Museum preserves history of Indians in TT
By MELISSA DASSRATH Sunday, May 31 2009
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On display at the museum, too, are models of the ships that brought the East Indians and clay water goblets, sewing machines and even registration doc...
The Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS) Indian Caribbean Museum was established on May 7, 2006. The museum, which is located in Waterloo, is the only collection of its kind in the region that is dedicated to the preservation of Indian history in the New World.
Saisbhan Jokhan is the curator of the Indian Caribbean Museum. He spoke to Sunday Newsday last week about the origins, work and development of the museum.
“The museum is just about three years old and basically what we have tried to do here is capture and highlight the experiences of East Indians since their arrival to Trinidad and Tobago in 1845 to the present day. There are no other museums dedicated to the preservation of the East Indian culture and heritage in this part of the world. So the Indian Caribbean Museum is the only one of its kind in the Caribbean and maybe even the world.”
Over one million East Indian immigrants left with the promise of the land of milk and honey across the great seas. After the abolition of slavery, the East Indians were recruited as indentured labourers to replace the African field workers on the plantations.
Jokhan shared a brief history of the events which led to Indian indentureship: “The slaves withdrew their labour once they were freed. And since agriculture was the back bone of the economy, the plantation owners were losing a great deal of money. They sought cheap labour in India and South Asia.”
Between the period of 1845 to 1917, many left Madras, West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Calcutta to embark on a treacherous three-to-five month long journey by boat. The first ship to reach our shores was the famous Fatel Razak which landed on May 30, 1845. Others were not so lucky. In 1859, the Shah Jahan left Calcutta and was en route to Trinidad but all 400 of its crew and human cargo perished before they reached their destination. The ships continued to sail, bringing those with the hopes of a bright future, until 1917. The last ship to make the trip was the SS Ganges.
Those who survived, though, were unprepared for what was in store. In India, they were told that they would be doing light work sifting sugar grains and would be paid a handsome salary for it. They were ill-prepared for the arduous labour they would have to endure in the cane fields.
The greatest adversity the East Indians faced would be the scorn, stereotyping and the steady bleaching of a culture steeped in tradition. Despite the hardships, the East Indian settlers found strength and solidarity in their cultural identity and collective practices.
Among the 147,000 East Indian immigrants who worked as indentured labourers, 25 percent returned to India after their contract ended while 75 percent decided to accept a “Crown grant” to stay in Trinidad and Tobago and acquire a plot of land in place of the return fare.
Jokhan said that the language, spices, religion, music and dance they brought with them would inevitably be woven into the colourful tapestry of our country.
He said, “The East Indians had a great influence on the development of our country. Their influence can be seen in almost every aspect of society.”
The remnants of our ancestors possessions, now serve as nostalgic manifestations of our material heritage. The Indian Caribbean Museum houses a substantial collection of Indian cultural artefacts including artwork, authentic immigration documents, a reference library, musical instruments, religious scripts, kitchen utensils as well as clothing and other personal effects. The museum also showcases farming tools like a hand plough, a jewelry wheel and an authentic hut made out of mud, gobar (cow dung) and leaves from the carat palm.
The museum features a wall of photos that offer a glimpse into the past. There are powerful images of indentured labourers working in the sugar cane plantations, rice fields, orchards, coconut farms and cocoa and coffee estates. Some show East Indians standing, stoic and submissive in the presence of their Colonial authority. Others depict delicate beauty even in the harshest circumstances, with women draped in decorative saris and jewelry. Yet another picture, shows a katia or rope bed that was woven and knotted into a make-shift cot.
Jokhan noted that: “We were fortunate to have had pictures donated by people who shared their private family photos with us. Some of them we purchased. Many of these photos are well over a hundred years old. There are pictures that date back to 1905.”
Jokhan explained that the museum serves as time capsule or storehouse. According to him, our origins and our destiny are very much entwined: “A museum is not just a collection for the purpose of display. It also tells a story of our history. It shows where we come from, where we are, and allows us to chart where we want to go. So this museum is rich in history.”