As part of this year’s Being Human humanities festival, academics from the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) and the University of Bristol, have joined forces to form the ‘Archive to Blockbuster Four’ (A2BFour). During an evening event at Senate House on 21 November, the team will pitch four ideas for films in an attempt to show their audience how the stories they’ve unearthed during their research could form the basis of four powerful blockbuster movies and help create a more diverse film industry. Here Dr Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, one of the Archive to Blockbuster team, writes about how her pitch for a movie entitled ‘UPRISE!’ focuses on the powerful efforts by Indian indentured labourers in Guyana (then British Guiana) to resist the injustices of the indenture system.
Between 1838 and 1917, more than 250,000 men women and children travelled from India to Guyana through the system of indenture. They were part of a larger movement of labour migration totaling almost one million. In addition to Guyana, indentured workers from the Indian subcontinent travelled to Fiji, Mauritius, Trinidad and South Africa.
While there is evidence that some migrants were aware of the nature of the agreement they were making, it is also true that people were frequently duped by recruiters who dishonestly represented both the nature of the work and the distance of the country to which they were travelling to. This initial deception was the first of a series of exploitative practices to which East Indians were subject to once in the grip of an operation intent on extracting the maximum labour at minimal cost.
Once indentured to sugar estates, labourers were effectively encircled by a series of laws and regulations designed to confine them to the plantations. Viewed merely as units of labour, they suffered under harsh laws on absenteeism. They were punished, fined and sometimes sent to jail when they were physically unable to work. As a matter of course, magistrates collaborated with plantation management to ensure unfair judgements at court and on the estates. Beatings and lashes were a frequent form of punishment. When liberal members of the judiciary or clergy intervened on the immigrants’ behalf, they were demonised and ridiculed by the colony’s powerful plantocracy.
On 21 November I will pitch an idea for a film based on the lives of indentured labourers on a sugar plantation in Guyana. Yet my goal in this talk is not to centre on the colonial system that oppressed those labourers as the source of this drama. Rather, I will reference and focus on the remarkable resilience of Guyana’s Indian community and celebrate the incredibly creative ways they combatted the conditions they found themselves in.
UPRISE! is an attempt to represent with more accuracy, a people traditionally portrayed solely as passive victims. My pitch will show that the ‘hidden’ histories of the indenture system show a community far more powerful and politically engaged than has previously been acknowledged.
Dr Maria del Pilar Kaladeen is an associate fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study. She is currently working on the publication of her PhD thesis: With Eyes of Wonder: Colonial Writing on Indentured East Indians in British Guiana, 1838-1917. Keep up with the A2BFour on Facebook.com/A2BFour, through the website and on twitter: @A2BFour. Event tickets are free and available here.