By Shalinee Bahadur
*Trigger Warning – Descriptions of sexual violence and images of malnutrition may be distressful for some. *
May 30th, 2021 marked the 176th anniversary of the first arrival of Indian indentured labourers to Trinidad on the Fath Al Razak. Between 1845-1917, approximately 148,000 Indian labourers entered Trinidad mainly from the Northern regions of India such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal provinces, and a fewer number recruited from Madras (now Chennai) and other areas of South India. They were contracted to work for five to ten years under the indentureship system which completely ended in 1920. While May 30th was officially declared a national holiday in 1994, the Indian community has been celebrating the event many years prior. The month of May was deemed ‘Indian Heritage Month’ by the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha.
There is no denying that the Indian community has significantly impacted the social, economic, political, and cultural dynamics of Trinidad. We have seen these contributions in our everyday lives; Indian dance, music, art, language, cuisine, religion, healing practices, fashion, literature, and political involvement to name a few. Yet, what is often underrepresented and thus overlooked in our history and heritage, are the torment and pain, the lies and death, the violence, assault, and rape that many of our ancestors endured under the system of indenture – a legacy of trauma that still bleeds onto many of the descendants of indentured labourers.
This piece isn’t about dwelling on the negatives – but rather debunking the ‘airy fairy’ assumptions we have about the indentureship experience.
The system of indenture was not as voluntary as we think.
Prior to indentureship, the British created an impoverished India through the destruction of their socio-economic and political relations. Since the British colonies were expected to be producers of raw materials – to benefit Europe – Indian industries were destroyed. The British, through the commercialization of agriculture, would use the agricultural lands for non-food crop produce which led to a significant decline in food production. Furthermore, the limited supply of food crops that were cultivated, were exported to Europe, which created an economy that was unable to feed its population, leading many Indians into starvation. This among various other push factors created a desperate labour force who would take any opportunity for survival, including migration to a foreign land.
Source: Photographer unknown via Facebook shares
Deceived and Belied
The recruitment process for indentured labourers was very deceptive. Between the 1830s-1870s, there was no clear indication of what the indentureship system entailed. Since recruiters were paid per head and had a quota to reach, they used a variety of ‘sketchy’ tactics to attract labourers. The main story pushed by the Arkatias (recruiters) was that they would go to a place for easy work and wage and return to their villages. Some labourers were not informed that they would be travelling overseas, and many Indian women were kidnapped by recruiters.
The physical and sexual violence against women continued on the ships as they journeyed to the Caribbean region. There are accounts of girls as young as 10 years old being raped. Gaiutra Bahadur documented some of the testimonies made by the survivors of sexual violence on the ship. One woman indicated, “The surgeon frightened me… I was afraid to refuse. … He used to slap me hard on my bottom and hurt me. … The surgeon came after me, and made me go by force. … Inside his room, the surgeon had connexion with me near the door, on the floor; the door was shut. … It is true that on three nights the surgeon took me into his room and has connexion with me.” (Bahadur 2014, 59).
Source: ‘Coolie Women’, Muir, Marshall & Co. 1897.
The struggle for survival continued as the labourers entered the various indenture sites. There is an overarching assumption that Indian indentured labourers were ‘allowed to keep and practice’ their culture and religion. This narrative paints a half truth of their reality. While many immigrants brought aspects of their society to these spaces, colonial laws prevented most of these practices from being carried out. What occurred was the modification, dilution or excision of these practices (Singh 2012, 1). Christianity was the standard used to assess Indian or non-Christian religious practices. Therefore, when Indian practices were not understood by colonial officials, they were either forced to be discontinued, modified to align with the Christian standard or were practiced in secrecy. Colonial officials would also ban practices that encouraged community between the African and Indian populations. Some common examples are Shakti Mai Puja/Kali Worship, Firepass ceremonies and Hosay.
Post-indenture struggle for survival
The struggle for survival continued even after indentureship ended. Unlike Christian marriages, Muslim and Hindu marriages were not legally recognized until 1936 and 1945 respectively. Marriage laws for Hindu and Muslim immigrants became a subject of conversation, as the issue of inheritance and transferring of property and land began emerging. Many Muslim and Hindu children born on the colony were considered “bastards” (Bahadur 2014, 120) and debates surrounding ‘illegitimacy’ arose. Death of the owner, usually the man, meant that the land would be escheated to the State. Sadly, due to the patriarchal ideas of ownership and inheritance, many Indian women would have their property seized. However, although these marriages were now legally recognized, the process was tedious and inaccessible to many due to its lengthy and expensive court procedures.
There was also conflict and debates on Hindu modes of the disposal of the dead during the 1950s. The legalization of cremation under Hindu rites was met with “indifference, ignorance, and opposition” (Singh 2017). The Government argued that the Hindu disposal of the body would be offensive to the majority of the population and would pollute the rivers when the ashes were offered. According to the Cremation Ordinance in 1955, the cremation site must be one mile away from the nearest house and must be screened from the public view, animals, and birds. In other words, the cremation site must resemble a crematorium. The Hindu community continued fighting for their cultural and religious freedoms for two decades. Finally, in the 1970s, post-independence, amendments were made. Hindus were now legally allowed to dispose of the ashes into the rivers and the site no longer needed to be screened from birds.
Source: Photo taken in Waterloo, Trinidad by Dillraj Ramkissoon for Smithsonian Magazine (2017) courtesy The Cutlass (Instagram).
In retrospect, the glamourization of Indian Arrival Day and the legacy of indentureship does not paint an accurate picture of the horrendous acts of colonial violence, exploitation and trauma experienced by indentured labourers. This piece is a mere droplet in an ocean of literature that unpack these issues. The history goes beyond ‘arrival’. Today is Indian Survival Day.
Bahadur, Gaiutra . 2014. Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Mahabir, Kumar. 2019. Indian Arrival Day: The Indian Diaspora in St. Vincent, Grenada, St. Kitts and Guyana. Magazine, Trinidad and Tobago: ICC.
Singh, Sherry Ann. 2017. “Cultural Nationalism and Hinduism in Trinidad.” Global Conference on Indian Diaspora Studies, Challenging Perspectives. The Netherlands.
Singh, Sherry Ann. 2012. “Women in the Ramayana Tradition in Trinidad.” In Bindi: The Multifaceted Lives of Indo-Caribbean Women, by Rosanne Kanhai, 21-51. Jamaica : UWI Press.
Additional Resource – The Cutlass @cutlasspodcast (Instagram and Twitter)