1.Indians, Indo Jamaicans rooting for change by Beryl Williamson
2.The Jahajis of Maracas Valley (Trinidad)
3. Has Leonora lost its glamour?
Bong Coolie- Poonith By Kenneth Ramchand
Indians, Indo-Jamaicans rooting for
Observer Saturday, May 10, 2003
IN the history of any nation, community, organisation or
individual, there is a past, a present and a future. This is true of the history
of the Indian and Indo-Jamaican community in Jamaica.
Professor Verene A Shepherd in her book Transients to Settlers has helped to
trace the experiences of indentured labourers from India,
from their arrival in Jamaica
on May 10, 1845
and of their descendants up to the year 1950.
This and other historical works show that the agency of the
Indian/Indo- Jamaican was not irrelevant to the shaping of the past. For
example, but for the foresight of some leading members of the Indian community,
following the termination of the indentureship programme, to organise the
community to press for the implementation of recommendations of the Moyne
Commission in the aftermath of the 1938 labour rebellion, as they related to
the community, aspects of the vibrant Indian cultural heritage may not have
Now, Indian culture not only has legitimacy in Jamaica's
cultural mosaic but has had a significant impact on many areas of Jamaican
life. In addition, the contribution of Jamaicans of Indian descent is evident
in every profession, skill area and industry, and in the development of the
Towards the end of the indentureship programme, and
immediately after, four organisations emerged. They are:
The East Indian National Union (EINU)
The East Indian Association of Jamaica
The East Indian Progressive Society (EIPS)
The All Indian Cricket Club (later forming the nucleus of
the Indian Recreation Club).
Very little has been recorded of the first two, as their
existence was short-lived. But it is clear that their aims and objectives
related to the interest and well being of the community.
The East Indian Progressive Society (EIPS) was founded out
of the need for an organization to take up with Government and other
authorities the special conditions under which the Indian community lived, and
to seek amelioration. The EIPS came into being in April 1940.
The aims were primarily:
* To encourage, support and inculcate Indian culture and
elevating traditions, to arrange for celebration of national days and to
educate the Jamaican public with regard to Indian matters.
* To improve the moral, social, economic and cultural
conditions of the community;
* To look after the rights and interests of East Indians in Jamaica
and their descendants.
Meetings were first held at 42 Duke
Street, the residence and office of Dr JL Varma,
Initially, the work of the EIPS was centred in areas in Kingston
and St Andrew to which many ex-indentured labourers had immigrated. As time
went by, branches were established in some rural parishes, like Clarendon,
Westmoreland, St Mary, Portland, St
Thomas and St Catherine.
Several sub-committees were set up and matters listed for
* Indentured Immigrant Law (revision and repeal)
* Recruitment of Jamaicans of Indian origin as farm workers
to the USA.
* Food production.
* Land settlement and repatriation
* Poor relief and medical facilities
* Cremation and marriage
* Education and welfare
* Social/recreational facilities
* Affiliation with other organisations
Indentured Immigrant Law
This law placed on the Indian community, both those who
migrated and their descendants, certain statutory limitations as the law
described as "indentured labourers" all Indians, even those born
locally. Tied into this law was the discrimination against Hindu and Muslim
religions which denied marriages performed under these faiths the legal status
as marriages performed by other faiths in the island.
After many years of tenacious negotiations with the
government the above law was repealed in 1960, thereby giving everyone of
Indian blood, constitutional equality. In the same way it took many years of
advocacy by the EIPS to procure legal status for Hindu and Muslim marriages and
the appointment of marriage officers under the Hindu and Muslim faiths was
accordingly sanctioned. In addition rites performed in the past could be
registered and legal status to such marriage and subsequent offspring made
Recruitment of Jamaican Indians
In the early stages of World War II when the US government
requested the recruitment of farm labour from Jamaica, some Jamaicans of Indian
origin were among the first groups of farm workers sent. On their arrival in
the USA, the
immigration authorities were faced with difficulties admitting those
"Indians" because of an old regulation that debarred people of Indian
descent to be admitted to the USA.
Those people were detained for return to Jamaica.
Through prompt action by the EIPS, including a march to the colonial
secretary's office, the matter had the sympathetic hearing of the
Anglo-American Caribbean Commission; and with the assistance of the RLM
Kirkwood, a member of the commission representing British interest on that
body, the ban was lifted and Jamaicans of Indian descent became eligible for
As an expression of gratitude for his services, Mr Kirkwood
(later Sir Robert Kirkwood) was invited and accepted the first honorary
membership of the EIPS.
Increased food production in World War II
The nation faced a serious crisis as food supplies were cut
off from overseas, one of the items being rice. This commodity was one of the
largest consumed items of food. It is the achievement of the EIPS that through
its efforts the first two rice growers associations were formed in St Catherine
Education and welfare
With emphasis on the education and welfare of the community,
members of the EIPS visited primary schools in the Corporate Area to
investigate the ability and conditions of children of Indian descent. As a
consequence, many scholarships were granted by the EIPS to children in such
schools to post-primary and vocational institutions. With the acquisition of
its own premises at 3 Bethune Avenue
around 1944, an infant school was established at this centre and existed for
almost 10 years (from 1945 to 1954). Children leaving this school were
transferred to primary schools in their nearby localities.
In the early years when it was considered necessary to
educate the members of the community in regard to their rights and
responsibilities and the work being done on their behalf, the EIPS published a
monthly magazine called The Indian. While the response at the outset was
encouraging, it was not found necessary or convenient to carry this on.
The EIPS was nonetheless involved in arranging academic
discourses and debates on a variety of topics which were well patronised by the
The EIPS took the leading role in arranging celebrations for
Indian holidays and meeting and entertaining prominent Indian personalities, be
they Statesmen or Philosophers, lecturers, religious leaders.
Affiliation with other organisations
To broaden its activities and to establish links with the
wider community, the EIPS became affiliated with several welfare organisations
including the Jamaica Save the Children Fund, the Women's Federation, and the
Council for Voluntary Social Services. Members of the Society offered and gave
service to those organisations. The society was also a contributor to the
Jaycees' Nuggets for the Needy project.
Many minor matters relating to the welfare of the community
received attention and which helped to develop and establish the prestige of
The premises of the EIPS were put at the disposal of the
younger members of the community for recreational and sporting activities and
became the headquarters for the All Indian Cricket Club (later Indian
Recreation Club) which was dominant in the field of cricket.
The EIPS was a player in the founding of Club India,
a Members' club, which still serves the community. It also fostered the
founding of the Hindu Samaj of Jamaica, a religious group, and the Mahilya
Samaja, a girls' group, accommodating their activities at its premises.
There was intervention by the EIPS to assist Indian peasants
in the Corporate Area who were involved with vegetable farming at the time of
the introduction of the metering system in the supply of water. Efforts were
made through the East Indian Syndicate, a business venture established for the
purpose, to acquire lands to settle those people and to provide an adequate
supply of water for irrigation from wells, at a lower cost.
Instances of discrimination against the employment of people
of Indian descent were taken up by the EIPS with the employers concerned and
were successful in the removal of discriminatory treatment.
Non-quota immigration of Jamaicans to the USA
gained Independence in 1962, the
matter of Jamaicans being permitted to enter the USA
on a non-quota basis was taken up by the government. People of Indian descent,
up to that time, were placed under the Immigration quota given to India,
and this number being small, might have excluded them from non-quota status.
The matter was taken up with our government asking that the descendants of all
races forming part of the Jamaican population who originated from the area
called the "Asia Pacific Triangle" (ie, from Pakistan
in the West to Japan
in the East) should be included in the non-quota immigration of all Jamaicans.
This was subsequently approved.
The EIPS was regarded by Government agencies and the wider
society as the main "voice" for the Indian/Indo- Jamaican community.
There were also Hindu priests (Pandits) who performed the
rites of marriages and funerals, prayers and rituals for other auspicious
occasions. The following were among the first to be appointed Hindu marriages
officers when the relevant law was passed.
The main purpose for the founding of the EIPS having been
achieved, the organisation became somewhat non-functional around the late
1970s, but for its monthly food package programme. With the emergence of other
organisations which were addressing the current needs of the community and in
the face of decreasing membership, the life of the EIPS came to an end.
Special mention must be made of the All-Indian Cricket teams
of the era which were successful in a number of local competitions, including
the Hamilton Cup in 1947 and the Carib Cup in 1950.
Beryl Williamsingh is chairperson for the National
Council for Indian Culture in Jamaica.
The Jahajis of Maracas Valley, Trinidad.
In 1897 William Adlington Cadbury visited
the Cadbury cocoa estates in Trinidad and Tobago, and returned with some splendid photographs of the estates and
estate workers. In addition, reported back to his brother Barrow Cadbury, in
diary form, on a visit to the cocoa estate of Sir Charles Tennant, managed by
Mr Bain and his wife:
"Mr Bain has one interest: 'Cocoa' - that is outside
his own family of 6 boys and 3 girls - so was delighted
to show and explain everything and when we got home `we set and made some
The coolie woman in the kitchen roasted it most splendidly in
an open bowl over the fire, stirring it continually, and husked it, by throwing
it in an open grass tray, shaped like a malt shovel blade, then we ground it with sugar in the real old way on a flat stone, with a
long shaped smaller stone held in both hands, and made up with boiling milk and
water it was first rate - Mrs Bain (like all the Creoles)realised also the
virtues of cocoa butter for all kinds of wounds burns and strains...so the
following night we had great fun 'making cocoa butter' our only apparatus was
an ordinary office press, used for letter books, and a dripping tray which we
(Taken from Birmingham Historian by Fiona Tait).
