“It took them about four months,” said Karen Budhram, Senior Assistant Archivist at the Walter Rodney Archives. She was standing in front of a row of amazingly well-preserved emigration forms of her relatives who had come from India to what was then British Guiana. One of the brown pages had no official seals and was otherwise blank apart from a few scribbled details. “She was born on the boat,” explained Karen. So a form had to be improvised.
At four months, the journey of indentured labourers from India was longer than that of slaves forcibly brought from Africa – with their ships actually going around Africa to get to British Guiana, explained Karen. And the wooden ‘logie’ houses they lived in had previously been inhabited by slaves. But this wasn’t said to compare their situations, just to join the dots. For some women, Karen added, leaving India represented an escape from family or certain customs – though obviously for others freedom was the last thing they found.
The fascinating thing was these records were all of Karen’s ancestors. She could trace her family back right to different regions of India – and had created a huge family tree.
As well as painting a picture of Indian indentureship more generally, the exhibition also told a very personal story. Alongside examples of cane-cutter clothing, Indian musical instruments and the type of house overseers would have lived in, there were black-and-white photos of Karen’s great-great grandparents, a ‘sil and lorha’ stone grinder from her mother’s kitchen, and her own beautiful painting of her daughter.
Coming into the exhibition, there were already two children exploring the room’s contents. They were, they said, mixed Indian and African – like my daughter, said Karen, pointing out her daughter’s curly hair in the painting. The exhibition, she hopes, is a way for more people to learn more about and embrace their Indian heritage.
We were encouraged to ask questions about anything we saw. The young duo took Karen up on her word and asked, ‘What’s this? What’s that?’ Sharing what they knew when something familiar came up. A star-shaped wooden masher was like one in their mum’s kitchen, the girl said. It was used in making dhal, added Karen – something they labourers may have had to eat day in and day out (with rice).
That kitchenware, jewellery and other objects of daily life have been preserved is wonderful, but that such intact paper records still exist is incredible. Looking at the registers of births, deaths and estate arrivals, you could still make out the tiny details that made each person stand out – a distinguishing mark perhaps or how they died. Pneumonia, bronchitis, dysentery.
The exhibition ends tomorrow, 3 November 2017 [Update: Karen Budhram says the exhibition will officially close early next week, so will actually be open Saturday 4 November and perhaps into next week]. But the services of the National Archives remain open. And some records are already online – particularly relating to Indian arrivals – so enter your surname into the search box on the home page of the archives website and see what comes up…
National Archives of Guyana, Homestretch Avenue, D’Urban Park, Georgetown, Guyana.
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