Indian diaspora’s beginnings to be recorded for posterity

July 3rd, 2011 - 2:31 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, July 3 (IANS) Indentured migration that took thousands of poor Indians across the seas to the new British plantation colonies to meet the shortage of labour after the abolition of slavery, and that formed the beginnings of the vast Indian diaspora spread across the world, is to be recorded for posterity in the Memory of the World register.

The governments of Fiji, Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago had made a joint submission to Unesco in 2010 for the records of Indian indentured labourers to be inscribed in the International Register of Memory of the World Programme.

The indentured migration took thousands of poor Indians across the seas to the new plantation colonies to meet the shortage of labour after slavery was abolished in Britain. It is a forgotten period of colonial history, though it formed the beginnings of the large Indian diaspora. Descendents of the ‘girmitiyas’, as the Indian indentured workers were called, now form large minority populations in the former colonies as also in Mauritius, where they are the majority.

The Memory of the World Programme is meant to safeguard documentary heritage against loss, decay or destruction by any means. It was launched in 1992 and has about 238 items from around the world listed in the Register. Inscription in the Memory of the World Register is recognition of the historical importance of the items and beginning of steps to preserve them and make them accessible to scholars and other interested parties.

Indian indenture documents are among the 45 new documents and documentary collections that were recommended earlier this year by the International Advisory Committee of the Memory of the World Programme and endorsed by the director general of Unesco, Irina Bokova.

According to the Unesco website, “Listing of items such as these on the Memory of the World Register is intended to generate interest and help with the conservation of documentary heritage which helps us to understand our society in all its complexities”.

The submission by the four governments stated that the “Indian indentured immigration was first accounted for in the 1830s and over a period of roughly hundred years, 1,194,957 Indians were relocated to 19 colonies. These records are the only documents for ancestral and lineage research for the numerous descendants of those Indian labourers”. Their deterioration or loss would leave a void in the memory of many former colonies, and erode the sense of belonging of many of the descendants of the original labourers.

The arrival of large groups of Indian labourers in the receiving colonies had immense repercussions, many of which are still being felt today. This mass movement of labour was meticulously recorded by former colonial powers and stored in the archives of many receiving colonies around the world.
As a result, the documents relating to the Indian indentured labourers, dispersed all over the world, offer a unique perspective of colonialism as a major phenomenon in the unfurling of world history. The loss of such records would deprive humanity of the enduring knowledge of the legacy of indentured labour against the backdrop of colonialism and the concept of “empire”, according to the submission.

These records hold considerable social and historical value and are among the most requested and used documents in the National Archives of the former colonies which received indentured labour. They capture a unique migration history of Indian communities around the world.

(Shubha Singh can be reached at

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