Photograph of a 'Coolie' Woman
from the Cadbury Collection
Two Coolie girls
Photograph of Coolie group
A Coolie woman
The Tennant estate that Cadbury
visited is known as Ortinola, and is situated in the Maracas Valley. The Estate house has been restored and looks like this
2. Brandon Head’s Visit
A few years later Brandon Head visited the Maracas Valley, and in 1903 published Cocoa The Food of the Gods. Below is an extract, complete with
pictures from this book.
But upon the cocoa estate there is
lasting peace. From the railway on the plain we climb the long valley, our
strong-boned mule or lithe Spanish horse taking the long slopes at a pleasant
amble, standing to cool in the ford of the river we cross and re-cross, or
plucking the young shoots of the graceful bamboos so often fringing our path.
Villages and straggling cottages, with palm thatch and adobe walls, are passed, orange or
bread-fruit shading the little garden, and perhaps a mango towering over all.
The proprietor is still at work on the plantation, but his wife is preparing
the evening meal, while the children, almost naked, play in the sunshine.
Home of the Cacao.
(One of Messrs.
Cadburys' Estates, Maracas, Trinidad.)
The cacao-trees of neighbouring
planters come right down to the ditch by the roadside, and beneath dense
foliage, on the long rows of stems hang the bright glowing pods. Above all
towers the bois immortelle,
called by the Spaniards la madre del
cacao, "the mother of the
cacao." In January or February the immortelle
sheds its leaves and bursts into a crown of flame-coloured blossom. As we reach
the shoulder of the hill, and look down on the cacao-filled hollow, with the immortelle above all, it is a sea of
golden glory, an indescribably beautiful scene. Now we note at the roadside a
plant of dragon's blood, and if we peer among the trees there is another just
within sight; this, therefore, is the boundary of two estates. At an opening in
the trees a boy slides aside the long bamboos which form the gateway, and a
short canter along a grass track brings us to the open
savanna or pasture around the homestead.
Here are grazing donkeys, mules, and
cattle, while the chickens run under the shrubs for shelter, reminding one of
home. The house is surrounded with crotons and other brilliant plants, beyond
which is a rose garden, the special pride of the planter's wife. If the sun has
gone down behind the western hills, the boys will come out and play cricket in
the hour before sunset. These savannas are the beauty-spots of a country
clothed in woodland from sea-shore to mountain-top.
Ortinola, Maracas, Trinidad.
Next morning we are awaked by a blast
from a conch-shell. It is 6.30, and the mist still clings in the valley; the
sun will not be over the hills for another hour or more, so in the cool we join
the labourers on the mule-track to the higher land, and for a mile or more
follow a stream into the heart of the estate. If it is crop-time, the men will
carry a goulet—a hand of steel,
mounted on a long bamboo—by the sharp edges of which the pods are cut from the
higher branches without injury to the tree. Men and women
all carry cutlasses, the one instrument needful for all work on the estate,
serving not only for reaping the lower pods, but for pruning and weeding, or
"cutlassing," as the process of clearing away the weed and brush is
AND WOODEN SPOON.
Gathering the pods is heavy work,
always undertaken by men. The pods are collected from beneath the trees and
taken to a convenient heap, if possible near to a running
stream, where the workers can refill their drinking-cups for the mid-day meal.
Here women sit, with trays formed of the broad banana leaves, on which the
beans are placed as they extract them from the pod with wooden spoons. The
result of the day's work, placed in panniers on donkey-back, is
"crooked" down to the cocoa-house, and that night remains in box-like
bins, with perforated sides and bottom, covered in with banana leaves. Every
twenty-four hours these bins are emptied into others, so that the contents are
thoroughly mixed, the process being continued for four days or more, according
This is known as "sweating."
Day by day the pulp becomes darker, as fermentation sets in, and the
temperature is raised to about 140° F. During fermentation a dark sour liquid
runs away from the sweat-boxes, which is, in fact, a very dilute acetic acid,
but of no commercial value. During the process of "sweating" the
cotyledons of the cocoa-bean, which are at first a purple colour and very
compact in the skin, lose their brightness for a duller
brown, and expand the skin, giving the bean a fuller shape. When dry, a
properly cured bean should crush between the finger and thumb.
Drying in the Sun, Maracas, Trinidad.
Finally the beans are turned on to a
tray to dry in the sun. They are still sticky, but of a brown, mahogany colour.
Among them are pieces of fibre and other "trash," as well as small,
undersized beans, or "balloons," as the nearly empty shell of an
unformed bean is called. While a man shovels the beans into a heap, a group of
women, with skirts kilted high, tread round the sides of the heap, separating
the beans that still hold together. Then the beans are passed on to be spread
in layers on trays in the full heat of the tropical sun, the temperature being upwards
of 140° F. When thus spread, the women
can readily pick out the foreign matter and undersized beans. Two or three days
will suffice to dry them, after which they are put in bags for the markets of
the world, and will keep with but very slight loss of weight or aroma for a
year or more.
the labourers are employed in "cutlassing," pruning, and cleaning the
land and trees. Nearly all the work is in pleasant shade, and none of it harder
than the duties of a market gardener in our own country; indeed, the work is
less exacting, for daylight lasts at most but thirteen hours, limiting the time
that a man can see in the forest: ten hours per day, with rests for meals, is
the average time spent on the estate. Wages are paid once a month, and a whole
holiday follows pay-day, when the stores in town are visited for needful
supplies. Other holidays are not infrequent, and between crops the slacker days
give ample time for the cultivation of private gardens.
Labourers from India are largely imported by the Government
under contract with the planters, and the strictest regulations are observed in
the matter of housing, medical aid, etc. At the expiration of the term of
contract (about six years) a free pass is granted to return to India, if desired. Many, however, prefer to
remain in their adopted home, and become planters themselves, or continue to labour on the smaller estates, which are generally worked by
free labour, as the preparations for contracted labour are expensive, and can
only be undertaken on a large scale.
Cottage, Cacao Estate, Trinidad.
(Bread Fruit and Bananas.)
The natives of India work on very
friendly terms with the coloured people of the islands, the descendants of the
old African slaves, and the cocoa estate provides a healthy life for all, with
a home amid surroundings of the most congenial kind.
The frontispiece of Brandon Head’s book is a reproduction of
a painting done on a Santa Cruz
estate owned by a French-Creole. It is reproduced below.
Cadbury’s later acquired an interest in Ortinola. I am not
clear as to which Trinidad estates belonged to Cadburys,
but they probably owned one in the Maracas
Alistair Macmillan, whom you will remember if you were
paying attention to your reading book in primary school, also published a book
on the West Indies around the turn of the century. Here
is a picture from his book.
4. John Morton Visits
John Morton the Presbyterian missionary also visited the
valley.In the diary of Sarah Morton, his wife we read that in the year 1897
Reverend Morton had travelled by horse carriage to Maracas
Valley and late that evening
visited Ortinola Estate " to give communion at the house of Mr J.P. Bain,
Manager of Messrs Cadbury, at Ortinola Estate".
So there was a lot of activity in the valley, and the
jahajis got their pictures taken. They are not faceless, but they remain
nameless. They were good-looking people weren’t they?
If you haven’t guessed by now, some of them were my
ancestors. On this occasion of Pitri Paksh, I pay homage to them
Chal ur jaa ray panchhee ki ab yea desh hua
Katam hu-eh din us
daalee kay, jis par teraa baseraa thaa
Aaj yahaa aur kal ho
wahaa, yea yogi waalaa pheraa thaa
Yea teree jageer hahee
thee, char gharee kaa daraa thaa
Sadaa rahay hai is
duniyaa may, kiskaa aabo daanaa
Too nay tinkaa tinkaa
chun kar nagaree ek basaa-ee
Barish may teree
bheegee paakhay, shoop may garmee khaa-ee
Gam na kar, jo teree
mehnat teray kaam na aa-ee
Acha hai kuch lay jane
say, dekar kuch hee jaanaa
O bird, fly away now, as this country has now become foreign
The time for this branch, which was your resting place, has
Today you are here and tomorrow you are there, like a moving
It was not a rent-free grant given to you, but only a
temporary dwelling place.
No one has ever lived here for ever.
You have secured straws bit by bit, and built a city. Your
shelter has been
soaked by rain and dried by the heat of the sun. Do not
grieve if your effort
was not of any use to you. For it is better that you give
Has Leonora lost its glamour?
Guyana Chronicle September
23rd. 2001 by M.Z Ali
SEVERAL villages in Guyana are of historical
significance in one-way or the other, some greater than some and others whose
very existence provides solace to those who may have had golden memories.
Leonora on the West
Coast Demerara is such a place, and no attempt to delve into its history would
go without reward even if it means personal satisfaction.
