146 years ago, on June 5, 1873, the Lalla Rookh arrived in Suriname bringing along with it the first South Asian indentured labourers. Six months later, the Kate Kellock arrived, bringing 466 new labourers, among them my great-great grandmother, twenty five years old at the time, and my great grandfather, then a toddler of two.
Famine and poverty brought most of these folks to Suriname. The labourers were promised a five-year contract with medical benefits decent pay and working hours and a return trip at the end of their terms.
Did they get what they were promised? Some did. Others did not. Some weren’t paid what they were supposed to be paid. Others found the working conditions horrific. Gender-based violence ran rampant, with women subject to sexual violence from both fellow workers and plantation administrators. And some of the labourers found that when it was time to go home, there was no ship to take them.But many, among them my great-great grandmother and her son, stayed, making lives in this new country halfway around the world. Their stories are told in oral histories passed through generations, and live on in immigration records, photographs, ship manifests, and captains’ logs.
Today, descendants of these early indentured immigrants make up about 27% of the whole population of Suriname. The Baba and Mai statue in Paramaribo – and its twin at the Suriname Ghat in Kolkata, India – stand as monuments to honour the legacy of these first arrivals.
(c) Sonja Boon, 2019.