1. The Attenuation of the Caste System Among Hindus in the
2. Amongst the Indians of St Lucia by Martin Latchana
3. Racism in St Vincent Against Indians
4. Grenada: The Nyacks of Belmont Estate
5 Sour memories of sweet Guyana
6. Life of an indentured: Rani Singh
7. The Enigma of Arrival: John Mohan in Port of Spain
8. Baboolal Ramadhin of Barrackpore
9. The Indian Community in Trinidad: an interview with Viranjini Munasinghe
10 The Wismar Massacre in Guyana
11. Indian women of Guyana
12 The infamous Indian barracks
The Attenuation of the Caste System Among Hindus in the
by Anil J. Misir
The arrival of Indians in the Caribbean under Indenture
began in 1838.
Though Indenture ended in 1917, Indians remain a
significant minority in
the Caribbean, constituting a majority of the population
in Guyana, and
a plurality of the population in Trinidad. Indians,
however, did not
remain unchanged in this new environment. Perhaps one of
notable social changes among Hindus (who constituted the
Indian immigrants) was the attenuation of the caste
The caste system is a system of social organization in
India which has
existed since ancient times. In the context of India, the
caste system has a number of central features. Castes are
(caste members must marry within their caste group);
other castes (different castes often do not dine with
especially at opposite ends of caste hierarchy), and
adhere to certain
spatial restrictions regarding ?purity? (e.g., different
castes in a
village setting often have different water wells). Hindu
India may be divided into a hierarchy of four varnas in
descending order: Brahmans (priests), Kshatriyas
(traders), and Shudras (servants and labourers). The
first three are
dvija, or twice born, as they can undergo a second ritual
birth. A fifth
group consisting of Untouchables fall below the four
varnas. Yet varnas
are not castes; rather, they are groupings of
occupational castes called
jatis. It is these occupational groups to which the term
Among Shudras, for example, there may be different
endogamous castes of
weavers, pottery artisans or launderers. It is important
to note that
the caste system has been remarkably fluid throughout the
India and South Asia, with castes constantly rising and
social standing, with new religious movements giving rise
to new castes
and economic change creating new occupational groups
which also led to
Indentureship Forces Changes in Traditional Hinduism
In the Caribbean context, however, this system began to
break down almost immediately to the extent that it is
non-existent, except for certain peripheral and residual
factors leading to its destruction have occurred as a
result of two
separate but related groups of forces.
First, the very different social and political conditions
indentured Indian was subject to worked to radically
undermine the basic
tenets and economies of the caste system. Secondly, and
importantly, religious accommodation in the form of a
eventually homogenized Hinduism, ensured that the vast
Hindus who did emigrate to the Caribbean retained their
as an allegedly fundamental part of it was rendered
The social environment of the Caribbean differed
substantially from that
that the emigrants left behind. Indeed, the very act of
the sea voyage from India itself worked to undermine the
all emigrants were placed in the same conditions,
regardless of caste ?
ritual laws concerning purity and pollution simply could
observed. The comparative lack of women emigrants also
attenuation as intermarriage between upper and lower
castes, an idea
previously unthinkable, was rendered necessary. Finally,
the fact that
Indians arrived as individuals rather than as families,
even as networks
of fictive kin were carefully constructed, worked against
Out of Necessity The Hindu Caste System Adapts
From the very outset, the system of indentureship slowly
system of caste. Every successive stage ? the stay at a
depot in the
hinterland, the wait for embarkation at the metropole,
sea voyage, semi-communal life in the ex-slave barracks
plantation, the capitalist mindset of the cash-cropping
management ? proved fatal to the maintenance and
continuation of the
caste system. The idea of ritual pollution, the
boundaries of commensality; the foundations of caste as
the basis of
occupational specialization in the village economy its
division of labour; caste endogamy ? none of these could
survive in the
harsh alien conditions of the plantation. Indeed, a quote
from an Indian
immigrant to the South Pacific colony of Fiji typifies
the situation of
all indentured Indian emigrants:
One old woman told how she had set sail from Calcutta,
and all on board
had started to cook dinner, each caste with its own
hearth. Suddenly a
wave rocked the ship, all the cauldrons of food
overturned onto the deck
together. It was a choice of eating food which had been
polluted, or of going hungry.
Even given these temporary conditions, it is conceivable
could have re-formed at a later time had conditions been
favourable. However, other indirect and more powerful
forces were at
work that prevented this from happening. As early as
1865, a British
Guianese newspaper carried an article reporting that a
had been readmitted into his caste after dining with a
pariah, simply by
paying $35 to hold a feast for the gods. The influences
profound social shift were related to the fact that the
obligations of the immigrants in this new environment
were quite alien
to the one from which they came.
The traditional village economy, for example, with its
economic, technological and social relations, was
The new economy was administered by European managers who
simply did not
care about caste specifically, and the preservation of
Indian ways in
general. The assignment of tasks to indentured Indians
irrespective of caste status and caste prohibitions.
Moreover, the type
of economic specialization found in the villages from
indentured Indians were recruited simply did not exist.
Men of different
castes worked at the same jobs, in the same gangs under
the direction of
the overseer and were all paid at the same rate. Goods required
labourers were not produced by other castes, but were
in the plantation store.
Just as importantly, the political system existing on the
bore no relation to the caste system. Overall decisions
were made by a
European manager and executed by a European overseer.
Each overseer was
assisted by one or two drivers selected from the
decisions made by the overseers and drivers had to be
of the caste of the driver and the field workers. Most
had courts presided over by management officials, who
relating to social life, settling both private and public
These ranged from disputes between Hindus and Muslims,
wives and the composition of households. Furthermore,
labourers were not
permitted to form associations to regulate important
matters related to
their economic and social interests: though there were
and other disputes, there were no panchayats, or caste
later years, however, managers permitted and helped in
the formation of
religious associations, though the managers retained a
Thus the caste hierarchy received no support from the
and political environment. Rewards were dispensed based
on ability and
obedience, rather than caste. Managers did not care for,
and had enough
power to subvert, parallel hierarchies (such as caste)
which would have
divided the labourers and made them less efficient.
Managers could and
did intervene in areas which directly or indirectly
Any attempt for a high caste to assert superiority could
easily have led
to the low caste victim complaining to management about
which point authority would assert itself.
The Caste System and Endogamy
Equally, and perhaps even more importantly, caste
endogamy was destroyed
by the relative scarcity of women. Given the nature of
the work that
indentured Indians were recruited for, it was in the
of plantation managers to recruit young men. At the same
obvious need was tempered by the fact that the presence
of women and
potential wives for their workers would moderate the
excesses of a group
of largely young, single men. Nevertheless, comparatively
few women left
India under Indenture. Between 1844 and 1860, colonial
required a ratio of 50 women to 100 men; in 1860, no ship
harbour without a 50 to 50 ratio; however, from 1860 to
1863 the ratio
fell to 25/100, increasing slightly to 33 1/3 to 100 in
was increased once again to 50/100 in 1866. After 1870,
the ratio was
set to 40/100. It is clear, therefore, that men
outnumbered women, a situation that had profound and
effects on social evolution. Notions of caste superiority
eroded. Hypogamy among men (?marrying down?) and
hypergamy among women
(?marrying up?) became common: upper caste men married
women of middle
or low caste origins. Even Brahmans, who in British
about 2 percent of Indian immigrants, married lower caste
This situation was broadly applicable all over the
observer in 1893 Trinidad noted that ?Members of the
and Thakur class frequently get married to or form
women of a lower class.? Conspicuously, the position of
inverted from the situation in India. Another observer in
that among Trinidadian Indians ?a person with two or
children here has very valuable property, because men
Indeed one aspect of this re-evaluation of daughters was
replacement, at this time, of the institution of dowry
with that of
bridewealth. Eventually, criteria other than caste, such
status, became important considerations which were able
caste considerations. By the beginning of the twentieth
Trinidad, for example, caste endogamy constituted a
than a prescribed form of marriage. The Caste System was
breaking down, or at least adapting.
Given the months-long sea voyage from India to the
Caribbean basin, it
is clear that Indians who arrived under Indenture were
cut off from kin
and family ties. This alone might have served to
differences, but this factor was further enhanced by the
emigrants from a given caste had few representatives in a
of Indenture. Quite simply, the emigrants were from a very
of different places, with different caste customs. Given
that the nature
of caste identities and caste practises varied across
India, the social
re-consolidation of any institutional framework, as it
different parts of India, was simply impossible. For
Trinidad in 1879-80, no less than 60 caste groups
numbering some 2507
people emigrated, with some castes having as few as two
It is also important to note that a given individual
could have many
levels of caste affiliation. Someone who was listed under
comparatively popular caste of Ahir, for example, might
easily have been
from a large number endogamous sub-castes. Indeed the
above included emigrants from what some scholarly
described as eight separate ?caste-regions?, so that
there was even
further scope for caste fragmentation.
Jahaji Bonds Strenghtened
Cut off from family and caste networks, an interesting
institution developed that cut across caste and even
religious lines ?
that of individuals who came on the same ship being a
jahaji or jahajin
? a ship-brother or ship-sister. This institution
as a fictive kin network, working to overcome the social
that many Indians felt upon arrival. This secular and
concept proved remarkably strong. It symbolized a new
start in a new
land, embodying the notion that new relationships and
required in a foreign land. At the same time, it was
ensured the survival of the idea of extended kinship and
spirit of mutual obligation among those who had travelled
on the same
ship. Vertovec writes about Trinidad, but the same ideas
can be said to
hold true for British Guiana, or any other location of
A deep friendship was forged between diverse individuals
Hindus and Muslims) on the voyage to the new country?.
would seek to serve their indenture on the same estates,
and to settle
near each other after their contracts had expired.
Thereafter, they came
to treat each other?s families as nata, or fictive kin,
marriage was frowned upon (many of these fictive
to exist between families in Trinidad today). Strong
emotional bonds of
this sort acted as important foundations for ? the
creation of shared
social and cultural institutions.
Fictive kin thus not only included members of other
castes, but members
of other religions as well. Even ?family? was not of the
Role of High Caste Brahmins in Facing Challenges to the
These social pressures also served to reinforce another
means of change
? religious accommodation. The Hinduism practiced in the
consequently underwent significant changes, which further
the decline of caste. For example, Brahmans, who occupy a
position at the apex of the purity/pollution hierarchy of
to the actions of aggressive Christian missionaries by
caste Hindus into the ?Great Tradition? of Sanatan
itself became less doctrinaire, and more flexible,
adapting itself to
the environment. Notably, the egalitarian bhakti current
gained ground, stressing a personal, ecstatic
relationship with God.
Hinduism in the Caribbean context thus became more
egalitarian which slowly worked against the retention of
notions of caste.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of religious change was
the reaction of
the high-caste Brahmans. Despite the harsh environment,
nevertheless made sure to attend to the spiritual needs
of their people.
This is perhaps understandable when one considers the
Brahman pandits had on many aspects of religious
scripture in India.
They alone could determine auspicious days, determine
information, as well as conduct important life cycle
rites such as
marriages, funerals and the naming of children. Religious
entirely dependent upon their knowledge and effort.
Indeed, one of the
reasons why Hinduism decayed in Jamaica and other minor
indentureship was the comparative lack of Brahman
pandits. In major
areas of indentureship, Brahmans retained a position of
privilege, not due to declining notions of caste and
ritual purity, but
due to their monopoly of priestcraft.
Almost startling is their reaction to the aggressive
efforts of the
proselytising Christian missionaries. In the face of this
pandits adapted: they visited sugar estates and Indian
performing wedding ceremonies, religious readings and
ceremonies. In a sense, they became parish priests,
serving as gurus to
individual families and offering counselling on a range
of social and
secular matters. A measure of their success may be
gleaned from the
despair of a missionary in British Guiana in 1893 who
said that ?[the
pandits exerted a] pernicious and powerful presence over
and that they tried ?their utmost to oppose and set aside
and preaching of the Christian missionaries?.
Indeed a rigid adherence to ancient proscriptive law in
the Caribbean in
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would have been
counterproductive. For certainly, a more active and
flexible approach to
Hinduism was necessary. But perhaps the greatest
manifestation of this
flexibility was the embracing of the lowest castes to
form a corporate
pan-Hindu identity. The Chamars, the Dusadhs, the Doms
and the Bhangis ?
all were admitted and encouraged to join the Sanatan
This ?conversion? was by no means one-way, as the lower
with eagerness. As Jayawardena observes:
Since is was a ?higher class cult? it was an attraction
to the low
castes who had traditionally belonged to cults and sects
distinctive gods and rites because they had been
redefinition of Hinduism as one religion common to all
Indians led to
acceptance of Sanatan Dharma by the small groups.
This was perhaps the most momentous and consequential
of the Brahman pandits. The lowest castes could now have
access to pandits in their homes. Brahmans would even eat
food of the former untouchable. This was the ultimate
symbol of change.
This is all the more striking when one considers the
relative numbers of
adherents to the various versions of Hinduism that came
indentured Indians to the Caribbean. Mandelbaum (1966)
gives a model of
Hinduism in India in which a transcendent complex of
Sanskrit texts and rituals, dominated by priests of
Brahman castes, is
differentiated from a pragmatic complex of local gods,
and rituals, dominated by local gods and low-caste
priests. Given that
the vast majority of Indian indentured labourers were not
priests, it is reasonable to expect that a syncretic
would have emerged while the transcendent complex
disappeared. Yet precisely the opposite happened. In
example, Hinduism was made Brahmanical by purifying it
?unacceptable? aspects, as for example the offering of
?illness deities?. To counter the popularity of spirit
magical aspects of Brahmanical Hinduism were emphasized.
as well, other ethnic groups offered competition for this
complex, as is shown by the example of the Creole Winti
Bonuman.) Thus the higher status Sanatan Dharma version
became dominant. This effort, indeed has precedents in
India proper, in
which context it is known as sanskritization. In the
however, the element of caste underwent a metamprhphosis
resulting in the wholesale adoption of very similar
versions of Hinduism
by all Hindus.
Doctrinal Flexibility Allowed Sanatan Dharma to Flourish
The doctrinal flexibility of Hinduism was also important.
there were and are no weighty, immutable dogmas of
application. Nothing intrinsic to Hinduism prevented a
contact from developing between the dvija Brahman priest
and the most
humble labourer in his thatched hut, or his barrack-room
plantation. In fact, it was this informal contact that provide
initial principal location for the practise of Hinduism.
(temples) were needed: neighbours, friends and jahajis
ceremonial kathas or Hanuman poojas (often called
by the Brahman priest in the home of people of all
facilitated religious continuity among the indentured
British Guiana, long before community Hindu temples were
late as 1955, the anthropologist Elliot Skinner, noted
the marginal role
of the temple in the practise of Hinduism in a British
? The Hindus do not go at all to the nearest temple,
though it is only
two miles away. Despite the absence of temples, the
presence of the
Hindus is revealed by red and white flags flying from
tall bamboo poles.
These flags are erected during a ceremony called
?jhandi?, at which a
family gives thanks for some special favour they have
The variant of Hinduism practised in the Caribbean
setting was flexibly
adapted to the environment. It was neither austere, nor
metaphysical or philosophical. The pageantry of ritual
and the rhythmic
music offered respite from the difficulties of life on
Murtis, the alleged idols so hated by the Christian
brought the gods into one?s own simple home.
Another religious adaptation involved the emphasis of the
tradition of Hinduism, particularly the Vaishnavite
variant (in which
the Hindu god Vishnu in his various incarnations is
worshipped). Brought along by the Northeast Indian
constituted the bulk of the indentured Indians in the
stressed three principle ideas: egalitarianism over
caste ethics, individualism, and the direct relaxation of
system and its associated notions of purity/impurity.
individual Hindus to exist in more personal relationship
deities: they did not need a ?pure? human being to act as
with the divine. Communal worship was stressed, which was
important given the low number of representatives from
any given caste
group. In addition, it encouraged the reading of the
Ramayana by laymen,
and the collective singing of bhajan (hymns of praise) by
congregation. It further allowed for the expositions of
Purana by pandits.