In the olden days, it
used to be referred to as Plantation Leonora, and is situated some nine miles
from Vreed-en-Hoop. The name Leonora is Dutch, having gotten it during the
Dutch occupation of the country. It was originated from the names of two Dutch
children, Nora, a girl and Leo, a boy.
Leonora encompasses an
area of some five square miles, and in the olden times was under the Parish of
St. Luke. It stretches from Edinburgh in the East to
Stewartville in the West. It goes north to as far as the Atlantic Ocean and South to as far
as the conservancy.
This once busy
plantation was the hive of economic activities mainly because of the presence
of a sugar estate where most people on the plantation and even from surrounding
villages used to be employed.
It was once graced
with a railway station until the railway was disbanded in the 1970's. Still
standing are the police station, a Mosque and a Temple, where the majority
of the population being Hindus and Muslims, offered their worship.
There is also a Post
Office, which serves the entire district and surrounding areas, while a cinema
was always there providing entertainment, prior to the coming of the
television. Leonora also has two schools, a secondary and a primary, which were
built during the 1960's. These schools cater now for children from the entire West Demerara area. There is also a
Cottage Hospital, which is today manned by a doctor and trained nurses.
There is also a very
large market which does very brisk business on Saturdays when people from far
off areas go and hawk their goods and do shopping.
While most of the
population of Leonora are young people and know nothing or very little about
the plantation in "logie" time, many of the older folks who are still
around today remember what life was in the days when the entire population,
most of whom lived in logies (long ranges which were built by the owners of the
sugar estate to house the indentured labourers who worked on the estate).
From 1821 until its
was closed down in mid-December 1986, Leonora estate changed its proprietors,
attorneys and administrators several times. In that same year (1821), the
proprietor and attorney was George Rainey who served in that capacity until
1871 when the estate was taken over by Sandbach Parker and Company, a name we
are all familiar with because of their store in Georgetown, and William Russel
became the Manager
Sandbach Parker and
Company was the proprietor until 1969 when they sold out to Jessel, another
Prior to the Jessel
take over, the administration changed hands periodically, starting in 1905 with
the Administrative Manager being Mr. G. E. Anderson. He was assisted with the
running of the entire estate with the help of "white Overseer"; who
supervised works in the cane fields.
He was succeeded by
Mr. A. E. Bratt in 1920, who, 10 years later, in 1930, was succeeded by Mr. Mr.
R. E. Rodes, who gave way to Mr. Laiwood in 1934. After serving for 11 years,
he was succeeded by Mr. R. H. Barnwell in 1945.
Mr. W. O. B. Rhigden,
who took over in 1951, did not last long, and made way for Mr. Gregory, who,
also after one year at the helm, was superseded by Mr. E. H. Kingston.
Kingston was followed by Mr.
Mr. J. V. Ryder who took over in 1957 and served exactly 10 years before
handing over to Mr. Balford in 1967.
They were all
Administrative Managers of the estate until Mr. Jessel bought over and made
this post extinct, for the work of the Administrative Manager was taken over by
the Personnel Officer. The Overseers have also been relieved and their work was
taken over by locals, who were known as Field Clerks.
As mentioned before,
the labour force on the estate was supplied by indentured labourers who were
brought to the then British Guyana from India and other countries.
Upon arrival on the estate, they were housed in the logies, which were divided
into rooms and given to them. They all lived in one bloc or community on the
estate. Yes, they were estate people.
The accommodation was
so designed to have easy access to the labourers, the majority of whom worked
in the cane fields from dawn to dusk. Also, by having them together, it was
easy to have effective management and control over them.
This kind of
accommodation also offered the immigrants a special incentive in their being
able to see each other as much as it was possible and to solder a social and
To satisfy the
"white man";, whose ambition was to get as much as possible out of
the labourers, it was necessary to secure their health. For this purpose, a
hospital was built in 1868, just next to the sugar factory.
The two-flat building
which had a doctor and dispenser, had accommodated 23 beds for males and 18 for
females on the first floor, while on the upper floor, there was a male ward
with 57 beds.
All food, hospital
clothing and medicine were supplied free by the estate. The hospital was in
operation and maintained until 1968, when it was demolished and the materials
given for the construction of the Leonora Government School, now Leonora Primary School.
Workers now seek
medical attention from the estate's dispensary and the Government Cottage
Their dwelling was
sandwiched between the sugar factory which was to their west and the elaborate
official "white man" compound in which were housed the mansions of
the Administrative Manager, other managers and the overseers, with conditions
par excellence, perhaps missing only the snow they were accustomed to in England.
They were so
positioned to offer ready assistance if anything went wrong in the factory and
which warranted their immediate labour or presence.
And it was from under
the gargantuan saman trees of this "pond," this "garden,"
this "citadel" that the most earth-shaking, exciting and spine
chilling stories were told by the older folks who took turns in the nightly
event which drew larger gather every evening. Indeed it was from under these
trees, that `jumbie', `old hige', Anancy and other stories were being narrated.
It was a nightly
ritual to see the older folks, especially men with their `bottle lamps' and
black tobacco and in some cases jute bags on which they sat, heading under the
trees which were in proximity of their abode.
Children kept their
distance by staying home in the 'logie' seeking sanctuary. Apart from the fear
that would have been driven into them by the stories, it was the general rule
that in those days it was a taboo for children to be seen in the company of the
would even tell you stories about their day's encounter in the backdam. Whether
false or true, when these macabre tales are told, they were enough to drive
fear in the bravest of the brave among the audience.
They would tell
stories about how they confronted the alligator with the golden tooth and the
alligator with the golden crown, and how it was better if one wanted to live,
to stay clear of the canals in which they had been seen.
They would also tell
stories about the dangers of being under the silk cotton tree, especially at noon, because, as legend would have it, it was under those
trees that the Dutch, who once occupied Guyana, loved to roam after
death (Dutch jumbies). They also told gripping stories of `Dutch jumbies'
breaking the necks of children and even adults.
However, they did it,
these story-tellers also had the knack to grip their audience, and indeed
people used to believe.
The women folk, too,
took their turn in the mornings after preparing lunch and doing other chores.
They, however, were involved in a kind of `talk show', for everybody's business
was being discussed. Yes, it was from under those very trees that the private life
of others was being revealed. The women were the judge, jury and executioner,
all in one.
Apart from the estate
location in those days, Leonora was also made up of Groenveldt and pasture.
These two areas stretched mainly along the public road, and away from the sugar
The rest of land that
made up the area of Leonora was used as pastures, rice plots and limited
farmlands. As time went by, the estate allowed some of the labourers to
cultivate rice on the plots and to do limited farming.
But today, things have
changed, and all those rice plots and pastures have made way for housing
schemes which today house offsprings of those very labourers who gave their
lives for `king sugar'.
Today, Leonora is
divided into several areas where there are comfortable houses, streets, potable
water and electricity. Apart from Groenveldt and pasture, there are also Sea
Field, Para Field and Sea Spray, all gracing the beautiful landscape of
Bulging with a
population of mostly youth today, the people freely practise their religion and
cultural preferences without interference.
Unlike the days of
indentureship, today, most of the younger people are urged by their parents to
turn to education. The older people were not keen in those days to educate
their children because of the belief that they could have returned to their
motherland any time. Another important consideration was that they feared their
children would have been doctrinated into Christianity. Not so today. Education
is uppermost in the minds of most of the young people, and some have already
made great achievements.
Guyana Chronicle September
30th. 2001 by M.Z Ali
Bridges, roads and canals are still being maintained to permit
easy transport of canes to Uitvlugt Estate.
AS WE continue on our
journey to Leonora today, it might be useful to give more insights into the
population make-up. This is important because to know Leonora is to know the
"from whence they
Of course, with the
passage of time the population mix of Leonora has changed considerably from
what could be termed the perfect rainbow mix to just one race today.
In 1821 there were 395
slaves on the sugar plantation. This number rose to 430 in 1832. After the
slaves, came the indentured and non-indentured immigrants from Calcutta, Madras, China, Africa and Madeira.
immigrants were the East Indians and Chinese, who at that time numbered about
717. The non-indentured immigrants from Calcutta, Madras, China, Africa and Madeira amounted to 450.
This was the
population at that time that formed the core of the labour force, with the
exception of the Chinese who took to business.
These were the days when the entire plantation was a single unit,
for everyone lived as one big family. But as time passed, everyone became the
creature of the age in which he lived, and the population, that beautiful mix
that was beyond reproach, gradually drifted to other neighbouring districts and
left the area which has since become a predominantly Indo-Guyanese one.
The labour force at
the factory, however, remained multi-racial until its closure. Since the
estate"s closure in 1986, most of the factory workers have gained
employment at Uitvlugt estate and elsewhere, while the field workers were
retained to continue with the harvesting of sugar cane and other field work.
In the 1940"s and
1950"s, Leonora Estate was a classic example of unity in diversity,
especially in the sugar factory and other key areas of operation including the
garage (workshop), the pure water supply system, the electrical and the
maintenance sections among others.
Indeed, it might be
fair to point out that it was during those two decades that the people of
Leonora propelled themselves to the top of the local map with their prowess in
various sport events, politics and their ingenuity in keeping all sections of
the estate"s operations functioning at full capacity.
