Today marks the 171st anniversary of the first Indian indentured labourers to reach the Caribbean island of Trinidad, aboard the ship Fatel Razak.
While the history of the African slave trade is well known, this is not the case for the story of Chinese and Indian indentured labour in the Caribbean. But like other stories of colonialism around the world, there is much poverty, abuse, and loss of life and culture wrapped up in the tale.
A (very) brief history of indentured labour in the Caribbean
When African slaves were emancipated in the 1830s, the British needed a new source of cheap labour to work the sugar plantations of the Caribbean (and Guyana) to maintain the profitable sugar trade; India provided this labour.
Why did these people leave their homeland for the unknown? Mainly because of poverty and famine…recruiters preyed on the desperate, promising easy work, opportunity, wealth — a better life. The reality is that the indentured labourers lived and worked in appalling conditions in the islands; many weren’t fully compensated for their work or were cheated of wages, cultural practices were banned, men and women (and children) were physically abused — and they couldn’t return to India until they completed their contracts (most didn’t return home, choosing to stay in the Caribbean after being away from India for so long and establishing new families and relationships).
My family history
I’ve been trying to trace my family history for the past couple of years — I even took a course with the Toronto Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society, “Tracing Your East Indian Heritage in the British West Indies” back in 2014, but I didn’t get very far. Poverty and illiteracy have limited record keeping on both sides of my family, and now with most of my elders deceased and the few remaining facing the realities of old age (memory loss, hearing loss, etc.), all that is left for me to piece together are snippets of information from aunts, uncles, cousins, and what remains of my grandparents’ generation.
What I do know about my family history is that my paternal great grandfather travelled aboard the ship Grecian, arriving in Trinidad in October 1896 with his mother. Tragically, his six-year-old brother died during the sea voyage, though we are unsure of the cause of death. We also don’t know why these three left their home, where they were from in India or who my great grandfather’s father was. Bekaroo (one name, and no one is sure if it’s his first or last) was only four years old when he arrived in Trinidad with my great, great grandmother, and they lived and laboured at the plantation Brechin Castle in the west-central region of the island.
I also know very little about the history of my family on my mother’s side, but apparently I have some of Trinidad’s early Indian politicians in my bloodline…might explain my chatty nature!
How I would love to know where my family came from in India, to see the life they left behind, to reconnect to a part of my history and culture that has been a mystery! But I fear I will never know more.
Indian Arrival Day
Indian Arrival Day is a holiday celebrated (by people of all races) in Trinidad, and I think it’s pretty amazing. In a world where so many people fear immigrants or (incorrectly) blame immigrant populations for crime, job loss or other social ills — here’s a country that is PROUD of its immigrant populations (like Canada!).
Trinidad’s Indian immigrants — who travelled so far for opportunity and a better life — are recognized for their contributions to Trinidad’s development, culture and identity. I know I’m VERY grateful for Trini doubles and the occasional chutney song!
Not that the island is a magical place free of racism. One of the byproducts of colonialism in Trinidad is a tension (that exists to this day) between the African and Indian populations. This tension is rooted in economic competition fanned by British plantation managers, who pit the new pool of Indian indentured labour against the freed African slaves — another way to take advantage of an already disadvantaged labour pool. I hope that one day this tension will vanish completely, and there will be true unity in diversity!
Trinidad is truly a special place — because anyone can be a Trini; people are united by culture and a love of the island. From such humble beginnings, the people of T&T, whether the descendants of slaves or indentured labourers, have made so much progress and come so far — it is a proud little island.
Reflecting on my heritage
Well, I’m glad my ancestors got on those British boats over 100 years ago. I can only imagine the hardship and suffering they endured on the plantations, but I also recognize that I am who I am and where I am today because of the sacrifices and determination of these brave souls. Two of my four grandparents were illiterate, one had only a third grade education, and only one made it to middle school. My parents grew up without running water or electricity, my dad in particular poverty, sometimes wearing clothing my grandmother sewed from rice bags. But today I can sit with a cup of tea in my apartment, reading and writing as much as I wish, grateful for my education and the opportunity to travel (because I would like to experience the world, not because I’m fleeing poverty or famine).
On this Indian Arrival Day, I just want to say that I am immensely proud of my Indian heritage and of my strong, resilient and brave family.
Historical background written based on conversations with my parents, and notes from the book Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture by Gauitra Bahadur, a book I would highly recommend to anyone interested in the history of Indian indentured labour. What’s really special about this book is that it focuses on the stories and experiences of the women — a perspective you rarely see in literature about indentureship.