When I was doing research on Asian indentured labor in Suriname, I was always envious of colleagues who focused on British Guiana. They had access to such wonderful sources as the papers of the Des Voeux Commission which in 1870-71 investigated the conditions of the Asian immigrants, or the West India Royal Commission (the Norman Commission) that did the same some twenty-five years later. Suriname never held official inquiries that included testimonies by the Asians themselves. Clem Seecharan now has written a useful documentary history of Bechu, the first lndian to testify bef ore the Royal Commission in 1897.
Now who was this Bechu? He was, in Seecharan's words, "an indefatigable gadfly," who in letters to the local press revealed the conditions of lndian indentureship: poor wages, sexual exploitation of women by overseers and managers, and the virtual impossibility for Indians to obtain justice because of the collusion between colonial authorities and the planters. This knowledge we owe to economic historian Alan Adamson who "discovered" Bechu in the 1960s. Yet the man himself remained somewhat of a mystery, something Bechu himself seems to have cultivated. Seecharan has now filled a number of lacunae in our understanding with this two-part volume. The first section focuses on Bechu and the British Guianese environment in the late nineteenth century, while the second part includes letters and memoranda by Bechu (and reactions to them by local opponents).
Bechu claimed to be a kurmi (a member of the agricultural caste) from Calcutta who was orphaned at an early age. He received no formal education but was schooled by "a white missionary lady." In 1894 the 34-year-old Bechu enlisted for Trinidad but was shipped instead to British Guiana and indentured to plantation Enmore in East Demerara from December 1894 to February 1897. Yet on arrival Bechu was found physically unfit for manual labor and made an assistant driver; later, he became a domestic servant, which gave him the chance to read newspapers and books. Seecharan emphasizes that Bechu was not a Hindu, despite his caste claim, and that his life was embedded in Christian principles. He argues that Bechu's Christian background "probably enabled him to be a better Indian in the modern India of the late nineteenth century. He was a product of the British-Indian intellectual encounter, which was most advanced in Calcutta" (p. 19). ( I 'm not sure whether I understand this statement correctly; does Christianity make "better Indians"? It might be true, however, that Bechu's Christianity and references to the Bible made his arguments more easily digestible for the colonial authorities and planters.)