The people were so
glued to the estate and their tasks, that several initiatives to have them
divorced from the job met with equal resentment, and only death could have
parted them from their "empire."
Yes, this was the
mettle from which the people were made. This was their demonstration of love
and pride for their job that meant everything to them. The sugar estate was
their final bastion.
These were the people,
who, from their homes could tell whether something was going wrong at the
factory only by hearing the fluctuating sounds of the machines instead of the
"soothing rhythm" they were so accustomed hearing day and night.
These were the men, among who were Messrs. Nain Singh, Karmalie,
Merchant, Bisnauth, Beharry, Leander and Hyman. There were also Parker and the
other sea punt men who braved the Atlantic transporting sugar from Leonora to
Georgetown by sea in wooden punts, driven only by sail, until they became
captains of the motor driven barges which later replaced the wooden punts, and
many, many others whose toil and sweat were reflected in the millions of tons
of sugar that were manufactured during their time on the estate.
I will be amiss if I
do not recognize the contribution made by other sections of the work force,
both factory and field and others. They also played important roles, for in the
manufacture of sugar, each operation complements the other. Each had a common
goal foisted upon them by the white man’s ego, and with servile alacrity, they
worked towards realizing that goal.
boys, started working at a very tender age in order to help improve the
economic situation of their parents. They took to what was called the
"creole gang," which was a gang of mainly boys, who fetched earth for
building "stop offs," bail cane punts and those who served as "battu
boys" to white overseers and managers.
boys" were like male servants to their bosses, and their job entailed
cleaning boots, running errands, groom the mules for their bosses and lead and
follow the mules as the case may be, while the bosses ride.
The adult labour force
in the fields were divided into gangs, of which there were many including the
shovel gang, weeding gang, cane cutting gang and jobbing gang, each headed by a
Apart from the cane
cutters, these categories of field workers worked from 6 am to 5 pm daily, with the most
highly paid female worker receiving about $1.50 per week.
prohibited, and agitators were restricted from crossing estate boundary. In
addition no one was allowed to be absent from duty, unless he or she was sick
in hospital or was in prison. All functions were held on Sundays which were
usually non working days.
As times went by,
conditions both in the fields and the logies progressively worsened and field
workers had to drink impure water from the middle walk (canals) in the backdam.
In order to prevent epidemics, workers frequented the hospital at weekends to
swallow their dose of cascara and salts, a mixture that was always plentiful at
So the people toiled
for hours unending, only to come home to their logies, and latrines that were
built across trenches for both men and women. There was no decency in logie
life, but for those people survival was very important, for they knew that no
one has ever deceived the whole world, nor has the whole world ever deceived
silently, they cried silently and they endured silently, but with cautious
optimism, they stuck to their routine day in and day out.
The swelling of the
logie population was beginning to pose a serious problem for the estate"s
authorities, and conditions were getting worse and logie life was, with each
passing day becoming a nightmare.
Trade union and
political leaders, including late President, Dr. Cheddi Jagan soon took up the
workers" fight, and together with local leaders, the struggle had begun in
By this time, several
changes had taken place, and workers had won the right to strike for better
wages and conditions of work or for any grievance they may encounter while
As the struggle for better
working and living conditions intensified, so was the struggle for trade union
recognition, that is, a union of the workers" choice. But the struggles
over the years were not without their toll.
Indeed it was during
the struggle for trade union recognition, that Kowsilla (Alice) was ran over
and killed by an estate tractor in March of 1964. She was among scores of other
stalwarts engaged in a squatting exercise by the factory bridge for recognition
of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers" Union (GAWU) when she was
Others, mainly women,
jumped into the middle walk and elsewhere to avoid being driven over by the
tractor. Many sustained injuries, but the death and injuries were not in vain,
for today the majority of sugar workers are represented by the GAWU, the union
of their choice.
As living conditions
in the logies became increasingly unacceptable, strong representations were
made to the authorities, and after some time, the first housing scheme was
established at Seafield in the 1950"s and the workers were granted loans
from the Sugar Industry Labour Welfare Fund (SILWF), and for the first time the
dismantling of the logies started at Leonora.
Housing schemes were
also established at Para Field and Pasture, all in Leonora, and also in
neighbouring Stewartville to accommodate some of the logie people from Leonora.
While most of the
older people who have built these houses have already died, the houses are now
taken over by their children and in some case their grand children.
For them, it is just
getting it on the "silver platter." But they are proud to be the
offsprings of those fighters who gave their entire lives to satisfy the while man’s
Has Leonora lost its
Glamour? For me it is now GOLDEN MEMORIES AND SILVER TEARS.
Bong Coolie- Poonith
By Kenneth Ramchand
Bong Coolie - Poonith:
A History of
Bonne Aventure Estate from Amerindian Occupation to Slavery to the East Indian
Diaspora as exemplified by a Bong Coolie, Poonith, Xlv,275 pages, 2013. Privately published Leila Jailal. Printed in
Trinidad by Eniath’s Printing Company Limited.
A Bong Coolie-Poonith (2013) by
the late Harold Phekoo (1940-2012) is a
well-researched work put together in an unorthodox and surprisingly effective
way. Covering ground similar to V.S.Naipaul’s fictional work A House for Mr
Biswas (1962), it tells the history
of an indentured Indian and his descendants over three generations from 1885 to
the 1960’s. This family’s history is presented along with and within the
history and evolution of Bonne Aventure (close to Gasparillo in the county of
Victoria) from the Amerindian period
right down to the 1960’s, the history and evolution of family and village
reflecting in many ways the history and evolution of Trinidad itself.
The focus is on
Poonith and his descendants, and his historical ‘coolie’ identity is proclaimed
without shame or embarrassment. By the end, the ‘ordinary’ Poonith comes over
as an extraordinary person and a representative figure.
The book is a virtual museum of the religion, folk
culture, social and economic arrangements, domestic life and household artefacts
of the Indians of Trinidad in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the
first half of the twentieth. It is not a static museum of dead people, customs
and objects however. It is alive and
moving, and its displays adjust
themselves to register change and
adaptation, and the results of the meeting of cultures.
Of special interest
is its capture of the part that song, dance, music and performance played in
the life of the Indians, and what music
meant to the indentures. It contains valuable
references to and descriptions of the music of Indian Trinidad and its sources.
The work is an
interesting example of oral history and of
community history. It is told in bits and pieces by members of the community about the daily
life of the community. The author does
not use the actual words of his informants to any great extent. He stitches
together in his voice the things he has been told. Where he can, he verifies
his oral information by checking official records. When the author died, it was
left to other members of the community
to come together and complete the work. Great value is added to the book by the
inclusion of a number of rare photographs, some of which have never been
This article is
broken up into seven separate parts to facilitate reading. The quotations may
be skipped but they are inserted for those who may never read the book or for
those who want to get the flavour of the book while reading one person’s
interpretation or commentary.
I. Overview of the life of Poonith
constructed the life of Poonith out of oral sources, mainly old people in the
village and in the family who knew or
knew of Poonith. His main informant was his youngest uncle Nackchadee also
called Gocool. The construction is quite a feat when you consider that Poonith
left nothing in writing and nobody ever wrote anything about him as far as is
came to Trinidad as an indentured labourer on the Clipper ship Brenda in
1885. “At Pointe-a-Pierre Railway
Station three mule carts arrived to take us to the Bonne Aventure Estate. The
sun was already moving to the west and we were subjected to the sweltering
heat. We all hopped on to the carts, each of us sitting in two rows of four
facing each other. We were like prisoners devoid of rights and feelings with
nothing to say to each other except to be subservient and to comply with our
twenty-seven year old Poonith was allocated to Bonne Aventure Estate. After
serving out his indenture he attached himself to the Estate as a worker,
choosing never to live or work anywhere but in Bonne Aventure. He worked as a
field labourer until a happy accident (for him) gave him an opportunity to show his skill in handling horses. This led to
his being pressed into service at the Manager’s House as “horseman, trainer, buggy driver, and
caretaker of the harnesses and buggy”. He had brought this talent from his work
of grazing cattle and horses for the wealthy land-owners in his Indian village
His main place of work in Trinidad was at the Manager’s/Owner’s Grand House set
in a well-ordered five acre plot on the corner of Aladdin Trace and Bonne
Aventure Main Road. Poonith enjoyed the great house and its extensive grounds.
He got to understand the networking of the planter families as he drove the
buggy taking them on shopping trips to San Fernando, on visits to other
estates, and to parties where the butler and the cook made sure that domestics had their tots of alcohol and food
from the party.
Poonith loved most of all, to take the boss and his family
on shopping trips to San Fernando where they spent most of the day replenishing
the household domestic and other supplies and delighted in taking them to
suppliers and merchants at the San Fernando Wharves, High Street and Mucurapo
Street. It was also the profoundest of pleasures to take the Manager’s family
on inter estate visits. Most of the Planters maintained a system of friendship
through social networking. One of the Planters by prior arrangement would host
all the Planters from the surrounding estates as well as specially invited
guests to a grand afternoon party generally held on a Sunday afternoon with
music, dancing, drinking, merrymaking and feasting very often late into the
night. These parties, according to my grandfather, would have touches and characteristics of the nationality of the
host. For example, the proprietor of Madion Estate was of
French origin and his party was famous for a wide variety of French cuisine and
cheeses; one cheese Poonith tasted for the first time in his life was called
“rotten cheese” or gorgonzola served with pieces of bread called a French Stick
with the famous French wine, Beaujolais. The music would be dominated by the
accordion. The owner of the Harmony Hall Estate was English and his party had
tinges of English characteristics. The Manager of the Williamsville Estate was
Scottish and his party was the wildest of them all with music supplied by bag
pipes accompanied by the finest of Highland folk dancing and believe it, the drink was the “wee dram”
of Scottish whiskey.
