150 years of Hindustani migration to Suriname: ‘Traditions must be preserved’

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Exactly 150 years ago, the first ship with contract workers left India for Suriname. That was the beginning of the Surinamese-Hindostan community, which is celebrating this extensively this year. The kick-off is today with a large gathering in Leeuwarden.

The Lalla Rookh, the sailing ship on which 410 immigrants embarked for the crossing to Paramaribo, departed on February 26, 1873 from Calcutta, present-day Kolkata. The clipper would take 99 days to complete the journey, 11 people did not survive the crossing.

Those who did go ashore on June 5, 1873, were distributed among the plantations, says Vinod Autar, one of the organizers of the commemoration. After the abolition of slavery, the indentured laborers from India would take over the work of the enslaved.

A group of Hindustani contract workers in Suriname in 1890

“The plantation owners needed workers,” he says. “People from India were known as hard workers, that’s why they were recruited.” In total, up to and including 1916, about 34,000 Hindustanis came to Suriname.

Once in Suriname, the contract workers often had to do hard work for a meager wage: 10 to 15 cents a day (a few euros at the most by modern standards).

“They had to work 12 hours a day on the plantations,” says 62-year-old Autar, who still knows the stories of his ancestors, who have been passed down from father to son. “They got no rest and had to work continuously, except on Sundays.”

A small part succumbed to disease and heavy work in Suriname, but most managed to become successful farmers with diligence and thrift.

Racial tensions

The workers had been given a contract for five years, after which they could choose: return to India or stay. “Some were homesick and went back, but most stayed.”

What also remained were the traditions they had brought with them from India, even when a large group of Hindustani Surinamese came to the Netherlands later. This often happened out of fear. Racial tensions sometimes ran high in multi-ethnic Suriname.

The largest group came to the Netherlands around the time of Suriname’s independence in 1975. Many Hindustanis ended up in The Hague, but many also live in the north of the country. There are currently about 150,000 in Suriname and about 180,000 in the Netherlands, but there are probably more in our country, Autar suspects, because not everyone is registered.

Interest in traditions

He says that the Hindustanis are known for being humble and adapting quickly to new circumstances. But because of this there is also the risk that one’s own traditions and knowledge of one’s own language, the sarnámi, will be lost.

“We want them to be preserved. But fortunately we also see many young people in the activities we organize. There is more and more interest in those traditions.”

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