Remembering Sidambarom

By Christelle Gourdine Mandjiny

Guadeloupe is preparing to celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Henri Moutou Sidambarom, the descendant of Indian workers who arrived in this French West Indian island from Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu.

A special committee has been created for this purpose, with members of various cultural associations and Rotary Clubs. Along with local governmental institutions—Conseil General, Conseil Regional and Rectorat—they will steer what will be the biggest celebrations since the 150th anniversary of Indian Arrivals in 2004. This is a huge opportunity to make the cultural associations work together around a global project and to reinforce the link between Guadeloupe and India. It is also an opportunity to create awareness widely in France about the Indian immigration.

Throughout the year, many events will be organised in France to pay a tribute to the “defender of the Indian immigrants”, the one who strove to give them back an identity and their dignity.

Who was he and what did he do exactly?

After the abolition of slavery in 1848, the French masters in Guadeloupe had to find new workers to save their plantations. They decided to import workers from India after the good results they obtained with this set of labour in Reunion Island, set in the south-western Indian Ocean, next to Mauritius.

From 1854 to 1889, 93 ships brought more than 40,000 Indian workers to Guadeloupe coming from both South India (70%) and North India (30%). The contract was for 5 years after which they could take another assignment or go back home but the majority couldn’t leave. Everything was done to make them stop practicing their culture, traditions, languages and religion.

Even though they had to forget about their origins, they were not given any identity, they were citizens of nowhere. The first generation born in Guadeloupe couldn’t relate to India and were not French citizens. Henry Sidambarom, born in Guadeloupe at Capesterre-Belle-Eau in 1863 was a civil servant with a big political ambition. He succeeded in being a municipal councillor in Pointe ŕ Pitre and later Capesterre-Belle-Eau but when he was about to become a Mayor, he got ousted by his party who saw his “Indianness” as a shortcoming.

He then launched a long battle against the French government to ensure the French citizenship to all his community and the trial, which started in 1904, ended in 1923 in victory. When in 1946, France decided that Guadeloupe was no more a colony but a French department, all the Guadeloupeans began to benefit from the decision. When we have an opportunity to talk about our origins in France or abroad, we never fail to mention Henry Sidambarom in our lecture and his impact in our lives.

What would have happened without his action? The Indian descendants would have been a marginalized community and would have struggled to rise, possibly to even survive. We are often debating about our identity. We sometimes feel uncomfortable between Guadeloupe, France and India but at the end of the day we are proud French citizens and even if we could have had the possibility of changing our citizenship to become Indian citizens, would we do it? I’m personally proud of his recognition in France as even now, the majority of French people are not aware of our existence and how our ancestors saved the economy of the sugar colonies and thus of France. It’s a huge step for all the descendants of Indian workers and we have to continue to show how diversified the population of France is.

Christelle Gourdine Mandjiny, born in France, is from the 4th generation born outside India. Her family left Kolkata and Pondicherry 150 years ago to work as indentured labours in Guadeloupe, French West Indies. She graduated in corporate finance and worked with the French bank BNP Paribas. After 14 years in the financial world and many trips all over India, she left Paris for Pondicherry. She created her company Zen Development Services Pvt Ltd and the concept of Meet Your Roots to help the NRI/PIO to recreate a link with India. In France, she worked as a volunteer for various organisations to help marginalised population and she is doing the same in India at NGO Ader India. and

April 2013

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