In these wild parties there was good evidence to believe that wife swapping,
lesbianism and homosexuality were all part of the life styles of some of the
elites. While the masters and mistresses were busy frolicking, the buggy men
joined with the domestics, the butler and the cook and also had a small party
of our own. Although alcoholic beverages were strictly tabooed, with the cunning of the cook and the butler, we were able to have a couple of tots and some of the Master’s
food followed through their own styles of merrymaking. (p.116)
his son who took over the job of buggyman later, Poonith was neither
intimidated by the planter life-styles
nor stirred to imitation. The move from the fields to the Grand House
did not bring an increase in earnings. When he retired medically unfit in 1915
he owned only what frugality had allowed him to purchase. There was no pension
or golden send-off except that his job
was passed on to his oldest son Phekoo. (p.117)
there was a house for Mr Poonith. In 1888, Poonith put an end to the horrors of
barrackroom life by building, with the help and
blessings of the Shivanarayanee Sect to which he belonged, his own tapia
and grass-covered ajoupa that would “create a peaceful private space of his own
in which he could live peacefully, joyfully and lovingly.” (102-103) The ajoupa
blended naturally with the surrounding green and became the seat of the Poonith
extended family. Poonith was the centre. He reigned as patriarch. He decided
the menu, made policy, and imposed order and degree. As holder of the memories
of the tribe, story-teller and entertainer up to the 1930’s, he gathered them
around him often.
Evening pastimes and entertainment centered on Poonith himself who
would talk about his upbringing. He was schooled in an oral tradition
which placed much emphasis on verbal communication, singing, dancing and storytelling all of which required amazing memory and
powers of recall. Story telling time took place mainly on evenings just before
bedtime and particularly during periods of inclement weather which curtailed
outdoor activities. Poonith kept his family entertained by enacting favorite
family kahanies or stories which were passed on to him through a long line
involving generation after generation from times immemorial. These stories had
a rich variable flavor involving music, singing and dancing, humor, stories of deep historical, moral and ethical significance – all intended to set the pace of
acceptable family behavior. p.164
spent his last moment in the presence of his extended family. The final Samskar
was performed by the Shivnarayanee Mahant . The eldest son Phekoo was chief mourner. The funeral was a
grand Shivanarayanee affair conducted with due solemnity; and the life of the departed was celebrated with tassa drumming, singing and dancing.
(See p. 199-200 )
(The argument here is that Poonith’s success is not a materialistic one)
knew that he was being taken advantage of by his employers, but this did not
affect the thoroughness with which he performed what he regarded as his duty.
According to Harold, Poonith approached his work “through the enterprising
spirit of ‘seva’ , service to fellow human beings, not for reward or for
recognition but for its own sake …” (p.161). From the reports of his youngest uncle Nackchadee, Harold saw
that Poonith lived in the certain knowledge that “extra powers are in the mind
of man”; held the conviction that suffering in the world is unchanging; and lived the belief
that pain and suffering are a passage to illumination:
He was convinced that life has meaning under all circumstances,
even the most miserable one. The little freedom he possessed was to find
meaning in doing whatever he was asked and whatever he experienced in the light
of unchangeable suffering. Poonith found the meaning of life by doing his daily task, by experiencing the value of the nature
of his work through pain and suffering. He found that through the medium of
pain he was able to dwell in the “within” where there was a store house of
relief in coping with the drudgery of work on an ongoing basis. (p.162)
The success Harold is celebrating is not the success of
someone who pursued money power and the love of women. It is a spiritual success, one deeply
conditioned by ancestral religion and philosophy.
the death of Poonith, the extended family broke up into nuclear families in
response to social change; the next two generations as represented by Phekoo
and then his son Harold are discussed.)
seventy-five years later about the funeral of his grandfather, Harold ruefully
observes: “The ritualistic practices of celebrating samskars and all the
traditional pujas exist even at this moment but are enacted as family
conventions sometimes devoid of meaning to younger Hindus, as they are not very
well explained by officiating priests or Mahants.”
the death of Poonith, Phekoo became head of the extended family: “My grandfather had passed away in 1933 and for the first time
Father had to shoulder the full responsibility of conducting his own affairs.
Grandfather had carved out a template for survival and unhesitatingly passed on
worthwhile techniques for survival to his sons.”p.213. The second part of the
book from chapter 36 to chapter 41 covers the second generation and
centres on Phekoo’s family. Harold’s descriptions of his father Phekoo’s
lifestyles and activities are based largely upon his own experience of Phekoo
as father, food crop farmer, canefarmer, coconut grower and entrepreneur. They
show Pekhoo as a descendant continuing the family traditions but a descendant
who cannot and perhaps does not want to resist change; and who, in any case,
does not have the cultural self-confidence of Poonith and the clarity about his
identity to negotiate on equal terms with change.
the family grew, people in Poonith’s small house began to get in one another’s
way and on one another’s nerves. After the patriarch’s death, the deteriorating house was not repaired or
preserved. As nuclear families began to break out in the area, the idea of
using the savings accrued from living in the extended family to branch out on
their own entered the minds of Poonith’s sons. (201) When, with the cooperation
of his brothers, and in keeping with the dictates of Poonith himself, Pheeko moved into his unique
wooden house in Marjadsingh’s Lands in 1939, it was confirmation that Poonith’s
family were ready to accept a change from the old way. They would respect what
their father’s establishment had done for them, and maintain kinship ties but
without all living in the same house or on the same compound. Harold cites frequent visits, consultations on important
matters, help in the planting and reaping of crops, and financial cooperation.
Poonith had been an elder of the
Shivanarayanee Sect, a democratized form of Hinduism he had followed in Rownia
that used the teachings of Guru Anyas “as a guide to becoming individuals of
repute irrespective of caste distinctions and status in life”. Phekoo stayed
with the sect in his fashion, but time was now secular, it was moving faster
than in the old days and religion did not necessarily mean spirituality.
Phekoo took on the role of story-teller
to the family but his audience was not the extended family and there was no
ritually-appointed time and place as in the days of the patriarch. He adhered to Poonith’s belief in the arranged
marriage, but was more absorbed in the marriages of his three
daughters than in those of his sons. There is nothing in the weddings of
Phekoo’s children to match the joy of
the marriage of Poonith’s youngest son Nackchadee in 1926. Harold’s mother
Mahadaya told him about the maticoor with Shivanaraynee ladies singing and
dancing Bhojpuri songs. Ironically, it was Phekoo who told Harold about that
joyful day for the family and the community:
Scenes were enacted against specially prepared props and the
play was called the Raja Harrischandra Dance. They portrayed snapshots of real
life situations such as courtship, marriage and life thereafter. The actors
hailed from a diverse background of the descendants of street performers in the
Indian tradition and included actors specially noted for their specific skills
in singing, dancing, musical abilities and talents such as juggling and
Costuming was carefully designed and the choreographer used
a blaze of color to effect stage presentations to fit the expectations of the
pleasure of the audience.
Singing and musical presentations represented the soul of
Indian culture which witnessed interesting variations in styles of
presentation. The setting of the play was typical as the bride and groom were
the representative king and queen, resident in their palace. It was the duty of
the artistes to entertain them in their domain amidst invited guests. The
messages of each scene were directly conveyed through the complexity of voice
intonation, mudras, singing and dancing with added colourful facial make up.
The opening scene depicted the bride groom on his horse
entering the village amidst a fanfare of shehnai music. After all the due
ritualistic welcoming of the bridegroom by the host the bridegroom refused to
alight from his horse and in the flamboyance of a cow boy style the queen’s
brother skilfully roped him off his horse which was a source of great laughter
amongst the receptive audience.
For the scene which depicted the consummation of the
marriage, instead of the groom leading off the circumnabulation
of the sacred fire in a clock wise direction,
he commenced in a
reverse fashion moving backwards.
One other scene which grasped my childhood memory was the
one in which the bride was an expectant mother.
Amidst the splendor
of Bangra music and dancing there was the symbolic honoring of the new arrival
of “pota” presumably a boy child and with prayers of a safe delivery, gifts were given. The arrival of a baby boy was portrayed as Lord
Krishna with special mythical powers that were able to inflict just punishment
to those who victimized their parents.
As a brief comment on the style of presentation, it was not
typical of any one Indian traditional style but a combination of Odissi,
Manipuri, Kathak, Bharathnatyam and many more mudras with costume styling taken from renowned folk performances. (156-157)
Of the boys’ weddings, only Chautee’s
had the ceremony, solemnity, display, drumming, dancing and singing as of yore
(p.218). But that marriage came to a bad end. The other sons had small family-
sized table weddings; and one of them got married at the Registry office in San
Fernando. Harold returned from England in 1981 without his four children and
Sylvia Ragoo with whom he had what he calls an “association”.
