Indians Abroad: A Story from Trinidad

By Namit Arora | Jun 2011 | Comments

(I've managed to write a long essay on Trinidad without mentioning cricket, rum, or the steelpan. Can I be forgiven for that? A shorter version of this article appeared in the Oct-Nov 2011 issue of Himal Southasian.)

NationalMuseum7 In April this year, I visited the Indian Caribbean museum near the town of Chaguanas in Trinidad. Set in a large hall, the museum had no other visitors at the time. Its curator, 69-year-old Saisbhan Jokhan, came out to greet me and quickly proved to be a trove of information. As I began taking notes, he asked if I was a journalist. I told him that I represented a venerable publication called 3 Quarks Daily, and intended to write about the Indo-Trinidadian experience. His eyes lit up and for the next ninety minutes, he accompanied me in the museum, explaining and answering my questions.

The museum commemorates the history of a million Indo-Caribbeans whose ancestors came as indentured laborers from India between 1838-1917. Graphic panels at the museum include details on immigrant ships, copies of girmits, or indenture agreements, and rare archival photos of life on sugarcane plantations. Evocative objects abound: an improvised sarangi, a pair of wood slippers, a rotary sugarcane press like the ones still used in mofussil India, even a lifesize model of an indentured worker’s hut. Other displays show milestones in the life of the community, such as a 1970 photo of the first Indo-Trini policewoman; a panel on Alice Jan, the first lady of Indo-Trini culture; and Indo-Trinis winning the right to build their own schools in 1952, allowing them to replace Christian teaching with Hindu teaching.

The museum is run by the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, a conservative Hindu organization that also runs many temples. Talking to Jokhan it struck me that he lived with a clear sense of ‘his people’, what they have suffered, what challenges awaited them. His tone, and the museum’s singular focus, brought to mind a pastiche of Jewish museums I have seen over the years. This too felt like a museum designed to preserve the collective memory of a people’s suffering and struggles, and Jokhan seemed to me the right man for the job: proud of his identity, devoted to his community, slightly paranoid.

Jokhan’s historical memory is alien to people like me who have joined the Indian diaspora in recent decades. We have fostered the stereotype of Indians as a model minority, led by professionals and marked by diligence and enterprise in the pursuit of opportunities around the globe. But most of the Indian journeys in the colonial era were very different. They involved harsh unskilled labor on sugarcane estates, horrible living conditions, and severe discrimination. Trinidad, which I will look at here, is one chapter of that past; others include Guyana, Suriname, Jamaica, South Africa, Fiji, Mauritius, and Réunion. 

The Plantation Economy in Trinidad

BoodhooWell before the arrival of Subcontinental labor, Trinidad was colonized by the Spanish in 1592. A backwater for much of the next 200 years, it passed into British control in 1797. By then there were also many French slavers, known to be the worst on the island. Despite the rights-of-man and other humanistic ideas then rising in Europe, the colonial French and the British remained enthusiastic slave traders. Hundreds of Africans were enslaved and taken to Trinidad each year just to replenish diminishing numbers due to the brutal regime of work and disease-prone living conditions on sugar plantations. Over the dacades, tens of thousands were imported. Children over the age of six were made to work. Corporal punishment was widely used—the master could administer up to 39 strokes for an infraction. Errant slaves were also disciplined in jails via flogging and torture; some were even mutilated or executed. In 1801, a Negro slave owned by Mr. Patrice was accused of witchcraft and burned alive at the stake. The slaves resisted in myriad ways and occasionally poisoned their masters, which then led to worse reprisals—tortures, hangings, and burnings—with decapitated heads sometimes hoisted at the entrance of plantations to intimidate other slaves.