Sanatan Dharma adapted itself to the spiritual and
secular needs of the
people. It decreased the pain of separation with the
facilitated adaptation. Fused with the bhakti tradition,
and individualistic cornerstones of the new Hinduism
and accomplishment, which was particularly important
given the radically
different set of economic relations on the capitalistic
as importantly, the changed relation between the Brahman
gurus) and their ?parishioners? (an idea directly lifted,
effect, from the Christian missionaries) strengthened the
Indians in their daily struggles. As a result of these
therefore, a more homogenous Hinduism became the faith of
all castes. As
religion became more egalitarian, often by conscious
effort, caste was
Thus the conditions and responses to Indenture served to
undermine notions of caste. Profound social and political
resulted in an entirely new set of individual and group
Religious accommodation also served to destroy what is
often thought of
as an integral part of Hinduism, showing it instead to be
Attenuation of Caste
In the modern Caribbean setting, caste has become even
Caste no longer functions as a feature which determines
nor one that affects social interaction in any
significant way. Some
authors have termed the lingering effect of caste as one
of ?a residual
aspect of prestige? in which caste is used to create
self-esteem, or simply as a ?social attribute in its own
sometimes offsetting other social characteristics. For
wealthy community leader may be from a Chamar background:
he will be
respected and admired, but if he should do something to
the dislike of
the others, the offended parties will resort to verbal
his caste. Even so, it is fairly clear that caste is not
force it once was.
It is interesting also that legitimization for Brahmans
the form of knowledge of rituals and Sanskritic texts,
rather than caste
birth. Though currently there is some residual desire
among some who
consider themselves Brahmans to main caste identity and
on the normative ideals of religious texts, even this
is disappearing. The question of whether a non-Brahman
can become a
priest is indeed a hotly debated topic in Trinidad. For
generation, as Vertovec pointed out in 1992, even this
debate is largely
Most members of younger generations of Indo-Trinidadians,
lost practically all concern for caste: although many are
still able to
identify their caste group or varna, most young people
simply shrug and
say that caste is in ?an ol? time Indian t?ing?, best
The Caribbean has changed Indians who live there in
profound ways. In at
least this respect, this change may have been for the
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Cambridge University Press. New York: 1990.
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Moore, B. Cultural Resistance and Pluralism. Colonial
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Schwartz, B, ed. Caste in Overseas Indian Communities.
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Seecharan, C. Tiger in the Stars: The Anatomy of Indian
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Stein, B. A History of India. Blackwell Publishers
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Hazareesingh, K. ?The Religion and Culture of Indian
Mauritius and the Effect of Social Change.? Comparative
Society and History. Vol. 8, pp. 241-257, 1965-1966.
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Aspects of the
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Society and History. Vol. 8, pp. 211-240, 1965-1966.
Jayawardena, C. ?The Disintegration of Caste in Fiji
Society.? Anthropology in Oceania. Essays Presented to
Hiatt, L., and Jayawardena, C., eds. Angus and Robertson.
Mangru, B. ?Tadjah in British Guiana?. Indo-Caribbean
Birbalsingh, ed. TSAR. Toronto: 1993
Neihoff, A. ?The Survival of Hindu Institutions in an
Environment?. The Eastern Anthropologist, Vol 12, No 3,
Nevadomsky, J. ?Changes in Hindu Institutions in an Alien
The Eastern Anthropologist, Vol 33:1, pp 39-53,
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Mangru, p. 20.
Schwartz, p. 51.
RACISM IN ST. VINCENT AGAINST INDIANS
Among the Indians of St. Lucia
By Martin Latchana
The first Indians arrived in St. Lucia on board
the Palmyra on the 6th May in 1859. In total, about 4,500 indentured workers arrived
sporadically between 1858 and 1900.
"SAKWEY KOOLI !" used to be a phrase of contempt in patois.
was during a brief visit to St. Lucia in the summer of 1995 that I
developed an interest in the Indians of St. Lucia. Twenty minutes into
our catamaran voyage to the Soufriere volcano, the captain
categorically announced to the tourists “most St. Lucians were of
Perhaps he realised we were perplexed and
then five minutes later he said “but we have Indians too who came as
indentured workers.” In fact, I was later gratified to see Indians
mentioned on the St. Lucia Tourist Board web site on the Internet.
on during that expedition, we introduced ourselves to the skipper of
our boat the “Mango Tango” and he proclaimed not too loudly that “the
coolie man saves like hell but we can’t do it.” On that one-day sojourn
on the island, I saw about five more Indians, including an elderly
impoverished woman standing on a street corner of a fishing village; it
looked as if she was begging. That image stuck with me for a long time.
subsequent vacations in November 1996 and November 1997, I took the
opportunity to learn more about the Indian presence and the
contributions to St. Lucia. I had heard that the “small island” Indians
had lost all traces of Indian culture. This proved partially true but
there are many “Indian traits” that are still important. All of the
Indians I spoke to “were proud of being Indian.”
Some of them had
visited Trinidad and were astonished that so many Indians there had
prospered and maintained an “Indian culture.” Some of them have
relatives in Guyana and had visited that country.
Indians arrived in St. Lucia on board the Palmyra in 1859. In total,
about 4,500 indentured workers arrived sporadically between 1858 and
1900. As the result of the shipwreck of the Volga off Castries on
December 10, 1893 several hundred Indians, who were not originally
destined for St. Lucia, were added to the population of the island.
Generally, many of the workers returned to India after their contracts
expired, the last batch leaving in 1903. Some left to work in other
Caribbean countries. The current percentage of Indians in St. Lucians
is not known; estimates range from 3 to 8% of the population of a
hundred and sixty thousand
There are considerable numbers of Indians in the south of the island. Many taxi drivers from the area are Indian and work at the airport. On my visit to Augier,
I noticed that Indians owned most of the houses. I could have sworn
that I was in rural Guyana. Vieux-Fort, the second largest town is
found near the main airport and there are substantial numbers of
Indians present as well as several Indian-owned businesses such as
“Saroo’s Supermarket.” In 1996, at Vieux-Fort, I visited the richest
man on the island, Mr. Louis Boriel. I was apprehensive on my first
visit; the dogs, which were half-asleep on the veranda, added to my
unease for I had not phoned ahead. Ms. Heraldine Gajadhar-Rock, who
provided valuable information during my trips in 1996 and 1997 had
said, “you must visit the shepherd who became a king.” Mr. Boriel,
close to eighty years old told me to help myself to a beer in his
fridge; we discoursed for a long time.
Louis Boriel's parents
came from India as indentured labourers. Life was hard in his early
years when he worked for twenty-five cents per day. During the Second
World War he was a barber to American soldiers stationed near
Vieux-Fort. Soon he started saving his earnings, bought a cow and
became a butcher. Subsequently, he was able to purchase more cows and
acquire much land. From his veranda, we looked out to Vieux-Fort and he
said, “I own most of this.” I detected no boasting by this humble man
who knows all about Indian immigration to the Caribbean and on my
departure both times said, “give my regards to my people when you get
After speaking to Ms. Gajadhar, Mr. Burai, Mr. Abel
Ghirawoo, taxi-drivers and other Indians, I found out that race
relations are generally good. Indeed, most of the St. Lucians I met
were curious about my own background and Afro-St. Lucians would make
reference to someone as “Indian like you” or make passing comments such
as “Indians have nice hair.” While some of the hostility and negative
attitudes toward Indians have decreased, there is much mutual
stereotyping. The word “coolie” is used widely by Afro-St. Lucians but not generally in a racist sense but to my ears, it was a surprise. The phrase “sakwey coolie” in patois means, “damn coolie” and is considered as an insult by Indians.
interacted all my life with Indo-Guyanese and Indo-Trinidadians and
having been told that most Indians in St. Lucia had not retained Indian
surnames, I was surprised to see that many of the prominent Indian
business and professional people on the island have surnames such as
Adjodha, Burai, Gajadhar, Gidharry, Khodra, Mangal, Mungroo, Naitram,
Rambally, Sadoo, and Surage. Several Indo-St. Lucians have played
important political roles on the island. Ms. Gajadhar-Rock served as a
government minister while Boswell Williams was a recent Governor
General. Currently, Menissa Rambally, a member of the well-known family
serves as a government Minister.
Currently, Indians are found
in many professions and some families include doctors, lawyers,
undertakers, politicians and auto-dealers. However, most of the Indians
still work on the coconut and banana estates. Mr. Abel Ghiwaroo told me
about the demise of the sugar industry on St. Lucia. While many of the
Indians have small banana farms, others have larger estates on which
they grow bananas as well as coconuts. Currently, there is much concern
about the state of the banana industry because of the uncertainty about
the lack of access of overseas markets. In the capital city of
Castries, while many businesses are owned by Indians, but most of them
are recent arrivals from India, mostly Sindhis. I went looking for the
cinema owned by one of the Adjodha’s. It now a shopping mall, somewhat
decrepit, owned by a Lebanese. Until ten years ago, the cinema screened
Indian films to packed audiences.
Some families such the Khodras still maintain Indian customs. Roti, dhal
and other Indian foods still form a major part of the diet of Indo-St.
Lucians and have also become part of the national cuisine. Overall
though, there has been a decline in Indian culture. There are no native
Hindus or Muslims in St. Lucia. The East Indian Friendly Society formed
in the 1920's has not survived. Mr. Burai told me that in the 1940's
Indian cultural performances were held at Vieux-Fort. It appears that
the Holi festival died out in the 1920’s while Hosay fizzled out in the 1950’s.
As in Guyana, Trinidad and
Grenada, the Presbyterian Church played a major role in the education
of Indians and was very successful in the conversion of Indians in St.
Lucia, as the Mortons had documented. I could not find any
Presbyterians though and later found out that the Methodist church had
taken over that role since the early years of this century. My boyhood
days were spent at the “J.B Cropper Canadian Mission School” at Albion
Front in Berbice, Guyana. Thus, I tried enquiring about the Cropper
family for J.B Cropper’s father had been Protector of the Indians in
I had no luck; a search at the
local archives would be necessary on my next trip. I gathered that the
late Rev. Roy Neehal of Trinidad was related to Mr. Ghiwaroo and others
and that Reverend Neehal’s father had left Trinidad to work in St.
Having gone to Marc, Augier, the Morne, Forrestiere and Vieux-Fort,
I was able to observe Indians in all avenues of life, including rum
shops and farms. At Augier, I had visited the local rum shop owned by
Sylvester Peter, who told me he had dropped his surname “Mahabir.”
Other members of his family told me that they liked chutney music,
especially songs by Terry Gajraj. At the Castries market, almost all of
the butchers were Indians who came from Marc. Everywhere, one can still
see many young children with Indian features.
But there are many interracial
unions and in the long run it is possible that the smaller Indian
populations of St. Lucia, Grenada and Jamaica may be completely
Many of my new-found friends
have lamented that the Indian merchants who have now gone to the island
do not interact with them. They now look upon the Indo-Guyanese, most
of whom fled to St. Lucia during the dark years, to help revitalise
spite of all that has been written about the “assimilation” of Indo-St.
Lucians there are still accusations that they are disloyal to the
country. Many Indo-St. Lucians apparently supported the Indian cricket
team in 1983 when they played on the island. This sentiment is not
uncommon particularly in Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica because of a
sentiment that perhaps considerations other than merit continue to ply
a part in the selection of the West Indies cricket team. During my 1996
trip, I asked an Indian woman, about ninety ears old if she spoke
Hindi. There was no response until my taxi-driver, Nelton Williams; an
Indian translated it into patois. The answer stunned me: “What is
Hindi?” I was told to seek out “Man Williams” who spoke “Indian” but he
was not at home according to a friendly old Indian man, quite drunk
perched backwards on a chair with a felt hat perched on his head. This
conjured up more images of rural Guyana. I found later that some of
the older Indians still speak Hindi.
Although there is a lack of
Indian culture, as it is known in the larger Indo-Caribbean
populations, there is a considerable degree of “Indianness” still
present. In-depth scholarly work, similar to that undertaken on the
Indians of St. Vincent by Dr. Arnold Thomas, is required.
my 1997 trip, I phoned Mr. Boriel and he readily agreed to see me.
Unfortunately, I rented a car and quick learned how treacherous it is
to drive in St. Lucia. I felt the wrath of an irate taxi driver and
this coupled with left-hand driving entailed that I arrived very late
at Mr. Boriel’s house. He had left for one his plantations.
In early 2005, I discovered accidentally on the Internet that Mr. Boriel passed away in September 2001.
I felt an immediate sadness, compounded by the fact that I never have returned to St. Lucia.
WHO ARE THE VICTIMS? WHO ARE THE CULPRITS?
by DONNA F. GAYMES.
PROF. MOSES SEENARINE
SPRING 2000. TERM PAPER
will prove that the East Indian population of St. Vincent receives the
majority of racism against their minority group.
I will do this by
proving East Indians are the minority of the island, that the Black
population In St. Vincent are extremely prejudiced against the East
Indians, pointing out the stereotypes and myths told about the East
I will prove that this racism against them stems from times of
enslavement, and I will further prove that due to the racism and
prejudiced, East Indians in St. Vincent have been deculturated. I will
use written sources as well as interviews to prove my argument.
East Indian population In St. Vincent is the minority population of the
island. The current population In St. Vincent is approximately 150,000,
of that number no more than a 5% of is made of East Indians. This is an
extreme minority and with the Interracial crossings of marriage, and
pregnancy that number is diminishing.
Interracial marriages were
considered taboo and didn’t occur because according to East Indian
tradition, the father makes the decision as to whom will marry his
daughter. African men were taught that East Indian women did not know
how to conduct themselves among blacks, because they were too shy and
timid. (Skinner 1971) However, the times have changed and races have
mixed and the population of East Indians in St. Vincent has been
"All them black men does want an Indian girl, like
she some kind of trophy. They does think some silky hair and light skin
is a gift from God. Them nuttin’ but trouble. Hear me now, them Indian
girl and she family is just headache. All them Indian girl come for
take our men. But let me tell you, us black women ain’t want for none
of them coolie men. Their men blame our men because they does say they
take up their coolle girls, but they really just vexed because the
black women dont want them coolie men for nothing." (Burke 2000)
Indians in St. Vincent experience racism and prejudice mainly from
blacks, due to the many myths told about East Indians. Some of those
myths believed by blacks are: The East Indians would do anything for
money, and that among them money is carefully saved instead of being
used for food and clothing. (Horowitz 1971.)
While it may be
true that Fast Indians prefer to save their money, rather than
overindulging themselves with non necessities, this doesn’t mean they
will do anything for money, nor does it make them foolish.
Mikey caine to the States he did work so hard and never spent a penny
for heseif. Only bought what he needed and the real cheap things too.
We did make fun of him, but look the man now. He have he own house, and
a car and he children In college. Mikey did used to tell us to save we
pennies, but we Liked to have fun and we have house and car, but it
took us longer to get it. Mikey missed out on the fun, but he has the
fun now. We did call him the coolie boy from Layou. His father had 11
kIds, all coolie, and his father would buy up plots of land to leave he
children when he passed. But the older ones would take care of them
young ones. Mikey saved he money to buy a guitar, and he father took
the money and bought groceries and a new shoes for Mikey’s brother. But
that is how them Indians are. What the hell is the sense of buying
properties for children and you can’t put food in their bellies or
shoes on they feet?" (Burke 2000)
Many people believe in saving
money and spending only on the necessities. The blacks in St. Vincent
believe themselves to be superior to the East Indians. They believe
that because the population of East Indians is so minuscule, the East
Indian population cannot compete at the same level, and gives the
blacks the notion they are superior and are more productive.
statements have been made against East Indians, however, when looked
Into more deeply we can see that it is the majority and minority
numbers of the populations that make these statements false. One
statement is: The wealthiest man is an East Indian. Contrary to what
you might be lead to believe, in actuality the wealthiest man is an
East Indian, however, there are many more poorer East Indians than
there are blacks. (Horowitz 1971)
Now, If the East Indians are
more poor than the blacks, and they are the minority of the population,
I would believe that there chances for advancement in their society is
limited. I further would tend to think if an island has a big majority
of blacks, that were running most of the businesses, the schools, and
the medical facilities, on that island, then the chances of advancement
are limited by the prejudiced and racism displayed by the blacks.
