Louise Moschetta (University of Cambridge)

Jewellery and wealth in the Indian diaspora: Pieces from Guyana

Establishing the history of Indian jewellery in Guyana is an almost incorporeal project regarding objects that have so much weight and value. It was and continued to be customary until the 1950s to melt silver coin wages into silver jewellery and to update older and old-fashioned jewellery into the demands of contemporary tastes and demands. The eventual transition to gold has continued the side-lining of silver jewellery that had been designed and created during the period of indenture. There are few traces of these pieces which held such large cultural and economic value within the community of Indian indentured migrants in what was then British Guiana. The few items held in the private collection of the oldest Georgetown jewellers, L. Seepersaud Maraj & Sons., established at Stabroek Market in 1935 although operating much earlier, are perhaps the only pieces of silver jewellery that survive from the era of indenture; these were, serendipitously, kept aside by Seepersaud Maraj instead of being melted because they represented important cultural possessions that were disappearing, or melting, out of existence. They are not, however, publically known and are not available for viewing without enquiry, the National Museum or the National Archive of Guyana not being appropriate spaces for such patrimonial objects. The former is particularly underfunded. Furthermore, this jewellery, unlabelled and undated, reveals little in its material particularities and history that would be so useful for such a project.

Extending past the material objects themselves, this history continues to be scattered and lumpy. What remains of the local government papers, especially from the nineteenth century, is sparse and bitty. The Immigration Department, which was concerned with the implementation, upkeep, and supervision of the system of indentured migration from India to British Guiana and back again, has left some of the most extensive government papers in the National Archives of Guyana in the form of registers of migrants, ship logs, and immigration certificates. Correspondence itself has not survived the humidity and archival insignificance but letter books, with varying levels of detail and a spotty chronology, form the foundational sources on the everyday workings of indentured labour and, in happenstance moments, make reference to the invisible world of Indian jewellery. This makes any attempt to weave anecdotes and moments together into narrative coherency a difficult task, one requiring historical agility. The most unexplored and potentially fulfilling avenue in the history of jewellery among Indian indentured migrants in British Guiana could be found in oral history. These are not archives in the physical form but memories and stories that have been passed down and kept alive through the elders of the Indo-Guyanese community. The issue there is one of time, both in terms of the ageing bodies and memories of these gatekeeping elders and the lack of mechanisms, societies, or institutions that exist in Guyana today in recording these histories and, at a practical level, language, or Creolese, with such regional variation that comprehension between regions can become difficult. These hurdles, both material and oral, however, remind us that large aspects of the history of Indian indentured migration in British Guiana remains in undiscovered obscurity.

May 2017