In 1802, there were close to 200 sugar estates in Trinidad, with 2,261 whites, 5,275 free coloreds, and 19,709 slaves. By this point, the local Caribs and Arawaks had been decimated, their estimated pre-Columbus population of 40,000 having fallen to about 1000. When at last the British government announced a ban on the transatlantic slave trade starting in 1807, the estate owners protested bitterly, with a petition calling the move ‘a vexatious and most injurious interference with the authority of the master over his slave’. In fact, slaves continued to be bought and sold within the Caribbean islands, and slavery itself persisted in Trinidad until the late 1830s. A that point, the slave owners demanded and received compensation from the British government for the ‘loss of their property’, which equaled the average market value of each slave. Among these slave owners in Guyana were the Booker Brothers, whose descendants would later institute the Booker Prize in literature.

WoodfordSquare4 After their emancipation, most slaves promptly left the plantations to become small holders, or to work in cities like Port of Spain, engaging in small trades in cloth, tobacco, fishing, and semi-skilled labor. The few who stayed back now demanded higher wages and worked fewer hours. The planters worried about production, profit, and losing out to the beet sugar produced in Europe itself. The whole plantation economy and the colonial enterprise risked collapse. Too much capital had been invested—including in sugar factories with steam engines, ports, and other infrastructure—to let this happen. Something had to be done to secure a cheap, reliable, and easily managed pool of labor.

The British government turned to China at first and brought 2,500 Chinese to Trinidad. But the long voyage proved too expensive, and the Chinese authorities required a return ticket guarantee. In Trinidad, the Chinese mortality rate was high; many bought out their indenture and moved to other trades—a disaster from the planters’ standpoint. The British then turned to their own colony of India, which had regions with a climate similar to Trinidad’s and millions of poor peasants, who, the British surmised, had better odds of surviving tropical diseases.

The Coming of the Indians

SailshipThe first immigrant ship from India, Fatel Rozack, arrived in 1845 after a journey of five months, carrying 225 Indians, mostly in their 20s, and over eight men for every woman. (The sexes were kept in separate quarters in the ship.) Jokhan showed me a copy of its passenger log, pointing out that the first Indian to disembark was coincidentally named Bhuruth Suroop—a colonial clerk’s rendition of what might have been written as Bharat Swaroop. Trinidad is full of such tweaked spellings: Sewdass, Capildeo, Ramnarine.

Until 1901, the ships were sailing vessels (‘Pal Jahaj’); thereafter, they were steamships (‘Aag Jahaj’). Jokhan pointed me to a list of ships that made the passage, the number of passengers in each, and the deaths en route. The mortality rate varied a lot. In 1858, on a ship named Salsette, 106 of the 197 Indians died. Scanning the numbers, I estimated the average mortality during the 19th century to be around 5 percent. About 145,000 Indians came between 1845-1917, in over 320 shiploads. The vast majority came from the densely populated Gangetic Plain, from from today’s Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They had probably never been to a big city such as Calcutta, their boarding point, or seen the sea or interacted with Europeans. They mostly spoke Bhojpuri, a dialect of Hindi. Upon reaching their embarkation point, all recruits were medically examined. Many were deemed unsuitable and sent back to their villages. Only the youngest and the healthiest, nearly all of them in their late teens and 20s, were allowed on board. Thumbprints were taken and physical traits recorded; those selected were issued regulation clothing and a metal disc to be strapped to the arm, of the kind porters on Indian Railway stations wore until recently. A source of resentment at this juncture was the physical examination of women for venereal disease.

For most Indians, the primary driver in their migration was to escape economic destitution, which at that time had been intensified by repressive British taxation after the ‘Mutiny’ of 1857. A few others could have been leaving to flee or dodge investigation for a crime, or a family or caste dispute, or were simply led by a desire for adventure. Due in part to a double failure of the monsoon, a major famine had hit India in 1878-79, killing millions. Trained recruiters went from village to village promising good jobs in Damru Tapu (Demerara Island, in nearby British Guyana), with housing and wages that were many times those they received in India. Most villagers had no idea where this island was but the lure was strong enough to overcome the significant taboo of kala pani, or the Hindu stricture against crossing salt water which would render one an outcaste. Few women came at first but after 1868, concerted effort raised their numbers to four women (the majority were single) for every ten men. While a better ratio, the continuing imbalance caused a host of social problems later, including violence over and against women.

