A Skit and Slides Tells the Story of Bitter Migration, Lest Others Forget


The Sanathan Dharam Mandir located off South Post Oak on Players Road

By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: Around the time the United States was struggling with the practice of slavery that brought about the Civil War in 1860, a new form of slavery – indentured labor – had established itself in British Guyana in South America. The abolition of slavery and emancipation on May 5, 1838 in the British West Indies, saw the beginning of the indentured labor system, under which many illiterate laborers were brought in from another part of the vast British Empire – India.


The President of SDM, Vishal Chattor with the Public Relations Officer Ram Sharma (left).

At that time, the British were at the zenith of their Empire, stretching all across the globe which led to the phrase “the Sun never sets on the British Empire”, but they needed hardworking people who could tolerate the harsh conditions under which many of the crops in the Colonies were grown. Between 1835 and 1918, 341,600 indentured laborers from India were imported into British Guyana. Although there were also Chinese migrants in Guyana, the British considered them not suitable for working in plantations and so the preference was towards the Indian workers.
During roughly the same period, from 1879 to 1916, 60,965 laborers on 42 ships in 87 voyages left from Calcutta and Madras for Fiji; 143,939 came to Trinidad; in Jamaica 36,412; Grenada 3,033; St. Vincent 2,472; St. Lucia 4,354; and St. Kitts 337.  Of the French colonies (now Overseas Departments) Martinique received 25, 509; Guadeloupe 45, 844 and French Guiana 19, 276.  Suriname, while under Dutch rule, imported a total of 35, 501 immigrants.


A skit was performed showing how the Indians were tricked into going across the waters and later, after their arrival, mistreated by British agents


And many more went to all over Africa, South Africa, the islands of Mauritius, Maldives and Reunion and those in the South Pacific. Altogether, more than 2 to 3 million Indians were taken overseas as indentured laborers and then their later generations settled in and became a significant part of the fabric of the country.
For many of these people – especially in Fiji, Guyana, Suriname and the West Indies – May 5 commemorates the anniversary of arrival of the first immigrants to the countries and is called Girmit Day after the term the illiterate peasants used for the English word “agreement” under which they came.


The simple temple has a large collection of idols depicting many gods and goddesses.

Many were recruited under false pretenses from among the poor countryside of modern day Uttar Pradesh and Bihar by Indian and sometimes British agents who promised them an easy life “sifting sugar”. Once on board the ships, many of them died due to sickness and overcrowding – many had never seen the ocean before – and often by committing suicide by jumping overboard. After three months on ship, they landed and were given a number and an easy to pronounce English name.
It was just this story of being duped to sign up and go across the Black Waters (kala pani) that the amateur actors at the Sanatan Dharam Mandir portrayed (as Tara Chatarpal narrated) for a room full of people, mostly from Guyana, and their children at the Indian Arrival Day program held this past Sunday, June 26 at the temple on Players Road in South Houston. There were also other dances and activities in the main hall, one side of  which also doubles as the temple altar with idols arranged in three rows. The event started in early morning and ended at noon with prasad (religious offerings) and lunch.
Organized by the temple, the program featured early morning puja; breakfast; a devotional hour;  followed by a Song of Indenture by Shomie Ramprasad, Ram Sharma and Jasodra Sharma; dances by three young kids and presentation of awards. In between, SDM President Vishal Chattor dressed in a white kurta, dhoti and Gandhi cap spoke about the significance of the day and Public Relations Officer Ram Sharma in a kurta-pajama and loosely wrapped white turban emceed the event. Dr. Prahalad Ramcharan, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Chiropractic College gave a slide presentation on the origin of Girmit Day and the horrors and travails the laborers had to endure.  Vipin Kumar, the Executive Director of India House, was an honored guest who spoke about what he had learnt at the program and invited the audience to visit his facility on West Bellfort. Pandit Sase made the closing remarks.
And through the slideshow and skit, the sadness and despair of their forefathers who lived it came through for the people and children who sat on the carpet and listened. It brought out how clueless the poor, illiterate people who endured the terrible voyage by ship only to find brutal conditions in the fields where they had to work for endless hours for a shilling (about $2) a day, 6 days a week. “It was nothing short of slavery,” said one Guyanese man at lunch.
Alone, angry and frustrated, these people were tortured but one thing they nurtured was their religion, finding solace in the Gita and Ramayana. It is their Hinduism that endured through the centuries and held them together in temples, just like at the SDM and another temple in Katy mostly frequented by Fijian Hindus.