Address of His Excellency Brigadier David Granger President of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana at the Commemorative Ceremony for the 179th anniversary of Indian Arrival
Arrival, survival and concord
Arrival Day is a national celebration. All Guyanese should commemorate the chapter in our history when our peoples arrived in this country. This date, this event, this place remind us of the value we all place both on our otherness and on our togetherness.
Arrival Day is observed as a national holiday on 5th of May each year. Today, also, is designated, officially, as Indian Arrival Day.
Arrival Day commemorates the transformation of the country by the people who came – the Africans, Chinese, Indians and Portuguese together with the Amerindians, the people who lived here from time immemorial. It transformed, also, the demography and the political economy of British Guiana.
Arrival Day commemorates the arduous voyage, the joyous landing, the sedulous search for a good life. It tells the story of settlement, of struggle and of the contributions of Africans, Chinese, Indians and Portuguese to nation-building.
Arrival Day brought people from the continents of Africa Asia and Europe, together with the indigenous peoples of this continent, who all contributed to the creation of a multi-racial and multi-religious state. The peoples who ‘immigrated’ mingled with those who ‘inhabited’ this land. They, together, spawned the cultural, economic and social diversity we recognize as the Guyanese nation.
Diversity is a precious asset. Diversity, however, must be prized and protected by ensuring that everyone could co-exist in peace and mutual respect for the validity of each other’s culture.
Arrival Day is a celebration of cohesion. It might have been an accident of history that our peoples were brought together in such a spectacular manner more than a century and a half ago. It was no accident, however, that we have had to work to weld the disparate peoples into a whole nation. Social cohesion was not an automatic condition of contemporaneousness. It was hammered out on the anvil of struggle. It was forged in the fiery furnace of the contest for space.
Heed was hardly paid to the manner in which these various peoples, uprooted from their familiar homelands and transplanted into a strange land, would live together. The need to live in peace, however, was evident to our ancestors. They were mindful of the importance of fashioning a society in which all peoples could coexist.
Social cohesion had to be built, gradually and deliberately, from the commencement of indentured immigration in 1835. This was due, in no small measure, to the efforts of all to accept and respect each other’s values and beliefs.
Arrival Day reminds us that social cohesion cannot be taken for granted. It is concerned with addressing the most fundamental question of how diverse peoples can live together in a multi-cultural society. We should not hesitate to pay homage to each group that arrived. It is only in giving recognition and by paying respect to people that differences will not be obscured, that ignorance will be eradicated and that real social cohesion will be assured.
Indian Arrival Day, therefore, is observed rightly on 5th May. Portuguese Arrival Day, similarly, was celebrated on 3rd May, two days ago. Chinese Arrival Day was celebrated on 12th January of this year. African Emancipation Day will be observed on 1st August and Indigenous Heritage Month will be observed for all of September. We will continue to work towards strengthening society by strengthening the strands of our social tapestry. Indian Arrival Day is commemorated, traditionally, here in Highbury on the East Bank of the Berbice River, as the main, national ceremony. The Indian presence in this country is associated with this community. It was at Highbury that the S.S. Whitby, bringing 128 Indians, docked on 5th May 1838, one hundred and seventy-nine years ago.
Indian Arrival Day is significant, this year, because its observance coincides with the centenary of the end of Indian indentured immigration. Indians were brought here to work as indentured immigrants on the sugar plantations. Almost 240,000 Indians came to our country between 1838 and 1917, the year in which indentured immigration was abolished. More than 70 per cent stayed to make this country their home.
Indians have made an indelible impact on this country’s cultural, economic and social life. They brought with them a rich culture – including their beliefs, customs, dance, dress, festivals, food, music, rituals, speech and traditions.
Indian cultural practices enabled them to overcome the adversities and abuses of the plantation. It fortified their resilience and resistance to the oppressive nature of the plantation.
Indian cultural values encouraged strong bonds of personal, familial, communal and social solidarity. It welded the Indian community closer together. The re-creation of the traditional Indian village practices and relationships furnished a familiar setting, thereby enhancing social integration. Religious festivals re-established links with their homelands.
Indian interests enticed them to trade their return passages for plots of land which they used to supplement their income off the plantation. Their industry and thrift enabled them to improve their livelihood. They contributed to the diversification of the rural economy by venturing into cattle-rearing, cash crop and coconut cultivation, paddy-growing, rice-milling and fishing. Indian village economies and settlements, indeed, have reshaped our country’s economic and social landscape.
Guyanese descendants of the original immigrants are more than mere arrivants. They are the heirs of a magnificent legacy – an extremely beautiful, blissful and most bountiful country that is now in transition to becoming a ‘green state’. The ‘green state’ is a natural product of this verdant and luxuriant environment.
Our bio-diversity is the legacy of our ancestors and the patrimony of all Guyanese. Our ecosystems – our coastland, hinterland, highlands, islands, wetlands, grasslands, lakes, rivers, rainforests and waterfalls – are our birthright, our inheritance and our heritage. They must be protected and preserved for future generations.
The ‘green state’ can flourish. It will furnish a ‘good life’ for generations to come only by engendering a spirit of cohesion, one in which diversity is respected and celebrated. The ‘green state’ must embody the cohesiveness that arises from our unique, shared past and that will lead to a prosperous and common future for all.
Indian integration arose as an essential element in nation-building. Resilience in the face of adversity, the relevance of culture to new conditions and the recognition of the need to develop respectful relations with the other races and ethnic groups in our society contributed to the creation of the cohesive state.
Indians, as residents of a strange state, realized collectively that they needed to share a common space and to live in harmony with other ethnic groups. Indians, in so doing, contributed to a common culture of tolerance and mutual respect and laid the basis for strengthening social cohesion.
Indian society, like any other society and, particularly, the wider Guyanese society, is not homogenous. Social cohesion, therefore, still needs to be strengthened in each social stratum, in each occupational sector and in each geographical region. Social cohesion must be enhanced within and between communities. The Indian presence in Guyana teaches that improved relations must be predicated on respect for each other and must be guided by a sense of shared responsibility for the common good.
Arrival Day reminds us all, therefore, that not only must we be inspired by the past but that our different experiences should instill in us the desire to choose the path towards a shared future. The shadows of the plantation under which our ancestors arrived, survived and thrived are unforgettable:
- they toiled on the plantations in poverty. The poor, alas, are still with us but it is now for us do much more to eliminate extreme poverty; and
- they were treated as unequal members of society but it is for us, now, to eradicate the worst forms of inequality, including gender and geographic inequality.
Arrival Day teaches that we can build a cohesive society by eliminating poverty and eradicating inequality.
Arrival Day is a time for coming together. All have contributed to nation-building. All have to embrace a common destiny, one in which diversity is respected.
Arrival Day is also a time for moving forward. It is a tocsin – a signal to all Guyanese of the need to work together towards greater social cohesion. A cohesive state is the most fitting homage and the best tribute that we can pay to our ancestors.
I extend best wishes to all Guyanese on the occasion of Arrival Day and Indian Arrival Day.