Those who left from Calcutta were called kalkatiyas in Trinidad. Until 1870, a few ‘Madrasis’ came too, but were generally deemed unsuitable and ‘troublesome’, not least because many of them were urbanites. Altogether, about 85 percent were Hindu and most others, Muslim. Of the Hindus, about 15 percent were Brahmins—more than the 9 percent in their home population—and most of them, writes Trinidadian historian Radica Mahase, had ‘earned a livelihood from the land and were also vulnerable to changes in the rural economy.’

Jahajibhai and Jahajibehen

By all accounts, the voyage itself was a searing experience for most. Including the crew, about 500 traveled on an average voyage. Conditions on board were not as bad as on the former slave ships, but space was still cramped and there was no privacy. Rice, daal and other provisions were carried for the entire journey. A few Indian supervisors, sirdars, accompanied each ship, keeping order, distributing rations and guiding activities such as cooking and cleaning. Even though old social distinctions were challenged in this setting, the division of labor on the ships often reflected the old world: cooks drawn from the upper castes, sweepers from the lowest. Besides cooking, cleaning and washing, the voyagers also spent their time playing cards and kabaddi. Each ship was provided with a dholak (drum) and other musical instruments; singing was encouraged to raise spirits.

The first quarter of the journey took the ship through the Bay of Bengal to the Cape of Good Hope, where the passengers suffered from the bitter cold of the southern seas. Poor sanitation often led to outbreaks of cholera, typhoid, dysentery and whooping cough. Jokhan pointed me to a list of ships that made the passage, the number of passengers in each and the deaths en route. The mortality rate varied significantly: in what was obviously an extreme case, in 1858, on a ship named Salsette, 106 of the 197 Indians died. There were occasional shipwrecks, pirate attacks and on-board fires. Scanning the numbers, I estimated the average death rate en route during the 19th century to be around five percent. While many suicides were recorded, many babies too were born on board. The intense experience of the voyage forged lifelong bonds of jahajibhai and jahajibehen – brotherhood and sisterhood of the ship. The solidarity it forged became the basis for a community in the new world, often transcending caste and religious distinctions.

Coolies After tinkering with various indenture contracts to somehow stay within the colonial labour laws while maximising their return on investment, the colonial government finalised an ordinance in 1854. This required indentured Indians to live on a plantation for five years and work at least fifty hours a week, at wages that were below those of the non-indentured. They could not step off the estate without a ticket of leave or they would face time in jail. A ‘free’ return passage was allowed after an additional stay of five years, during which time the laborers could work voluntarily on an estate or pay a special annual tax not applicable to the rest. Failure to adhere to this contract—a civil offense—and even the sheltering of absentees and deserters, led to criminal penalties and jail; the employers incurred no similar penalties for breaching their side of the contract. A great many of these plantations were in the region around Chaguanas, surrounding the museum where I stood.

In official documents and in the press, the Indians were referred to as ‘coolies’ and ‘our heathen population’, whose religions, wrote a leading Canadian missionary, fostered ‘a low sense of sin’. Their rites were ‘degrading and uncivilized’. In 1884, when Indians came out to defy a new law against religious processions by publicly and peacefully celebrating Muharram, the colonial police shot dead 22 and injured over 100. Many protests and uprisings were ruthlessly put down. Until 1945, neither Hindu nor Muslim marriages were given a legal standing—reserved only for Christian marriages—making Indo-Trini children technically illegitimate and legal inheritance difficult. Indians were stereotyped as deceitful and miserly (most saved for their life back home or from habit), and contempt for their ‘unclean’ ways was rife. Despised for their ‘uncivilized’ dresses, their women were sneered at for wearing bangles and rings. I saw a few such Indian dresses on display in the museum, alongside cooking utensils, a grinding stone, and agricultural implements (too bad photography wasn’t allowed).

