his ancestral village, Harigaon, in Bihar.

(Shubha Singh can be contacted at shubhasingh101@gmail.com)

Related Stories

Posted in Uncategorized |

Subscribe