Sunday, June 12, 2011

Land Ahoy !

The call had come to the village. The ship had come. It was anchored in the deep seas, some distance away. Where it was sailing to, nobody knew. Even if they knew, it would have meant little; world geography wasn't their strong point All they knew was that it was going far far away. And that the white sahib was promising work for any able bodied man or woman who was willing to sail.

The terms were simple. Or at least, this is what they understood. The white sahib would feed them and house them. He wouldn't charge them for the ship journey. They were to work for about five years or so. They wouldn't be paid any wages, but they would be given food and shelter. After five years they were "free" ; could come back home (they would have to pay for the trip) or stay or whatever.  This was to be their "contract". When they landed , the white man would thrust a paper in front of them to that effect. They were to sign the contract. Of course they didn't know to read or write ; the thumb impression had to do.

Between the late 1800s and the early 1900s, this was the story of some in India. The story of indentured labour. People were in plenty. But , in the village, there wasn't much to do. Famines were common. And all over the British empire, across the world, labour was needed. Maybe for plantations. Maybe for laying the railways. Maybe for building roads.  So large numbers of people went and therein started the spread of the Indian diaspora across the world.

The main regions where Indians were taken were Africa, especially South Africa, the Caribbean, The Pacific Islands, especially Fiji, and Singapore/Malaysia. It all depended on where the ship that you went to was sailing - pure chance. If it went to Singapore/Malaysia, there was a chance of you coming back some day. But if it went to Fiji or the Caribbean, then distance ensured you never came back. South Africa was different; it was close enough to come back, but apartheid and the global sanctions ensured that they were marooned there.

Imagine their thoughts when they first landed. In a completely strange place, they hardly knew where. Completely shut off from their families back home - neither side would even know if the other was alive or dead. No chance of communication of course. Life was hard. But they survived. Married amongst themselves. Built a community.  Collectively they became true Indians - divisions of caste, languages, etc vanished. They even evolved a common lingua franca sometimes - thus came Fijian Hindi to being.

Slowly the link with the homeland became weaker and weaker. Their children and grandchildren slowly went native. They spoke English. They saw themselves as Malaysians or South Africans or Fijians. But the link remained. There was still an Indian touch to their food. They still married largely within the community. And of course, in recent times, there has been Bollywood. Even if they couldn't understand Hindi, song and dance was in their genes.

This is a small tribute to those magnificent men and women. For those times, what they did, was positively trail blazing. Today there are some 24m persons of Indian origin worldwide. Recent migrants have been the educated and the elite, to western shores, but the large majority trace their origin to the indentured labour of old. They've created magnificent communities in every country they have gone too. They were truly a pioneering generation.

PS : While reading about this topic, I came across an interesting post on the indentured coolie by Capt Ajit Vadakayil here. If this issue interests you, this will make disturbing reading.