President David Granger: Honourable Dr. George Norton, Minister of Social Cohesion; Honourable Jaipaul Sharma, Minister in the Ministry of Finance and Mrs. Sharma; Mr. David Armogan, Chairman of the East Berbice-Corentyne Region, our host region; Mr. Chandra Sohan, President of the Berbice Indian Cultural Committee and members of the Berbice Indian Cultural Committee; Members of the Diplomatic Corps, particularly representatives of the Indian Cultural Centre and the Indian High Commission here today; regional, municipal and neighbourhood councillors; residents of the East Berbice-Corentyne Region; special invitees; members of the media; ladies and gentlemen; fellow Guyanese:
I’m always happy to come to this region which people used to call the Ancient County and now one of the most dynamic economic regions in Guyana. Particularly, I’m happy to be here to celebrate Indian Arrival Day, the 180th Anniversary of Indian Immigration; 180th anniversary of the first Indians to land in what was then British Guiana, right here at Plantation Highbury on the 5th of May 1838. This is an auspicious day, it’s a national celebration. Only two days ago, ladies and gentlemen, I spoke at the Portuguese Arrival Day to mark the 183rd anniversary of the landing of Portuguese immigrants at Plantation Thomas in Demerara on the 3rd of May, 1835. In fact, three years and two days before the Indians arrived here, the Portuguese arrived in Demerara. And earlier this year, I addressed the Chinese Arrival Day, which marked the 165th anniversary of the landing of Chinese immigrants at Plantation Windsor Forest where our first President Arthur Chung was born – they landed on the 12th of January 1853.
So today, in addition to being Indian Arrival Day it is also Arrival Day, the day that we have set aside as a national holiday for the persons who arrived: Indians, Chinese, Portuguese and Africans. So it is an important national day for me and that is why it was declared a national holiday. It also commemorates the single greatest increase in Guyanese population. It was an age in which the entire population was revolutionised. On the 1st of August, 1838, nearly 180 years ago, 80,000 Africans were freed, were emancipated from enslavement so in fact the Portuguese came before African emancipation; Indians came before African emancipation because they felt the Africans would have walked off the sugar plantations, but as you know, as you travel along East Bank Berbice, many Africans remained in sugar cultivation and on sugar plantations.
Over 340,000 Chinese, Indians, Europeans and Africans came into this country between 1838 and 1917 and bear in mind, the Portuguese are Europeans. So in that 80-year period between 1838 and 1918, Guyana had such a huge surge in population that they were able to transform a string of plantations into the nation that we recognise today as Guyana.
Plantations were transformed into nations by the Indians, Chinese, Portuguese and Africans. So today we make pilgrimages- an annual pilgrimage to Highbury, an annual pilgrimage to Windsor Forest, an annual pilgrimage to Thomas Lands but these pilgrimages remind us not only of where we came from but where we came to and where we’re going to as a nation.
We have been told by Martin Luther King, the great civil rights activist, that we may have come in different ships but we are all in the same boat now, and that is so true. Ships brought the Portuguese, ships brought the Indians, ships brought the Chinese, ships brought the Africans but we are all Guyanese now and we all have to make a success of this nation that we have put together. We must swim together or we’ll sink separately.
I like to call the 5th of May Indian Arrival Day because it recognises not only the event of arrival, but also survival. As the Regional Chairman told you just now, getting here was hard enough but making a success of our immigration was also extremely difficult, and today we celebrate the survival of the descendants of the original immigrants. It was their resilience, it was their resourcefulness that allowed them to overcome adversity. It was their endurance that allowed them to overcome the challenges and to transform those challenges into opportunities – and in four particular ways, I would like to remind you my brothers and sisters.
The first is the transformation of the economy. To understand Indians in Guyana today we must understand the India from which they came. India is a very complex country. There are over 2,000 ethnic groups in India, you know; there are over 2,000 ethnic groups in India. Even now, the Indian Government recognises 122 major languages in India. Right now, there are over 650,000 villages in India. Up to now India for the most part, is a rural country and most Indians in India still live in villages. So 180 years ago there were more people living in villages in India and that is important for us in Guyana because they brought their customs from the Indian villages and created villages in Guyana based on those customs and culture. So many of the things you’ve found in rural India 180 years ago were transplanted in rural Guyana. That is the importance of immigration, that there was this cross-fertilization of cultures. They didn’t come with empty heads and empty hands, they came with cultures and customs and traditions in their skills; in paddy and vegetable farming; in coconut cultivation and cattle rearing and their skills as boatmen; as charcoal burners; goldsmiths – what would our gold industry be without goldsmiths? What would an Indian wedding be without jewellery? But these are skills they brought from their homeland.
Fishermen, hucksters, milk vendors, sweetmeat vendors, shopkeepers, tailors, all of these skills enriched Guyanese society. We are richer now for Indian immigration. So migrants coming from India’s rural regions helped to transform Guyana’s rural economy. Fortunately, many migrants traded their entitlement to return to India, including the Regional Chairman’s grandfather – had he not done that we would have been without David Armogan today.
They were able to turn their indentureship into citizenship. So from an economic point of view Indians helped to transform the country that they adopted, what was then British Guiana. From a political point of view, they also helped to transform their own lives and the lives of other immigrants who came to this country. Indians resisted the abuse, the brutality, the confinement and the domination of plantation life. There were riots, there were strikes and many of them were killed right here in East Berbice-Corentyne: East Canje, Rose Hall. The single largest ever massacre of Indians in this country took place in East Canje, Rose Hall, but we commemorate that event. There were other shootings at Windsor Castle, at Ruimveldt, the most famous, perhaps, is at Enmore but almost three times as many people were killed here than at Enmore. Rose Hall was the worst. There were other riots at Non Pariel, at Nooten Zuil so I agree with the Chairman that Indians were not a docile people; they stood up for their rights and by standing up for their rights they helped to preserve the rights of future generations and people like Joseph Lachmansingh, the founder of the Guyana Industrial Workers Union, which later became the Guyana Agricultural Workers Union, which became the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union.
