• 24 Feb, 2024

Celebrating 150 Years of Indian Presence in Suriname

Celebrating 150 Years of Indian Presence in Suriname

Celebrating 150 Years of Indian Presence in Suriname

This June 5 will mark the Sesquicentennial or 150th anniversary of the presence of Indians (from India) in Suriname. The first or maiden voyage of Indians from India to Suriname arrived aboard the Lalla Rookh. The Indians were recruited and brought to rescue ailing sugar plantations. Sugar was badly need in Holland and Europe. At the end of slavery, the Europeans wanted a cheap source of labor. They turned to India. Indentured laborers were also brought from Java, Indonesia. 
Indian indentured laborers (girmityas) first arrived in Suriname on June 5, 1873.  Indentureship to Dutch Suriname thru 1916. More than 34,000 were taken as indentured laborers or girmityas to the colony. Indentureship was no better than slavery as the girmityas were dehumanized. Indians faced enormous obstacles during indentureship and after. This June’s commemoration, Suriname and her diaspora and descendants of girmityas around the globe recognize not only the overcoming of those obstacles that Indians faced but also the incredible breadth and depth of their contributions to society. The nation of Suriname and her diaspora are celebrating the m emory of the girmityas whose determination, enterprise and personal sacrifice (along also with those of the African slaves, Javanese, and indigenous people and all others) made the territory of what it is today. 

Photo : Her Excellency President of India Droupadi Murmu 

During the indentured period, at the end of their contract of five years or ten years, some freed laborers returned to India while others stayed on making Suriname their new home. The indentured and their descendants have left a lasting influence on the territory that is still felt till this day . From Suriname, the Indians have settled in other countries – mostly Holland (Netherland) and neighboring European countries and in North America and the Dutch Caribbean. 
The President of India, Her Excellency President of India Droupadi Murmu is the Chief Guest in a state visit on June 5 and 6 in the capital Paramaribo. President Murmu hosted and honored Suriname President Santokie last January in Indore, Madya Pradesh. President Chan Santokie is host this time around in welcoming the Indian President. Several agreements are expected to be signed between Suriname and India. 


Besides the official state celebrations to commemorate the girmitya presence, there will be an international academic conference on indentureship and slavery at the national university from June 6 thru June 10. The conference is being organized by Prof. Maurits Hassankhan and others. There will also be daily cultural programs. Delegates from around the globe are expected to present papers at the conference. 
As is written about Indian indentureship, destitute (unemployed) Indian laborers desperate for work and recruited by agents arrived in Suriname with hearts full of hope and dreams of earning quick money to fund a better lifestyle in their homeland. But this was not to be as they had to do back breaking work for very little earnings. In India, the indentured were deceived and misled by agents or recruiters (arkatiyas) who promised them quick wealth if they signed up for work in various parts of the globe. They were not told they would be signing up for human enslavement. With grit and determination in the colonies, they worked hard on plantations and saved their measly compensation. After completing their contracts of five or ten years, some returned to India where they experienced isolation and difficulties having crossed the Kala Pani making them unwelcomed to their native home. Others have stayed on making Suriname their home and building a beautiful multi-cultural society. And from Suriname, hundreds of thousands have migrated to Holland for studies and work eventually settling down there. 

Photo : Dr Vishnu Bisram

As the indentured laborers and descendants built their lives, they helped build Suriname and Holland and wherever else they migrated — never forgetting where they came from, always remembering the courage and pride they brought with them from the old country of India and of Suriname and passing these traits down to each new generation. That pride lives on today in the hearts of Indian Surinamese in Holland, other parts of Europe, North America, Curacao, Aruba, St. Martin, and other places. They continue to practice their cultural (music, language, garment, etc.) and religious traditions brought from Mother India. And wherever they have settled, they have made enormous contributions to national development. 
The contributions of Indian Surinamese to wherever they are present live on in business persons, scientists, politicians, labor leaders, educators, engineers, musicians, singers, bureaucrats, civil servants, soldiers, police, sporting personalities, among other professions, who hold dear the (Hindu) Indian ancient cultural value that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity, equality and respect. In particular, every realm of endeavor in Suriname and Holland, from economics to politics and religion and culture, education, music and literature, has seen involvement of Indian Surinamese descended hands and minds. Theirs was a magnificent contribution to the making of modern  Suriname and Holland and other societies. 
The Indian diaspora at large and Caribbean people in USA stand truly proud to recognize the enormous role played by Indians (and others) in developing Suriname whose 150th anniversary of the presence of Indians is commemorated this year June 5 onwards. 

Dr Vishnu Bisram

Dr Vishnu Bisram is Guyanese born who received his primary and secondary education in Guyana and tertiary education in the US and India. He is a fourth generation Indian. His great grandparents from both his mother and father’s sides were born in India -- Gurbatore from Ghaizpur, Amru from Azamgarh, Sau from Chapra, Mangri from Mau, Bhuri and Bhura Singh from Bharatpur, among others. They all came at different times to then British Guiana (1880s and 1890s) to work on sugar plantations as indentured laborers. After serving ten years, they were freed laborers. They remained on the colony rather than returned to India, married and had children. They used the savings from indentureship to purchase landholdings to cement their ties to their adopted land. They were not given free land. Vishnu Bisram is ninth of twelve children of Gladys and Baldat, rural farmers, she also was a seamstress and he a taylor and they attended to a kitchen garden as well. Vishnu attended the St Joseph Anglican (called English) primary school from 1966 to 1972. In 1972, he passed the annual nationwide Common Entrance exam winning a scholarship place to attend the government Berbice High School in New Amsterdam, some 17 miles from his home village of Ankerville, Port Mourant. He declined the placement scholarship and opted instead for the private Chandisingh High School to which his family pad to pay a tuition. He entered for eight subjects at the Cambridge University Exam in 1977. Vishnu migrated to the USA in 1977 to further his studies. He enrolled at the City College of City University of New York September that year at age 17, studying Bio-Chemistry and also completing a major in Political Science. After his BSc in Bio-Chem, he pursued graduate studies in International Relations earning a MA. He went on to complete multiple post graduate degrees including doctorates in Economics, Sociology, History, Political Science and Educational Administration. Dr Bisram taught for over forty years in various subjects in the US. He also served as a newspaper reporter and columnist for over four decades and is a well-known pollster in the Caribbean region. He is a specialist on the Indian diaspora traveling extensively around the globe to research and write about Indian communities. He published countless articles on various subjects in the mass media, journals, and books. He also organized international conferences on the Indian diaspora and presented papers at many conferences. He was a guest lecturer at universities in Mauritius, India, Fiji, South Africa, Guyana, Trinidad, Suriname, USA, and other countries. He is a well regarded political analyst on American and Caribbean politics. He makes him home in Guyana, Trinidad, and America and travels frequently to India.