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After Indenture PDF Print E-mail
Written by Administrator   
Tuesday, 25 July 2006

1.Indians, Indo Jamaicans rooting for change by Beryl Williamson

2.The Jahajis of Maracas Valley (Trinidad) 

3. Has Leonora lost its glamour? 

4. A Bong Coolie- Poonith   By Kenneth Ramchand

Indians, Indo-Jamaicans rooting for change

158th anniversary

BERYL WILLIAMSINGH

Jamaica 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 survived.

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 country.

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 (EIAJ)

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, president.

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 attention were:

* 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

* Employment.

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 retroactive.

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 recruitment.

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 and Westmoreland.

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 wider community.

Social/Recreational Activities

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.

Other activities

Many minor matters relating to the welfare of the community received attention and which helped to develop and establish the prestige of the community.

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

When Jamaica 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.

 

1.Cadbury’s Trinidad Connection

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 chocolate -
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 put below.
"

(Taken from Birmingham Historian by Fiona Tait).


 

Photograph of a Coolie Woman

 

Photograph of a 'Coolie' Woman from the Cadbury Collection  

 

 

 Two Coolie girls

Two Coolie girls

 

 

Cocoa house

 

 

Cocoa house

 

 

 

Photograph of Coolie group

Photograph of Coolie group

 

 

 

 

A Coolie woman

A Coolie woman

 

 

 

 

Coolie Couple

Coolie couple

 

 

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.

The Home of the Cacao.
(One of Messrs. Cadburys' Estates, Maracas, Trinidad)

The 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.

                              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 called.

GOULET AND WOODEN SPOON.

GOULET AND WOODEN SPOON.

CUTLASSES.CUTLASSES.

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 to circumstances.

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.

Cacao Drying in the Sun, Maracas, Trinidad.

Cacao 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.[11] 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.

Between crops 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.

Labourer's Cottage, Cacao Estate, Trinidad.

Labourer's 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.[12]

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 Valley.

 

3.Alistair Macmillan Visits

 

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 begaanaa

 

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 now expired.

Today you are here and tomorrow you are there, like a moving yogi.

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 something before

leaving.

 

 

Lloyd Harradan

10/09/2006

 

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 British.

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 brotherly relationship.

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 Hospital.

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 older men.

The story-tellers 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 estate.

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 Leonora.

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 people and

"from whence they came."

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.

The indentured 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.

Children, especially 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.

The "batu 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 "driver"(local supervisor).

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.

Strikes were 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 the hospital.

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 any one.

They suffered 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 earnest.

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 working.

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 murdered.

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 desires.

Has Leonora lost its Glamour? For me it is now GOLDEN MEMORIES AND SILVER TEARS.

 

 

A Bong Coolie- Poonith

By Kenneth Ramchand

http://kenramchand.blogspot.ca/2013/05/normal.html

 

 

A 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. 

 

SUMMARY 

 

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 published before.

 

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

 

Harold 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 known.

 

Poonith 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 plight.”

 

The 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 of Rownia.

 

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)

 

Unlike 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)

 

But 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

 

Poonith 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    )

 

 

 

 

II.  Poonith’s Illumination

(The argument here is that Poonith’s success is not a materialistic one)

 

 

Poonith 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.

 

 

III. Falling Apart 

(After 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.)

 

 

Writing 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.”

 

On 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.

 

As 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 acrobatics.

 

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 assessment:

 

 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 openly. p.206.

 

 

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 name. ]

 

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.”  ( xli)   

 

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. 57-58

 

Not 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.

 

This 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 grounds. P.39

 

Harold 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 twentieth century.

 

Harold’s 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.

 

From 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

 

The history of Bonne Aventure written by Harold suggests that this village experienced the meeting of peoples and cultures which is the Trinidad experience. 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.”   

 

The 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)

 

In 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)

 

Harold 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 . (118)

 

It 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.

 

Harold 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 . p. 55

 

 

Harold 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.

 

The 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.

 

Harold’s 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.

 

The book provides some telling instances of the subscribing of the Poonith family to the moral authority and the power  of the panchayat. 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)

 

Although 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.

 

A 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.

 

The 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.

 

But 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.

 

The 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  their soul.

 

 

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 Poonith.)

 

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 poems. 

 

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'. "

 

 

The 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 I,

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 All.

 

This 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,

 I’ve done that which was ordained of me;

 I’ve walked the walk, talked the talk.

 Done willingly whatever was required of me in given circumstances

Without hankering for the fruit

 

 

 

Last Updated ( Monday, 09 June 2014 )
 
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