After the emancipation of the slaves in 1838, many of the freed blacks gradually withdrew from full-time labour on the sugar plantations. This situation naturally caused severe difficulties for the planters, in Trinidad and elsewhere in the Caribbean, and they used their considerable influence on the government in London and on the local authorities to secure the adoption of a scheme to bring in immigrant labourers from many parts of the world. Eventually, after a period of experimentation, it was Indian immigration that proved to be the most important source of labour for the plantations, and it was people from India who came to comprise the great majority of the post-emancipation immigrants to the Caribbean.
The first shipload of 217 Indians arrived in Trinidad in the Fatel Rozack on May 10, 1845, and over the whole period of immigration (1845 – 1917) a total of 143, 939 people came to the island from the subcontinent. The great majority came through Calcutta and had lived in the British Indian provinces along the Ganges river, especially the United Provinces, Bihar and Orissa, while a smaller group came from South India via Madras. Hindi or a variant (Bhojpuri) was the majority language of the immigrants and Hinduism the majority faith, though a significant minority belonged to the Islamic faith. The Hindus represented, broadly, the caste spectrum found in North Indian society, with a sprinkling of high castes including Brahmins, a large group of people from the intermediate castes, and most belonging to the lower castes. The overwhelming majority of the immigrants were simple rural folk from the traditional communities of village India, accustomed to hard work and poverty and deeply attached to the land and all its routines. It was essential to tie them to the plantations and to extract a guaranteed minimum of labour from them by some legal restrictions.
Hence the indenture system. This was not slavery, yet the immigrant so long as he remained under indentureship was not free. He or she (for adult women were also indentured) had to work for the plantation to which he had been allocated, at the tasks prescribed by his employer and for the stipulated hours. He could neither change his employer, nor refuse to perform any lawful tasks, nor leave the plantation without written permission during working hours. Any breach by the immigrant of his contract (and indenture simply means contract) could be punished by criminal prosecution and jail sentences. This was no empty threat; at any point in time between 1845 and 1917, hundreds of indentured Indians were in jail, not for any criminal offence, but simply for breach of the immigration laws. Even the Indian who had completed his indentureship still had to pay a special annual tax before becoming entitled to the “free” return passage to India after living for ten years in Trinidad.
At first, the Indians were viewed as transients, as people brought to work for a few years and then sent back home. This is probably how the Indians themselves saw it, at least in the first phase of immigration (1845 – 70). But gradually, although ties to Mother India remained strong, more and more Indians began to put down roots in the island. Of course, the growth of a locally born Indian population, people with no first-hand knowledge of India, reinforced this development. So did the movement of ex-indentured Indians off the plantation and the emergence of a large land-owning group. From 1869 it became possible for ex-indentured workers to obtain land, either through free grants from the Crown, in lieu of a return passage to India, or through purchase of lots of Crown land, or through buying land in the private market. A large Indian peasantry soon developed, growing rice, cocoa, cane, all kinds of food crops, and raising livestock.
These Indian farmers and smallholders settled all over the island, helping to open it up after 1870 and creating new villages and settlements. By the time indentureship ended in 1917, the Indians were deeply rooted in the island, making a vital contribution to the economy especially as agriculturists and plantation workers.
As they were gradually transformed from immigrant labourers to settlers, the Indians contributed a great deal to their new society by practising their rich diversity of religious and cultural forms. Temples and mosques were built in villages, towns and estate settlements and Hindu and Muslim festivals were introduced. Indian dance, music and song enriched the already complex Trinidad culture. The island’s cuisine was enlivened by the addition of roti and all kinds of curried dishes. Indian jewellers and workers in gold and silver practised their traditional crafts. Thus the mosaic that was Trinidad & Tobago society and culture received new patterns, new colour and new beauty from the people of India, now true sons and daughters of the Caribbean soil.
This essay first appeared in 1991 in The Book of Trinidad, which has now been reissued by Paria Publishing Ltd (ISBN: 978-976-8054-36-4, 550pp).
From the Port of Spain Gazette
May 30, 1845
We have much pleasure in announcing the arrival this afternoon of the long-looked-for [Indian] ship, the Fatel Rozack, 96 days from Calcutta and 41 days from the Cape of Good Hope, with 217 [Indians] on board, “all in good condition”, as the bills of lading have it. There were five deaths on board during the passage, but the general appearance of the people is very healthy. When our people are informed that there are countless thousands of these people, inured to a tropical climate, starving in their own country, and most willing to emigrate to the West Indies, it may be the means of opening their eyes a little to the necessity of working more steadily and giving more satisfaction to their employers. The Fatel Rozack is a fine vessel of 445 tons and is manned by a crew of lascars.
1. The photographers of the late 19th century, who developed remarkable photograph albums of Trinidad, kept an eye out for the really good-looking Indian girls. What is interesting about this photograph is her smiling countenance – unusual because 19th-century photography demanded that the subject hold still for several minutes owing to the long exposure time required. This photograph is from the Ruby Finlayson collection
2. The Indian indentured labourers adapted readily to the form of rural housing developed by the tribal people, producing their own version of the “ajoupa” with wattle-and-daub walls and tirite-covered roofs. The floors were of packed earth, swept clean. Photograph: Jackson’s Book of Trinidad
3. This remarkable photograph was taken at Palmiste Estate in the days prior to the Hosay Riots of 1881. A mounted sirdah or Indian overseer carries a drum as the crowd mills around, anxious to be on the march
Photos in the photo slider at the top of this article