Telling the Tales of Indo-Caribbean


By Annesha Das Gupta

People who are ardent fans of cricket are well acquainted with the legendary player Sonny Ramadhin or the ones who call themselves bibliophiles celebrated when VS Naipaul’s was conferred with the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Both of them, are of Indian descent and both are born in Trinidad and Tobago. While Ramadhin was from Esperance Village, Naipaul is from the capital; Port of Spain.

This can make one wonder, from where do the people of Indian origin come into the Caribbean picture? Or are both of them the single cases, the exceptions.

We have the NRIs who have gone and settled down in the USA or at Britain; they might be one’s relatives or neighbors or else friends. The geopolitical realm of the Caribbean, whereas, does not come into the head, especially to an Indian one, when there come, a prospect for an education or a job. The Caribbean connotes to the mind, of the tropical beaches, the coconut trees and, of course, the West-Indies cricket team.

Unfortunately, many of us forget or are just oblivious to the fact that there is a community of Indians who did spread across the various islands much before the other portions of the Indian population dispersed to the parts of the West.

Who are the Indo-Caribbean?

The British, French and Dutch colonists were in a state of jeopardy when the century-old slavery of the Africans was abolished. The African ‘slaves’ used to work in the sugarcane plantations, but with no one to fill up the vacancy they turned towards the people of China and Portugal first. But the plan did not work and as a last resort for a substantial quantity of cheap labor, they sought out the Indians. And this time, they hit the bull’s-eye.

The indentured laborers as they are called were promised remuneration, the supply of food, and even the expense, the one which will be the responsibility of the plantation owners if they want to take a voyage back to their own country.

Two ships left with the first batch of Indians (about 400 people) to the British Guiana on May 5, 1838. The ships were called Whitby and Hesperus, which left the port of Calcutta with people mainly belonging to the Chota Nagpur area of West Bengal, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh.

Most of the people who took on the journey were from the lower class/caste strata or as known today, were the Dalits. It is worth a mention that very few women comprised the first batch; only a maximum of 35%. The reason for the scanty number of women who voyaged, at first, is explained by the historians and sociologists in three main points. Firstly, the colonists did not consider women to be economically beneficial.

Secondly, the men who came were mostly married and assuming that they will be returning to their homeland at the end of their contract (which was meant to be after 5 years), they did not bring their wives along with them. And finally, since most of the persisting societal norms limited the movement of women within the society, for instance, those who were unmarried, were not allowed to take a voyage alone and also that the widows had no provision to remarry and join the mass again, so the female population of the first batches was on a lower scale. Though the numbers hit almost about 50% by 1380-1390, but again fell during the end of the indenture era (1914) to about 40%.

The offer by the colonial powers seemed lucrative enough; an escape route to the poor of the country who suffered invariably and wanted an alleviation of their woes. But unfortunately, as the idiom goes: ‘All that glitters is not gold”.

They were about to face an infinite amount of hindrances, which none of them were likely to foresee. And the struggles continued for about 75 years, as history knows it and only ended with the annihilation of the indenture system in 1917.

What were the struggles of the Indo-Caribbean ?

All was not hunky-dory even before the two ships left for their destinations. Many of the laborers were given false promises by the professional recruiters who were aided by paid local agents.

They were deceived in innumerable ways, as cited by a post on The Indian Down Under blog: “Names of places would be altered, to fit a higher meaning. For example, recruiters told migrants, heading to Dutch Suriname they were heading to Sri-Ram, instead of Suriname, taking into account that Ram in the Hindu religion means a religious place where good triumphs over evil”.

Many died of starvation during the voyage and their bodies were thrown (about 17% of the population) into the sea (often called by the immigrants as Kala Pani), such were the atrocities done.

There was also an outbreak of cholera, malaria and dysentery on the ships. The mortality rate was only a meager of 25%.

Especially vulnerable were the women. They had to continuously endure the lecherous stares and advances from the British lots. And apart from that the authorities used to lock them up in the rooms for more than three or four days. The women had to sleep, eat and sit in their own filth.

A lot of them were even raped and pimped out from men to men while they worked on the plantations. It is evident from the fact that one 8-year-old was raped, named Nuneedy, as soon as the first batch landed.

A Brahmin named Jugmohan used to trade out the women among the British men (especially to the Scottish lot) and anyone who wanted to keep their wives safe was forced to pay an amount of one dollar.

