In search of Roots

Parag Ranjan Dutta
India was never a seafaring nation, but since the begin
ning of the 19th century lakhs of Indians sailed across the vast expanses of the Indian, Pacific and the Atlantic oceans to reach various destinations in Latin America, Africa, and the islands of the Indian Ocean. There was a saying that the sun never sets in the British Empire. This is so very true if we could trace back British colonies all over the world.
Plantation farming was started by the European settlers, mainly by the British in their colonies in tropical locations. Plantations were developed in the tropical countries to raise crops meant for export to the developed mid- latitude countries of the world. And for this purpose shiploads of indentured labourers were drawn exclusively from India, mainly from Bihar and UP by the British masters to distant islands like Mauritius, Fiji, Trinidad and Tobago, and British Guinea. Kenya was an exception in this regard, where indentured labourers were brought to the country for a different purpose. The first immigrant workers toiled very hard to raise crops like tea and sugarcane, and cotton. But the success stories of these imported labourers were amazing and some of them went on to become the Prime Ministers of these countries!
Fiji, an island nation in the south Pacific, is an archipelago comprised of more than 300 islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu being the two most important islands According to history it was the Polynesians who settled along the eastern coast of Fiji about 3500 ago. Though English navigator James Cook sailed along the coat of Fiji in 1774, but the person credited with the discovery of Fiji was Captain William Bligh, when he was sailing along the Fijian coast in 1789 and 1792, following the mutiny on the Royal Naval vessel H.M.S. Bounty. But the first European to land in Fiji was the Dutch Navigator Abel Tasman. The British established their colony in Fiji in 1874. Between 1879 and 1916 a total number of 87 voyages were made to Fiji to bring Indian labourers initially from Calcutta but from 1903 most of them came from Chennai and Mumbai. Around 60000 odd Indians were brought to the island by the British to work mainly on the sugarcane plantations and also tea and coffee. When the system was abolished they stayed back and many were involved in farming and business.Today about 44 percent of Fijian population are of Indian descent. In 1994 Mahendra Choudhury became the first Indo- Fijian Prime Minister for a brief period of one year when he was removed in a coup, taken hostage and released one year later.
Mauritius, a paradise and rightly called ‘The pearl of the Indian Ocean’ was discovered by the Arabs and later colonized by the French, British and the Dutch. Slavery was abolished in Mauritius in 1835 when, in order to escape the poverty and famine in the 19th century many Indians became indentured labourers.Some travelled for a better life along with their families. The French governor imported few Indian workers for building Port Louis, the capital. On the first day of August, 1834, the first batch of Indian labourers on board the vessel ‘Sarah’ landed in Port Louis. Most of them were agricultural workers and were drawn mainly from U.P. and Bihar. Later on, comparatively lesser number of workers were recruited from Bengal and parts of Southern India. Currently about 66 percent of the Mauritian people are of Indian origin. In 1871 Mohit Ram Goolam arrived in Mauritius to work in the sugarcane plantation. His son, an alumnus of the prestigious Eton college of England, Sir Seewoosagars Ram Goolam was the first Prime Minister of Mauritius. Often referred to as Chacha Ramgoolam he was the Chairperson of the Organization of African Unity. Years later in February 2008 Seewoosagar’s son Nabinchandra became the Prime Minister of Mauritius who retraced their ancestral village. Slavery was abolished in Mauritius in 1835.
About 170 years ago, after the abolition of slavery, a good number of Indians were brought to this Caribbean island to replace the African slaves and to work on the British plantations across West Indies. Between 1845 and 1917 an estimated number of about 143,000 Indian indentured labourers arrived in Trinidad and Tobago for settlement. Trinidad and Tobago was the first country to celebrate the arrival day of the Indians, though it is celebrated in different days in the Caribbean Islands, Mauritius and Fiji. Indian arrival day is still celebrated in a number of Island nations like Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Louis, Surinam, and Trinidad and Tobago. The descendents of Indian ethnic community form the majority of population in Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Surinam. Surinam, erstwhile French Guiana ( Guyana), a Latin American country in central northern coast of South America, is one of the smallest but a multiethnic and multilingual society. The first batch 225 of Indian labourers landed in Surinam in June 1873, on board the ship Fath Al Razack.
British East Africa, a territory spanned across the countries of Kenya, Uganda, Zanzibar and Tanganyka (now Tanzania).The British started colonizing Zanzibar very early and in 1888. The Imperial British East Africa Company established its claim to territory to what is now known as Kenya. By the mid 1890’s the British were in control of Kenya. During that period East African Province was considered as a province of British India. Through mass uprisings led by the Late President Jomo Kenyatta got its independence only in 1963.
At that point of time there was a strong presence of the Germans in a few countries of Africa. The British desperately wanted to check the advance of the Germans who were in control of neighbouring Uganda. For strategic reasons the British decided to construct a railway track between the eastern port town of Mombasa to Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria. For economic reasons for both Kenya and Uganda the construction of a railway line became imperative. Mombasa is a coastal city along the Indian Ocean which is the oldest and the second largest city of Kenya. Because of its strategic location a number of countries controlled Mombasa at different times of history. Work on the 625 mile long Mombasa- Kisumu railway line began at Fort Jesus on the shores of Mombasa in 1896, reached Kisumu in 1901, on the bank of Lake Victoria in 1901 and ultimately the Ugandan capital, Kampala. About 32000 workers from India were brought to Kenya for the purpose. Unfortunately 2500 labourers died during the work. Many perished due to malaria, black fever, difficult terrain and lack of medical facilities. Approximately 6500 of them were wounded by nature, wild animals and fearsome African tribesmen, the Masais. When completed this railway was nicknamed the ‘lunatic line’ because of capital involved and great dangers for a number of reasons. The railway line passed through a region of tall elephant grass and every now and then labourers were picked up at night from their barracks by a pair of man eating lions which came to be known as ‘man eaters of Tsavo’. Between March and December 1998 they were responsible for a number of deaths of Indian labourers. Col. John Henry Patterson, who oversaw the construction of a Railway bridge along the railway ultimately killed ‘the man eaters of Tsavo’.
Not long ago the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago was a lady of Indian origin Kamala Persad ( Prasad?) Bissessar. Born to Rita and Raj Persad, from UP, Kamala was a lawyer, who was the first woman to chair the Commonwealth of Nations. In 2011 she was declared 13th most influential female leader in the world. Many may not know that Trinidad and Tobago born British writer and Nobel and Booker prize winner Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, commonly known as V.S. Naipaul, belong to the immigrant Indian community. His grandparents migrated to Trinidad as indentured labourers in 1880 to work in the sugarcane plantations.
All these stories teach us one thing ‘All labour that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence’- Martin Luther King Jr.
The author was the former Head Department of Geography, St.Edmund’s College