• 20 Jul, 2024

Heirs of Indian Indentureship Founder Apologize

Heirs of Indian Indentureship Founder Apologize

Heirs of Indian Indentureship Founder Apologize

The descendants or progeny of the founder (John Gladstone, a Scottish and father of the late British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone) of Indian indentured slavery (girmit servitude) in Guyana tendered an apology for his involvement in slavery and indentureship in then British Guiana at a public function last Friday August 25 at the University of Guyana. The apology and an event related to it was organized by Dr. Paloma Mohamed, Vice Chancellor of UG, Slave Reparations Commission Chair (Guyana branch) Eric Phillips, and others.

John Gladstone owned slaves and plantations in Guyana and in other Caribbean territories. He introduced Indian indentureship labor (girmitya) to Guiana in 1838 after a successful experiment in Mauritius in 1834. Indentureship, a version of slavery, was introduced by France in 1828 in Reunion Island. It was very profitable for French Plantation owners in Reunion where indentureship existed side by side with slavery including slaves from India and Africa. From Reunion, Indians were taken to several other colonial possessions.

In the Caribbean, John Gladstone received more than 100,000 pounds in compensation for hundreds of Guyanese slaves that were freed in 1834. Portuguese indentured laborers from Madeira Island replaced slave labor but they were not found to be suitable for the kind of work need to grow sugar cane. Two sail ships, the Whitby and Hesperus, that the Gladstone family owned, transported the first batch of indentured Indian laborers (girmityas) to arrive in Guiana on May 5, 1838 – in Berbice and Vreed-en-Hoop in West Demerara. Subsequently, Indian indentureship was introduced in Trinidad in May 1845 and Surinam in June 1873. Several other Caribbean colonies also engaged in Indian indentureship or slavery. The plantation owners and the British government and people benefited from the slave trade and indentureship. France and Holland also benefited from indentureship. Denmark experimented with indentureship but discontinued it after one ship load of indentured laborers. Indentureship in the British territories ended on January 1, 1921 after an act of British Parliament. The indentured Indians were not compensated for the unilateral abrogation of their contracts by the British government or plantation owners. The Indians were forced to work on the plantation as laborers.

At UG on August 25 afternoon, Charles Gladstone, a great grandson and one of six family members that visited Guyana to tender the apology for slavery and indentureship, read from a prepared formal apology on behalf of the extended family of John Gladstone.

The prepared text apologized for the sins of John Gladstone, calling slavery a crime against humanity with lasting negative impacts.


Charles Gladstone read: “It is with deep shame and regret that we acknowledge our ancestors’ involvement in this crime and with heartfelt sincerity, we apologize to the descendants of the enslaved in Guyana. In doing so, we acknowledge slavery’s continuing impact on the daily lives of many. In writing this heartfelt apology, we also acknowledge Sir John Gladstone’s role in bringing indentured laborers to Guyana, and apologize for the clear and manifold injustices of this”.
Eric Phillips received the apology on behalf of slaves. Curiously, no Indian was invited to receive an apology on behalf of the indentured victims.


Guyana President Irfaan Ali on Thursday August 24 on the eve of the apology demanded reparations for slavery. He did not mention indentureship. A commission on Reparations for Slavery was established by CARICOM in 2013 without same for reparations for indentureship and the native indigenous people who were decimated. Then President of Guyana Donald Ramotar and then Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar of Trinidad and Tobago did not bring up the issue of reparations for indentureship or the native people. Subsequently, they endorse reparations for indentureship and for the indigent but a decade later no Commission on Reparations for Indentureship has been established.

During his remarks, Charles Gladstone announced that his family would create a fund for various unnamed projects in the country as part of a “meaningful and long-term relationship between our family and the people of Guyana.”


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.