America it is called being held down by the man, presumably a white
man. Consequently, in St. Vincent, I would go so far as to say that it
is being held down by the man, the black man. In a ratio of less than
5% of the population, and you are the poorest on the island, I would
think racism fairs highly as one of the reasons.
One instance is:
time I do remember a girl in school she was very bright, but I was at
the top of the class. When it came time to do some exams for end of the
school term, she did score one point higher than me, and she graduated
at the top of the class. I deserved to be at the top, but the teacher
was black and my classmate was also black and I know that is why the
teacher give she the better grade. That girl called me coolie’ everyday
when I went to school, every single day. When she finished the class
ahead of me, she started to call me ‘foolie coolie’ and asked me how I
ever thought I could beat her? My parents didn’t have money to send me
to university so I didn’t go. Now I does take me coolie’ ass to town
everyday and work at the bank. But the girl who took my education Is a
doctor now. I should to be a doctor, but I just a ‘coolie’ and I guess
nobody doifl want no coolie doctor. They missing out, all they have is
half a doctor. I would have been the best, now they have half a black
doctor and its what they deserve." (Young 2000)
emancipation was on 1 August 1838 and many Blacks moved away from
plantations." (Gullick 1985). Following this an episode of cholera
broke out in 1854. "The cholera left St. Vincent witha labour shortage,
so workers were brought from Barbados and Indenture slowly grew again.
In 1861, 260 East Indians (coolies) were imported, in 1862, 307, in
1866, 214, in 1867, 477 and in 1869, 343. Chief Justice H. E. Sharp
maintained that ensuing riots were, amongst other things, due to the
ex-slaves jealousy of the Portuguese and Coolies.(Colonial Reports,
The blacks were freed and moved from the plantations. Then
they rioted against the replacements? They should have rioted for the
rights of replacements, not against them. The East Indians did not come
here by choice, nor did the blacks, both groups were forced and yet the
blacks were fighting the East Indians who were now brought in as the
replacements. Indentureship in India is the way of life. It is the
social and economic status of your family that will determine your
future. You are born into it and there is basically no chance of
improving your status.
This is not based on your race, and so the
blacks began a very racist and prejudiced rage against the East
Indians, because they based it on race and color.
of the blacks turned to hatred and sparked the racism against the East
Indians. Many blacks chose to believe that the Indians thought
themselves better than the blacks because of their hair texture and
skin color. These visual traits are more closely related to whites than
blacks. However, it was the blacks who made these comparisons and
presumptions. The blacks were freed in 1838 in St. Vincent, thirty
years later the East Indian reinforcements were brought to the island.
The blacks were filled with rage, anger, and now for competition. The
blacks could do the work on the fields for wages now, and the
indentured, although they received wages, were more valued to the land
owners because it was cheaper to have them there." (Gunsam 2000)
Vlncentian East Indians are far more deculturated than those in
Trinidad and Martinique." (Gullick 1985). It is true, the East Indians
are far more at a loss for their culture than those in Trinidad and
Martinique. The main reason for that is the numbers. The major
population in Trinidad and Martinique is East Indian. So the customs
and the cultures will affect that throughout the island. The customary
religion among East Indians is either Hindu or Moslem. However, I
learned through my readings that the East Indians In the Caribbean were
forced to convert to Christianity.
This was due to the ideal of
divide and rule. If you take a person’s character and beliefs away from
them, they are left with no identity. And so an identity was created
for the East Indians in St. Vincent. They were coolies, without their
religious beliefs and were forced to assimilate with the others. Being
the minority of the overpowered people, they had no choices as to their
"Them coolies does cry how we so mean to them and they
ain’t nice to we. They shop In our shops and complain the price, they
does want things for cheap, cheap and we tell them the price is the
price. Just because you all Indian dont mean you get different price.
If ya want different price, then I go charge you more. It’s when me say
that, hear them, no no it’s okay, we pay the price you ask. It’s just
we poor folks and don’t have much so we does try to do the best we can.
And they pockets fill with cash, like me dotish and don’t know they
have money. I does tell them if you can’t pay the price because you too
cheap, then you can’t shop here because you all would run me out of
business." (Burke 2000)
There are East Indians who do own
businesses and are doing well for themselves, however, this is not a
large amount of the East Indian population. For the most part, the East
Indian population in St. Vincent are suffering. Some live In conditions
unimaginable in this day and age.
In various parts of St. Vincent, such
as Layou, Bambarou, and Baroulie there is no running pipe water. This
means there is no indoor plumbing, no hot showers, toilet bowls,
kitchen sinks etc. Everyday things which I take advantage of, have
never been experienced by some of my own relatives.
"On a recent
trip to St. Vincent, I stayed at the Cobblestone Inn for three nights.
It is located in the heart of Kingston, and is a lovely place to stay.
However, after preparations were made for my stay in St. Vincent, I
stayed with family members in [ayou. It was a terrible experience for
While I do not look down on anyone, especially those forced to live
in the conditions of these people, I only lasted there two days. After
the second day, I went back to the Cobblestone Inn for three days and
then stayed with family in New Montrose. I would again stay in Layou
overnight. When I saw how these people lived It disgusted me. To think
this island with all it’s beauty to endure, could have people living
like savages Is beyond my comprehension." !! (Gaymes 2000)
have witnessed many blacks living in these conditions also, the
majority of the people living this way are the East Indians. They are
forced to live like this and It is rather unfortunate.
remember one coolle girl from Layou, that manied a black man. His
family disowned him because he shamed them. It was like an insult to
them. He didn’t think enough of himself to marry a black woman. His
family felt like he lowered himself to be with that woman. To this day
they don’t speak to him. He have children with the woman and he family
refuse to recognize them as their blood. His family says she ain’t
nuttin’ but a gold digger. How she only went after him because he have
family in Annandale and she want for house in Annandale." (Young 2000)
reality racism will be experienced in all walks of life. It is not
uncommon and has been ongoing for a long time. However, It is rather
unfortunate when a group takes on a role as the racists in a community,
where it benefits no one.
There are many stereotypes, myths, and
untruths spread about many ethnic groups. The East Indians are not the
first to experience this type of behavior and they will not be the
last, however they have much to overcome in St. Vincent.
with race dying out slowly, through death, interracial marriages,
losing cultural identity and the racism, which causes many to try to
conform to the ideologies of the blacks. It will be a long journey,
which may not result in a positive outcome.
I have explored how
the East Indian population in St. Vincent receives the majority of
racism against them.
I have done this by showing that East Indians are
the minority of the island, and how the Black population in St. Vincent
are prejudiced against East Indians.
I have pointed out the stereotypes
and myths told about the East Indians and suggested that the racism
against East Indians In St. Vincent stems from times of enslavement.
further suggest that due to the racism and prejudiced, East Indians in
St. Vincent have been deculturated.
I have used many written sources
and all backed-up my arguments with interviews conducted by myself.
Camille. 2000. Personal Interview conducted by the author. Camille is a
39 year old, black nurse, who resides in St. Vincent.
Tracy. 2000. Personal Interview conducted by author.
Tracy is a 22 year
old, East Indian Vincentlan. She was born in New York and has resided
in New York her entire life. She visits St. Vincent every summer
Gullick, CJMR. Myths of a Minority, 1985. Van Gorcum & Comp., Assen, The Netherlands.
Kathy. 2000. Personal Interview conducted by the author.
Kathy is a 31
year old housewife. She has a degree in education.
Lowenthal, David. Consequences of Class and Color, 1973. Anchor Press/Doubleday. Garden City, NY.
Skinner, Elliot. Peoples and Cultures of the Caribbean, 1971. The Natural History Press, Garden City, NY.
Young, Madonna. 2000.
Personal Interview conducted by the author.
Madonna is manager of CBC Bank.
GRENADA: THE NYACKS OF BELMONT ESTATE
In 1944 Norbert and Lyris Nyack of Hermitage, St. Patrick
purchased Belmont Estate, in St Patrick, Grenada from the trustees of the
The Nyacks were the first Grenadians of Indian decent to own
an estate on the island. Though simple people with only a basic education from
the River Sallee
they were both entrepreneuring, diligent and savvy. They made Belmont Estate
their home and the base of their new business - operating the plantation. At
one time they owned six of the most productive estates on the island – Waltham
& Diamond in St. Mark; Plains, Le Tage & Belmont in St. Patrick; and Mt
Horne in St. Andrew – and employed more than a thousand persons.
The Nyacks also purchased the Hankeys business at Grenville
and commenced the business of a supermarket, hardware store and lumberyard. Mr.
and Mrs. Nyack were also horse lovers. They owned several horses over the years
and raced and won at horse races in Grenada,
and Barbados, Trinidad
They established the Telescope Race track, just outside of Grenville, a popular
sporting and social destination in Grenada
in the fifties and sixties. They were a socially vibrant couple – entertaining
and being entertained.
They both had strong social and civil consciences. They gave
of their time, talent, love and money. Without fanfare, they shared
benevolently with Grenada’s
Homes for children, the elderly, hospitals, churches and schools, and to
individuals or causes in need. Mr. Nyack was actively involved in politics, and
he was appointed Senator, by Premier Eric M. Gairy, a post he held until his
death in 1969. His wife Lyris continued to reside at and manage the affairs of
Belmont Estate up until her death on December
19, 2001, at the age of 94. She was laid to rest close to her
residence at the estate. Belmont continues
to be owned by the Nyack Family.
Belmont Estate is a rich historical site. Dating back to the
late 1600s and early 1700s, the estate was owned by the Bernego family of France.
Following the cession of the island by the French to the British in 1763, the
estate became the property of Mr. John Aitcheson Jr. of Rochsolloch, Airdie,
Upon his death Belmont Estate went to his father, Mr. John
Aitcheson Sr. who in 1770 leased the estate to Mr. Alexander Campbell Esq.,
owner of the then adjoining estate, Tivoli. The lease was for a period 13 years
at a price of £2,520 a year.
In 1780, Mr. Aitcheson Sr. left Scotland
for his estate, Belmont where he
died on May 31st, 1780 at
age 75. He was buried at the estate’s cemetery. In his will, Aitcheson
bequeathed to his eldest daughter Bethia all his property in Grenada which she
was to sell in the event of his death and after paying all his debts, the
proceeds were to be shared between her two sisters, Margaret and Isabella, and
his nephew Gilbert Hamilton, a merchant in Glasgow. At the time of Aitcheson’s
death, the total value of the estate’s assets - including the slaves, animals,
sugar mill, coppers, stews, ladles, skimmers, sugar pots, stills, furnaces,
still heads, tools, implements, chattels, lands and buildings - was £21,183.00
about £1.5 million or US$2.5 million by today’s standards.
Following Aitcheson’s death Belmont
was sold to Robert Alexander Houston of Clerkington, East Lothian
Following his death Belmont was
bequeathed to Major James Flower Houston and his son Lieutenant Alexander
Houston of Her Majesty’s Royal Artillery, both of whom were from Montepelier
Square, London. The estate
remained in the hands of the Houston Family for more than 170 years.
Throughout its history, Belmont
has made played a major role in Grenada’s
agricultural economy. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, it was one of the 81
plantations established on the island with coffee being its major produce.
Sugarcane was introduced as the main crop later in the 1700s; the ruins of the
water mill remain as testament to that part of its history. Cotton was also a
major crop of the estate, being later replaced with cocoa, nutmegs in the 1800s
and later bananas. The estate is still a major producer of cocoa and nutmegs
The estate is one of those that received Indian indentured workers
Today, Belmont Estate welcomes visitors both local and tourists, to tour and
witness a traditional historic plantation at work. There is also a restaurant
and cultural presentations. As far as we can tell, nothing Indian is offered.
The family has also opened a museum of their own possessions
so you can learn what life was like on a working plantation 50 years ago.
Sour Memories of Sweet Guyana
this same time Guyana was through a very tough time because of its bias and
racial politics. Dr. Jagan and the PPP had lost to Mr. L.F.S. Burnham and his
PNC Party, which formed a coalition with Mr. Peter D'Aguiar who was the leader
of the United Force. The East Indians supported Jagan, the Negroes voted for
Burnham and the Portuguese, the middle-class and businessmen supported
At one time Burnham belonged to the
PPP and he and Jagan were buddies. At that time the country was called British Guiana, after Independence, the country was renamed "Guyana." Jagan and
Burnham even went to India to visit the Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, then Prime Minister
of India. Nehru was a pupil of the Great Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi, the father of
non-violence. Nehru sympathized with Guyana's situation with the British. Nehru withstood 9 prison
sentences for non-cooperation with the British. Jagan went to prison for the
same thing. Burnham was his right hand and the Indians and Negroes lived in
The violence started to roll all over Georgetown. There were chain gangs, which roamed the streets with
bicycle chains, which they used to smoke the helpless East Indian folks, by
lashing them as they walk, ride bicycles or evn in passenger cars. The women
were robbed in public places as the police looked the other way. After any PNC
political meeting they were urged to get even. They climaxed their anger by
rioting and looting only the Indian stores in Georgetown.
The gov't. banned all firearms yet the
blacks had guns. Those who opposed the government, would be removed from their
homes in the dead of night, disappeared or were sent to Sibley Hall, a
detention prison up the Demerara River. There were numerous reports of corpses
found in rivers, trenches, by the roadside, in culverts and by railway lines or
at farms and abandoned areas.
Vigilantes were in every village in
the countryside. In Kitty we also got together and formed a vigilante group, I
went out for my Uncle who was not well, actually I think he was scared. My
shift was from 7 to 12 in the night. It was very scary and nerve racking. We
were armed with only sticks and whistles and whenever a truck approached us,
our hearts were in our hands, for there was no way to recognise the enemy from
the real soldiers. Many blacks somehow got access to army uniform and
ammunition. Bombs thrown from passing trucks killed many vigilantes.
When we saw an approaching vehicle, we
dispersed and laid flat on the ground by the parapet until the vehicle passed.
Many times I said my prayers and thought of Deeca and remembered her smile and
pretty face, for that is the last memory with which I want to leave this life.
Going to the city, Georgetown, was like running the gauntlet and you said a silent prayer when and if you
arrived home safely. There was fighting, killing and even massacres as what
happened at Wismar, a very prosperous little town near MacKenzie (Now called Linden after Burnham) up the Demerara River where the two races lived in harmony.
The Burnham’s gov't. put a ban on the
document called the X-13 Plan. A plan of the Guyana Coastland divided into 13
sections where East Indians were predominant. The PNC intended to annihilate
all East Indians at a certain time on a certain day. The Wismar affair backfired and the plan eventually fell in the hands
of the Opposition.
The Gov't., speechless and
embarrassed, and of course denied any knowledge of its existence. Anyone who
was caught with a copy of this hot document, were sent straight to Sibley Hall
without a trial. Many copies were floating in the PPP strongholds. Goon squads
were sent out to houses of PPP activists and printing shops to search for the
Today the Indo and Afro Guyanese born
in N/A don’t have an iota of knowledge of what happened on that fateful day of May 24th
1964. They should know
for just like the 28 terrible years of Burnham, its part of our history and we
don’t want to repeat History
Sometimes it’s very hard to pretend
that all is well in your country, when politicians put their ideology before
people, when they bury their heads in the sands, preach denial or just plain
scared to handle the truth. It makes me mad and very sad. Mad because I can’t
take a gun and go on a rampage, can’t talk about it for its not politically
correct and sad because they politicians who are in power, whom you voted for,
who promised to do something have done nothing and turned out to be a big
disappointment, and many folks are left by the wayside holding their heads and crying
for justice. Sad also because the world, the West Indies and not even the UN never did anything to bring closure to
the victims and survivors of this tragedy.
The violence was so much out of
control that the British had to send troops to Guyana to keep the peace, but by time they reached Georgetown, the damage was done.
The atrocities should be brought to
justice as they did in South Africa headed by Archbishop
Desmond Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As I’m writing this
several Harvard faculty members will be flying to South Africa at the end of this
month to meet with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and South Africa's Truth and
Reconciliation Commission. The Harvard group, along with colleagues from India, Israel, and American universities
and law schools, is studying the role of truth commissions in preventing
conflict in divided societies as part of a multiyear project sponsored by the
World Peace Foundation. Maybe Guyana can get involved in
Since this massacre happened I ran
into many folks who once lived in Wismar, and they all had one
thing in common about the violence. They all claimed that if the police were
not all Blacks this would not have been so catastrophic. Not only they looked
the other way with violence taking place before their eyes, they helped and did
some damage too. Many members of the Police and Volunteer Forces took part in
the looting, beating and killing of Indo-Guyanese as they had specialized
military training as a profession.
