East Indian Indentureship

The Indians arriving in the New World called themselves Jahan or “People of the Ship,” referring to the ship that brought them across the oceans to the Americas. See chart below for East Indians arriving in South America starting in 1838 and in the Caribbean starting in 1845.

In 1838, after the abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean, the agriculture production in Guyana (formerly known as British Guiana and located on mainland South America) had fallen by 60 percent and plantations were being shut down at an alarming rate where plantation owners dreaded the loss of cheap labor after the enslaved Africans were freed and most of them chose to leave the plantation, heading for the villages and towns, refusing to work for their Plantation owners who had mistreated them. Plantation owners in Guyana then turned to immigrants from England, Germany, Ireland and the British West Indies, starting the indentured system, in other words the “coolie system,” was on its way in Guyana, but these workers did not last on the plantation due to the extreme heat and strenuous working conditions.

The British in Uttar Pradesh

During the days of slavery, while the British were in Guyana growing sugar, they were a super power in other places around the world and had already entered Uttar Pradesh, a North Indian province, back in 1765. During British colonialism in India, thousands of Indians were unemployed as many of them were living under decaying economic conditions, in poverty, exploited by the ruling class and living under political repression and wanted to escape the repressive conditions.

The British Recruiting Indians Laborers

After the abolition of slavery, the British were looking for cheap labor to continue the work that many freed slaves now refus to do. The British were now recruiting contract laborers from India through a Calcutta agency, to help save an ailing sugar industry in Guyana. During this period, the British plantation owners also turned to Portugal, and later China in 1853, for contract laborers. These laborers came to Guyana under the indentured system, also know as the “coolie system” or cheap labor, where a person was encouraged to come to the New World to work for a number of years, to continue the work, which was once done by enslaved Africans. These workers were paid wages as paper chains were being substituted for iron chains, but were just as binding. The contract laborers were also given a passage to Guyana and a roof over their heads. After the person's contract was up, he or she was free to leave, but, often, circumstances forced them to renew their contract and to continue on with the work they were doing.

The first set of East Indians to set foot in the Americas

On May 5th, 1838, after the abolishment of slavery in the British Caribbean, the first group of East Indians set foot in the Americas arriving on the Whitby, a British ship, where 244 Indians set foot in Guyana. The journey to the New World begun on January 13th 1838, from the Calcutta port with 249 Indians, and lasted 5 long months, traveling half way around the world, from the Indian Ocean, around Africa and then up into the Atlantic Ocean and then to the waters of Guyana. The long voyage across the oceans brought seasick, hunger and diseases to the Indians onboard the ship, where 5 people had died and only 5 females came alive. Shortly after the arrival of the Whitby in Guyana, another ship known as the Hesperus, which left India on January 29th 1838, arrived in Guyana with another 165 Indians, where only 6 females came alive and 13 Indians died at sea.

Origin of the Indians

In 1838, thousands of Indians continued to leave their Motherland, families and homes behind as they headed to the New World to escape poverty, unemployment and decaying conditions. Most of the Indian immigrants arriving in Guyana were poor country folks between the ages of 10 and 30 and came from Uttar Pradesh, which is located in the northern region of India and stretches into the Himalayas Mountains. Batches of Indians also came from Bihar, Karachi, Lahore, Punjab, Hyderabad, the Deccan, Srinagar in Kashmir, Peshawar, Mardan and Afghanistan. These people from the northern regions of the sub-continent boarded the ships at the Calcutta depot. Years later, a depot in Madras was set up and a sizeable Indian minority also came from the Tamil and Telugu-speaking regions of Southern India.

Indian indentured laborers to South America and The Caribbean took place between 1838 - 1917

Country Period of immigration Number of Indians arrived during indentureship
Guyana (formerly British Guiana) located in South America 1838-1917 238,909
Trinidad & Tobago 1845-1917 143,939
Guadeloupe 1854-1885 42,326
Jamaica 1845-1885 36,412
Suriname (also known as Dutch Guiana, located in South America 1872-1916 34,000
Martinique 1854-1889 25,509
French Guiana, located in South America 1854-1889 12,165 ***
St. Lucia 1858-1895 4,354
Grenada 1856-1885 3,200
St. Vincent 1861-1880 2,472
Belize (formerly British Honduras) located in Central America around 1860's In 1882, it was reported that 382 Indians born in India lived in Belize
St. Kitts around 1860's A small number

***Note: The number of indentured workers to Fr. Guiana is a calculated number because I could not locate a figure. This figure was based on a total number to the colonies and then minus the figures for the colonies...Brian Ally...East Indians first arrived in the United Stated of America in the 1870's...Although some of these numbers may look small, some of these islands are small. For example the 42,326 East Indians taken to Guadeloupe was about 1/3 of the population of Guadeloupe...Today the East Indian population of Guyana is 51% (located in South America); 45% in Trinidad (located in the Caribbean); 37% in Dutch Guiana (located in South America)....then there are places like Western Venezuela where many Guyanese of East Indian background have migrated..

Most of the Indians never returned to their mother land

Most of the Indians who left their motherland, had no concept of where they were going, the length of the journey at sea or the harsh conditions they would endure crossing the great oceans. They did not realize that they would never see their motherland and their families again as many had planned to return home with their savings. Unlike the Africans who were kidnaped, chained and forced into slavery, most of the Indians boarded the ship by choice, however, many were also tricked and lied to, as quotas had to be met by the recruiters recruiting laborers for the British to work in the New World.