The world was changing fast. Harold
observes without criticizing that Phekoo was moving up: “In hindsight, the exposure he gained by being in the
company of the circle of elitist Planters served him in good stead along the
road to prosperity. He grew to become one of the larger cane farmers with
superb managerial skills and a dogged love for the soil and hard work. I have
seen Father’s overflowing joy when at the beginning of the crop time he would
plough his fields and allow the sun to roast the soil free of all harmful
insects, termites etc and upon arrival of the April showers the soil gave off
the richest of aromas intoxicating enough to make Father dance with the glee of
immense joy shouting; ‘I love the smell of the soil’’. (p.204)
Everything hasn’t changed but Phekoo is
the new man. In the nuclear family,
Harold did not thrive on the way the new
economic man fathered him. Harold is only
saved from the food crop business because his mother reminds Phekoo that
Poonith left instructions that all his grandchildren should be sent to school.
Two of his sons had disappointed Phekoo as regards education. Harold only got
Phekoo’s permission to go to secondary
school when the boy was able to show that he could help to pay his way.
The mobile Phekoo is a successful food
crop producer; a big cane farmer, and
the best copra producer of 1942. It is not for nothing that he was
“selected by his peers as a model entrepreneur in our village”. (207) Although
Phekoo is as resolute as his father in the pursuit of his goals, he tastes a different kind of success from
his father and he pays a human price. Harold tries to be cool in his
Phekoo’s lifestyle can be described as
puritanical which took its cue from being employed as a buggy driver…Being
absorbed in service of his masters, he was therefore not free like others in
the village to take part either in hunting , fishing, bird –catching or
gambling.He did not even have the time to join the local cricket club, or do
like his father who grew his own ganja or marijuana and smoked his pipes
The third section runs from Chapter 42
to the end of the book and presents the third generation,
not a family this time but Phekoo’s
individualized son Harold. Chapter 42
describes Harold’s childhood; his years at Bonne Aventure CM School;
some of the self-seeking of the better off Presbyterians; and the
secondary school education he was determined to get : “I was conditioned into
believing in myself and at the back of my mind I knew that the canefield was
patiently awaiting my return.” He was cheated of a chance to go to Naparima
College so he had to go to a College that was less hallowed. He left Kenley College to benefit from the
teaching skills of Mr Parray Ramnarine who was just starting his St John’s
College in San Fernando. At the end of this chapter, Harold age 21 is turning
his back on the canefields and waving
goodbye to family and friends.
Frustrated by bleak economic prospects,
and with a thirst for learning and for England
inspired by Parray Ramnarine he
made his journey to an expectation on a Dutch cargo/passenger vessel ‘The
Prince of the Netherlands’. He had as sole
jahaji a Mr Bachan Boodram who
had been a fellow student at Mr Ramnarine’s
St John’s College. Harold summarises his activities in England thus in
the last sentence of Chapter 42: “I worked slowly and progressively into
becoming a business entrepreneur.”
The story as story really ends in this Chapter. The book
tells us little or nothing about
Harold’s life in England or about what he calls his “association” with Sylvia
Ragoo with whom he had four children. Harold returned to Trinidad in 1981, met
Leila Jailal in 1982, and they went into a meat business in Couva in 1983 from
which he retired in 1999. There are no
references to the death or funeral of Phekoo or to Harold’s business
activities. It is likely that he was gathering material for this book and he
appears to have written some poems. He visited Mr Ramnarine,in 2010 and about
the same time he found a number of valuable documents including Phekoo’s
tenancy agreement of 1956 with St Madeleine Sugar Company and Poonith’s
Colonial immigration form and his Certificate (“free paper”?) dated July 18,
1885. There is nothing else about his life between 1982 and the time of his
death. Would Harold have gone into all this if he had lived or did he decide on
his subject, settle on his title
and determine to stick to that?
IV. All that History
The history of Bonne Aventure in general and of the Indians in Bonne
Aventure. This is not a dry as dust section. As part of the history it shows
the travails of the Indians and the institutions - social, cultural and
religious that held them together. Poonith and his immediate descendants are
active in this chapter.)
Harold tells us that the idea of the book came to him when he was twelve years old
(which was in 1952). In the Acknowledgements, he gives thanks for “the gift” of
kidney failure which offered him a last chance to set about “resurrecting that
childhood dream of mine which was to uncover my genealogy and most importantly
the historical growth and development of Lavantee or Bonne Aventure where I was
born”.(p.3) [Note the word 'resurrect', which comes into play when Harold's
reasons for going over Poonith's life are speculated upon]
He knew there were special difficulties in writing a history
of Bonne Aventure, and that the work would take long : “The community of Bonne Aventure belonged to an oral tradition with
no written documentation of its historical past. This publication consists of
individualized accounts rendered by many senior citizens giving intricate
details of over two hundred years of the history of Lavantee and Bonne Aventure
and its environs.” (p.3) [Note: ‘Lavantee’ is probably related to Old
French ‘eventer’ meaning to let out or
expose to air hence, for us, ‘opening’
or ‘prospect’. The name ‘Bonne Aventure’ given by Lewis Pantin who established
the estate in the early 1800’s can be said to retain the sense of the original
It would be difficult enough
to write the history of what was really an obscure village. It would be harder still because Harold
wanted the work to reflect a discovery he had
made in putting together the intricate
account of Poonith’s life: “What was most interesting was that his life story influenced at
the core and revealed or uncovered in a unique way the very history of Bonne
Aventure and its environs. In other words, Poonith’s daily
activities became history itself.” (
Harold naturally formed strong bonds
with the Bonne Aventure into which he was born
and he found that Poonith’s arranged marriage to it, as it were, had led
to a lasting love. It is true that to the end Poonith nursed a dream to make a fleeting return to
Rownia, the village of his birth, but
“Poonith developed a special love for Bonne Aventure. He felt within his
psyche the vibrations of the past , the tamasha of the present and the
promising future. He became attached by family ties , the availability of work
and the development of fibrous roots which bound him fixedly to Lavantee” p.
surprisingly, therefore, thirty-five of the forty-nine chapters are about the work and life of Poonith in the matrix of the Bonne
Aventure Estate and the village of Bonne Aventure. Even when we are focused on
Poonith, we are never allowed to forget Bonne Aventure. The longest chapter by
far in the book is Chapter 11 ‘History
of Lavantee and the Bonne Aventure Estate.’
Incidentally, Harold drops this chapter into the book when we are not
looking for it.
is how it happens. In Chapter 10, the indentureds are about to commence their
first day’s work on the Bonne Aventure Estate. They feel something in the air,
in the quality of light, in the clouds:
As we gazed around we observed that the sun was just about to peep
out of an overcast sky. It was wet and damp and there was a strange, uncomfortable feeling which engulfed us. There was an unusual stillness
and the sugar cane field stood silently like soldiers awaiting the next
command. In the distant fields there were a few isolated coconut palm trees,
evidence of sugar diversification. They were heavily laden and offered us a
moment’s silence before we commenced our tasks. Such silence was occasionally
broken by the barking and howling of dogs and immediately above our heads were
a flock of parrots speaking with one another on their way to their feeding
leaves the indentureds right there holding their brushing cutlasses and crooksticks
in the midst of portents, while he presents the long Chapter 11 which
concentrates on Bonne Aventure as village and estate. Bonne
Aventure and its environs are not detachable from the whole region
of estates stretching in all directions from the Gulf and
Pointe-a-Pierre reaching across the Churchill Roosevelt Highway and
including more estates up to Bonne Aventure. Harold does not expand on it
sufficiently perhaps, but the history of Bonne Aventure and the surrounding
cane-lands is strongly affected by the encroachment of
oil upon sugar and the impacts upon people and place of the refining
operations spreading outwards from Pointe-a-Pierre in the early decades of the
research into the history of Bonne Aventure and its environs is painstaking,
comprehensive, and in general reliable. All the social cultural and
political changes are covered including changes in patterns of settlement, the shifts in the
distribution of religions, and the tensions between free Africans and the Indians
who were being used to deny them better wages and working conditions.
the evidence that came to him, Harold saw a great positive in the African
presence for the meeting of cultures and the making of Bonne Aventure: “Within the community of Bonne Aventure, the African slaves
represented a potent force drawing from their multi- faceted traditional
cultures which tightly meshed with the Carnival spirit. They had within their
culture the age old traditions of moving in circles with their colorful costumes and indigenous masks. Circulating
through villages had a religious significance mainly to bring good fortune, healing to their pressing problems of famine and drought, and to appease the spirit of the dead in helping in the transition
to a better world.
