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Indentureship or Independence?


By Janis Deane 30.MAR.07

This year 2007, is a significant one for many reasons, especially for us here in the West Indies. It was in March 1877, 130 years ago, that the first International cricket test match took place with Australia beating England in their home country. For most persons of African heritage, brought to the Western Hemisphere, it marks 200 years of arrival to the region by the atrocious and vile act of slavery. For the persons of East Indian Ancestry, March 2007 marks 150 years of the First War of Indian Independence on the Indian Subcontinent. These are only a few of the things that we as a pluralistically cultural society can celebrate and cheer to.{{more}}

While the events mentioned above, are of great importance to all West Indian peoples, it should be recognized as a hallmark by persons of East Indian descent in this country, since most of the Indian Indentures who arrived from the Indian Subcontinent from 1861 and thereafter, came mainly from the North India region from places like Benares, Oudh and Uttar Pradesh, inter alia. It was precisely in this region that the struggle for Indian Independence started in 1857, approximately four years prior to their arrival to the West Indies. It would be safe to say that our ancestors had unequivocally direct and immediate experiences with the struggles of the First War of Indian Independence also known by the interesting and rather humorous misnomer as the “Sepoy Mutiny”.

A sepoy was referred to as an Indian from the Subcontinent: Bangladesh, Pakistan and Myanmar who was employed as a soldier to serve European power in his own country. In Northern India most of the soldiers in the Bengali Army were exclusively landowning Bhumihar, Brahmins and Rajputs and being from a high caste, they were spared some of the harsh treatment and penalty which other British soldiers endured elsewhere in India. They were given the utmost respect by the British and were strongly encouraged to practise their religion and culture.

During the years prior to 1857, coupled with the resistance to modernization for fear that the caste system would risk its status and be “polluted” with external influences, the sepoys, some of whom were farmers were also forced to shift from subsistence farming to commercial agriculture to produce such items as jute, indigo, coffee and tea mainly to export to the mother country, Britain. The low tariffs which the British maintained, seriously hurt them. This permitted the Indian market to be flooded with cheap imported clothing made from Indian cotton grown on Indian soil to be sent back from Britain to be procured by the same Indians who cultivated them.

As if these two adjustments were not enough to write home about, the Bengali infantry was deployed to Burma, as Britain tried to secure more neighboring land territories. Traversing the waters of the Bay of Bengal also called “Black Waters” (Kala Pani) implied that the sepoys would risk losing their caste. Whether the reason for this is that it is the estuary of the Ganges where everyone would wash themselves or other is not sure. This brings to focus a very interesting point. Was this a contributing factor why many Indians taken to the West then, and after refused to cross the ‘black waters’ of the Indian Ocean to return home after their contract expired for fear of losing their caste? Or was it due merely to the fact that a better future was deemed for them and their children? It is quite obvious that the deployment would have aroused unrest and this was only the tip of the iceberg.

Where there was once an established relationship between the British and the soldiers of the north, there was now indifference, mistrust and tension. What was once a relationship of provisionalism and spontaneity was now one of stagnation and defensiveness. Rumours to provoke the sepoys who were Hindus, spread by their then European counterparts and now rivals.

One such rumour entailed one of the moves toward modernization which the British desperately wanted for the efficacy of their infantry. The transition from the almost obsolete and inaccurate flintlock rifle for a Enfield percussion rifle was certainly considered a step to progress and improvement in the arms maneuvers. Just like any novel instrument that comes on the market to replace an outdated one, there is always some engineering flaw that leaves room for the next person that comes along to make better. The loading procedure for the new guns did not change. Just like the previous, it required that the greased paper covering the cartridges be bit off while pouring and stuffing the gunpowder into the rifle’s muzzle.

The rumour mischievously spread that the rifle was greased with lard made from either pork or beef fat also known as tallow. This was seen as an offense to both the Muslims and the Hindus since the former did not eat pork and the latter beef. Although they were later informed that the grease was replaced with bees wax or mutton, it made no difference to the already agitated, angered and deceived sepoys. They made no hesitation in setting fire to the barracks of the British Army in the north around January 1857. Two months later, on March 29, the first rebellion took place when one sepoy soldier, Mangal Panday fired at the Lt. Baugh with a sword missing him and hitting his horse. Panday was said to have fired back, pulling the trigger with his toe. Those in the south also found out and were only too quick to support those of the north.

It was only four years after the first war of Independence that Indians, ancestors of many residing in our region, were unfortunately kidnapped from their families and their villages to work as indentured labourers in the remaining British territories in the West Indies. The speaker of the Lok Sabha office of India, Somnath Chatterjee, in a speech to honour those of 1857 and to commemorate 150 years of Indian struggle for Independence, purported that “Not only did these martyrs give up their lives for the sake of the country’s freedom but also left a message for the future generations- a message of sacrifice, courage of conviction, a strong belief in the ultimate victory of the people in their war against oppression…” May these words resonate with all those who still struggle for mental and physical independence and may we earnestly and solemnly learn from our past!