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Book source: Suralco Magazine, 1996, Jaargang/volume 20 nr 2 Suralco Magazine, 1984, Jaargang/volume 16 nr 2 De werving van kontraktarbeiders in India voor tewerk stelling in Suriname, 1872-1916, P.C. Emmer, OSO, jaargang 4, nummer 2, Dec 1985

Subject: [History] British Indians Contract Workers


On Sept. 8, 1870 the Dutch colony on the coast of Guinea was ceded to Great Britain in return for granting Suriname the rights to recruit workers from British India. The importation of contract workers began in 1872. The government of Suriname had appointed an emigration agent with an office in Calcutta. There were various sub-depots and sub-agents to recruit workers from North Western provinces and Oudh.

The sub-agent did the actual recruiting and received 25 rupees for a male and 35 rupees for a female recruit. From the sub-depots the recruits were transferred to the main depot in Calcutta and when there were enough workers assembled they were shipped to Suriname.

At the main depot in Calcutta each worker was medically examined and interviewed by a "protector of emigrants" official appointed by the British. This official checked that each worker understood the contract and it was voluntary after that the contract was signed. On June 5, 1873 the sailing ship "Lalla Rookh" arrived in Paramaribo with 399 workers on board. There were 279 men, 70 women, 32 boys and 18 girls under 10.
These contract workers were required to work for 5 years on the plantations. A work week was 6 days and 7 hours a day for field work or 10 hrs for factory work. They could not leave the plantation during work hours without permission. Pay was f.60 a day for a male and f.40 for a female or boy 10-16 years old. They received free medical treatment and housing.

Within the first 1 1/2 years in Suriname almost 20% had died. The consul in Suriname reported this to the British government and emigration was stopped till 1878. The planters were also not satisfied with the quality of the contract workers. From 1873 until 1916 some 64 ships arrived in Suriname to bring 34,304 contract workers from India. An additional 3000 came via the British and French West Indies.

Only 11,700 returned to India when their contract was completed. The others renewed another contract or settled as a free citizen and they received f100 in lieu of the return ticket. Further importation of contract workers from British India was halted after 1916 because of Indian Nationalists pressure.

Upon arrival in Suriname of the contract workers from British India, they were registered. Weddings were recorded and all received a registration number. As they did not have family names they were registered as follows: Example- Boedhoe 357/H Boedhoe is the first name H= year 1879 A=1872, B=1873 etc 357 = number of persons arrived that year. In 1916 and with the approval of the Agent-General they could chose a family name and first name. However not many used this opportunity.

In 1950, it became mandatory to choose a family name. The rules were as follows:
Males: The known registered name became last name. Name of the father became his first name. i.e. Boedhoe son of Somaroe is now Somaroe Boedhoe Females: Father's name of registration becomes last name. Their own registration name is their first name.

i.e. Somaria daughter of Somaroe is Somaria Somaroe Sometimes a caste-title was added to the name and double names were formed. The introduction of these names caused the necessary confusion as you can imagine.

Why did the contract workers from British India come to Suriname ? Here are some reasons: - The urge to leave India and this explains why they did not care where they were going. At this period of time the name Sranan became beter known in India, although some thought it was Sri Rama. -Another motive was the economical situation in India due to its dense population. - family related problems made people want to leave India due to illicit love-affairs. This may explain the high number of births on board of the ships while they were enroute to Suriname. - Finally there were those called adventure seekers.

Those workers who decided to remain in Suriname upon completion of their contract were provided land. These were abandonned plantations which were divided in plots of 2 hectares. They could build their own houses (huts) and plant to provide for their own. Also they could find work during harvest time on adjacent plantations. Many settled in Nickerie near the rice fields.

[Language] The contract workers came from different parts of India and they did not speak the same language. They developed in Suriname a common language which is called Sarnami for which an official spelling was established in 1986. Hindi is used during Hindu religious ceremonies and Urdu or Arabic by Muslims.
Most speak Dutch or Sranan Tongo. The younger generation can not speak Sarnami anymore.

[Customs] The male contract workers used to wear the 'dhoti' or called 'baba' in Suriname. It is a long cloth that is wrapped around the waist and between the legs. The Muslims wear a pajama, narrow long trousers. There are also the kurta (shirt), pagri (turban), kharon (wooden sandals)...just to name a few. The women's dress consists of the 'sari'. This was adapted to the climate of Suriname. A 'janghiya, kacha etc were worn. The sari is only worn at religious and formal ceremonies.

[Holidays] There are now two official holidays with roots going back to India. The Holi Phagwa of the Hindus and the Idul-fitre of the Muslims (including Javanese--they call it bodo). In 1891, the tadja celebration at the Zoelen plantation and Geertruidenberg plantation led to a bloody fight among the participants and at least 5 people were killed until order was restored by the military.

[Religion] Of the 34,304 contract workers some 20% were Muslim and 80% Hindus. While later thousands became Christians. The majority of the Muslims were Sunnites but as of 1930 they have been influenced by the Reform Ahmadiya movement.

[Agent-General] Since 1872 three agent -generals were appointed to oversee the protection of the contract workers. (1) J.F.A. cateau van Roosevelt 1872-1891 (2) G.H. Barnet Lyn 1891-1902 (3) C. van Drimmelen 1902-1921 The office was abolished in 1932.

[Population] In 1922 the number of contract workers was 26,684. In 1940--42,538 In 1955--77,550 In 1965--121,162 In 1971--142,349 then 37% of the population. Many left for the Netherlands in the 1970s before Surinames Independence day.

Met dank aan Albert Buys

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