“ p. 186
history of Bonne Aventure written by Harold suggests that this village
experienced the meeting of peoples and cultures which is the Trinidad
In his Introduction p.xliii-xlv, the late
Parray Ramnarine praised this aspect of the book: “Harold wanted to tell the untold stories about all our peoples
and all of us. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, East Indians, Africans, Chinese and
all else. He wanted to show us the full picture of life at those times of which
he writes , and about how we have travelled up to this point in time.”
chapter on Bonne Aventure includes a
subsection on the ‘History of Education
in Bonne Aventure’: a general account of the provision of primary education
informed by Harold’s revolutionary belief that the primary school is the base
and foundation of the education system and the only guarantee of a just and
democratic society; an appreciative but critically measured account of the
Presbyterian mission of educating Indians at a time when nobody seems to have
thought it necessary; and a tribute to
the Bonne Aventure CM School for the role it played in a process that produced
such fine fruit even though its favouritism towards the children of elders and
members of the Church (232) denied him
the opportunity to attend Naparima College:
The influence of the school was felt
throughout the village and transformed the community of mainly sugarcane
peasants and small contract farmers into a society of young
entrepreneurs, nurtured by dedicated teachers. . The school recorded a movement
of upward social mobility in the personalities of teachers, nurses, doctors,
lawyers, tradesmen, politicians, entrepreneurs; men and women who became the
foundation of nation building. (74)
another sub-section, ‘The Hindus in Bonne Aventure’, there is a realistic
assessment of the challenges to identity and religion faced by young Hindus. The Shivanarayanee Sect that
Poonith belonged to was in the majority in Bonne Aventure in the days of
Poonith (its head was a member of the panchayat), and there was no stigma
attached to Kali worship. The Sect lost ground as Hindus became better off and
more anxious to seem respectable. At a certain point Poonith’s son made open
declaration that he was not going to make sacrifices to Kali anymore. Harold
writes about “the slow loss of religion and culture among the Hindus,
about the revival that took place (incidentally pushing Shiva Narayanee to the
fringe), and about more recent challenges by more aggressive and evangelical
Christian sects. There is no hatred in this, only encouragement to Hindus to
see that you did not have to shed your religion to take part as an equal member
in the social, economic and political process. (79)
acknowledges the help given by the planters to the Presbyterian mission
but in this chapter as throughout the
book he finds the planters flouting the indenture agreements to squeeze more
time out of the workers, and to pay
them less money. They seem to have
discouraged remittances to family in India and did their best to prevent too
many immigrants from leaving for India at the same time. They schemed to settle Indians on nearby plots of
land in order to encourage them to form attachments and develop roots so that
they would not move to other estates or claim their return passages when the
time came. This policy took its grossest
form with the opening up of what the Indians called Dangla Bangar “the road or way to derelict or unwanted
lands” where the poor were doomed to
appalling slum existence:
It was located in the vicinity of the animal pens which housed
bison and mules. It was also used by the Bonne Aventure Estate to dump the
carcasses of dead animals. This area,
located at the foot
of the Caratal Hills, was lightly covered with black sage and
guava trees interspersed with thick patches of needle grass with heavier wood
patches in the valley areas. Agriculturally, this area was of little or no
value to the Estate as the soil cover was thin, sandy in composition and acidic
and not aptly suited for the cultivation of sugar cane or general gardening .
was in Dangla Bangar, however, that Poonith’s Shivanarayanee Sect was based,
and it was here that, with their help and blessing, he built his tapia
house in 1898.
follows up the history of Bonne Aventure with Chapter 12 entitled ‘Problems
Experienced by the Indentureds on the Bonne Aventure Estate’. It was close to a declaration of
the need for political action and it reminds us that there were rumblings from
the indentureds, that the way was being prepared for political action.
Harold does not connect all of this to the Muharram Massacre or Hosay Riots of
1884 and he does not register the formation of the East Indian National Association
in Princes Town (1898) or the East Indian National Congress in Couva
after that. It would have been interesting to know how the people of
Bonne Aventure felt about such developments. But one of the philosophies in the
book is to recognize your blessings, and Harold makes no bones about the
achievements of Indians and their
contributions to the development
of Bonne Aventure:
The East Indians labored and contributed substantially to the
growth and development of Bonne Aventure. By sheer numbers they were responsible
for increased demand and they were innovative in a variety of ways such as in
the growing of food and devising the necessary wherewithal, such as tools and
equipment, necessary for survival in the
process of tilling the land. Many became small cane farmers, businessmen,
merchants and shop keepers. They became self sufficient in the production of
rice which they considered as the safest form of insurance against hunger.
Poonith remarked that once rice was available
it was not too difficult to find some “talkari” even though it was bhagee .
turns directly to the social
institutions of Bonne Aventure in Chapter 25 ‘Money Lending in Bonne Aventure’
,Chapter 24 ‘Child Labour in the Bonne
Aventure Estate’, Chapter 23 ‘Child Marriages’ and Chapter 22 ‘The Panchayat
System in Bonne Aventure’. This chapter includes a description of the
‘chaupal’, a regular forum and gathering of all villagers, “the founding
bedrock for the functioning of grass –root democracy”, and an oral database for
the collecting and transmission of
technical information and news.
titles of these chapters might frighten off a reader who is looking for story,
but story is what you get when you read them, for in these accounts Phekoo
invariably shows the Poonith family or other individuals involved with the
institutions. Poonith used the chaupal with good results as “a Vivah Sabha or a
marriage mart to announce to the public his intention to get his granddaughter
married.” And the Poonith family’s involvement animates Phekoo’s description of
the panchayat which was vibrant in Poonith’s day.
book is at pains to inform us that these institutions were in
existence in the India from which the emigrants came, and in their new place
they functioned to hold the Indians together as families and as members of a
community. This was crucial in a society that made no concession to their
customs and traditions, and for a long time gave them no access to political
power, influence or equal opportunity.
book provides some telling instances of the subscribing of the Poonith family
to the moral authority and the power of
which was vibrant in early Bonne Aventure. Poonith’s oldest son,
Phekoo was hauled before the Panchayat for having “an extra marital affair with
Nassiban who was the daughter of an orthodox Islamic family and who bore him a
son. The child was sent to his father, and my mother, Mahadayah, wife of Phekoo
who willingly took care of the child for a while. Nassiban was unable to
withstand the anguish of being separated from her child; she defied her family
and reclaimed her child. Nassiban’s father referred this matter to the
Panchayat, and Phekoo was ordered to pay a child support fee of one dollar per
month.” (131) This compressed little story
is one of several in Harold’s book that offer us intimate and tantalizing cross-sections of life in Bonne Aventure.
The panchayat seems to have been flexible. Poonith’s wife
had died in childbirth in 1910. In 1913 the panchayat agreed to his marriage
to a widow identified in the book
as "Etwaria’s mother".
In another case they conducted
professionally and with humanitarian concern a long discussion on the pros
and cons of child marriage . The panchayat was considering the application
of Poonith to marry his first two sons
to two sisters from an impoverished family. “Taking into account the homeless
plight of Mahadaya and Sahadaya, the fact that they were left with one
ailing parent, and the fact that Poonith was willing to adopt the girls as
virtually his own daughters, the Panchayat voted in favour of the children’s
marriages in this case.” (136)
Just as significant for our
understanding of how important the transferred institutions were for the
development of the indentures and their descendants, we notice that in 1910 the panchayat held a
major debate (139-143): "Be it resolved that East Indian parents should be
encouraged to send their children to
school instead of joining the Child Labour gang of the Bonne Aventure
Estate". Such child gangs were common in the period of slavery. A
representative of the estate defended the continuation of the practice on the
ground that “the owner had a social, moral and ethical responsibility to create
and maintain full employment for all his employees”. Harold lets us know that
Mrs Sheldon the wife of the estate manager was a member of the panchayat by
invitation. To the surprise of many, she supported the motion, doing so with
wit, liveliness and sound reasoning. Mr Bedaysee represented the views of parents with passion and analytic rigour.
The matter had been brought to the
panchayat by Poonith’s youngest son Nackchadee who, in the closing
contribution, called for the drawing up of a charter of children’s rights and freedoms. By
a brilliant stroke, Naka put the fear of slavery among the audience. He read,
one after the other, without comment a
notice of 1833 offering a reward for the recapture of runaway slaves and a
recent one of 1910 for the capture of two runaway Indian labourers. The panch
had no hesitation in adopting the motion.
V. All the Aeons
(the drift of this section is
indicated in its first three lines)
Harold’s book is an attempt to present history, its ‘history’ is allowed to
proceed in the shadow of a humbling and liberating consciousness of Time or
Eternity. History is virtually displaced by Time.