In one incident two armed Black Volunteers refused to intervene when two
Indo-Guyanese women were being raped. Instead, the women had to be rescued by
employees from DEMBA. In another case, the Volunteer Force shot a young
Indo-Guyanese man to death because he refused to stop at their command.
I was born at Nabaclis,
sandwiched by Cove & John and Golden Grove, predominantly Negro populated
villages, I grew up with Negroes and we got along fine. I still remember my
best friends were blacks, Vibert and Marvin, who all lived at Nabaclis, my
neighbours were blacks, the Scotlands, I’m still looking for
Vincy and Sancho. But when blacks did something like this because they were
politically motivated, it’s too much to swallow. For the black folks I knew
were humane folks just like us.
Imagine a black woman shouting, showing no
remorse “De gat wa dem deserve"
(They coolies get what they deserved). Did the family whose home was burnt and was
confronted by a large mob who beat the wife unconscious, repeatedly stabbing
the husband and then continuing to kick and molest two smaller children
deserved this kind of dying? Were the women who were raped then got their
private parts damaged by pop bottles deserved such excruciating pains?
However, some families who managed to
escape from the villages into the nearby forest were also hunted down like
animals. They wanted to leave no living evidence. In addition to the mass
burning and looting which resulted in over 1500 Indo-Guyanese becoming
homeless, and the indiscriminate beating of Indo-Guyanese men, women, and
children, 8 women were raped including two girls. Some of the women were
repeatedly raped as the marauding band took turns on Indo-Guyanese women
This figure may even be higher since
Guyanese women who were victims of rape seldom come forward and admit to such a
heinous crime due to the shame associated with it. One man was also burnt
alive. Another, Mr. Ramjattan, a supporter of the PPP was found decapitated.
This was not Darfur, it happened in
Guyana and for 38 hours it happened to 2,000 Indo-Guyanese living in Wismar
when over 18,000 Afro Guyanese armed
with cutlasses, wooden poles, gasoline bombs and guns burnt and destroyed over
230 Indo-Guyanese homes and businesses.
say to all Guyanese how can this atrocious catastrophe go unpaid and swept
under the carpet? Indo-Guyanese who thought they could find shelter in their
own homes were confronted and beaten by large mobs of Afro-Guyanese screaming kill de coolies as their homes were burnt to
the ground. Injuries were in the hundreds, ranging from gunshot wounds, knife
wounds, burns, broken bones, and mutilated bodies. One Indo-Guyanese man had
both his legs and feet broken. An employee from the Demerara Bauxite Company
said: "The Indians never had a chance".
One man from Wismar who barely escaped by
hiding in the river told me, “The blacks were
telling the police they gone that way and the
fire is over there, and when the police
gone that way and over there, they continued their
looting, burning and killing nearby.” The scariest part of this affair was the PNC were the master mind
behind this massacre and they had it all planned in black and white called the
X-13 Plan. Guyana’s mostly predominantly
East Indian areas were divided and they were going to attack all 13 areas at
once. This called for a lot of strategy and logistics which can only be done by
specialists many who were in the Police Force.
Wismar was the guinea pig and
the pig got slaughtered.
Two river steamers were commissioned
to take the first batch of 1300 Indo-Guyanese refugees to Georgetown where they were booed,
jeered, and pelted with bricks by Blacks as they arrived. A Red Cross worker
said of the survivors: "Few wept, but the hundreds of children
appeared terrified and frightened." In those 38 hours of the
massacre no Afro-Guyanese was arrested and only two wounded by bullets.
Mrs. Janet Jagan, then Minister
of Home Affairs on June 1st in a speech to the Guyana Parliament equated the
suffering at Wismar to genocide since the
police had done nothing to prevent the massacre. She said,
"It is possible for anyone to believe
that, with the widespread violence, arson, rape, and murder, there could have
been no show of force by the armed police and armed volunteers. Since this is
impossible to accept, one can only come to the conclusion that planned genocide
of a village was carried out with the connivance of all concerned."
She then resigned to protest the British Police Commissioner not responding to
Guyanese were to learn that their country would be granted political
independence two years thence.
what would be that date? You may guess it by now. May 26 1966.
Who set that date? Why was that date chosen? Your
guess may be as good as mine!
year May 26th 2007 is a Saturday when
Guyanese would celebrate Independence Day, all Guyanese should clamour for a
change of date, for how can I stand and sing Greenland of Guyana and think of
what happened to those poor folks at Wismar 43 years ago. All I can
think of is this poet who expounded on this subject about Wismar:
It was a dark and red-lettered night
When they swept down on peaceful Wismar
Leaving a people in a miserable plight
Leaving each with an indelible scar
The mastermind was the infamous Chippy
Whose ambition was to kill every man
Woman and child in that peaceful ommunity
By carrying out the evil X-13 Plan
They swept down viciously on doves
With blazing guns and set bayonets
Annihilating all that walks and all
Sparing none with their racist bullets
Not even the sleeping babies escaped
Not even the pregnant women and
Even the young and aged were raped
Even the children and little sisters
And as if that was not enough for
All the innocent females were defiled
And many were crippled as in
Of wars of the barbarous and the wild
After they butchered the inhabitants
They did their looting and burning
Pillaging the shops and restaurants
And swiftly left Wismar a-smoking
Yes they left the city ablaze
And the waters red with blood
This was only the first phase
Leaving body parts in the mud
Death was welcomed by those in
As the waters of the Essequibo carry the chill
Many committed suicides and many
And their plight is always remembered
And on a very still or clear day one
The cries of babies and their groans
The wailing wenches and women in agony
the flow and ebb of the waters of Wismar
Life of an indentured: Rani Singh
Ghany (mother of Fran Seebaran) and Rani Singh, Mayda's
mother in this 1944 photograph. Photo courtesy Fran Seebaran
IN 2006, Francisca Seebaran journeyed from her home in Dallas,
Texas, in the United States, to India, hoping to get some
insight into the life of Rani Singh, her maternal grandmother
who came to T&T as an indentured labourer.
Seebaran hopes to produce a motion picture on Rani’s
life one day and the role she played in turning her life
around at a time when women in India were faced with little
choices after becoming widows.
After a year of constant coaxing, Seebaran decided to tell
Rani’s story to the Guardian.
Rani was born in India in 1889 to a financially comfortable
Thakoor/Thakur caste family of landowners.
At 22 years old, Rani married Debi Singh, a high-ranking
Indian army officer, and in April, 1912, gave birth to a
daughter Parbatia. Soon afterwards Singh died and Rani’s
in-laws started ill-treating her.
Rani and Parbatia soon left the home because she would not
take any of the three traditional choices offered to Hindu
widows; which were to commit Suttee, by burning herself
on her husband’s funeral pyre; spend the rest of her
life in an ashram (temple); or marry her husband’s
youngest brother. Rani decided instead to leave India.
In July, 1912, Rani was approached by a Kangani (a recruiter
for the indentured workers). Seebaran said: The recruiter
told her Trinidad was by far a much better place and the
streets were paved in gold; she was further enticed by the
15 shillings a week offered to Coolies going to Trinidad.
All she had to do was chiney chalay (sift sugar) and food
and all living accommodations would be provided.
At the sub-depot of Kanpur on July 6, 1912, Rani told the
magistrate she would consent to migrate to Trinidad.
She travelled by train to the main Immigration Depot in
Calcutta, where she and Parbatia stayed for 15 days; mother
and daughter were checked by a doctor and issued a health
clearance certificate on July 9, 1912.
On July 22, 1912, Rani, Parbatia and 404 other immigrants
were taken out to sea to board the SS Indus. They shared
a cabin with several other single female passengers and
their young children, and slept on bags on the floor. Bhaat
(rice) and dhal (split peas) soon became Rani’s staple
meal for the voyage.
On September 12, 1912, after 62 days at sea, the ship docked
at the Immigration Depot at Nelson Island.
following a three-day quarantine, Rani and little Parbatia
travelled by small boat to the Port-of-Spain jetty, and
were later transported by mule carts to the Non-Pariel cocoa
estate in Sangre Grande. They moved into a tiny room in
a barrack house occupied by ten families. Mother and daughter
were allotted a clay stove for cooking and bags for sleeping
on the floor.
At first Rani tended the flower and vegetable gardens around
the main estate house; she later became a domestic servant
in the main house.
Seebaran said: Mrs Fabian, the childless estate manager’s
wife, grew fond of Rani and Parbatia and treated Parbatia
as her own.
Mrs Fabian christened Parbatia a Roman Catholic, but to
Rani and Parbatia, this was only for outward conformity,
as they maintained their Hindu faith for the rest of their
Seebaran said it was during the lonely years that Parbatia
remembers seeing her mother, sitting on the floor in a corner
of the barrack room, with her ohrni (head scarf) covering
her head, and thick silver bracelets on her hands and feet,
smoking a chulum pipe and crying uncontrollably.
Parbatia later understood that her mother was grieving for
Baba, her younger brother she left behind in India.
Parbatia’s early memories included the second marriage
of her mother Rani to Abdul Ghany, a muslim, who gave Parbatia
the Muslim name Hapijan.
On December 19, 1914, Rani gave birth to Karim, Ghany’s
son. Rani dubbed the child Baba, in memory of her brother.
In 1917, Ghany and Rani Ghany concluded their indentureship
contract at Non Pariel cocoa estate and headed for the Golden
Grove coconut estate at Arouca. The couple had six other
Ghany loved his new country and never considered returning
He bought several pieces of real estate at bargain prices,
and soon became a successful landowner, businessman and
landlord of rented houses despite his lack of education.
In 1947, after a long, painful battle with cancer, Rani
died at age 58 in Garden Village, Arouca. During her illness,
her 18-year-old daughter, Maida (Seebaran’s mother),
kept a close bedside vigil and cared for Rani with much
love and attention.
Abdul eventually remarried an East Indian woman named Bhagwanti,
and ran his provision shop on the Eastern Main Road in Laventille,
as well as his rental properties until his death to cancer
in 1960, at the Port-of-Spain General Hospital.
Manhas-Singh of Dallas, left, and Fran Seebaran, a Trinidadian
now resident in Dallas, USA, check out a rice field in the
Punjab when the duo, along with Guardian photographer Adrian
Boodan, visited the area near the Pakistani border in 2006.
Photo: Adrian Boodan
Trinidad Publishing Company Limited
The Enigma of Arrival: John Mohan in Port of Spain
From left, Jang Bahadoor, Brownie Qawaal, John Mohan, Siu Persad and
"My real name is
Dharam Dev Mohan, but I was known as John," says John Mohan, after whom, he
claims, John John was named.
Mohan, 85, is
reminiscing with boyhood friends Narsaloo Ramaya and Abdul Samad at Samad's
Morne Coco home in Petit valley.
I'm here because
these were the true arrivants in a different sense.
Indian Arrival Day
marks the landing of the Fatel Rozack on May 30, but the actual "arrival" of
Indians was a more complex, drawn out event. It involved less the physical
arrival of indentured labourers than their children and grandchildren' s
assumption that Trinidad was home.
grandmother never spoke English. She referred to him in Bhojpuri as "Jaan,"
meaning "dear one." It was anglicised into John.
He was born in
Laventille. After indentureship at Petit Morne estate his grandparents, who
carted coal to sell in Port-of-Spain, moved to Old St Joseph Road opposite Toll
Gate, where carts paid a penny to enter the city.
That was around
1900. Later his grandfather bought five acres, two perches of Picton
"It was very
hilly, with mainly blue stone and gru gru," recalls Mohan.
families settled there, mostly from Petit Morne. They built shacks, 25 in all,
renting from Mohan's grandfather, who raised a track of rock that's still known
as "Stone Hill."
There were also
one Portuguese family, De Freitas; Henrietta Stafford from Barbados, whose
husband was a ship's cook; and Josiah Moore, better known as "Toujour
"He was very
muscular and had large, red eyes and thick lips," recalls Mohan. "He played
stick but never charged, he always breaks.
had a beautiful handwriting and wrote all the receipts for my grandfather, who
allowed him to live on his plot free."
It was Toujour
Breaks who told Mohan that John John might have been named after him.
Ramaya was closer
to India. His parents crossed the black sea in 1912. Although his mother, having
fled a brutal marriage in India, knew she could never return, Ramaya's father
never ceased to pine for India.
born in Forres Park in 1920, is nostalgic only for the sugar estate of his
"I played, romped,
bathed and fished in the pond, played bat and ball in the factory yard, flew
kites, spinned tops, skated down the hills, pitched marbles," he told me on a
"That the task
work was getting harder, and the estate was employing fewer and fewer people,
was not part of my world.
"My life consisted
of school and play, whereas my parents' days were filled with only work and more
work, and hardly any time for relaxation. Consequently, when my parents packed
up in 1931 and moved to Port-of-Spain, as beautiful and wonderful as the city
appeared in my eyes, still I wept and begged my father to take us back."
Moving to Duncan
Street in 1931 Ramaya enrolled in the Bethlehem RCI School (the Roman Catholic
Indian or "Coolie School"), where he befriended Mohan and Samad.
parents were immigrants. His mother came on the same boat as Mohan's
grandmother. His father, a tailor, was close to other immigrants, such as
knife-sharpener Sela Meah, who had a small mosque up Rose Hill.
"Meah" is a Muslim
honorific, and Sela indicated his vocation before arrival — sailor.
Growing up in
Port-of-Spain, the three friends, especially Mohan and Ramaya, discovered their
Indianness in 1935, when the first Indian movie came down, Bala Jobhan.
"It was a
revelation for us, for me in particular," recalls Mohan.
means youth and jobhan is breasts, but it really refers to a teenager," he says,
"but I didn't know that. I ask a fella and he say `Learn Hindi.' He say it
crudely and it hit me, so I decide to learn the language."
Ramaya's eyes were
"Samad had told me
about a movie advertised with photographs of Indian stars in the showcase of a
Frederick Street store," he had told me before. "It was opening at Globe
theatre, which had only been built two years earlier.
with Hollywood movies and their glittering array of beautiful screen stars,
Samad was excited by the idea of an Indian movie."
The movie gave
Indo-Trinis a sense of self-respect from which they could engage the Creole
explained Ramaya, "a revolution in consciousness. "
Ramaya bought a
violin and joined a small Indian orchestra led by Samad's brother-in-law Chook
Cham, a tailor in whose shop they all limed. Mohan and Samad got mandolins, but
never took it seriously. Ramaya did, and became an accomplished Indian musician.
"We'd go Indian
singing competition, riding all Chaguanas from Port-of-Spain at night," says
"Once rain start
to fall—flood, we cyar see the road. All of a sudden one fella in front
disappear: he gone down the drain. We pull him and the bike out and reach the
hall soaking wet."
"Another time upstairs Philmore Hall at Duke and George Streets was so packed,
they locked the door, and people throw rope for fellas to climb up."
And in 1943, when
Murli Kirpalani decided to organise a musical play to raise funds for
famine-stricken India, Ramaya was invited to be a part.
and produced by Budbir Singh, the proprietor of the India Club, Gulchan Bahar
had the best musicians, singers and dancers, including Nazeer Mohammed, Narsaloo
Ramaya, Chook Cham, Tarran Singh, Champa Devi, and other local stars.
organising performances and Mohan played a saddhu in the first act, and a
mendicant in the second act, which climaxed with an emotional song he
"The tune was from
a picture I saw and I composed new lyrics," explains Mohan.
Ramaya adds, "It
was a very affecting song which Champa sang with great emotion. People wept.
While Champa sang, people went through the aisles with collection bags, which
the audience filled generously."
played to packed theatres and halls throughout the island, and with donations
raised more than $50,000 to alleviate the suffering of the land that had been
left for good.
That was a fortune
in those days. The Indians had arrived.
From left. Abdul Samad, John Mohan and Narsaloo
Photo: KIM JOHNSON
Saturday 31st May 2003
Baboolal Ramadhin of Barrackpore
Richard Charan of the Trinidad
and Tobago Express tells us that Baboolal
Ramadin of Barrackpore, Trinidad, celebrated a century
this month - with a prayer service, dinner and more prayers..