Chaguanas34To keep wages low, the colonial government of Trinidad, unable and/or unwilling to stand up to the powerful planters, continued to bring Indians when they were not needed. There was no labor shortage, and now the glut of labor worsened race relations. Wages for plantation labor fell—from 50 cents a day in 1842 to 25 cents a day in 1870—including for the Afro-Trinidadians, who came to resent the new arrivals. In relative terms, the Afro-Trinidadians, though still very disadvantaged, were better educated, more proficient in English, more urban, Christianized, with better jobs and political acumen, and even had a voice in the press.

The vast majority of Indians did not convert to Christianity, clinging to their faiths more tenaciously than other immigrant groups in Trinidad, including the Chinese. The Indians were politically unplugged, socially conservative, and culturally insular, a situation surely not helped by their habits of caste, family, and religion, nor by their reluctance to cohabitate with others of a darker color and different culture (though sex was another matter, as were illegitimate children). But there were always exceptions; in the past week alone, I had met two Afro-Trini women with ‘pure Indian’ grandmas, who must have left their communities to live with Afro-Trinis; their Indian families likely ostracized them for it, at least for a time (I wish I had asked if this was known about them).

Most Indians were also poor, uneducated, and insecure, and so became easy objects of social contempt and discrimination. The barracks they lived in were dirty and overcrowded; malaria and hookworm infestation were rife; nor were they given any shoes. Poverty and poor diet created legions of decrepit and emaciated Indians, provoking further contempt from others. At Christian missionary schools, Indian kids were ridiculed for their religion and pressured to convert, so not many Indians sent their kids to school—not until Canadian Presbyterian missionaries setup schools for them in Indian communities. Bridget Brereton, a historian of Trinidad, writes:

NationalMuseum2The Indians entered what was an essentially hostile environment, and the host society became even less sympathetic as time went on and it became clear that they would be a permanent element in the population. Planters, officials, upper-class whites, educated colored and black Creoles and the black working class all, to different degrees and for different reasons, reacted unsympathetically to the arrival of the Indians. Interaction between the races was at a low level, and the Indians were quickly consigned to the lowest rung of the socio-economic-cultural ladder. …

In short, the coercive indentureship, the legal separation of the Indian population, the harsh economic conditions of their existence, the low-status jobs that they filled, all operated powerfully to make all sections of the Trinidad society despise them—even the planters for whose benefit they came.

Despite these conditions, within a generation, Indians had not only rescued the sugarcane industry, they had become its mainstay. To keep the experienced workers from returning, a new scheme in 1869 offered them land after their ten years of work, provided they renounced all claims to the ‘free’ return passage to India. Many others purchased Crown land from their savings. In due course, many Indians completed their indentureships and became peasant proprietors in new villages, with names like Calcutta, Barrackpore, and Fyzabad. They grew wet rice, vegetables, and raised cows and buffaloes brought from India. They also imported mangos, guavas, tamarind, pumpkin, lentils, melons, ginger, mustard, and a host of other plants.

Unfettered by the imperatives of plantation life, the Indian settlements now permitted alternate forms of social organization. A panel I saw in the National Museum states: ‘On completion of their contracts many remained to become productive, useful citizens. East Indians did not easily assimilate into the Creole culture. In 1940 they still retained, almost intact, the way of life—dress, religion, language, music and food of India.’ Racial discrimination, however, remained a major barrier to assimilation and fostered a sense of solidarity among the Indians.

StJames7 By the turn of the century, a new political sensibility had started emerging. A few Indians had begun to speak for their community in the island’s press. Owing to their efforts, the commonly used term ‘coolie’ was replaced with ‘East Indian’. As late as 1911, however, over 97 percent of the Southasian community was still illiterate. More than 70 percent were still agricultural labourers, doing the worst kinds of manual jobs; in the towns, ‘they filled miserably paid, generally despised jobs as scavengers and porters, 'coolies' in the true sense of that term,’ writes Brereton.[1] Even in 1921, only 187 Indians were categorized as ‘officials and professionals.’ ‘Indians were far behind in the education stakes by the end of the indenture system,’ writes Brereton, ‘and this explains their late entry into the high-prestige occupations.’ Curiously, as labor movements forced the colonial government to become more representative through increased voting rights, the instinct of the Indian community was to ask for a separate electorate (which was denied)—a development with striking parallels to a similar demand by Dalits in 1930s India.

