Suriname Ghat: Tracing the Journey of Suriname Indians

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Tucked inside the South Generating Station of the CESC (Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation) at Garden Reach, Kolkata, is a historical site that played an important, albeit lesser-known, role in Indian history. The Suriname Ghat, situated along the banks of the Hooghly river, was a departure point for people from North and Eastern India during their journey to Suriname in South America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In the late 1860s, following the abolition of slavery, the Dutch government sought workers for their sugar and banana plantations in Suriname, a country located on the northern coast of South America. Following the lead of their British counterparts, who had been recruiting indentured laborers from India to work on plantations in their Caribbean and Pacific colonies, the Dutch government entered into an agreement with the British. On September 8, 1870, a treaty was signed in The Hague, Netherlands, that enabled the Dutch to recruit Indian indentured laborers to work on their Surinamese plantations.

In the mid-1870s, a new chapter began in Suriname's history. One year after the treaty between the Dutch and British went into effect on February 17, 1872, it was put into action. A ship named Lalla Rookh, carrying 410 mainly from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, set sail from the Suriname Ghat for Suriname on February 26, 1873. After a three-month journey, the ship reached the capital of Suriname, Paramaribo, on June 5, 1873, with 399 of the original 410 passengers still alive; the rest had died during the voyage.

Over the following years, 63 more ships made the journey to Suriname, with the last one arriving in 1916, as the indentured labor system was coming to an end. A total of 34,304 Indian indentured laborers made Suriname their new home. Despite facing exploitation from the planters during their work period, these laborers went on to play a significant role in Suriname society. They not only shaped the country and carved a niche for themselves, but also introduced festivals like Diwali and Eid as part of the country's culture.

Mai-Baap: A Memorial for Indentured Labour at Suriname Ghat

Almost a century after the last ship departed from the Suriname Ghat, its historical significance was finally recognized. On October 7, 2015, the "Mai-Baap" (Mother and Father) statue, depicting a man and a woman walking with a Potli (bag), was unveiled as a tribute to the Indian men and women who left their homes in search of a better future overseas, even if it meant leaving behind some of their loved ones. Plaques, written in Hindi, English, Dutch, and Bhojpuri, located at the base of the aluminum statue, commemorate the struggles and hardships of these individuals. This statue is a replica of the "Baba-Mai" statue that was established in 1994 in Kleine Water Street in Paramaribo, Suriname to commemorate the arrival of Indian indentured laborers.

Today, the Suriname Ghat serves as a silent witness to this important chapter in Indian history, which is widely acknowledged among the Indian diaspora in Suriname and other countries in the Caribbean and Pacific, but is not as well-known within India.

Cover image: Adity Choudhury

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