Ramadin was born in 1907. That was three years after the first airplane
flew. And before the television, ballpoint pen or sliced bread.
He lived through
almost all of the 20th Century. He lives in Barrackpore alone in a house
where he raised ten children, who have given him 42 grandchildren, 48
great-grand children and eight great great grand children.
Doctors can find no medical ailment for Ramadin, said his son Bonan, 62.
He eats anything, has no wrinkles, does not need spectacles, and has a memory
dating back to when he was a teenager. The average life expectancy in Trinidad
Ramadin remembers working all his life in the sugarcane industry, riding
mules, and donkeys and horses. He never drove a car.
His first job was to chase corbeaux from the sugar mills. He followed the
way of other "East Indians" - moved from laborer to land owner,
from cutter to planter, buying land and keeping his family close.
He still owns the land on which sugar is cultivated. Ramadin says its up
to God how many more years he will be given.
"If he helps me, I will live longer" he said. He has no secret
to long life except to eat well, and don't drink or smoke. He never misses
the 7pm news, washes his dishes,
and uses the microwave. He can cook, but family members deliver his food.
Ramadin's wife has long died. But every other descendant is alive. His
eldest daughter in 76, the youngest is 51. He has a grandson who is 60. They
believe they had his longevity gene. And they feel blessed, his son Paul
Ramadin has traced his family back to the city of Alahabad
in Uttar Pradesh. He cares nothing for India.
He is all Trini, said his relatives.
But Ramadin's saddest memory is that of his mother dying and of his father
leaving ten children, saying he was visiting someone in San Juan, and instead
returning to India on a ship, never to be heard from again.
April 22, 2002
*The Indian Community in Trinidad:
An Interview with Viranjini Munasinghe*
Viranjini Munasinghe is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Asian
American Studies at Cornell University. Her new book, /Callaloo or
Tossed Salad?: East Indians and the Cultural Politics of Identity in
Trinidad/ (Cornell University Press, 2001), is an historical and
ethnographic study of an Indian community in the Caribbean, with an
emphasis on the politics of cultural conflict between Trinidadians of
Indian and African descent. By redefining the term "creole" to include
the Indo-Trinidadian community, Professor Munasinghe portrays
Indo-Trinidadians as active creators of a unique, hybrid culture.
/AsiaSource/ spoke with the scholar from her office at Cornell University.
*Can you explain the title of your book? Why is food a good metaphor to
discuss the debate between pluralism and homogenization in Trinidad?*
The use of food as metaphor for the nation is not limited to Trinidad
but characteristic of most nationalist discourses. Trinidadians often
use the local West Indian dish "callaloo" as a metaphor for the nation.
This stew, made from the leaves of the dasheen bush and flavored with
okra and coconut milk, serves as a fitting image for their nation
because it conveys both native origins (in the New World) and the
containment of diverse elements within a single unit. However, many
Indo-Trinidadian cultural and political activists I spoke with during my
fieldwork in 1999 and 2000 took exception to this metaphor for the
Trinidad nation. They argued that since the ingredients making up the
"callaloo" are boiled down to an indistinguishable mush, the original
ingredients lose their respective identities and blend into one
homogeneous taste. They disapproved of this metaphor because it
represented an extreme level of blending or "mixture." Instead they
opted for the metaphor of the "tossed salad"--an image which also
signified diversity but one where, unlike the callaloo, each diverse
ingredient maintained its originally distinct and unique identity. Thus
the food metaphors of the callaloo and the tossed salad for the nation
of Trinidad and Tobago convey very different ideas of mixture --
callaloo depicting a process of mixture that produces homogeneity and
tossed salad signifying the co-existence of diverse elements in
pluralism. Indo-Trinidadians who are intent on preserving what they
believe to be their unique and distinct "Indian" identity are against a
"callaloo" nation because of the extent of biological and cultural
mixing signified by this metaphor.
*Can you discuss the historical circumstances of Indian immigration to
Trinidad? When did this movement occur and what factors influenced it?*
When the slaves were emancipated in the British Caribbean in 1838, the
planters looked for alternative supplies of docile and servile labor
that could replace the labor of the former slaves. Planters claimed that
emancipation caused a labor shortage in many of the British Caribbean
colonies such as Trinidad. However, I, along with a host of other
scholars, argue that it was not that labor was in short supply but that
former slaves were no longer willing to labor under the terms offered by
planters. Therefore, planters had to look for a controllable (as opposed
to "free") labor force to work in the sugar plantations.
Some colonies such as Trinidad were particularly well poised to realize
huge profits with increased sugar cultivation because many of their
resources were still unexploited. The planters and the British
Government instituted what some academics such as Hugh Tinker have
labeled "a new system of slavery," or indenture, to provide the planters
with the desired labor. After brief experimentation with different
groups, India, a British colony, became the major source of this
alternative labor supply. India was a suitable source because India's
population was vast, the majority accustomed to agricultural labor under
tropical conditions, and because the country was under British control
there was no need for negotiations with foreign authorities. Living
conditions were also grim for many Indians in the nineteenth century due
to famine, disease, overpopulation and the increasing encroachment of
the East India Company. As a result, many Indians were destitute and
looked to opportunities outside of India in order to improve their
impoverished lives. Between 1845 and 1917 (when indenture was abolished
due to pressure from Indian nationalists) approximately 143,939 Indians
came to Trinidad.
*How and when were differences between South Asian immigrants such as
caste, sect, region, language, and religion collapsed into a singular
?Indo-Trinidadian? identity? Did any of these differences survive?*
While the common perception is that Indian immigrants constituted a
homogenous group because the vast majority who settled in Trinidad came
from the densely populated central plain of the Ganges in northeast
India (the United Provinces, Oudh, Bihar and Orissa), they were in fact
a very diverse group characterized by religious, caste, linguistic and
regional differences. While it is hard to pinpoint a date for the
attenuation of these distinctions, once in Trinidad this originally
diverse population of Indians developed into a relatively homogeneous
group with the emergence of a common language, Bhojpuri, the
standardization of Hinduism, the attenuation of the caste system whereby
only certain distinctions now carried valence, and changes in the family
structure in which certain features of the joint-family structure still
persisted, but in modified form. Religious divisions between Hindus and
Muslims, caste distinctions between Brahmins and Chamars and to a lesser
extent, regional differences between the few "Madrasis" (South Indians)
and the rest of the Indo-Trinidadians whose ancestral origins lie in
northern India, still persist today.
*What role does India play in the Indo-Trinidadian imagination? How much
contact is there between India and the Indo-Trinidadian community? Has
there been travel and exchange in both directions? *
India plays a large role in the Indo-Trinidadian imagination. While
Indo-Trinidadians insist on their commitment and loyalty to the nation
of Trinidad and Tobago, they also express pride in their Indian
ancestry. They don't see these two identities as necessarily in
Identification with India heightened in the 1930s when the independence
movement in India added vigor to the Indo-Trinidadian consciousness. As
early as the 1930s, young Indo-Trinidadian intellectuals began staging
island-wide demonstrations in support of India's demand for freedom.
Public meetings held in Indo-Trinidadian majority areas opened and
closed with Indian patriotic songs and "Vande Matram," the Indian
national anthem. Many of the Indo-Trinidadian organizations formed
during this period, like the India Club, were intent on spreading
knowledge about India and things Indian. Wealthy Indo-Trinidadians
visited India and contributed generously to famine relief funds. Visits
from a host of Indian missionaries and cultural leaders generated new
interest, especially among the Indo-Trinidadian middle class, in the
language and culture of their "mother country." The first Indian movie,
"Bala Joban" was shown to enthralled audiences in Trinidad in 1935.
Contact with India continues today and India as imaginary homeland has
much symbolic import for Indo-Trinidadians. Yet, most Indo-Trinidadians
will emphatically insist on their Trinidadian identity. While the wider
society tends to view Indo-Trinidadian identification with India as a
statement of disloyalty to the nation of Trinidad, Indo-Trinidadians see
it differently. They insist they can be Indian and Trinidadian at the
same time. My book explores why Indian and Trinidadian identities have
historically developed as mutually exclusive identities, and the
strategies through which Indo-Trinidadian cultural activists attempt to
redefine Trinidadian national identity to include Indian elements. The
Indo-Trinidadian dilemma of being viewed as strangers or outsiders in
their society of settlement because of their ancestral culture is quite
typical of how immigrant Asians are viewed generally. Asians, as in the
United States, are often viewed by other groups as unassimilables or as
perpetual strangers because of the unusually heavy cultural baggage
imputed to them.
*Can you discuss the process of creolization? In your book you argue
that Indo-Trinidadians themselves are a product of creolization rather
than inheritors of a strict ancestral culture. Can you explain this?*
Creolization is a concept primarily identified with the Caribbean to
describe and analyze processes of cultural adaptation and change within
deeply hierarchical systems (the plantation/slavery complex and the
race/color hierarchy that accompanied it) whereby new cultural forms
emerged in the New World. A combination of the Spanish words "criar" (to
create, to imagine) and "colon" (a colonist, a founder, a settler), the
term Creole in the British Caribbean refers to people and things that
constitute a mix of elements originating in the Old World. Through this
mix of Old World forms, cultures and people indigenous to the New World
were created. The terms creole and creolization, however, emphasize
primarily the synthesis of African and European Old World elements,
thereby excluding Indians. Thus while those with African and European
ancestry are labeled Creoles, Indo-Trinidadians are never considered to
be Creole. The implications of this exclusion from creole status is
significant for Indo-Trinidadians.
Creolization also implied indigenization whereby foreign elements could
become native to the New World through creative mixings. Thus, all
persons and things ?Creole? signified native status in Trinidad, and by
extension the New World. East Indians who were considered unmixables
because they were thought to be so saturated with an ancient (albeit
inferior) civilization, were as a consequence not accorded Creole or
native status in Trinidad. Thus, Indo-Trinidadians have been
symbolically positioned as outside of the nation of Trinidad before and
since independence in 1962.
My book examines the material and ideological mechanisms through which
Indo-Trinidadians were positioned outside the creolization process and
thereby the Trinidad nation. By examining Indo-Trinidadian practices and
behaviors, I argue that Indo-Trinidadians too can be considered creole
because they are active creators of new cultural forms indigenous to the
New World rather than being mere reproducers of ancestral cultural forms.
*What historical factors contributed to the development of the
Indo-Trinidadian community as distinct and isolated from the larger
Trinidadian population? *
Historically a host of factors functioned to situate East Indians as
separate from the rest of Creole society. Soon after arrival in
Trinidad, Indian indentured laborers were banished to the sugar estates
concentrated in the flatland or rolling hills of the western side of the
island, later known as the sugar belt, thereby subjecting them to
spatial isolation. As indentured laborers they were legally
differentiated from the rest of the population and were subject to a
number of laws that restricted their mobility and hence their contact
with the wider society. Occupationally too, they were confined to the
cultivation and processing of cane. Thus the majority of East Indians
were confined to the rural agricultural sector. Religious and cultural
differences coupled with their inability to speak English, underscored
their alienation from the rest of the population. Symbolically too, East
Indians were represented as outsiders. Since the Indian presence was
thought to be only temporary, very little effort was made by the
colonial government to integrate East Indians into the rest of society.
Even education functioned to separate East Indians. The Canadian
Presbyterian Missions catered exclusively to East Indians and
instruction was in Hindi.
*How does colonial race theory inform contemporary politics on the
island? To what extent is the tension between Trinidadians of Indian and
African descent an inherited legacy of colonialism?*
Colonial policies and racial theories continue to influence contemporary
politics on the island. The division between the two major ethnic groups
comprising Trinidad's population, the Afro-Trinidadian and the
Indo-Trinidadian, which is marked and reproduced by race rhetoric and
ethnic stereotypes with both groups jealously guarding what they believe
to be their legitimate terrain, can be traced to colonial policy. East
Indians were brought to Trinidad as "scab labor" to drive down the
bargaining power of the Afro-Trinidadians. Thus, East Indians from the
beginning occupied a structurally antagonistic position to
Planters were also instrumental in creating particular kinds of
discourses about the character of the "Indian" and the "Negro" in order
to make their case for the need for indentured labor. Caricatures of the
luxury-loving, lazy, immoral Negro and of the docile, hardworking and
cunning Indian abound in planter discourses of the period soon after
emancipation. Many of these derogatory racial stereotypes continue to
this day as the two groups use these same caricatures to undermine one
another. Unfortunately, as is the case with ethnic/racial stereotypes,
these negative racial traits are thought to signify natural
characteristics of the respective groups and the specific colonial
history that led to the creation of such discourse is forgotten or
remains unacknowledged. A major concern in this book is to historically
situate and understand the development of race relations between
Afro-Trinidadians and Indo-Trinidadians and to examine the continuities
and disjunctures between the colonial and postcolonial periods.
The Wismar Massacre
"I am surprised and amazed that similar action has not been taken at
certain areas on the West Coast of Demerar a where murder, rape, arson and
intimadation has become the order of the day for the last 14 weeks, and in
spite of the declaration of emergency..."
—Forbes Burnham, commenting on the response
of the police and government towards Wismar, which, ironically was very
late. May 27, 1964
"From Saturday May
14th to Monday May 26th,
There's no time more glorious
For reflection upon history,
Both great and notorious,
It's all part of the story...
The Guyana way"
"In these times of national crisis, the corporation of
all is needed but this cannot be obtained, for there is such glaring evidence
—Forbes Burnham, May 27, 1964
1964, the Negroes at Wismar formed themselves into gangs and
went to the business places and homes of the Indians and demanded the keys of
the safety boxes and drawers in which they kept their cash, jewellery and other
valuable articles. Shortly afterwards, a house at Third Alley was set on fire
and soon the whole area became an inferno as the gangs roamed looting, burning
and terrorizing the 1,600 Indians as they tried to escape. Every man, woman and
child was attacked. The men brutally beaten and the clothes of the women and
even girls of tender ages were ripped away. The women and girls were raped in
full public view by gangs of men.”—Dwarka Nath, A History of Indian in Guyana.
GUYANA UNDER SIEGE
May 26—The Wismar Page: One
Essay, May 26: Taboo
The Wismar Report
Wismar Page Two
Wismar is a
charged topic not only because Indian people were murdered, Indian women
raped, Indian-owned proerties burned, and hundreds of Indians forced to
flee from there homes despite being taxpayers and free men and women of the
British Empire. Wismar
is a charged topic because one half of Guyana
continues to deny its seriousness, refusing to accept that wholesale public
denounciation of May 26 is a necessary part of any possible reconciliation
for the future. Wismar is a
charged topic not only because every national election is an occasion for
Indians to be attacked, robbed, sexualy assaulted, shot, and intimidated in
general. Wismar is a charged
topic because the national political leadership by the PPP and PNC have
thus far, allowed Wismar to
remain a taboo subject instead of history. In the future, children of Guyana
shall speak of Wismar as
something that never happened.
When I say wholesale denounciation, I mean that Guyana
cannot move beyond Wismar
unless it selects a new date for its Independence
celebration. By wholesale denounciation, I mean something much more that a
children song, such as was done (in a doggerel) for the 1980 Independence
celebration by Mr. Edwin Vanderyar which says;
THE WISMAR MASSACRE
Fazil (Raymond) Ali
In the early 1960s Wismar
and Christianburg were two mixed villages where Indo-Guyanese resided in
the predominantly Afro-Guyanese (90 per cent) mining town of Mackenzie,
located some 65 miles up the Demarara river from the capital of Georgetown.
But after independence from Britain,
the name of the bauxite town was changed from Mackenzie to Linden.
The PNC leader Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham named it after himself. It had
been the scene of his greatest political triumph.
Did Burnham really change the name of the town from Mackenzie to Linden
because he wanted to remove the colonial legacy and substitute a local name
for a foreign or colonial one? If this was truly Burnham’s intention, then
could have renamed Georgetown,
which was of course named after King George of England.
Instead Burnham’s real motive for naming the town after himself was to
symbolically establish his stamp and mark over a massacre where he had
reigned supreme over Indo-Guyanese.