The Indians arriving in the New World called themselves Jahan or “People of the Ship,” referring to the ships that brought them across the oceans to the Americas. The British had labeled the indentured Indians as “coolies,” instead of “Indian contract workers.” In general, Coolie is a word used for indentured laborers or cheap labor. In places like Cuba, California and China, the word coolie was used for contract laborers, such as the Chinese coolies who had worked under the indentured system in these countries. Generally speaking, all indentured laborers to Guyana, which includes the Germans, Irish, English, Portuguese, Chinese and East Indians are “coolies,” however, the world “coolie” got stuck with the East Indians who were by far the largest of the indentured laborers. These laborers out lasted all the other groups on the sugar plantation, due to their ability to endure the heat and the ability to work extremely hard under the given conditions.

Living conditions on the Plantation was harsh

The living conditions for the Indians on the sugar plantation were appalling and workers were compelled to work 12 hours a day, whether it rained, or shined or whether they were sick. The Indians lived in barrack type buildings, 100 feet long and divided into 10 feet long sections where there was an extra 6 feet added on to the width to put a kitchen area. One family was crammed into this small area. There were also loggies which were approximately 10 feet long. For many, the sun was extremely hot, especially for the ones who came from places like Uttar Pradesh and Punjab where it snows in some regions during the winter and has altitudes that varies from 100 to over 3000 meters above sea level- Guyana is below sea level, at the equator and hot throughout the entire year. The Indians adjusted to their new environment and endured the strenuous conditions.

When the Indians first arrived they were treated like slaves

Although slavery was abolished, plantation owners still had the mentality of slavery and mistreated the Indians. In 1838, when the Indians first arrive, and were forced to live under the harsh conditions, a number of Indians had escape across the rivers and into the woods. As they escaped, they were caught and flogged and some were found dead. There were no doctors to help them so they found their own medicine. They rubbed salted pickle on their backs to fight infectious diseases and to heal the wounds from the whips.

In 1841, India banned immigration to Guyana

As the brutality of the plantation owners continued, there was an outcry by the anti-slavery human rights society. Soon the Indian government learned about the mistreatment of Indians by the plantation owners and in 1841, India banned all immigration to the Americas, which once again posed a serious treat to the sugar industry.

In 1845, Immigration from India resumed to the Americas

In 1841, as immigration halted from India, immigration had resumed from Portugal. Although the Portuguese government warned the Portuguese were by their government that by going to Guyana they would be branded like slaves, the Portuguese laborers continued coming to Guyana. In 1845, as conditions improved, Indian immigration resumed to the Americas as plantation owners made a deal to bring 5000 Indians from the Indian subcontinent. Also as Indian immigration resumed to Guyana, Indian contract laborers were now needed in Trinidad, where 255 Indians arrived in the Fatel Rosack at the harbour at Port-of Spain. Soon Indian laborers were needed in other parts of South America, Central America and the Caribbean, which started Indian immigration to places like Jamaica, Dutch Guiana (Suriname), French Guiana, Grenada, Belize, St Lucia, St. Kitts, Martinique, and Guadeloupe. In 1848 Indian Immigration had stopped in Guyana and resumed in 1851. In 1853, Chinese Immigration began in Guyana. As the years went by the working and living conditions in places like Guyana and Trinidad improved as Indians built their own homes outside of the plantation and many started their own Business. Most of the Indians in Guyana never returned to India, whereas many of the workers who later came to places like Dutch Guiana returned to live in India. The East Indians kept coming to the Americans until 1917 when the indentured system was abolished due to the anti-indentureship campaign led by Indian nationalists, which put an end to indentureship in Guyana and other Caribbean countries.

Indians Today

People around the world do not realize that East Indians have been settling in the Americas since 1838 in places like Guyana, Trinidad, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Dutch Guiana and many more places and have played a large role in the development of some of these countries. These indentured laborers had saved an ailing sugar industry, which was one of the main industries that led to the growth and development of these countries. Today, 51% of the total population of Guyana, (located on mainland South America) are the descendants of East Indians laborers, where 33% of the total population is Hindu, 9% is Muslim and the remaining are mainly Christians. The Indian population Trinidad and Tobago is 45% and 37% in Dutch Guiana . . Many Indians had progressed, holding top positions in some of these country's political parties and businesses. Many own businesses and have progressed in life benefitting from the sacrifice of their ancestors- the people of the ship or “Jahan” who crossed the great oceans as contract laborers, to escape poverty, unemployment and decaying economic conditions of the Indian-subcontinent to make a better life for themselves.

By Brian Ally
BRIAN ALLY'S ANCESTOR INFO (Looking for ancestral information) - My great grandparents were born in Guyana, the small South American country, located above Brazil. My great great grandfather on my father's side, Abdul Subhan Khan, arrived in Guyana in the 1800's from Beneras, India ( Beneras wis located in Uttar Pradesh - in the 1800's, Beneras was part of the Northwestern Provinces of India which later became Uttar Pradesh.) Subhan went to Guyana as an Indian translator.

On my mother's side, her great grandmother who was born in Guyana spoke of Punjab. She called themselves Punjabis and spoke of the hot blazing sun of Demerara, which burned and turned their skin red. Another great grandmother on my mother's side was Marium Rossamond who married to my great grandfather, Bhoodoo Bacchus.

My grandfather's name on my father's side was Nazir Ally, known as Bookkeeper Ally. Although i don't know much about Nazir Ally, it was mentioned that he has a Syrian/Lebanese background.