On Monday, the tiny West Indian country of St Vincent and the Grenadines will hold a function to honour the Indian pioneers who arrived on its shores as indentured labourers on June 1, 1861.  The event follows a host of similar celebrations in the Caribbean and other parts of the world over the month of May to pay tribute to the Indians who were transported across the seas in the 19th century to work on sugarcane plantations in the imperial colonies.

The pioneers were known as girmityas, for the agreements they signed to work for an estate owner for a defined time period. At the end of their indenture contracts, the Indians tried to put behind them the humiliation of servitude. The second generation did not talk about the bad days and girmit became part of forgotten colonial history within the Indian communities. It was many decades before there was a revival of interest in the Indian heritage and the story of the pioneering ancestors.

In recent years, though, there has been a revival of interest among the people of Indian descent in these histories. Indian Arrival Day had been declared a national holiday in countries like Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname, where the Indians form a sizeable section of the population. Over the past decade, even the small Caribbean islands have begun annual Indian Memorial Day celebrations.

The commemorations run throughout the month of May, beginning with Guyana which holds its official function on May 5. The ceremony takes place at the Monument Garden in Georgetown, which has a replica of the ship, the Whitby,  which brought the first group of Indians to the place that was then known as British Guiana in 1838. Arrival Day function begin with presenting floral tributes to honour the ancestors followed by cultural functions that showcase Indian music, dances and cuisine. Among the memorial events in Guyana is a pilgrimage to Berbice, the Highbury plantation where the first batch on Indians were sent to work.

Martinque holds its Arrival Day functions on the first weekend of May. St Lucia and Jamaica mark Indian Arrival on May 6 and May 10. Fiji’s Girmit Day melas are held after the official May 15 function and Trinidad started a week-long celebrations of melas, cultural programmes and seminars on Saturday, May 30. Suriname’s Indian Arrival Day ceremonies begin on June 10 with the laying of flowers at the “Baba and Mai” (Father and Mother) statues in Parimaribo where Indians first landed.

It isn’t surprising that all these celebrations events occur in the same period. The ships on which the Indians were transported left Calcutta and later Madras in the winter months to take advantage of the favourable winds.  They would take about three months to reach Britain’s Caribbean colonies and Fiji in the South Pacific in the month of May.

The stories of indenture weren’t always a source of pride. The diaspora historian, Brij Lal write that in 1929, when the Fiji government declared May 15 a national holiday to mark the 50th anniversary of girmit, the Indian elite reacted with horror at the idea of celebrating what they considered a system amounting to slavery. They burnt an effigy of Mr Girmit instead. But by 1979, when 100 years of girmit was being commemorated, the mood had changed. The few surviving girmitiyas were feted at public ceremonies. The younger generations of descendants of those early migrants now want to know more about their history and reconnect with their Indian cultural heritage.

The system of indenture had been adopted by the British to provide cheap labour for its plantation colonies after it abolished slavery across its empire in 1833. Sugar was king in the 18th and 19th century, and one of the important drivers of the global economy. One of the requirements for the production of sugar was a steady supply of workers to grow and cut the cane. The indentured workers had little idea of their destination and the conditions they would face in new land. Most of them had been lured or even deceived by the glowing tales of the recruiters; many did not know that they were going to a foreign country.

The indenture system lasted from 1834 to 1920, beginning from the time the first sailing ship, the Atlas docked at Port Louis in Mauritius with its passenger load of 36 indentured workers on November 2, 1834.  Other British colonies like British Guiana and Trinidad and Tobago also recruited Indian workers for their sugar plantations. The first group of indentured workers from India reached British Guiana on May 5, 1838. Over the next few decades, indentured workers were taken to the other Caribbean islands, from Jamaica, St Lucia, St Vincent and Grenadines to Grenada and Belize.

The British colonial government allowed the Dutch and French government to recruit indentured workers for Suriname, the Reunion Island and Guadeloupe. The Fiji Islands in the South Pacific were colonised in 1874 and received the Leonidas, the first ship carrying indentured workers, on May 15, 1879.

The indentured years were a period of hardship for the workers, beginning with the dislocation from familiar surroundings, the long uncomfortable sea voyage followed by the harsh working conditions that were enforced through penal punishments. After completing their indenture contracts, the workers had to find ways to earn a living in the new land.

It was a long struggle to regain their dignity and establish their identity and acceptance in colonial societies that ridiculed Indian religion and customs. Despite being cut off from India, they tried to retain their Indian customs and practices.   They worked hard, educated their children and made a major contribution to the economic development of their adopted lands.

Retired diplomat Arnold Thomas of the Indian Heritage Foundation in St Vincent and Grenadiers recalled that the Indian history was lost. “It was not mentioned in the history books, but now there is a revival of interest in the Indian heritage,” he said. He explained that most people of Indian origin in the small Caribbean islands have Anglo-Saxon names as many Indians migrants converted to Christianity, but there is a new fashion for Indian sounding names. “Names like Shanti, Naraine have become popular Indian names here,” he said. “Indian movies, the social media and contact with Indians from other countries are the main influence for choosing Indian names.”

He added, “The Arrival Day ceremonies serve to emotionally connect with the story of our forebears and revive the old cultural practices.”