In short, "Linden"
was a message to Indo-Guyanese that if they challenged him (Burnham) they
could expect the same fate as the Indo-Guyanese community experienced on
the 24th, 25th, and 26th of Mat 1964 in Mackenzie.
However, Burnham’s move to change the name from Mackenzie to Linden
was only of his many acts to show his supremacy and superiority over the
Indo-Guyanese community. He had earlier humiliated the same community by
recommending the 26th of May 1966
Independence Day to the British. The PPP was had fought so hard for the
freedom of Guyana welcomed the end of British rule but did not participate in
the independence celebrations with the same enthusiasm with which if fought
to free Guyana. This was the same exact date and month that Indo-Guyanese
in Mackenzie were murdered, raped, and burnt alive Blacks in the country’s
worst racial violence.
The intensity of the racial violence perpetrated countrywide by Forbes
Burnham’s People’s National Congress (PNC) and Peter D’Aguiar’s United
Force (UF) was instrumental in bringing down Dr. Jagan’s PPP government
after reaching its apex in Mackenzie.
The massacre of Indo-Guyanese began at Wismar
and lasted for over 38 hours, beginning from Sunday May 24th and ending on Tuesday May 26, 1964. In the 38
hours of brutality, barbarism, and savagery on some 2000 Indo-Guyanese
living in villages of Wismar and Christianburg, some 18000 Afro-Guyanese
armed with cutlasses, wooden poles, gasoline bombs and guns burnt and
destroyed over 230 Indo-Guyanese homes and businesses. Indo-Guyanese who
thought they could find shelter in their own homes were confronted and
beaten by large mobs of Afro-Guyanese screaming "kill
de coolies" as their homes were burnt to the ground. One family
whose home was burnt was confronted by a large mob who beat the wife
unconscious, repeatedly stabbing the husband and then continuing to kick
and molest two smaller children. This occurrence was by no means isolated.
Some families who managed to escape from the villages into the nearby
forest were also hunted down like animals.
However, their chances of survival were much better in the forest than in
the villages. In addition to the mass burning and looting which resulted in
over 1500 Indo-Guyanese becoming homeless, and the indiscriminate beating
of Indo-Guyanese men, women, and children, 8 women were raped including two
girls. Some of the women were repeatedly raped as the marauding band took
turns on Indo-Guyanese women victims. This figure may even be higher since
Guyanese women who were victims of rape seldom come forward and admit to
such a heinous crime due to the shame associated with it. Once man was also
burnt alive. Another, Mr. Ramjattan, a supporter of the PPP was found
Injuries were in the hundreds, ranging from gunshot wounds, knife wounds,
burns, broken bones, and mutilated bodies. One Indo-Guyanese man had both
his legs and feet broken. An employee from the Demarara Bauxite Company
said: "The Indians never had a chance". A
Black woman showing no remorse said: "De ga wa dem deserve" (They
coolies get what they deserved).
The evacuation of Indo-Guyanese from the massacre sites at Wismar
and Christainburg did not take place until the evening of May 25th.
Two river steamers were commissioned to take the first batch of 1300
Indo-Guyanese refugees to Georgetown
where they were booed, jeered, and pelted with bricks by Blacks as they
arrived. A Red Cross worker said of the survivors: "Few wept, but the
hundreds of children appeared terrified and frightened."
Out of the 1300 that arrived, 300 found shelter with relatives while the
rest slept on the concrete floor of the pier warehouse in Georgetown
huddling in fear while covered with tarpaulins and rice bags.
Temporary shelter was soon set up at a factory outside Georgetown
with many other refugees later being put up in predominantly Indo-Guyanese
For the rest of the 26th, 27th, and 28th about 500 Indo-Guyanese who had
been hiding in the forest surrounding Wismar
and Christainburg came out and were taken to the refugee camps outside Georgetown.
It is quite clear that the results of the massacres could have been
significantly reduced or even avoided altogether, if the 75 members of the
Mackenzie Police and Volunteer Force had not been all Blacks. The entire
armed forces detachment at Mackenzie, which was heavily armed, took no
offensive action while many friends, family and neighbors were carrying out
the atrocities. Many members of the Police and Volunteer Forces took part
in the looting, beating and killing of Indo-Guyanese as they had
specialized military training as a profession.
In one incident two armed Black Volunteers refused to intervene when two
Indo-Guyanese women were being raped. Instead, the women had to be rescued
by employees from DEMBA. In another case, the Volunteer Force shot a young
Indo-Guyanese man to death because he refused to stop at their command.
In those 38 hours of the massacre no Afro-Guyanese was arrested and only
two wounded by bullets.
Janet Jagan, then Minister of Home Affairs on June 1st in a speech to the
Guyana Parliament equated the suffering at Wismar
to genocide since the police had done nothing to prevent the massacre.
She said, "It is possible for anyone to believe that, with the
widespread violence, arson, rape, and murder, there could have been no show
of force by the armed police and armed volunteers. Since this is impossible
to accept, one can only come to the conclusion that planned genocide of a
village was carried out with the connivance of all concerned."
She then resigned to protest the British Police Commissioner not responding
to her orders.
However, it was not until after 24 hours of the violent massacre that
British troops eventually arrived in the mining town. Their only suggestion
was to evacuate the area.
The British troops they were powerless to stop the violence and the most
that they (the troops) could do was to impose a curfew. The curfew did
manage to quiet the situation but most of the killing, rapes, burning and
beatings had already taken place.
The massacre of Indo-Guyanese in Wismar
and Christianburg has remained a well-hidden and well-guarded secret. Not
only have Guyanese failed to record and seriously document this important
part of our history but also the older generations of Indo-Guyanese have
not passed on this information even orally. Up to today these is no
accurate figures on the number of Indo-Guyanese that have died during the Wismar
Independence Day is celebrated on May 26th, Indo-Guyanese should also take
time off to acknowledge those who suffered and died in the
Wismar-Christianburg massacre. It may be necessary some atrocities
orchestrated against them by the PNC, but we must not forget how and why it
All Guyanese must ensure it does not happen again. How can this be done?
Obviously the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) recommendations
which the PNC government agreed to implement must now be reflected in the
Guyanese armed forces. Then any "ethnic cleansing" of other
communities like Mackenzie will not reoccur again. Never again!
New York Times: "East Indians flee race violence in British
Guiana mining area." Wednesday, May 27th, 1964.
New York Times: "Official accuse Police in British Guiana."
Thursday, May 28th, 1964.
Time Magazine: "British Guiana race war." June 5th, 1964.
Newsweek Magazine: "Politics of violence." June 8th, 1964.
Facts on File, Volume XXIV: "British Guiana."
June 4, 1964.
[Editor’s Note: The writer, Mr. Raymond Ali is a 1992 graduate of Brooklyn
College with a BA in Economics.
He served as Vice President of the Indo-West Indian Movement at Brooklyn
College (1990-1991). Article
being sourced from East Indians in the New World:
155 Anniversary (1838-1993). A publication of the Indo-Caribbean
Federation of North, May 15, 1993.]
Women of Guyana
reflections of their existence,
survival and representation
By Janet A. Naidu
How shall the wealth and
power and glory
of a nation be founded
save on the immutable
honour of its womanhood?
– Sarojini Naidu
Nationalist and Poet
One of the major consequences of British
colonization and imperial oppression of Indians in the Caribbean is
the deprivation and erosion of their cultural and social heritage.
After slavery was abolished, British sugar cane planters brought
238,909 Indians to Guyana between 1838 and 1917 to work on the sugar
plantations. These indentured Indians came with their languages,
religions and other cultural practices, and retained their customs,
but this was primarily because of their residential segregation on
the sugar plantations where they were allowed to eat their own food
with spices brought from India, maintain marriage customs and
religious practices. Their survival spans many decades of great
hardships during the periods of indenture, post-indenture and
Although Indians have contributed
significantly to Guyana’s economic and social development, they
continue to struggle for their heritage survival and national
representation. Most importantly, Indian women have been relegated to
subordinate positions as their presence continues to be limited in
the social and political fabric of Guyana. Both men and women
suffered tremendously at the hands of the colonizers, but Indian
women suffered doubly in the patriarchal society.
examines the existence, survival and representation of Indian women
of Guyana, but specifically provides some insights into their
existence and survival during the indenture, post-indenture and
post-independence periods, not only as a unique group to the region,
but also their placement within the larger community.
5, 2004 marks 166 years since Indians crossed the kala pani1 and
arrived in Guyana. On a 5-year contract as ‘Indentured Laborers’
with the condition of a free return passage to India upon completion
of their contract, they were transported to various sugar
plantations. Those who came after 1862 had to pay their own expenses;
otherwise, they were forced to be re-indentured for another 5 years
for a free return passage, making it 10 years under contract. In this
way the British colonizers kept a tight leash on Indians. To
understand their great suffering in a foreign place, far away from
India, it is essential to understand that British planters turned to
India to revive the failing sugar plantation economy, after previous
attempts with indentured laborers from other countries. The first
arrivals in 1838 on the sailing ships, Hesperus and Whitby, numbered
396 of whom only 22 were women. The only reason that immigration
agents subsequently secured more women was because sugar cane
planters established certain quotas of laborers to meet their
economic gains. Therefore, they encouraged depot marriages to
increase laborers and yet maintain low expenses.
While immigration increased
and quotas were established, women were still disproportionately
represented with a ratio of 35 women to 100 men and 50 to 100 in
1860. The indenture system facilitated this gross disparity. Even as
late as 1890, the proportion of women to men declined to 41 women for
every 100 men. Although repeated requests were made to colonial
immigration agents for more women, the disparity of female indentured
laborers remained throughout the indenture period. The planters
viewed women as ‘uneconomical’ and recruiters were not encouraged
to meet the recommended quotas; few Indian men wanted to bring their
wives as they intended to return to India. As a result, the
disproportion of the sexes created a social problem for men and women
on the estates. They were not only “exposed to planter tyranny and
neglect, but they also suffered from the serious disproportion in the
sex ratio which produced considerable tension.” Planters abused
their position of authority and engaged in sexual relationships with
Indian women, and in most cases, another man’s wife, without
With the disproportion of men and women, morality
became an issue as some women were depicted as being unfaithful. As a
consequence an alarming number of murders occurred where, for
example, during the period “1859-1864, some 23 murders of Indian
women by their husbands or reputed husbands were recorded.” Murders
continued into the 1920s and barbaric acts were committed by the use
of a hoe or a cutlass. Although some women came with their husbands,
Rhoda Reddock revealed that about two-thirds were single, and that
“the majority of Indian women came to the Caribbean not as wives or
daughters but as individual women.” For example, when Annapurani
came on the ship, Ganges, in 1915, almost all of the few women who
came were single and between the ages of 18 and 25 Indian women were
not only placed in a minority position,requiring protection against a
dominant male culture, but they were also subject to “sexual abuse
by drivers, overseers and other estate personnel.”
a sexual relationship between Jamni, an Indian woman, and the deputy
manager at plantation Non Pariel caused orders to be given to the
police who shot and killed five Indian men, including her husband,
Jungli, as well as injuring 59 men who protested. Earlier in 1871, a
Royal Commission Report stated that it was not “uncommon for
overseers, and even managers, to form temporary connections with
Coolie women, and in every case with the worst possible consequences
to the good order and harmony of the estate.” The brutality against
Indian women was taken lightly by colonial powers as they viewed such
exploitative relations as having greater impact on the stability of
the estate than on families.
While Indian men suffered because
of the scarcity of women and were even killed as a result of British
overseers’ sexual exploitation of women, Indian women suffered even
more, not only by British overseers on the estates but also by their
husbands at home. The scarcity also led to the perpetuation of child
marriage, with many young women forced to have older husbands and
this, in some cases, leading to domestic violence and murder of
women. In 1896, 11-year old Etwarea’s marriage was arranged by her
parents to the wealthy Seecharan, age 50, who paid her parents “a
cow and calf and $50 and made a Will leaving his property to his
wife.” He later suspected her at around age 16 of being unfaithful
and ‘sharpened his cutlass and completely severed [her] right arm’
after which she died. By perpetuating their ancestral custom of
‘child marriage’ (with the legal marriage age set at 13 years for
girls and 15 years for boys) young girls became housewives and were
subject to their husbands’ commands.
Even though in 1900 the
gender ratio was 62 women to 100 men, there is no written data to
suggest that the shortage of women was a main factor for the abuse
and murder of Indian women. But it is highly suggestive that the
exploitation of men by their colonial master caused some men to
function as the patriarchal authority in the home where a new
dimension of sexism developed. Humiliation and self-degradation
contributed to their low self-esteem and they began to harm their
wives and children, the people closest to them.
treatment under colonial rule caused many Indian men to drink rum
after a hard day’s work. Then they would go home in frustration and
behaved cruelly with their wives and children. This was very common
and hence, the stereotypical ‘wife beater’ image attached to the
Indian male. On the other hand, gender identities were shaped by
Indian values as depicted in Indian religious texts.
of women such as ‘Sita’ of the Ramayana and ‘Radha’ of the
Mahabarata were portrayed as the pure and ideal wife and these
representations continued to influence gender relationship
expectations between men and women (at least among the Hindus).
During the periods of indentureship and post-indentureship, many
Indian women and men maintained the ideals of a good wife and a
devoted husband particularly embodying the roles of Rama and Sita in
the Ramayana. However, the displacement of Indians in a western
environment created some difficulties for men and women to maintain
their ancestral heritage in gender identities. As Patricia Mohammad
argues, Hindu symbolisms act as a strong influence in “the
construction of masculinity and femininity among Indians,” where
the women had to ‘prove’ their virtue repeatedly. Women who
resisted or were accused of violating the oppressive patriarchal
structures within Indian family structure were abused or even
murdered. Among the women killed in this early period were “Anundai,
Baumee, Goirapa and Saukalia, for allegedly deserting their
Although the gross disparity of women created the
conditions for sexual exploitation, it also served to strengthen
their resistance movements throughout the indenture period. The
importation of Indian females served as a stabilizing force on the
predominantly male plantation workers. However, in spite of efforts
to bring more women, “sexual immorality, polyandry, and bride
purchase [thus] continued, providing the Indian nationalist movement
[in India] with a powerful weapon against the continuation of the
Feminine images also
impacted upon the perception of women as generated over the years by
western and Creole ideology. As Indians in the Caribbean were
adapting to western and Creole culture, they also struggled to
maintain their own customs. Within this context, Indian women’s
development contrasted against Indian role expectations of their
ancient texts, where changing values were their greatest challenge in
the Caribbean region.
Although Indians make up more than half
of Guyana’s population, Indian women continue to fulfill
traditional roles of wife, mother and homemaker. As Ramabai Espinet
states, women “have to fight doubly hard to even begin to find the
ground for emergence” and that they must face this battle “in
isolation from support of the males in their domestic sphere, as well
as in that isolation from each other that patriarchal societies have
always been careful to construct.” Espinet claims (arguably) that
the "ohrni" or the "chador" was an instrument of
isolation and that the ohrni shields the chaste wife or daughter from
the gaze of the outsider as well as her mate, making the woman as an
Ramabai Espinet writes that Indian men are
“conditioned to not really ‘see’ the Indian Woman” and to
interact with her, but that she exists in his imagination “in a
framework which is static, already defined, and to which numerous
rituals are attached. The place of Indian women in society is enacted
through the mechanism of this existing framework.” However, this
perception is contrary to Indian customary attire where wearing the
‘ohrni’ depicts the woman as honorable or religious. The ‘ohrni’
was not a traditional Indian garment, but a modified version of the
‘sari’ where the ‘dupata’ was used to cover a woman’s head
and face. (Similarly, Christian women of the Catholic or other
denominations wear traditional headwear for religious reasons.)
Indian women in the Caribbean continue to wear the ‘ohrni’ to
religious and social functions.
recognize a marriage celebrated with “due publicity and performed
according to established rights and customs legal, whether registered
or not.”26 This was a carryover from their Indian heritage as
practiced in India where in the 1880s, over “93% of the Hindu
population were listed as married before reaching the age of 14.”
Even though a marriage may occur when the girl may be age 10, she was
not sent to her husband’s home until puberty. While this early
marriage law allowed Indians to continue their practice, thereby
restricting and preventing their possibilities for education, it also
satisfied the plantocracy to secure an additional labor supply for
its economic gains. In many instances, parents also needed their
children to help with their work on the plantation.
