In commemoration of the centennial of the abolition of Indian Indentureship on March 12, 1917, my Poetry Corner May 2017 features the poem “Destination” by Janet Naidu, a Guyanese-born poet, writer, social activist, and life-skills coach. She migrated to Canada in 1975, at the age of twenty-two, where she obtained a BA in Political Science and Caribbean Studies from the University of Toronto and, later in life, an LLB from the University of London (UK).
With the abolition of slavery in 1834 and the end of the apprenticeship scheme in 1838, the mass exodus of ex-slaves from plantations across the British Empire created a dire need for a regular and reliable supply of labor. On May 5, 1838, the first group of about 400 Indian indentured laborers, on a five-year contract, arrived in British Guiana on the sailing ships, Whitby and Hesperus. By 1917, their numbers totaled over 238,000 Indians, comprising 42 percent of the colony’s population. Only 65,538 returned to India on terminating their contract. Janet Naidu’s grandparents from Tamil Nadu were among those who arrived on the SS Ganges on November 8, 1915.
Born in the village of Covent Garden, East Bank Demerara, Naidu was the seventh of eight children. Like his parents, her father was a cane cutter. Her mother sold home-grown, green vegetables in the market.
In “Destination” from her poetry collection, Rainwater (2005), Naidu conjures the immigrants’ fearsome voyage across the ocean for an unknown destination. Continue reading