The Enigma of Arrival

StJosephWoman3 The indenture system eventually ended in 1917 when Indian leaders like Gokhale, Gandhi, and Malviya agitated and introduced a resolution in the Indian Legislative Assembly in 1916. The indenture period for the last arrivals expired in 1923. Altogether about 25 percent had returned to India. More might have, were it not for ‘lack of arrangements, inadequate return passage and the danger of shipping [as well as] fear of social disgrace in the motherland.’ [2] Today over half-a-million identify as Indo-Trinidadians, making up over 40 percent of the country's population. The Afro-Trinidadians make up another 40 percent, while the rest identify as mixed, including combinations of Carib, Spanish, African, British, French, Chinese, Indian, Syrian, Venezuelan, and others. I was continually fascinated by the unique faces that such unions have produced. The corporate ‘multicultural ad’ in Trinidad is interesting to behold.

Jokhan disappeared into his office and returned with copies of old newspaper clippings on Indian immigration, and even a glossary of some Bhojpuri words they used. He has lost the language of his ancestors but knows a few Hindi words and phrases. He demonstrates: ‘aapka naam kya hai’, ‘aap kahaan jaata hai’. His parents spoke good Hindi, he said. He took Hindi classes as a child and learned to read and write it. He pointed to a Singer sewing machine, the kind he saw his mother use in his childhood, then told me that he attended bhajans, wore tilak, and learned to perform Hindu rituals as a child.

Chaguanas11Notably, the caste hierarchy among the Indians flattened over time, led by the leveling experiences of the five-month sea voyage, laboring together on the fields, and tight living conditions in the plantation barracks—not to mention intermarriage and adultery owing to a scarcity of Indian women. What’s left of caste today is in the realm of rituals: many Hindus still turn to Brahmin priests for their rites of passage ceremonies—a world portrayed by the author VS Naipaul, who grew up in a Brahmin family of Trinidad in the 1930s-40s. His family ‘abounded with pundits’, he wrote, but he was ‘born an unbeliever [and] took no pleasure in religious ceremonies. They were too long, and the food only came at the end’. He didn’t understand the language ‘and no one explained the prayer or the ritual. One ceremony was like another.’ As a youth, Naipaul ‘remained almost totally ignorant of Hinduism’ but from it he perhaps ‘received a certain supporting philosophy.’ From this outpost of a fossilizing Hinduism, he would later travel to its center and heap scorn on India’s caste obsessions, unthinking religiosity, and ‘spiritualism’.

NaipaulHouse3 Naipaul’s father, a journalist and aspiring creative writer, married into the prominent Capildeo family, from which came the leading politician Rudranath Capildeo. The Capildeos had a large home in the town of Chaguanas, the Lion House, where Naipaul’s novel, A House for Mr. Biswas, is set (the lion sculptures are awful!). Knowing his place in the world, wrote Naipaul, required him to understand the roots of his society and people, which led him to Africa, India, and many Muslim nations. He would later speak glowingly about ‘the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement’.[4] The themes that scholars see in his writing include ‘post-colonial identity and nationalism, the fiction of history and the history of fiction, home and belonging in a world characterized by flux, movement and cultural contact.’[3]

To what extent did Trinidad incline Naipaul to see the societies he visited as half-made—full of rage, hysteria, or mimic men—trapped in narrow identities, short on self-awareness? Did the dysfunction of his own society in early/mid-20th century constrain his way of seeing, or did it expand his powers of observation and analysis? Important as he is in so many ways, he is also just a man—at times a pompous one—with his own blind spots; his early social context remains crucial to understanding his intellectual journey. In The Enigma of Arrival, Naipaul wrote: ‘the island had given me the world as a writer; had given me the themes that in the second half of the twentieth century had become important; had made me metropolitan in a way quite different from my first understanding of the word.

