Bridget Brereton

This month we celebrated (in the new Covid way) Divali, the biggest Hindu festival in Trinidad and Tobago.

As we all know, Hinduism was brought to this country by indentured immigrants from India, who first arrived 175 years ago, in 1845. I’ve been reading a new book, Disciplining Coolies: An Archival Footprint of Trinidad, 1846, by T&T-born, Canada-based scholar Amar Wahab.

It includes three essays by Wahab, but most of the book (pp 77-257) consists of primary source documents from 1846. These include correspondence, reports and transcripts of investigations and court hearings, including rare testimony, via an interpreter, by indentured labourers. They are all concerned with a Scottish planter, Edward Walkinshaw, owner of Clydesdale Cottage plantation in South Naparima.

The documents tell a complicated story, but to cut it short, it was proved that Walkinshaw inflicted frequent and illegal corporal punishment (kicks, blows) on his newly arrived Indian labourers, and also failed to provide them with proper rations. The doctor supposed to provide them with medical care was shown to be negligent, and the estate “hospital” to be wholly inadequate. One “Madrasi” labourer, Kundappa, died as a result of foot sores or ulcers which had been totally neglected, his condition worsened by semi-starvation.

As a result of a series of investigations and court hearings, the governor (Lord Harris) removed all the indentured labourers from Walkinshaw’s estate and refused to allocate him any more. But neither he nor the doctor was prosecuted on criminal charges for the ill treatment or for Kundappa’s death.

What can we learn from the mass of documents reproduced in this book?

First, one of the few good things about the British empire was that it took record keeping seriously. Yes, we know that thousands of documents were destroyed as the empire drew to its close in the post-World War II period—including in T&T—because they reflected realities very different from the benevolent image the Brits wanted to project. But the vast mass of documents generated in the earlier period of the empire were kept, organised, put in the British National Archives, and opened to researchers. Hence Wahab could publish the contents of a single volume of documents, classified as CO 295/153, consisting of 741 hand-written pages.

Second, the documents make it only too clear that the methods and mindset of slavery persisted into the beginning of Indian immigration in the 1840s. For Walkinshaw and no doubt for many others, kicks and blows, withholding food rations, neglecting the health of their workers, were simply the ways you managed unfree labourers of another race.

Third, as Wahab makes clear in his essays, these events took place in the early, “experimental” phase of indentured Indian immigration to other parts of the empire. The first scandal had occurred in British Guiana in 1838, when evidence soon emerged about ill treatment and excessive mortality among the first Indians imported there (the “Gladstone Coolies”). This had caused the British government to halt Indian indentured immigration; it wasn’t allowed to resume until 1844/45.

The events in South Trinidad in 1846, just a year after the first arrival of Indians here, told a similar story. Both scandals, along with other factors, resulted in a second halt to indentured immigration between 1848 and 1851. More importantly, they pushed the government to take over control of all aspects of the system—in India, on the ships, in the receiving colonies—in an effort to prevent flagrant abuses which would reflect discredit on the empire.

Few people are likely to read all the nearly 200 pages of documents in Wahab’s book (full disclosure: I did not), but he has performed a useful service in reproducing them here.

• Bridget Brereton is professor emeritus of history at The UWI, St Augustine

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