Commemorating Indian Arrival Day 2017 in SVG
May 30, 2017
Commemorating Indian Arrival Day 2017 in SVG

by Dr Arnold ThomasCoordinator IDC,St Vincent and the Grenadines

As we commemorate Indian Arrival Day on June 1, marking the 156th anniversary of the arrival of the first shipload of indentured Indians to St Vincent, it is worth recalling some of the experiences of persons of Indian origin over this period. Today we take pride in projecting St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) as a fully integrated society, where various ethnic groups live together in harmony, and persons of Indian origin have distinguished themselves in all aspects of socio-economic life. Indeed, we are a model that other multi-ethnic countries could emulate, but this state of affairs was not without hiccups,

To recall some relevant facts: SVG’s population of some 120,000 is made up of Africans, Caribs, Europeans, Portuguese Madeirans and Indians, with the latter numbering some 7,000.

The history of East Indians here can be characterized as one of struggle, betrayal, adaptation, assimilation, and survival. The Indians were recruited to make up for the shortage of labour, following the end of slavery, with the promise of good wages, living and working conditions and free return passage to India on completion of their contract. Between 1861 and 1880, eight ships brought 2,474 Indians to St Vincent; however, by 1884, 1,141 had returned to India.

As happened many times before in adverse economic conditions, planters sought to cut costs, which inevitably meant cutting wages, increasing tasks, and in the case of the Indians, neglect of their obligations under the law. Under these circumstances, in August 1882, the Governor received 82 complaints from the Indians, alleging ill-treatment, non-payment of wages, and other abuses. In spite of an inquiry, conditions did not improve, and on October 7, 1882, some 50 Indians abandoned one estate and marched to the capital to bring their grievances directly to Lieutenant Governor Gore. A school for Indians was opened on one estate in 1883; however, it closed after a short while. In 1891, when DW Comins was planning to visit territories with indentured Indians, St Vincent was not included, for by then all the Indians had passed out of indenture and there were no more reports from the Protector of Indians. The remnants moved off the estates in the early years of the 20th century to establish their own villages.

For those who chose to make St Vincent their home, it was a constant struggle for survival in a land where its language, religion and culture were alien to them. This meant both at work and after work they spent most of their time in the company of fellow Indians on the estates, but this did not mean that they were left alone, as they were surrounded by individuals and groups whose main objective was to get the Indians to adapt to local norms and practices. As a result, cultural and religious practices brought from India underwent fundamental changes very early in the indenture experience. Over 90 per cent of the Indians who came to St Vincent were Hindus. By agreement, Indians were allowed to practise their religion, as elsewhere in the West Indies, but their relatively small number, their dispersion among the estates and the transient nature of their existence left little scope for development of a critical mass, and Hinduism could not survive the proselytising of the Christian churches that consistently condemned it as heathenism and idolatry.

Remarkably, as early as 1867, the Anglican Church felt it was their sacred duty to baptize the infants, and whenever infants were christened or baptized by the Catholic or Wesleyan Church, the Anglican priest would insist that it was his responsibility and proceeded to re-baptize the hapless infant. It took the intervention of the Archbishop of Canterbury in England to end this farce! Infants baptized in Christian churches were given Anglo-Saxon names after the manner of planters, managers and overseers, as part of the policy to break links with India; even young ones born in India were given Anglo-Saxon names. Another contributing factor was absence of a special school for Indian children who were marginalized educationally; it was get a European name, become a Christian and live like the locals, or remain at the bottom of the social ladder. By the time indentureship ended in 1890, the remnants had adjusted to the local way of life and Indian culture and religion had slowly disappeared. Seen in this context, the conversion to Christianity and adaptation to creole culture was more a matter of survival than ‘seeing the light’.

Indian population growth in St Vincent was affected by two calamitous events, a hurricane in 1898 and a volcanic eruption in 1902, during which a number of Indians perished. Many who survived emigrated to Trinidad and Demerara or Guyana, as it is known today, also to Grenada. According to the 1911 census there were 377 Indians in St Vincent, of which 114 were born in India; the 1921 census showed the population down to 265, but it increased to 652 by 1931. This big leap was probably due to poor record keeping or labelling of Indians under some other race. In 1946, it reached 1,817, and by the 1950s Indian population had increased to about 6,000; and then came massive emigration to metropolitan centres in the UK, US and Canada, which depleted the Indian population. Today, large Indo-Vincentian communities can be found in these countries.

Today, it is roughly about 7,000, but taking into consideration mixed marriages between Indians and non-Indians, the population of persons of Indian origin is much higher.

Contemporary situation: Establishment of the St Vincent and the Grenadines Indian Heritage Foundation (SVGIHF)

Although Indo-Vincentians were aware that their ancestors came from India, little was known about the conditions under which they came and lived until the 1990s, when historical research was conducted. As a consequence of this research and public awareness lectures, the need was felt for an organization. The SVG Indian Heritage Foundation was launched on October 7, 2006, and early in 2007, in recognition of the contribution that people of Indian origin have made to the development of SVG, the Parliament of St Vincent and the Grenadines officially recognized June 1 as Indian Arrival Day and October 7 as Indian Heritage Day. The SVGIHF is a member of the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) and takes part in regional and international Indian diaspora activities. Recently, a convention was held in Trinidad to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the abolition of Indian indentureship under the auspices of the International Indian Diaspora Council (IDC), at which SVG was represented. The IDC joins in extending greetings on the occasion of Indian Arrival Day,

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