Christian marriages, colonial authorities did not recognize Hindu and
Muslim marriages and thus, they were not legalized. Not only were
children labeled as ‘illegitimate’ and further displaced by
British imperial rule, but also women were unrecognized by the
Government as not having any rights. If their husbands died without a
Will and left any asset, even if they had only a few cows, the
government did not recognize the widow and children as beneficiaries.
Although Indians endured a series of tests before they received a
marriage certificate, their marriage was not recognized by the
colonial authorities until the period between 1957 and 1961 when
Cheddi Jagan as Premier pushed for official recognition of marriages
by a Hindu Priest or Muslim Moulvi.
In the Caribbean, Indian
adherence to Hindu caste system became diminished as there were only
a few of the different castes compared to India. The majority of
Indians to Guyana between 1868 and 1917 were identified as
agricultural castes and low castes, with a small number of Brahmins
and other high castes. Many bonded with each other of different
castes while traveling as ‘jihajis’ on the ships and remained
friends upon their arrival in Guyana. Women found the caste system
restrictive and “since there was a shortage of females in the
colonies, especially upper caste women, it became impossible to
maintain upper caste endogamy.” However, as Moses Seenarine aptly
states, ‘varna [color] has replaced caste, and although there is no
strict correlation between occupation and caste [in Guyana], Brahmins
are an important exception. Hindus in the diaspora do claim a caste
or varna identity.” Families would seek brides who were ‘light
color’ for their sons. Generally, the reduction of the caste system
helped men and women to overcome prejudices and barriers of casteism
and subsequently helped to reduce the oppression among Indians and
bring them together as a distinct group within a multi-racial
The gradual elimination of the caste system
allowed Indians to unite as ‘Indians’, not as ‘Hindu’,
‘Christian’ or ‘Muslim’. However, many still practiced
‘caste’ in their treatment of each other. The slow change in
caste identity was also observed in the way Indians referred to the
caste Chamar when derogating a person. While the ‘caste’
categories were eventually (but not fully) eliminated, new
terminologies such as ‘high nation’ and ‘low nation’ were
established to distinguish caste.
on Sugar Estates
Indians lived in
logies with poor sanitary conditions throughout the indenture period.
Further, they were obligated to toe the line while working on the
estates as Planters insisted that workers “complete the stated five
tasks per week or their pay was docked,” a form of exploitation
that women were also subjected to. Children and young women worked on
sugar plantations in the ‘weeding gang’ and later in the ‘task
gang’ or ‘creole gang’, earning poor wages. Even at the height
of their pregnancies, women were expected to maintain planters’
“Indian women’s reproductive
and productive role to which they were so accustomed in India was not
seen as important in Guyana…. Illness and even pregnancy did not
guarantee lighter tasks. Indeed, many Indian women worked in the
sugar plantations late in their pregnancy, a
phenomenon that still
exists, although not necessarily on the sugar plantations but in the
wet-land rice fields in rural Guyana.”
In the late 1940s women would leave their
babies at the Estate creche and go to work in the fields. They would
also carry their babies in the fields, until an older child was able
to stay home and look after the younger sibling. Beyond this, sugar
planters imposed harsh working conditions on laborers, so that many
strikes (riots) occurred. Labor unrests were often as a result of
workers’ protests against mistreatment of estate workers,
especially since the first riots on estates broke out in 1869.
also participated in protests against planters’ mistreatment of
workers on sugar estates. In 1903, at Plantation Friends in Berbice
an indentured woman, Salamea, urged Indians to fight against the
plights of indenture. Moreover, after indenture ended in 1917, while
Indian women continued to protest as they struggled for justice, they
also became victims of the planters’ oppressive practices on the
sugar estates. In 1964, Kowsilla, at age 44 and mother of 4, was
“mowed down by a tractor [at Leonora sugar estate]. She became
another martyr of the Guyanese working people movement.” Her death
on May 6 is remembered for a woman who stood up bravely against a
system of exploitation and oppression as during 1964 especially, many
suffered during the sugar workers’ strike. Few such experiences and
forms of resistance were recorded against planter
to the 1950’s, many Indians did not send their children to school.
Several factors – education combined with Christian indoctrination,
schools predominantly in urban centers (mainly Georgetown and New
Amsterdam), children employed under age 12 and girls could marry at
13 – contributed to 80% not attending school in 1901 and still 71%
not attending in 1923.41 No Indian women organization emerged to
address this problem.
However, while those in existence, such
as the British Guiana Dramatic Society in the 1930s worked to develop
cultural and social activities, women in organizations worked with
their husbands who served on religious, cultural and social
organizations to push for girls’ education. Under the direction of
Alice Singh and N. Ghose, an Indian national, they held activities in
Georgetown, staging the play 'The Maharani of Arakhan' in 1936, held
dances, lectures and Hindi lessons for its members. However, these
activities were limited to the social circle in Georgetown. (Later in
1936, Alice Singh founded the Balak Sahaita-Mandalee, a voluntary
child-welfare society, which was belatedly recognized by the Indian
middle-class for its work on the “desperate.)
It was not
until the 1920s, organizations such as the Hindu Society, British
Guiana East Indian Association (BGEIA) and British Guiana East Indian
Institute advocated for the education of Indian girls. The
deprivation of girls’ education also occurred within the
multi-ethnic and coeducational public school environment which was
dominated mostly by Christian male teachers. Indian girls were also
alienated around issues of Indian religion, language and culture.
Undoubtedly, Indian women were oppressed as they were denied the
right to educational opportunities.
While the majority of
Indians maintained their religion, the indoctrination of Indians into
Christianity served to help them become more ‘western’. According
to the 1931 Census, out of the Indian population of 124,000 (nearly
50% of the total population), 1,958 were Roman Catholics and 3,465
Indian families were strongly involved in keeping
up their cultural and religious practices and were against sending
their children to be educated in Christian schools and to be
Christianized. The schools did not teach Hindi or Arabic. In 1904, an
order was passed (which remained in force until 1933), that no
pressure should be placed on Indian parents who wished to keep their
daughters at home and not send to school. Also, co-ed meant that
girls would have to sit near boys; their parents would not tolerate
this type of mixing and subject their daughters to possible
relationship. Still, the colonial government actively connived at
denying Indian girls an education. In 1925, only 25% of Indian
children in primary schools were girls. In 1929, Subadri Lall was the
first to qualify for exemption from the Matriculation to attend the
University of London, establishing a unique record for local girls.
In the 1950s, attitudes to education for girls had changed sharply
within the Indian community as attempts were made to catch up with
other sections of the population. Iris Sookdeo became the first and
youngest woman to achieve a Doctor of Philosophy (Sociology) at the
University of Sussex in the 1969.
Nevertheless, access to the
limited educational opportunities did provide some girls with new
options during the late period of indenture and schooling began to
have a much more positive influence in the lives of many women after
the mid-1930s. During the 1930s, Indian enrolment in primary schools
had increased by 50%, but these would have comprised mostly of boys
since girls were being groomed for marriage. However, despite these
changes, educated women’s access to formal employment and equal
status were severely limited by colonial and post-colonial policies
that were patriarchal in structure.
While many Indian women,
especially among the working poor, had not attended school, they were
working to maintain their families and to send their children to
school. Thus, these women contributed significantly to their
household and community, especially as ‘financial managers’,
developing ways to improve their economic position. These included
planting their backyard with greens, raising chickens, goats, sheep,
looking after their cows, selling milk, and buying and selling
produce. Some also managed little shops in the villages and assisted
in their husbands’ businesses, such as the tailor-shops and grocery
shops. In the early 1930s and 1940s, Indian women preserved domestic
life by participating in ‘throwing box hands’ to save money for
their children’s education or marriage and, in some cases, they
would ‘pawn’ their jewelry to obtain sufficient funds. In spite
of the tremendous responsibilities they had to shoulder, their
strength sustained the home greatly. Without birth control, many
Indian women had large families, some having between 6 to 10 children
or more, and therefore had to find ways to increase the family income
to support a large family. In spite of the denial of education,
Indian women performed a wide range of jobs such as selling cow’s
milk, selling greens in the village and market or working in the rice
or cane fields to sustain their families. During the post-indenture
period, some families whose daughters received a better education
were able to access other occupations. It was not until the 1950s
that some Indian women were able to access employment within the
commercial industry as noted when Barclay’s Bank employed the first
three Indian women as ‘Tellers’.
In the early
part of the twentieth century, women on the whole were relegated to
the home, apart from those who were out working to help their
families. The majority of Indian women worked and resided in the
rural areas and often were the primary organizers of social customs.
Undoubtedly, the retention of Indian culture was owed “much to
these industrious, resilient women on the plantations and in the
villages while at the same time exerting much energy on their many
children.” Because of their direct involvement in preparations
religious and social functions such as pujas, jhandis, weddings, Eid,
Diwali and other social customs, they formed a strong foundation for
their cultural retention. Mothers not only organized elaborate
functions, but their daughters also were completely involved in the
arrangements for social activities. Many of these women were not part
of an established organization with leadership opportunities, but
they formed the pulse of the nation’s cultural development and
progression. Further, not only was it a social taboo for Indian women
to join social organizations and carry the banners but also they
received little or no respect.
However, a small group of
middle-class Indian women in the urban areas were beginning to
participate in public circles. In fact, after indentureship, in the
1920s they were contributing to the “visible Hindu and Muslim
culture festival” especially in Georgetown and New Amsterdam where
they provided forms of entertainment, but primarily associated with
One of the first known women to
demonstrate resistance against the injustices of colonialism was
Esther Saywack Mahadeo (born in 1872) who was widowed at the age of
28 with 4 children. Having inherited a small shop, she refused her
parents’ offer to return home. Instead, she became one of the
leading merchants in New Amsterdam. As a young girl, she learned
business skills while her father went to work selling oil on a donkey
cart. With determination, she looked after her children and never
remarried. She became very involved in the business and community,
and became the first woman President of the Berbice Chamber of
Commerce. Recognizing the injustices against plantation workers, she
took a petition, signed by hundreds, to the Governor in Georgetown,
protesting the shooting of innocent workers who participated in a
riot at Plantation Rosehall, Canje where Indians were shot and some
killed in 1913. At this time, it was unthinkable for a woman to have
done this, especially an Indian woman and a widow. She died in 1948,
leaving a legacy of an Indian woman’s early voice against
oppression. She took part in social work and was the first woman
President of the Berbice Turf Club. To have achieved this singular
position in this time in a colonial environment showed a tremendous
clout, resilience and courage.
and Cultural Organizations
Bhagwandai Singh, born in Suriname and married to Dr. J. B. Singh, (a
former President of the British Guiana East Indian Association –
BGEIA) directed several plays directed several of the plays produced
by the British Guiana Dramatic Society of which she was President. In
June 1927, she founded the East Indian Ladies’ Guild which emerged
about 10 years after the BGEIA and which functioned primarily in a
social, cultural and religious capacity representing Indian concerns.
As President of the Ladies’ Guild, she and other women organized
and promoted cultural events. In April 1929, they produced the play
'Savitri' based taken from the Hindu epic the Mahabharata. Her
husband, Dr. J.B. Singh played Satyavan and Miss I. Beharry Lall
Later in 1936, Alice moved towards a greater
role in terms of reaching out to the poor. She founded the Balak
Sahaita-Mandalee, a voluntary child-welfare society, which belatedly
recognized by the Indian middle-class for its work addressing the
“desperate poverty on the estates.” It was a time when few Indian
women would have been accepted in the public and in contrast to many
women in the country-side, most women in the middle class and in
Georgetown were supported by their husbands and othe male associates
to participate in organizations.
History has not justly
recorded many leading women in the countryside who were already
active in their communities. Many of them were the backbone of Indian
cultural retention by their everyday life in arranging religious
ceremonies, such as jhandis, preparation of food, organizing
weddings, singing bhajans and many other activities. Although one can
point to organizations in Georgetown where the middle class and elite
helped to keep a momentum of Indian national consciousness, it was
really the Indian women in the villages who carried on the cultural
traditions of their ancestors. Jeremy Poynting states that Alice
Singh and her colleagues acted in a “self-liberating way what they
thought was the best of Western culture, linked always to a strong
sense of pride in their distinct cultural identity.” In this
context it appears the westernization of Indian cultural identity was
to appease the Anglo-Saxon taste, and as this did not spread
One daring young girl left her foster home at
Aurora Village, Essequibo, at age 13 and traveled to Georgetown with
the hope of staying with her aunt. By dint of fate she began a
singing career and later acting in the 1930’s. She performed
throughout Guyana, in Suriname, Trinidad and Venezuela, and became
the “Indian version of the famed Madame O’Lindy”. Her name is
Pita Pyaree, now 86 years old. (Story in Guyana Chronicle
During the indenture period, while women worked
primarily on the sugar plantations and generally looked after the
domestic affairs, including arranging their children’s marriages,
they actively participated in religious practices and cultural
celebrations such as Diwali, Kali Mai Puja, Eid and Rama Navami,
which became very popular after the end of indenture.
resisted colonial oppression and were allowed to maintain their
ancestral religious practices through the establishment of Hindu
Mandirs and Muslim Mosques – with 2 Hindu Temples in 1870 and
progressing to 50 Mosques and 52 Temples in the 1920s.
Indian women were part of Guyana’s Indian cultural celebrations,
either through the temple, at home or in the villages, celebrating
Indian festivals, they did not participate in political affairs as
they were still immersed in a life deeply rooted in traditional
Indian (albeit predominantly Hindu) culture. Unlike African educated
women who were nurtured by Christianity in bringing them into
organizations such as the Young Women’s Christian Association
(YWCA) and the Presbyterian Berbice Girls High School, Indian women
did not benefit from their Hindu and Muslim religious organizations
in this regard, but, given the patriarchal culture, they contributed
their time to help their husbands or other men to lead religious
organizations. They mostly fulfilled the roles of ‘wives’ of
religious and community leaders, which restricted them to meal
preparation, childcare and home responsibilities, and also worked in
the fields, the market and other ‘servant’ jobs in the estate
Today even though many Indian women are now
educated and have moved up in the social, political and religious
organizations, they are still marginalized. In some cases, many
educated Indian women who are capable of becoming leaders continue to
be restricted. While it can be argued that, in earlier times, many
women suffered from a form of subservience which was reinforced by
religious patriarchal indoctrination and other social demarcations,
one can recognize that there is still a long road ahead for women to
access higher leadership in such areas are unions and
fact that very few Indian women have emerged in the Caribbean in the
literary and artistic field is not surprising. Perhaps this is
attributed to their oppression socially, culturally and
Some Guyanese Indian women have contributed to
poetry and journalistic writings, but very few, if any, have produced
a novel. Unlike Trinidad and Tobago with Shani Mootoo, Laxshmi
Persaud and Ramabai Espinet, Indian women of Guyana have not been
provided with the freedom and opportunity to develop their literary
talents. No organization was established to help the wider population
explore their talent that will be recognized nationally.
Jeremy Poynting states, “several male Indo-Caribbean writers are
enabled to write full-time because they are supported by their wives,
but there are not, one suspects many males who look after their
children to give their wives the same opportunity,” it is likely
that the oppressive environment contributed to the ‘silence’ of
many Indian women.
In relatively recent times few women
writers emerged, notably Rajkumari Singh and Mahadai Das whose poetry
reflects themes of pain, oppression and gender assertion. Rajkurmari
Singh, a one-time Indian radio announcer at the Demerara Radio
Station, wrote the play Jitangali and published A Garland of Stories
in 1960. She was instrumental in staging plays at the Theatre Guild.
With her mother, Alice Singh, and her father, Dr. J.B. Singh, who
were among other leading advocates of promoting Indian culture in the
1920s and who were part of the Indian upper middle class (Hindu and
Muslims), religious and cultural institutions to help Indians retain
their ancestral heritage, Rajkumari Singh was greatly influenced in
the arts. Like her mother, she pursued the arts and probably became
the first Indian woman in Guyana to explore local talents. From the
early 1970s, she contributed to the cultural life of Guyana, as a
radio announcer of Indian program, a poet, dramatist and editor of a
literary booklet Heritage. In the Messenger Group she mentored
younger artists, stage performers, writers and poets, such as Gora
Singh, Mahadai Das, Rooplall Monar and others during the early 70s.
