Indian Diaspora & Decolonization in Guyana


A review of The Last Return Indenture/ship from Guyana to India: Diaspora, Decolonization and Douglarized Spaces, by Nalini Devi Mohabir.

For the most part, scholars working in the field of Diaspora Studies have focused their attention on the diaspora in situ, that is, the socio-economic and political reality of diasporic communities in their host countries. Relatively little research has been conducted on those communities which have returned to the site of their (ancestral) origin. Nalini Mohabir’s dissertation is a welcome contribution in this respect as it presents a study of the Indian diaspora in Guyana. It examines the idea of return as mediated through a study of the final return ship, the MV Resurgent, which departed Guyana for Calcutta in September 1955.

The dissertation is organized across six well-researched chapters in which Mohabir examines the socio-historical and spatial context for the return ship and its passengers. The theoretical and physical implications of return are explored, as is the position of former indentured Indian labourers caught between the gaze of two powers: on the one hand the British Empire, under whose colonial control Guyana remained until 1966, and on the other hand India, their ancestral homeland, which was still coming to terms with the independence it had gained in 1947. This is contrasted with the African slave experience in order to identify points of connections and departures.

In Chapter 1 Mohabir positions her theoretical framework broadly within the postcolonial tradition as she recognizes the limitations of the archive as a site of colonial power. In doing so she seeks to “recover the unheard voices [and] insert them into the framework of knowledge” (p. 6), reflecting Edouard Glissant’s concern that “history was mostly a series of decisions made in Europe … disconnected from the rhythms of peoples’ lived experiences” (p. 9). The process of mapping the MV Resurgent’s route of return is expanded through Dionne Brand’s reimagining of the “Door of No Return,” which allows Mohabir to map “coolie geographies.” She acknowledges the continued resonance of the affective pejorative term “coolie” and shows how it is used to provide a sense of a spatialized-racialized geographic identity, which in one instance maps the locations to which the labourers were shipped (the sugar colonies), whilst simultaneously indicating their sense of confinement on the plantations. This leads to a discussion of ethnic cleavages in Guyana and the flow of migration, which have come to define the contemporary Guyanese political landscape. The chapter concludes by expanding on the three registers of the title – diaspora, decolonization and douglarized spaces – which are positioned to locate the MV Resurgent within the “emotions and history of connections to India (diaspora) centered around flux (decolonization)” (p. 21).  Furthermore, it is also suggested that the “ethnic consciousness provoked by return intersects with other Caribbean experiences of return (douglarized spaces) and has implications for the shared space of the present” (p. 21).

Chapter 2, “Towards a Relational Account of Indenture,” reminds the reader that prior to the arrival of the Indians, Guyana was a slave colony and that the relationship of indenture to slavery continues to be a fraught one, with tensions between descendants of the two periodically resulting in violence. Mohabir highlights the dangers of trying to draw parallels between their experiences, for whilst they both suffered under colonialism, any attempt to draw an equivalence between them is regarded as an attempt to downplay the hardships endured by the slaves and as such is routinely condemned. The Demerara Rebellion of 1823 is identified as a key flashpoint, which hastened the transition from slavery to indenture due to the violence used to suppress it. This led abolitionists to push for reform, which resulted in the securing of labour from India. Despite a supposed shift from slavery, the indentured labourers experienced similar conditions to those of the slaves. The relationship of slavery to indentureship is further explored and the shared experience of trauma, pain and suffering is identified as a defining characteristic of both the Indian and African psyche, as a douglarized space.

Chapter 3, “Histories that Forget Their Places; Places that Forget their Histories,” continues to develop the theoretical framework by exploring points of connection between maritime space and land as mediated through the idea of the port-as-gateway. Theoretical and actual passages are traced through the literary narratives of V.S. Naipaul for whom the gateway contained an acute moment of crisis, whilst Wilson-Harris’s Limbo-Anancy gateway is a transformative space. Dionne Brand’s “Door of No Return” connects the two as a douglarized condition. For both Indo- and Afro-Caribbeans, the port is traumatic as it is a void, signifying the distance between destination and arrival. This trauma is characterized by a “nervous temporariness,” which continues to haunt them as they were removed from their ancestral home leaving them with only the (inherited) memories of the “Kala Pani” (Black Water) and the “Door of No Return,” which signify absence and space rather than the terra firma of land. The attraction of Calcutta was that it represented freedom from indenture and offered the hope of being more than a coolie. Drawing upon the mental map remembered by her aja, who had been the interpreter-clerk aboard the MV Resurgent, Mohabir walked through modern-day Kolkata documenting key sites of coolie geographies linked to the indenture story. This allowed her to map the trauma of indenture onto Calcutta, both in terms of physical experiences and historical memories.