Trinidad gained independence from British rule in 1962 and has since prospered from its oil and natural gas resources, not to mention the world’s biggest source of asphalt. This has made it no longer profitable to produce sugar. I saw one of the last big sugar factories that had recently shuttered. The crop that led Europeans to transport so many Africans and Indians to its shores, for which generations were then held in bondage and oppression, has now been driven out of the island.

Hallof Justice4 Today the Indo-Trinis have come up in the world and are well integrated. They are fully literate, dominate many professions, and visibly contribute to their country’s arts, festivals, and music, domains long associated with Afro-Trinis. Phagwa, or Holi, is a national festival; chutney music stands alongside calypso and soca during the Carnival; May is celebrated as Indian Heritage Month and May 30th is celebrated as Indian Arrival Day. The country’s current and first female Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, is Indo-Trini (her party has marketed her as ‘our local Indira Gandhi’). Though ethnic identities still loom large in national politics, it is no longer rare to see mixed Indo- and Afro-Trini couples walking hand in hand, or Indo- and Afro-Trinis shooting the breeze in bars and on beaches—liming, as they say—more so than what I remember from my previous visit 16 years ago. For a society with such deep roots in dislocation and degradation, it seems to me nothing short of a miracle that the hope enshrined in their national anthem—‘here every creed and race find an equal place’—has come such a long way to fruition.

Click here for more pictures from Trinidad & Tobago. More writing by Namit Arora?

Notes and Glossary:
  1. Bridget Brereton, ‘A History of Modern Trinidad 1783-1962’, Heinemann, 1981, p 110. A lot of facts and dates used in this essay come from her excellent book (though she does not mention the Hosay massacre, which I think deserves mention in the chapter, The Newcomers, 1838-1971). She specializes in Caribbean social history.
  2. S. Siewah, ‘The ships that came during indentureship’ (an article displayed at the museum; provenance not specified).
  3. Jennifer Rahm and Barbara Lalla, ‘Created in the West Indies: Caribbean Perspectives on VS Naipaul’, Ian Randle Publishers, 2011.
  4. VS Naipaul, ‘Our Universal Civilization’, Wriston lecture delivered to the Manhattan Institute in 1990.
  5. Judith M. Brown, ‘Global South Asians’, Cambridge, 2006.  
  6. Eric Williams, ‘History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago’, 1942, Eworld Inc. 
  7. One Arrival, an article by Ravi Dev on his great-grandfather’s journey to Guyana (some more here).
  1. The Bitter Sweet Harvest by Ann Stapelton, 2007, National Museum, Port of Spain.
  2. Cane Farmers by James Isaiah Boodhoo (1932-2004).
  3. Evening scene on Woodford Square, a historic center of political activism in Port of Spain.
  4. This is what the sailship Fatel Rozack might have looked like (source). The Indian Arrival Day in Trinidad & Tobago is celebrated each year on 30th May.
  5. Newly arrived coolies in Trinidad, 1897 photo (source).
  6. Replica of an Indian worker's hut on a sugar estate.
  7. Chaathee, a cleansing ceremony held six days after childbirth, apparently as performed by Indo-Trinis in the 1940s; National Museum, Port of Spain.
  8. Buss Up Shut, a very popular Indo-Trinidadian meal in Trinidad & Tobago.
  9. A woman from Trinidad, with Carib, African, and Indian blood. Her grandma was from India.
  10. An Indo-Trinidadian woman selling cassava and dasheen at the Chaguanas Market.
  11. The family home of VS Naipaul in Chaguanas (The Lion House, aka Anand Bhavan, "Mansion of Bliss"), now uninhabited.
  12. Freshly minted lawyers, or are they barristers? On the steps of the Hall of Justice in Port of Spain.

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