Not a happy homecoming for indentured workers

By Shubha Singh, IANS

Review of two books: “The First Crossing”; Edited by David Dabydeen, Jonathan Morley, Brinsley Samaroo, Amar Wahab; Publisher: The Derek Walcott Press.

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“Finding the West Indies in India”; Author: Nalini Mohabir, INGCA Diaspora Cultural Resource Centre.

Over a million Indians went as indentured workers to the British colonies to work on the sugar plantations in the first organized migration from India. There is a popular belief that the Indian workers did not return to India.

But many of them did return, though it was not a happy homecoming for most of them.

Two recent publications – “The First Crossing” and “Finding the West Indies in India” relate the instance of one such group of returnees.

“The First Crossing” is the edited version of the diary of Theophilus Richmond, the surgeon on board the ship Hesperus that carried one of the earliest groups of Indians from Calcutta to Georgetown, Guyana, in 1838.

They are the memoirs of a young man, giving his impressions of the gay life of an unattached young Englishman, hunting, fishing and partying in Calcutta in the early 19th century.

Theophilus Richmond viewed Indians through the imperial prism usual for those times, but he worked with dedication to look after the Indians when cholera raged on board the Hesperus. He saved lives in the days when cholera could decimate more than half the voyagers on board a ship. Richmond died of yellow fever two months after he reached Guyana and was buried there.

The diary came to light after a programme made by noted Guyanese poet and author, David Dabydeen, on the Caribbean indenture period was broadcast by the BBC.

Dabydeen’s earlier work, “Slave Song” is a Caribbean classic. He received a letter from Brigid Wells, the great-great-niece of Theopilus Richmond about the existence of the diary.

Dabydeen has written a long introduction to the book, explaining the indenture system – how it began and eventually how the indenture system came to an end. He writes of the lives and travails of the indentured workers and the evolution of an Indo-Caribbean culture.

Leaving India meant cutting off the physical links with the homeland, but the emotional ties remained as strong as ever. Despite having lived in Guyana for long years and losing touch with their relatives at home, many Indians wanted to return to India.

Dabydeen relates the tragic story of the MV Resurgent, the ship chartered in 1955 to take back the last shipload of former indentured workers and their dependants to India.

Nalini Mohabir’s monograph, “Finding the West Indies in India”, relates her search for the returnees who sailed on the MV Resurgent. It is a search for her own connection to India for her grandfather, Chhablal Ramcharan, was the repatriation officer on the MV Resurgent charged with taking back the former indentured workers to India.

The right to return was part of the indenture contract, and by 1955 pressure had built up on the Guyanese government to make arrangements for the return of former indentured workers. The majority of the returnees were moved by nostalgic pull of the motherland, and as they grew older they wanted to have their ashes immersed in the Ganga.

Efforts made by various authorities to dissuade them did not succeed. A group of 42 repatriates returned to the Resurgent even before it could sail for Guyana, clamouring to be taken back.

Through painstaking research Mohabir was able to locate two returnees who were teenagers when they reached Calcutta.

Dundee was born in Guyana, but his parents who hailed from Andhra Pradesh decided to return to India for sentimental reasons, spurred by a family disagreement.

Dundee’s parents tried to return to their village near Visakhapatnam, but their land had been taken over by relatives. The family moved to Chennai where Dundee learnt Tamil and with difficulty managed to find a job.

G.C. Naresh was 12-years-old when his extended family returned to India because of his grandparents’ longing for home after 40 years in Guyana. The family sold off its land and cattle and booked a passage on the MV Resurgent.

Arriving in India they realized it was a mistake and about a year later his grandparents and some of his uncles returned to Guyana. His elder brother, Permaloo, saved some money and travelled back to Guyana on a cargo boat, but Naresh went to their native village of Padavedu in Tamil Nadu.

Both Dundee and Naresh held on to their memories of Guyana. They went through difficult times to find a place for themselves in the homeland.

According to Dabydeen, the majority of the repatriates on the MV Resurgent became destitute after reaching India. It was no longer the India of their nostalgic dreams, and many found it difficult to adjust and make a living.

Frantic appeals were made to locate relatives in Guyana and ask them for passage money for returning to Guyana. Only a handful of the repatriates managed to get back to Guyana.

The story of returnees is a poignant one of repeated displacement.