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Lalla Rookh, the first ship that brought Indian indentured labour to Suriname from Calcutta leaves behind a bitter-sweet legacy

The ship Lalla Rookh which transported the first batch of Indian immigrants to Suriname to work as indentured labourers in the Dutch plantations (Pic. Courtesy Twitter/@urbandesiwomen)

History is full of twists and turns, making one wonder if events in future can be ever predicted. Take for instance the movement of indentured Indian labourers to Suriname, a tropical country located on the north eastern Atlantic coast of South America, a majority of whom refused to return even after the expiry of their contract!

With the Netherlands abolishing slavery on July 1, 1863, the plantations in Suriname – a Dutch colony – faced huge labour shortage. Consequently, the Dutch colonialists tapped imperial Britain to make up for the shortfall at the farms. The result — an immigration treaty between the two was drafted in 1870 to streamline flow of Indian labour to the Caribbean.

It was on June 5, 1873, 149 years ago, that the first ship Lalla Rookh with 399 emigrants from Calcutta landed at Suriname’s Nieuw Amsterdam. For the next 50 years these ships went ahead with their perilous voyages, during which Indians mainly from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, landed in the Dutch colony braving several debilitating diseases enroute. The ship started its voyage February 26 with 410 passengers of whom 11 died.

Indian immigrants at Suriname (Pic. Courtesy Twitter/@urbandesiwomen)

Today, the descendants of these workers are one of the largest ethnic groups in Suriname with Sarnami Hindustani, a language born out of the confluence of Awadhi and Bhojpuri, being the third most spoken tongue.

Despite the inherent risks, what made thousands head for Suriname? Partly, this was due to severe poverty and deprivation caused by acute famine in the Gangetic plains in the 19th Century, including regions of Awadh and western Bihar. The hungry men and their families saw the indentured labour as a means to escape sure death and starvation.

Deception also played its part. Recruiters, who in local lingo were called arkatis, convinced and cajoled people to move not just to Suriname but also Fiji, Guyana, Trinidad, Mauritius and other places, and they used means — fair and unfair — to lure people.

Suriname was portrayed as a pilgrimage by describing it as the holy country of Lord Ram. Besides the religious bait, they also described it as a prosperous country where gold plates and bowls were used for eating and drinking. To further convince prospective migrants, tales of prosperous men returning from the Surname and living like landed gentry were shared. The protection of the British Government was cited as another highlight to build confidence in them. Foul means like kidnapping too was resorted to at times.

Upon agreeing, the labourers signed a contract, which made them volunteer to work for five years. Following a physical and health check-up, they were sent to Calcutta with ones designated for Suriname moved to Chitpur or Ballygunj barracks, for their onward journey.

Indian woman who migrated to Suriname (PIc. Courtesy Twitter/@cutlassmagazine)

The sea voyages to Suriname achieved something which leading social reforms of past and later years in India could not. Faced with perils brought the labourers together, sinking their differences based on caste and religion. Bonds formed were so strong that Professor Chan E.S. Choenni notes that “they became jahaji bhai and jahaji bahin (ship brothers and sisters), a relationship that was to some so sacred that even marriages between children of those who became brethren during the ship journey was not allowed.”

Choenni has written a research paper titled, “From Bharat to Sri Ram Desh: The emigration of Indian indentured labourers to Suriname”.

Space constraint on the ships, harsh weather conditions forged unity – devout Hindus and Muslims had to forgo daily prayers and rituals while travellers were forced to eat whatever was available and that too together. All this melted the man-made barriers. Fortunately, this continued even after they landed safely on dry land!

The first batch of Indian immigrants land in Suriname (Pic. Courtesy Twitter/@pycpim)

Once their contract expired a large number of these labourers, two-thirds decided to stay back. Even though life was hard, yet it was better than what prevailed in British India, egging them to stay on. Interestingly, besides protection, these people also received some land from the Dutch – this acted as a major factor to stay back coupled with the fact that chains of caste and religious divisions had been broken in this country. Since most labourers hailed from lower caste, they knew that on returning they would be subjected to the age-old rigid restrictions.

Cut to 21st Century and we find 30 per cent of Suriname's population is that of the Hindustani community who are home with Creoles, Surinamese Maroons, indigenous tribes, Chinese and Javanese. While being integrated they keep alive their Indian connections as evident by folk dance forms from India like Ahirwa Naach, chutney and Bhojpuri music, etc. Surinam singer Raj Mohan’s Bhojpuri songs are a hit in India.

Chandrikapersad Santokhi, Suriname’s present President is second from the community to hold this office, the first being Ramsevak Shankar who held the post from 1988 to 1990. Reiterating his ties with India, Santokhi took the oath of office in Sanskrit while holding copies of the Vedas in his hands. He has been advocating stronger relations with India and has also proposed visa-free travel between the two countries.

Significantly, the present generation is interacting with other communities and also assimilating them. Shailesh Bahoran, Netherlands-based dancer uses Indian dance techniques while liberally using elements from Black dance forms like b-boying and Hip Hop.

Indian family at Suriname (Pic. Courtesy Twitter/@cutlassmagazine)