Chapter 4, “Movement and Stillness: The Voyage Home,” explores the idea of return as a right. For the indentured Indians the contractual promise of a return ship allowed them to claim agency, as they regarded this “right” to be a recompense for the hardship and suffering they endured. This contrasted with the former African slaves and indentured Chinese who were not afforded this right (and as such held no agency), which highlights the difference between return narratives. Whilst the “back to Africa” movement led by Marcus Garvey was based upon a social protest movement, the “back to India movement” was based upon a contractual entitlement. These contrasting experiences are explored through discussions of various mid-twentieth century return ships that departed from the Caribbean for Europe, Surinam, Africa and India. Focusing on the MV Resurgent, six return stories are presented which recount the experiences of returnees, highlighting the various reasons for departure. These include: returning to join the struggle for Indian independence, making preparations for funeral rites and returning to join family in an ancestral village. It is also worth remembering that the reality of India had limited appeal for those who returned, as some wished to return to British Guiana.

Chapter 5, “The Politics of Return,” emphasizes the nexus between diaspora and decolonization, by tracing the connections between the Caribbean and India. In order to secure decolonization it was essential to build national sentiment for the idea of “the nation” by emphasizing Guyana rather than Africa or India as a collective homeland. The ill-fated 1953 elections are identified as a pivotal moment to achieving national unity, as it was the first to be held under universal suffrage. The Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) won the elections; however, fears that its leader Cheddi Jaggan had communist sympathies led Britain to suspend the constitution and install an interim government. This ultimately led PPP Party Chairman Forbes Burnham to form the rival People’s National Coalition, which polarized Guyanian politics and has led to racialized violence ever since. Indian independence in 1947 was a defining moment for the Indian plantation workers, by giving them a renewed sense of self-confidence, as many identified with and celebrated its liberation. However an independent India no longer felt obliged to honour the right of return established by the indenture contracts and actively discouraged its indentured diaspora to return. At the same time it subtly repositioned itself in relation to them by offering them humanitarian and cultural, rather than political support, which was a departure from their pre-independence rhetoric. It is this sense of rejection, which may be identified as the defining moment when an Indo-Guyanese diaspora was created which was ready to challenge the Afro-Guyanese for political control. At the same time Indians within the Caribbean region were viewed as a political and economic threat, as there were fears that once they secured political control of the region they would cast aside the United Kingdom and become an overseas territory of India.

The final chapter explores the potential for developing a “douglarized intellectual space” to fill the void left by a political system unable to address Guyana’s social divisions. The UN Special Rapporteur on racial violence Doudou Diènne noted that it was mutual fear and mistrust rather than hatred that was a cause of the inter-ethnic tension, and that Guyanese society contained those human values which could overcome its polarization. It is the nurturing of these values that Mohabir feels a douglarized intellectual space could achieve. Essential to this process is recognition of the differences and similarities between the Indo-Caribbean and Afro-Caribbean experience, and empathy towards one another’s histories. These slaves and coolie histories would then need to become part of a shared national narrative, to be acknowledged and internalized by all citizens who would then share in each other’s struggles for (restorative) justice.

Mohabir has produced a thoughtful and engaging dissertation exploring the theoretical and physical implications of return. She has succeeded in providing a unique insight into the rationale for return and in doing so has inserted those voices absent from the official archive into the wider narrative. Her work excels in exposing the trauma that lay behind the indenture and slavery processes, and locating them within a douglarized intellectual space. This idea is further developed in the final chapter into a means of reconciliation for a nation fragmented by racial violence. In doing so, Mohabir offers a tantalizing glimpse into an area for future research. This dissertation will be well received by geographers with an interest in spatial theory, historians with an interest in (post-)colonial and Guyana’s political history, scholars working on comparative diasporas as well as anyone with a roving curious mind.

Jonathon Prasad
Department of Religious Studies
Lancaster University

Primary Sources

Colonial Correspondence: State Archives of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu
Interviews with returnees and relatives: Guyana, India, Canada
Diplomatic Letters: National Archives in Guyana, India and the UK
Newspaper Reports: National Archives in Guyana, India and the UK
Emigration Documents: National Archives in Guyana, India and the UK

Dissertation Information

University of Leeds. 2011. 300 pp. Primary Advisor: Alison Donnell.

Image: Last return ship to sail from the Caribbean back to India, the M.V. Resurgent. Taken from The Daily Chronicle (Guyana) September 5, 1955 (Source: Walter Rodney Archives, Guyana).

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