Today we remember and commemorate the arrival of the first batch of indentured people brought from India to labour in Trinidad’s sugar cane plantations. On this day 177 years ago the Fatel Razack entered the Gulf of Paria with over 200 Indians on board, the first of 143,939 citizens of India to be brought here under a British scheme to deal with a shortage of labour following the emancipation of enslaved Africans in 1834-38.
Although not enslaved, our Indian ancestors were not free.
They were bonded to estates that they could not leave without a permit in a system of colonial-divide-and-rule that kept them segregated from the wider population.
Most of those who came were from the provinces of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal with the majority being Hindus and a minority of Muslims with a sprinkling of Christians. Although living under a system of organised control, they were defiant in defending their right to observe their culture, even on pain of death, as exemplified by the Hosay Massacre of 1884, and in holding to their faith in the face of jail, as in the case of Siewdass Sadhu of Waterloo.
Over time, the Indian influence on the culturally complex mosaic of Trinidad society would be profound. To the already rich mix of cultures of the Indigenous peoples, followed by the Spanish, French, African, British, Merikins and Portuguese, the Indians added their science and arts. With their knowledge of agriculture and husbandry came a strong relationship with the land. They introduced new plants and spices and added an entirely new culinary tradition based on Indian recipes applied to the produce found here. They brought their medical and medicinal traditions, languages, music and dance and the craftsmanship and style of their jewelry and fashion, among other things. Like the Indigenous people and Africans, they brought ancient wisdoms distilled out of the experience of millennia that confronted and clashed with the coloniser’s western European world view.
Today, whether our individual biological lineage can be traced back to India wholly, partially or not at all, our national identity has been influenced by India and is indebted to the endurance, defiance and persistence of those first generations of Indians who arrived here over the course of the 72 years of Indian indentureship.
The unique nature of our history and its impact on the development of modern T&T has gifted each of us with a rare and rich cultural inheritance, the depths of which are yet to be fully plumbed.
It is tragic that almost 60 years after Independence we remain yoked to the colonial value system that keeps the national education system harnessed to the strategic intent of the colonial education system when what is needed is an education system for a sovereign people.
Thanks to the Internet and social media, however, the omissions of the formal school system are being rectified informally as people who, only after leaving school, begin to discover the stories of themselves and their country and share their new-found knowledge with excitement. Today, we celebrate our common Indian ancestry and honour the ancestors.