Though this did not subjugate the women folk entirely. They formed self-protective circles, which might have come together as they were already organized as groups which plucked weeds in the cane fields, to fend off the lecherous overseers.If one goes to Gaiutra Bahadur’s blog  Coolie Women, they will come across the quote which will make anyone shudder who will dare enrage a woman’s modesty ever again –

“They would strike him to the ground and thrash him as well as do other more nasty things. In one incidence, they pinned the overseer to the ground and took turns at urinating on him. On another occasion, they made a line and walked over the overseer until his excreta came out”.

Like The Africans who were paid a wage of only one shilling, the indentured laborers were not paid even the bare minimum. They were exploited relentlessly no holidays were allotted to them. If someone took even a day off, they ran the risk of being in the jail for as much as five days.

At the year when the contract was supposed to have ended, the laborers did not find any ships at the port which would have taken them back to India. Thus, the injustice was followed by strikes which were held by the workers. One plantation named Anna Regina refused to give them the supply of food as a result. The people even insisted on paying in exchange for the food, which clearly explains that they feared that accepting rations would leave them in debt.

Later, men confronted with the British colonial police in wake for the sake of the women and the demand for obtaining their wages. Later they submitted an affidavit to Guiana Governor, Henry Light; where ten men marked the sign ‘X’ next to their names stated that they want to return immediately to their country as it was promised in their contracts.

Historians mention the infamous Rose Hill plantation conflict (1913), where many of the workers were killed and a vast number of people were injured. It was probably the deadliest indenture era suppression as stated in Bahadur’s blog.

Many laborers committed suicide during this period. They tried to run away several times by trying to cross the rivers as it was a common belief that they were not so far away from India while some even faked illness.

Another thing, worth mentioning is that the British played their old trick of ‘Divide and Rule’ even in the Caribbean. The villages of the Africans and that of the Indians were segregated. Also, as the Colonists did not want too much intermixing of the two communities, which they feared will ultimately lead to the solidarity of the workers, and that’s why the indentured laborers were allowed to keep their own religious customs, the institution of marriage, their holy books and even their own priests.

Though, where do the confluence of the slavery of the Africans and that of the indentured Indians occur? Like the Blacks, the colonists also used to whip indentured laborers, rub salt and pepper on their wounds. And perhaps, that’s why the indenture system was called ‘a new form of slavery’ and indentured laborers as the ‘bound slaves’.

By the end of the indenture era, much of the regulations were relaxed and the married couples were allowed to leave outside the plantations, in their own quarters.

Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, an eminent educationist, and politician, also the creator of Banaras Hindu University, lobbied for the rights of the Indo-Caribbean people to the Indian Congress and urged them not to allow anymore Indians to take a voyage there. Among the other famous names, who protested against the human rights violations of the Indo-Caribbean were Mahatama Gandhi.

After the termination of the indentured system, the colonists offered the Indians their plots as they did not want the complete emancipation of the workers as their African counterparts. Though many chose to stay and continued to work on the plantations under many peaceful conditions, about 66,000 of them decided to head back again for their motherland.

How are the Indo-Caribbean people today?

For the first two or three generations, the descendants of the indentured workers were not sure about their identity of either as Indians or as members of the Caribbean islands. They slowly have incorporated themselves as people of Indo-Caribbean origin. The amalgamation of two very dynamic cultures.

We can have an idea of them, in the recent times, by looking at the numbers of days, celebrated in different parts of the Caribbean islands as ‘Indian Arrival Day’. It is to commemorate the presence of the community and their valuable contributions in the arenas of agriculture, economy, education and politics.

The Indo-Caribbean community also helped to expand the cultural spectrum of the regions. For instance, the Indo-Caribbean gave birth to the musical genre of Chutney, whose pioneers include Drupatee Ramgoonai. The songs have lots of Hindi and Bhojpuri lyrics along with Caribbean English. Also due to the Indian influence, ‘the Roti’ has almost become a staple food of the masses there.

Jamaica was the first to start celebrating, the arrival of the Indians on May 10, 1995. Many other countries followed suit and declared holidays to respect the people of the community like Guyana (May 5), Trinidad and Tobago (May 30), etc.

Some of the Indo-Caribbean people have become twice or thrice migrants by settling down their communities in places like that of New York.

The current population of the Indian community in the various islands of the Caribbean is estimated to be over two million people.

Still there remains much to be done on the topic about the heritage and history of the Indo-Caribbean to be induced, into the mainstreamed dissemination and discourse. Whether the goal will be achieved or not, only time can tell.

Annesha Das Gupta is a student of Sociology,pursuing her degree from IGNOU, Kolkata. She has a special interest in the branches of Feminism, Sexuality and Dalit Studies. Twitter: Dancingbluepen