Many of them would gather at Rajkumari Singh's home for guidance and
inspiration, holding long discussions. Both Rajkumari Singh and
Mahadai Das were amongst the first published Indian women poets of
It appears that their entry into the oppressive and
exploitative Guyana National Service (GNS) in the early 70s led to
the stagnation of their talent in Guyana. While a student at the
University of Guyana, Mahadai Das joined the GNS. She subsequently
studied in the US but due to illness had to return to Guyana.
Unfortunately, her creative talent was completely obstructed as her
illness took a great toll in her life for many years. Although
Mahadai Das’ poems were published in England, her books were hardly
honored in Guyana. Her books, I want to be a Poetess of my People
(1976), My Finer Steel will Grow (1982) and Bones (1988) are still
unknown to many in the Caribbean literary circle. In later years,
Laxhmi Kallicharan, a leading figure in the reconstruction and
preservation of Indian heritage, wrote poetry, and acted as a public
voice for women’s identity, and helped organize for the Indian
Arrival historical site. She helped edited They came in ships, an
anthology of Indo-Guyanese writing.
The PNC and the PPP
regimes have not satisfied the public with the investigative findings
and, to this day, little is known about the details of this tragedy.
While one may be wary of Rajkumari Singh’s acceptance of the
position as Coordinator of Culture in the PNC government sponsored
Guyana National Service (GNS) institution, it is believed that she
had strongly pushed for Indian cultural heritage to be promoted
within GNS. However, it seemed that the PNC regime did not give much
support to Indian consciousness. Undoubtedly, her struggles must have
endured many trials. Rajkumari Singh was an activist and became
involved in the PPP in the 1960s and was appointed to the Commission
that investigated the Wismar brutality against Indians, particularly
girls and women. The PNC not the PPP regimes have not satisfied the
public with the investigative findings and, to this day, little is
known about the details of this tragedy.
Many people have
criticized, ridiculed, labeled and scandalized Rajkumari Singh’s
efforts in Guyana’s cultural formation in GNS, particularly Indians
who felt she betrayed them by working with the PNC. They view her
role not as an act to promote Indian culture, but to support the PNC
regime which did not support Indian culture. With the dissolution of
the GNS, there was no preservation of Indian culture and no legacy of
efforts at GNS. But this does not discount Rajkumari Singh’s
efforts, particularly since she attempted to use this opportunity to
ensure that Indian culture was included in Guyana’s cultural
identity. For a woman who was stricken by polio at age 5, Rajkumari
Singh worked tirelessly to bring Indian cultural heritage to the fore
and as such, her role in Guyana’s Indian cultural heritage
retention should be remembered. However, although very few authors
have emerged in poetry and plays, none has published a novel of
experience and survival of Indian women of Guyana during the periods
of post-indenture and post-independence. It was only until recently,
scholars have produced some work. Professor, artist and writer,
Arnold Itwaru examined the Indian woman’s strength and resistance
in her plantation world in his novel, Shanti. Sasenarine Persaud’s
Dear Death touches upon a mother’s relationship with her son and in
recent times, and refreshingly, Professor Moses Seenarine has written
extensively and produced a doctoral thesis on the indentured woman’s
experience in Guyana. His comprehensive research and scholarly work
invites new insights into the Indo-Guyanese female
Although a number of Indian women in the rural
areas might have had limited education or were even uneducated at the
time, they knew their cultural activities and values to heart. Yet,
the middle class who were predominantly in the city core did not
fully reach out to the working class Indians and this may be due to
the ‘class’ consciousness imposed by the European colonial
influence. However, the middle class Indians were instrumental in
maintaining some cultural awareness through the establishment or
Indian cultural organizations, including the establishment of the
Indo-Caribbean women’s writing is still sparse.
Guyanese Indian women writers are few and have emerged at a slow
pace. As Ramabai Espinet states, “the silence of the Indo-Caribbean
woman needs much fuller investigation.” Further, much more
investigation is need in the areas of Indian women as professionals –
teachers, professors, doctors, lawyers, scientists, technologists,
professors, civil servants.
The British Guiana
East Indian Association (BGEIA) was instrumental in promoting Indian
culture. Its elected all-male representation was common of the times.
It served to bring Indian women into a public forum through the
production of plays and other cultural activities.
1967, the powerful and European-oriented National History and Arts
Council began to omit Indian culture from the national identity. They
sought only to promote Indian culture through frivolous depictions of
having young Indian girls dancing with sexual gyrations. By 1969,
Indian artists in general either went underground or left the
country. Musicians such as Sonny Deen, Ramdhanie, Tilak, Latiff,
Sumiran, Gobin Ram, Ramakrishna and many others were easily
In the 1960's during the Indian Immigration
Celebrations in Guyana, Cheddi Jagan and the PPP were accused of
showing no interest in Indian cultural awareness in spite of its
annual commemoration, but many did not realize that Cheddi Jagan was
fighting against a class-conscious British colonial order as well as
fighting against Burnham’s PNC African consciousness movement. He
did not want to create a segregationist objective and, in his push
for unity of all, there were misunderstandings that he did not
demonstrate an ‘Indian’ consciousness. Yet, he was one of the few
bold Indians who courageously “fought almost single-handedly
against the oppression of the working poor, the majority of whom were
Indians, in the local legislature against foreign rule.” Although
he formed the PPP political party in the early 1950 together with a
few others, and became the leader, during this period, very few
Indian women were in any position of public recognition. However,
Indian women joined the later formed the Women Progressive
Organization (WPO), an arm of the PPP which was led by Janet Jagan
and included Winifred Gaskin and Frances Stafford61 to address
women’s concerns. However, there were no Indian women in their
circle. Indian women did not emerge in leadership role in a political
party, as they were culturally and socially groomed to fulfill a
gender constructed role. Women in Georgetown or those among the
upper-middle class were homemakers or businessmen’s wives and did
not participate in political activities, but maintained business
relations in social circles.
Although the PPP was elected in
1953 and 1961, they were robbed in 1964 by a US-UK influence and the
PNC formed the Government.62 Out of being left on the sidelines, some
Indians joined the PNC in the late 70s and 80’s, as well as the
Working People’s Allisance (WPA). There are allegations by people
who speak quietly that Indians girls were raped in National Service
but there have been no investigation or report of disclosure. In
spite of the participation of women in National Service, and the
military training they received, none emerged in political activism.
It is only fitting to observe that both Black and Indian women
suffered in what many note was a very bad decision by the PNC
Many Indians opposed the PNC’s introduction of the
compulsory Guyana National Service in 1973. When the lists for
compulsory induction were published at the University of Guyana they
contained “53 Indo-Guyanese of the 63 persons listed, and that of
the 25 women listed, 90% were Indian. This meant only one thing to
the majority of Indians. Many Indian girls were reported to have
dropped their university applications.”
In exploring the area
of national representation, while Indians were marginalized during
indentureship, Indian women were not seen in public organizations
advancing the cause of independence in the 1950s. Even among the
middle class, they were still functioning as wives or political
agitators or were restricted to religious and social
responsibilities. Thus when the International Commission of Jurists
investigated racial imbalances in the public services they found
Indians seriously under-represented. The report recorded, but did not
comment on, the even more dramatic under-representation of Indian
women. For instance, “at a time when Indians were 50% of the
population, in 1965, Indian women comprised only 2.85% of all
employees and only 13.5% of female employees on the staffs of all the
Government ministries.” Further, during the PNC era up to 1992,
Indian women rarely held Government positions unless they carried a
PNC card. While a few were actively involved in the trade union
movement, a few others were politically active.
of trade unions and political organizers became a forum for women to
advocate for issues of concerns, as in the 1930s to early 1940s with
the formation of the Manpower Citizens’ Association. Nelly Sudeen,
its first Indian female and co-founder who came from a very poor
family, was never married and had no children. As a political leader
across the country, she represented the MPCA and spoke out against
Indian men sending their women folk to work in the fields and against
child labor (10 to 12 years of age) on sugar plantations. Sudeen and
many other East Indian women who were against “upper caste/class,
patriarchal and racial constructions of Indian political discourse,
were purged from Indian political, religious, cultural, and even
women’s organizations.” After she exposed the corruption of the
MPCA, its patriarchal leadership shut her out of office and after
retiring around 1944, she never re-entered politics. The MPCA aligned
itself with the plantation owners and lost the support of Indian
workers. Other Indian women in the early 60s, such as Sandra Butchey,
Amina Sankar and Shirin Edun became highly trained in England, the
latter two were the first Indian women lawyers, and held top
professional positions, yet little or nothing is recorded of their
place in Guyana’s history for the progress of women, particularly
During the PNC era, Indian women have
been invisible in political life, and very few occupy important
positions in the Government. Although Jean Maitland Singh was a
senior member in Viola Burnham’s Young Socialist Movement, it was
not a recognized position of any value and it can be construed that
this may have been a token ‘Indian’ presence in the PNC fold, as
her husband worked in the Ministry of National Development and
reported to Ptolemy Reid and Forbes Burnham. Still, very little is
written or known of her contribution in the PNC political movement.
Further, a few Indian women whose families had joined the PNC also
held positions. Some of these women included Sattie Jaishree Singh,
Latchmee Narayan, Rabbia Alli Khan and Amna Alli, (currently active),
but still very little is known about them.
It was not until
1992, with the return of the democratically elected PPP regime and
the ousting of the PNC, that Indians (though in small numbers) were
recognized in public life. One of the first Indian women, Indra
Chanderpal, made it to a Ministerial position, and recently Bibi
Shadeek as Minister of Human Services, Social Security and Labour.
The fact that the PNC regime dominated the Public Service with
Afro-Guyanese, even with the return of the PPP, Indians are still
underrepresented in the Public Administration. During the 28 years of
PNC dictatorship, Indians were subjected to racial and cultural
discrimination and exclusion from national life. However, in recent
years, women’s issues with respect to access to public life
participation have been addressed through committees’ presentation
on discrimination against women. Now that Indian women are beginning
to participate in social and cultural formations, they are still
absent in the political stage to effect change and
However, it is recognized that many Indians have
immigrated to places such as England, Canada and the U.S. and this
paper is not extended to capture the development of Indian women who
have left the shores of Guyana and found other freedoms in the
diaspora. Further, while this essay offers room for ongoing
examination of the development of Indian women of Guyana, it provides
some insights into their experiences – from the women who
courageously traveled across the treacherous ocean (the kala pani) to
Guyana as laborers on sugar plantations to those striving for higher
education and participation in national life. They formed roots in
another land, raised their children under harsh colonial conditions
and post independence turmoil, and made sacrifices to give their
children a better education. Their daughters continue to face many
challenges where their womanhood is still under
F. (Ed.), From Pillar to Post. The Indo-Caribbean Diaspora. TSAR,
Espinet, R. Representation and the Indo-Caribbean Woman in
Trinidad and Tobago, Indo-Caribbean Resistance.
Espinet, R. A
Sense of Constant Dialogue, Writing, Woman and Indo-Caribbean
Culture. The Other Woman. Ed. Makeda Silvera. Ramabai Talks to Elaine
Savory. Toronto: Sister Vision, 1994.
Jagan, C. The West on Trial,
The Fight for Guyana’s Freedom. Michael Joseph Ltd., London,
Mangru, B. Benevolent Neutrality: Indian Government Policy
and Labour Migration to British Guiana 1854-1884. London: Hansib
Publications Limited. 1987.
Mangru, B. "The Sex Ratio
Disparity and its Consequences Under the Indenture in British
Guiana," in David Dabydeen and Brinsley Samaroo (eds.), India in
the Caribbean, London: Hansib Publications Limited. 1987.
B. Indenture and Abolition. Sacrifice and Survival on the Guyanese
Sugar Plantations. Toronto: TSAR Publications, 1993.
Indians in Guyana. A concise history from their arrival to the
present. Adams Press, Chicago, Illinois, USA. 1999.
From Myth to Symbolism: the Construction of Indian Femininity and
Masculinity in Post-Indentured Trinidad. Matikor. (Prototext)
B.L. Cultural Power, Resistance and Pluralism, Colonial Guyana,
1838-1900. McGill Queen’s University Press, 1995.
"East Indian Women in the Caribbean: Experience and Voice,"
in David Dabydeen and Brinsley Samaroo (eds.), India in the
Caribbean. London: Hansib Publications Limited. 1987.
“Freedom Denied: Indian Women and Indentureship in Trinidad &
Tobago: 1898-1960.” Economic and Political Weekly: Review of
Women’s Studies, 20, no. 43. (1984)
Roopnarine, L. East Indian
Women and Labor in Guyana.
History of the East Indians of British Guiana 1838-1938. Government
House, Georgetown, Demerara, British Guiana, October 1946. Reprinted
by the East Indian 150th Anniversary committee, Georgetown Guyana.
Seecharan, C. India and the Shaping of the
Indo-Guyanese Imagination 1890-1920. University of Warwick. England:
Peepal Tree Press. 1993.
Seenarine, M. Indentured Indian Women in
Colonial Guyana: Recruitment, Migration, Labor and
H. A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas
1830-1920. Oxford University Press 1974. Reprinted by Hansib
Publishing Limited, 1993.
Naidu. Indian woman of Guyana, 80 years of age, living in Canada.
Toronto. December, 2002.
Girdhari, Gary. New York, 2004
Evelyn. Toronto. April, 2003
Tiwari, Rampersaud. Toronto. April,
This paper does not cover
contemporary Indian women. This is only because of the limited
available information. Many are excelling in the Arts and Culture,
Science and Medicine, Law, Academe, Literature and other areas.
Further, the Guyanese diaspora is far and wide, and empirical studies
will have to elaborate this.
The infamous Indian barracks
Sunday, May 20, 2012
A typical set of barracks on a
Naparima estate circa 1910.
When Indian indentured labour began
arriving in the British colony of Trinidad in 1845, certain provisions had to
be made for accommodating the newcomers. Aside from a food ration for the first
two years of the five-year contracts, medical attention from a physician and
housing were mandatory.
The latter was the source of much
contention, since it consisted of the infamous barracks—long ranges of single
rooms, barely separated from each other and lacking even the most basic
amenities. Robert Guppy a 19th-century lawyer and a man of noble character,
described the barrack system of housing to a Royal Commission in 1888:
“As first in the list of evils which
afflict the Colony, I look upon the system of housing the Indian immigrants in
barracks….The barrack is a long wooden building, 11 or 12 feet wide containing
perhaps eight or ten small rooms divided from each other by wooden partitions
not reaching the roof. By standing on a box the occupant of one room can look
over the partition into the other one and can see their boys and girls if they
have children. All the noises and talking and smells pass through the open
space from one end of the barrack to the other. There are no places for
cooking, no latrines. The men, and women, boys and girls go together in the
canes or bush when nature requires. Comfort, privacy and decency are
This was no exaggeration, since the
claustrophobic environment of the barracks made life tense and dismal for many
immigrants. Sadly, due to these conditions and the fact that numerically, men
exceeded women by a significant ratio, adultery and resulting wife-murders were
common, as Guppy also indicated: “If a man is sick, he is not allowed to be
nursed by his wife, he must perforce go to the hospital far away, leaving his
wife perhaps without the means of subsistence to her own devices. With all
this, can anyone wonder at the frequent wife-murders and general demoralisation
amongst the Indian immigrants?”
The only escape was for a family to
save its pittance earned from toil, purchase a bit of land elsewhere and move
into a mud hut of its own. Some barracks, however, like those at Orange Grove,
were a little better, having washing facilities as well as a many acres of
provision grounds where labourers grew rice and vegetables for consumption and
sale. When Presbyterian missionaries began establishing schools for the
children of the immigrants in the period 1870-1920, those who lived in the
barracks were looked down upon as “bong (bound) coolie chirren”.
The psychological and sociological
impact of barrack life was immense. It is one of the harrowing experiences of
the diaspora which never really disappeared, since barrack-dwellers were common
well into the 1980s in some of the sugar-belt areas. Even today, there are
still estate barracks in places like La Romaine which have been converted into