Bong Coolie- Poonith tells us a lot about its own time
and it is palpably rooted in a particular place whose features are presented to
us with precision and with realistic
descriptions. But it often reads like a book steeped in several ages or aeons.
account of Bonne Aventure’s development begins with the Amerindians and
proceeds to a careful survey of all the peoples who came: why, when, what they did, and where they went. Harold describes this in
such a way that you feel Bonne Aventure with its meeting of peoples and
cultures is a code word for Trinidad.
symbolic dimensions open up. The cruel exploitation in quick succession of
Amerindians, Africans, and Indians is recounted, and before you can figure it
out you are not responding to Bonne Aventure or to imperialist exploitation alone
but to something almost unchangeable - a
ubiquitous landscape of pain and suffering. I don’t know if Harold intended
this but no author would want to deny the interesting things that a good reader
finds in his book. At its best this is
for me a book about presences - in the air, under the ground, and in the
consciousness of men and women: the sweat of labouring Indians dripping down to
mix with the bones of slaves already
kneaded by time into the bones of the Amerindians, victims of the first and most
comprehensive genocide in recorded history. Their dust shining in the sun. In
the sky the voices of the parrots, birds reputed to host the dead, voices from
the future and the past, sweeping over the heads of the indentureds on their
first day in the killing fields. The footfall of the Amerindians whose tracks
were used to penetrate to the secrets of the country and which underlie the
layers of bridle paths and roads that came later. The free Africans passing in
and out of the plantation as casual labour, or secreting themselves in the
surrounding Crown lands as squatters,
their drums reaching out in the night. And Rownia too. In Rownia, Poonith had slaved, herding cows and horses
for the rich, and in Kolkata he experienced slum life as horrific as in the
barracks and Dangla Bangar. One of the effects of Harold’s account of Poonith’s
growing up in Rownia is to make the village another one of the places of pain
and suffering on earth and in history.
whole area in Harold’s account is replete with all the aeons, ghosts of all
times and places, a landscape of pain and suffering, intimating to the
indentures that it was always so and will always be so. In passing through the
pain and the suffering they will find and make
VI . Harold as Agent and Vessel
(Harold was a poet and some of the
inspiration for his book came to him from unidentifiable sources. It is argued
that Harold came to get the feel of Poonith so completely that at times he is
Harold’s book is a demonstration of the importance of oral history in countries
like ours. In Chapter 46 he lists his sources and explains what each
person in their life and in their report
contributed to the making of the book. He depends upon oral sources to give
focus and immediacy to his recap of the history of Bonne Aventure and its
environs and to bring Poonith into our consciousness.
Harold wrote that “Poonith’s daily
activities became history itself.” When you see how much the live sources contribute to the book, you
realize that this is not just oral
history stitched together by the industry of one man. This is community history
lived and told by the community. Harold is not simply an individual author writing a book. He
is an agent of the community who share
in the making of the history and the writing of it.
The idea of agency is far-reaching, and that is what I want to look at now.
The poems in the book are crucial to the meaning and value of the
book. When you read them you realize that Harold had one of the prime
capacities of the artist. He was a vessel chosen to receive inspiration. The sources
Harold used to make up his book are identified by the researcher. But
there is more in it than that. I think that in groping for Poonith’s story
Harold was guided by voices that entered
his head from unidentifiable sources. The same voices that inspired the
Poonith was seven years dead when
Harold was born. He never knew the living Poonith. Harold’s father Phekoo was
an important source not only for things
Poonith might have said or done but also for conveying impressions of the one
whose place he took as head of the extended family.But the main informant was
his uncle Nackchadee, Nacka, sometimes called Gocool (1907- 1995) who appears
to have listened to Poonith, studied him, and remembered more about him than
anybody else. It is Nackchadee’s reportage that allows Harold to work out
Poonith’s way of seeing himself in the world:
Poonith left a verbal legacy of the seeds of life’s experiences
with his family and this was patiently communicated to his youngest son
Nackchadee. From day one, it was the ambition of Poonith to transform himself
to do well in the light of pervading difficult circumstances. He took his cue
from the goldmine of India’s spiritual heritage of re programming the human
character. This he accomplished mainly through the concept of “Sadhana”,188 persistent effort in attaining a
specific goal. This idea was used individually to purge his weaknesses and
vices which were likely to interfere with imbibing correct human values
irrespective of “prarabhda”, inherited conditions and tendencies, Purushartha189 that is, effort to take care of one’s thoughts followed by actions
taking care of themselves. The principle follows that through thoughts you can
sow an action and reap a tendency; from a tendency a habit in which the seeds
are sown for character building and reap a destiny. It followed that destiny
was of one’s own creation. p. 161
Neither of these informants tried to
reproduce Poonith’s speech so we don’t know when he spoke bhojpuri or when he
spoke a form of English and how mixed the two became. Harold is careful not to
attempt to put Phekoo before us in the way a novelist would create a character.
Harold got the facts but more than that he got the feel of Poonith. The bits
and pieces of identifiable information Harold
received were digested and fused with whatever came from the fusion of
facts and material from unidentifiable sources. The process turned
Harold into Poonith when he was writing
about Poonith. This may not have been cultivated or even noticed by
Harold. Harold impersonated Poonith quite deliberately in some of the poems,
where the poet or person speaking is Poonith. But there is more than
impersonation at stake. It is as if the seeds and germs that entered Harold
grew a Poonith inside Harold and the grandson who came to know the
Poonith he had never met better than any of those who actually knew
him. He knew what Poonith would think
and feel, he understood Poonith’s religious and philosophical views. At
certain moments in the book, often without knowing it, Harold is Poonith.
VII. Till I Collect
(Harold’s putting together of the
book happened at a time when he needed to find himself. Writing and
learning about Poonith was a voyage of self-discovery.)
In an email of May 28, 2013 Leila Jailal wrote in response to a general query
about Harold and Phekoo that Harold
“always said his father was a
generous person to family members and villagers but not to children”. She also
reported that he “talked about his admiration for Poonith and was curious about
the family he left behind in India, and in his research found out that he has a
grandson in India but very old and weak”, now most likely dead.
Parray Ramnarine saw that the book
was as much about Harold as about Poonith . He says perceptively in
his Introduction that “the one distinguished and most significant feature
is a passionate spirit that seeks perfection in thought, word and deed.” We see
that in Harold’s poems.
It is not speculation that young Harold
was on the lookout for mentors. At Bonne Aventure CM School he looked up to the
highly evolved Mr Narinesingh: “He was a
gentleman of the highest order; he came from Hindu background and was closest
to the pulse of the ordinary folk in the village. He was very much acquainted
with the trials and tribulations of his students, their Hindu beliefs and
practices and in particular the crossover issues which we Hindus and Moslems
were confronted with in the process of attending a Presbyterian School whose
aims and aspirations were concentrated indirectly on conversion. He had an in
depth understanding of our poverty, deprivation, poor housing conditions and
all the social and psychological ills and in particular the wishes of Hindu
parents which bedevilled us and militated adversely against our educative
potential. His conscious efforts were designed to build bridges across these
gaps. He got us to believe in ourselves and motivated us into learning, using
both orthodox and unorthodox methods…” (232).[It would be interesting to
identify this Mr Narinesingh] At the secondary school level he found Mr Parray
Ramnarine who he visited fifty years after leaving school, sharing with the
unforgotten teacher his poem ‘In Tribute to an Eminent Teacher, Parray
Ramnarine’. (p 235-237)
We have seen Phekoo’s attitude to his
sons and the resistance he put up to Harold’s education. Harold tells us that
it was his sister Janey more than anybody else who shaped him into what he was
to become. On the ship taking him to England he discovered “a mentor educationally”
who employed him for four months until
he took the bold step of entering London.
It is reasonable to think that it was
an alienated Harold who journeyed to England in 1961. This journey comes
over as a compressed analogue of the
indenture passage: “As the boat sailed out of the Port of Spain harbour, the
waters were rough and most of us fell prey to vomiting and sea-sickness. This
lasted through the twelve day journey with special baksheesh to the end with
gale force winds as we crossed the Bay of Biscay.” Harold’s struggles and
searchings in London are like the struggles with barrackyard existence and the
searchings of the indentures: “The complexities of that period of my existence
took me at first to the noble quest of learning, traumas of daily living at the
basest level of poverty, failure in the handling of new found freedoms and the
dogged determination to shake off the ugly shackles of poverty. I worked slowly
and progressively into becoming a business entrepreneur.”
But the son of Phekoo was also the
grandson of Poonith. His return journey to Trinidad without wife and without
child was the beginning of his true arrival. My reasons for saying this relate
to the decision to include Harold’s poems as Chapter 45 and to name it
‘Epilogue of the Poonith Saga’. I don’t know if this was Harold’s decision.
Whoever did it did what was right for
our understanding of the book and its author. [Post-script A recent
comment from Leila Jailal on this article states: "The poems were not part of the book as I read the script
many times. About 5 weeks after his passing I was looking for a business
document on his computer and came across the poems. I was shattered for days
for not having the opportunity to discuss the poems with him. The only one I
knew about is 'A Tribute to an Eminent Teacher'. "
great themes and motifs in human life and art – themes like departures and
arrivals , births and deaths, continuity and change , history and Time, season
and eternity are the themes that Harold
worried over in his poems. In the poems you find an interfusion of all
the ‘opposites’ that set us against our selves and one another and cut us off from the Universe:
Fleetingly I’m blood, flesh and bone,
Just as I’m the body and mind,
I’m the firmament, the space, the sun too
Just as a blade of grass, the earth, the trees, the stump am
In the vastness of the forest, the ocean, the mountains, all
an illusive scam
Know I the non-dual eternal truth
In whose will all activities and things are strung
For I’m consciousness, the essence of truth,
All in One, One in
consciousness should give us perspective and some detachment, and free us from obsession. That is what it did for Poonith according to Harold’s poem
‘Epilogue of the Poonith Saga’. In this poem, Harold allows the old man to go
over in modern idiom the passages
of his life between Rownia the village
of his birth and Bonne Aventure where he died:
Bound by the pride of place to Karmic duties,
that which was ordained of me;
walked the walk, talked the talk.
willingly whatever was required of me in given circumstances
Without hankering for the fruit