By: Joy Persaud
My Guyanese heritage seems to mystify people – but I couldn’t be more proud of my past
Too Indian? Not Indian enough. Born and Bred British? Not British enough. Why does no one know about us British Guyanese?
Joy Persaud has a fascinating family history
When someone asks, “Where are you from?” I’ll try to guess what version of the truth they want. For some, the fact that I was born and bred in northwest London but now live on the English south coast is enough by way of explanation.
But, for others, it’s a precursor to: “But, where are you really from?”
I am British but not British enough (for certain people). I have Indian heritage – 100 per cent according to Ancestry – yet I am not ‘a proper Indian’, as a self-pronounced ‘proper’ Indian former friend once said, while she sniffed at my Indian-Guyanese heritage.
Guyana – or British Guiana as was – is the only English-speaking country in South America, so I was brought up speaking only English. My diet is a blend of South Asian and Caribbean cuisine – as well as pretty much everything else Brits eat.
Despite the fact that most people are from a fusion of backgrounds – ask anyone who has taken a DNA test – brown or black skin attracts questions that are rarely fired at our paler friends, even though they may have far less in common with Brits than the colonial diaspora that still regards Britain as the motherland. Often, the affection shown for the country that conquered their own is remarkable; it is not for nothing that some immigrants seem ‘more British than the British’.
The Windrush generation, of which my parents are a part, imagined London shimmering with opportunities as they sailed to the UK in the 50s and 60s. Arriving in a cold country that greeted them with ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’, they shivered in bare, rented rooms, undeterred, their stoic determination to work hard and to carve out decent lives against the odds triumphing.
When I watch the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? I envy those who can access records and historians, as I long for an insight into my ancestors’ lives to learn how they were shaped by Britain. One relative shared snippets about my maternal great-great-great grandfather, Prince Bindraban Maharaj, who swapped his regal garb for ordinary clothes and sneaked past the guards at his palace in Ramban, which is nestled in the tea plantations my family owned in the foothills of the Pir Panjal mountain range, in the Lesser Himalayas.
From Calcutta, he stowed away on the SS Hesperus, bound for South America. The journey across the Kala Pani [black waters] to what was British Guiana in May 1838 was mired in controversy. Crossing the sea was said to strip away identity and culture and, to this day, those who have ventured afar by boat are forbidden from entering the sanctums of some Hindu temples.
The SS Hesperus which sailed between India and British Guiana (now Guyana)
But the British badly needed indentured labourers to work on their sugar plantations after slavery was abolished in 1838 and demand for ‘white gold’ – as sugar was known – soared due to Europeans consuming it at exponential rates. Indentureship differed from slavery in that individuals were not the property of those who employed them. They were legally bonded to work for a fixed term, and had their wages and working conditions agreed.
To entice Hindus, many eager to escape famine and political unrest for better lives, they placed vats of sacred River Ganges water on ships to assuage fears that travellers were losing their caste and their route to reincarnation as per the Hindu scriptures.
Many who signed up to this somewhat more palatable form of slavery died on the lengthy, perilous voyage, and when my ancestor, who was just 18, was discovered aboard ship, he somehow charmed his way out of being thrown overboard to certain death, which was often the treatment meted out to unwanted passengers.
Bindraban worked so hard after his indentureship ended – we believe he rose up the ranks while working for the British – that he was able to buy acres of rice fields and employed many people, under regular contracts. He eventually married another former indentured Indian and had a family. His riches didn’t last, though, as he loaned much of his earnings to the British Government for its war effort; the money was never returned.
Like my paternal forebears of whom I know little, Bindraban never went back to India. In theory, ‘Coolies’, as Indian indentured labourers were known – now a pejorative term – could return; after all, they had been promised fair pay and decent living and working conditions for the five-year tenure that labourers signed up for.
But this was often far from the case and many died. Of the 238,909 indentured Indian immigrants that travelled to Guyana between 1838 and 1917, only 75,898 of them, or their children, returned to India.
It is important to note that as well as Indians, Britain indentured people from other countries. Indeed, Guyana is called the Land of Six Peoples and is home to varied ethnic groups – Indigenous, East Indian, African, Portuguese, Chinese and those of mixed heritage.
My father describes himself as ‘international’, and it is clear why. First and foremost, though, my family is British. When told to “post myself back home” by a smirking stranger in the Post Office during the run up to the Brexit referendum, I felt so hurt that I cried with exasperation. I doubt whether that foul-mouthed ignoramus had a clue as to how much of this country’s wealth was built thanks to places he despises.
Indeed, how much do any of us know? Growing up, history was largely confined to what happened on British shores and war. Finding out the scant details I know has been challenging, as there are few resources beyond word of mouth.
The phrase ‘Where are you really from?’ is one with which many people of African, Caribbean and South Asian heritage will be familiar, even if they speak with received pronunciation and fully embrace British life. My schoolfriend, NHS A&E consultant Dr Chetan Trivedy, was so affected by being asked where he is from that he founded a project called ‘Where are you really from?’ which launched this week.
We are now working together to raise funds to produce a book that celebrates the diversity of the NHS, which is the country’s largest employer. All profits will go to NHS charities that assist staff working for the service. The book will tell the stories of people whose families are from all corners of the globe and give readers an insight into those whose voices aren’t often heard.
Also on a mission to share history that is overlooked is Naomi Ventour, a Londoner of British African-Caribbean heritage. Thanks partly to her helpfulness, her children’s primary school now includes Black history in its curriculum year-round not just in Black History Month. The issues she faces are different to mine, but we share a thirst for a rounded education, where our stories are acknowledged as part of – our – British history.
Ventour asks: “How widely known is it that the Windrush generation were invited to Britain from the West Indies to help rebuild Britain after the Second World War to work in, but not limited to, the manufacturing, public transport and NHS sectors? They were treated with disdain, discriminatory behaviour and overt racism from the ‘mother country’ that promised them prosperity and employment.
“How can we expect progress to be made if we do not have open, honest inclusive conversation?” says Ventour, “It’s time to be okay with being uncomfortable and, to be frank, be willing to fail in order to win. It is important that all questions are asked, and even the wrong ones.”
During the course of her research, Ventour stumbled upon Operation Legacy, which took place in the mid-20th century. During this process, the British government destroyed hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence relating to its colonial past to obscure so-called ‘dirty’ material being seen by former colonies.
One aim of this was to avoid revealing racial and religious biases that could embarrass the British government. Records were burned or dumped at sea. Like Ventour, I had no idea that such records were kept and would much rather have read them in all their brutal truth, so we can all better understand what happened, than pretend such times never existed.
We will never know if our ancestors, who played their part in this country’s history, were listed on those lost pages but as Ventour says, we can all open our minds, widen our knowledge and embrace what we discover, no matter how challenging. Just like the people who answered those calls made by the motherland so many years ago.
Joy Persaud is the author of Where are you really from? which is due to be published next year. It will showcase the contribution of BAME people to all corners of the NHS and profits will go to charities that assist NHS employees and causes.
Follow the project on Twitter @WayrfProject