Joseph Lachmansingh, he was the head of the union that struck on the East Demerara that ended in the shooting of the sugar workers at Enmore. It was Joseph Lachmansingh, and the secretary of the union was Jane Phillips Gaye and a union also, one of the largest unions ever in Guyana, was founded by Ayube Edun, a Muslim unionist, a union called the Manpower Citizens’ Association- MPCA; which is now defunct and, of course, the Guyana Agriculture and General Workers Union is the largest union in the country and in the sugar industry, but in other ways the political footprint of Indian Guyanese was made more prominent. Another Berbician, Joseph Luckhoo, was the first Indian to be elected into what is called the combined court which is now our National Assembly. Joseph Luckhoo was the first to be elected over a hundred years ago. He was followed by another Luckhoo- Edward Luckhoo; Eddie Seeram, J. B. Singh, young Bahadhur Singh, Pierre Bacchus, C.R. Jacob and later, in our time, Dr. Cheddi Jagan himself.
In fact, this year marks the hundredth anniversary of Dr. Cheddi Jagan’s birth, a son of indentured immigrants and his contribution, perhaps one of the most outstanding by any Indian Guyanese in the struggle for national liberation, and in this regard, all Guyanese have shown him the respect which is due to him. So from a political point of view, Indians were able to make Guyanese and were able to preserve the rights of Guyanese not only for themselves but for all others and the contributions that they made through the Court of Policy, though the Legislative Council, through the National Assembly, have been able to make the lives of all Guyanese more dignified.
And thirdly, we’re all beneficiaries of Indian culture. The culture that you see here, the culture that you share is not from one group of people. If you go by State House at Diwali you will see rows of diyas showing the way from Main Street into State House because there is now a Benab there where we hold Phagwah ceremonies, Diwali ceremonies; where we hold ceremonies for Eid at the end of the holy month of Ramadan; Christian festivals; and Indians brought those religions to us in Guyana: Islam, Hinduism and Christianity. But Indians too, enduring that arduous voyage of nearly three months crossing what our literature calls the Kalapani, the black waters, were able to console one another -they became mattie and mattie is a concept now that we understand in Guyana, that people doing similar work treat one another in a similar fashion as equals. Mattie is not a word you can translate in English. It means more than friendship, it means solidarity, it means sharing, it means respect. When someone is your mattie it is a high honour that you can place and those traditions came with our Indian brothers and sisters on the ships. So cultural retention -and every ethnic group have cultural retentions; the Chinese have cultural retentions; the Portuguese have cultural retentions; the Africans have cultural retentions but today we celebrate Indian cultural retentions. Finding themselves in an unfamiliar country, they recreated the familiar rituals and systems that they enjoyed in their homeland, whether it was in the Bhojpuri region in the north or in the Madras regions, the Tamil regions in the south, they were able to bring that sense of solidarity; they were able to bring their beliefs; they were able to bring their beautiful dances; their dress; their food – you know sometimes you travel overseas and you long for some pholourie and some mithai. You know I have a relative living in United States and some day he was at Houston airport and he saw somebody – he doesn’t know the person – and he looked at this woman and said, “you want some mithai?” “Yeah, boy!” – she doesn’t know him and he doesn’t know her but he when looked at her he said, “You want some mithai?” and that was the bond; they became immediate mattie.
Anyhow, we can go around this country, a mandir can be next to a masjid, a masjid can be next to a church, but we don’t fight mattie. We don’t bomb one another. We have created a zone of tolerance because the people who came here learned to live as neighbours rather than to fight each other as enemies. My brothers and sisters, today is a happy day for Guyana. It’s a happy day for East Berbice -Corentyne; it’s a happy day for Indians and all Guyanese. We speak of social cohesion and the Ministry of Social Cohesion had a role to play, along with the Berbice Indian Cultural Committee, in making this event possible. In 2015, when we created this ministry, some people were sceptical but you can see why social cohesion is important in Guyanese society and this is why we need a Ministry of Social Cohesion so that we can keep our eyes on the importance and need to work together; to ensure that the differences between various social and religious groups do not degenerate into antagonism.
When we speak of social cohesion, we cannot ‘drop the ball’; we cannot allow the differences to go unattended; we cannot allow people who rant and rave to separate and divide our country. We have fought one hundred and eighty years to be where we are today, to bring our people together and we can’t turn back on the path towards national unity.
My brothers and sisters, our diversity, these colours you see before you, like the colours of Holi, the colours of Phagwah, our diversity is an asset, it’s not a liability. I am proud to be in a country of many races. I don’t want to live in a garden made up of just grass; I want to live in a garden of beautiful, colourful flowers and that is what Guyana has become.
We are proud of our varied tapestry and of our ethnicities. We are proud of our shared past, even as we plan for a common future. My brothers and sisters, Guyana, on this Indian Arrival Day, pays homage to the Indian indentured immigrants and their descendants, who now proudly call themselves Indian Guyanese, or maybe Guyanese Indians, but they know where they belong to and they know from whence their culture has come. Indian Guyanese can be proud of their contribution to this nation over the last 180 years. As President, I applaud the continuing contributions to nation building and I wish you all a happy Arrival Day and a happy Indian Arrival Day.
May God bless you all.