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East Indians in Trinidad – struggle and survival

By CAROL MATROO Sunday, May 24 2009

click on pic to zoom in
Secretary General of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha Satnarine Maharaj.
Secretary General of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha Satnarine Maharaj. "Despite all the discriminations we fight and we surmount."...

Indian Arrival Day, celebrated annually on May 30, commemorates the arrival of the first Indian indentured labourers from India to this country, in May 1845, on the Fatel Razack.

It was only celebrated as an official holiday in this country in 1994 when it was called Arrival Day — until 1995 when it was renamed Indian Arrival Day.

And, while Indian Arrival Day has been largely seen as a “Hindu” holiday, the children of the indentured labourers include people of different faiths including Muslims, Christians, Pentecostals and Presbyterians, a reflection of this country’s diverse culture and beliefs.

Indian immigration spanned the period from 1845 to 1917 when over 140,000 East Indians were transported to TT. The immigrants were subjected to abuse, poor food and dangerous weather conditions. Nevertheless, these adverse conditions enabled them to form a bond which overcame their differences of language, caste and regionalism.

The arrival of the indentured labourers brought with them not only a new labour force, but also a new culture, because the East Indians brought with them their food, dress, language, music, dance, religion and customs.

The Sunday Newsday spoke with several religious leaders and scholars who looked at why East Indians were brought to these shores, their contributions to Trinidad and Tobago, their struggles, culture and beliefs.

It was agreed that the East Indians were brought to rescue TT’s dying sugar industry, but even before the saving grace of the indentured labourers, there were the Chinese, Portuguese and Syrians. However, they were unable to withstand the long hours spent under the scorching sun or life within the barracks where they were delegated to live.

The East Indians were found to be hard workers, said president of the National Council for Indian Culture (NCIC), Deokinanan Sharma.

“They rescued the sugar industry. They worked hard and were known to be thrifty and family- oriented. They worked hard to ensure that their children would do better than them and would not have to endure the same hardships as they themselves had to endure.

“In their teachings, education was one of the things that they took seriously because they realised that education was one of the avenues to improve themselves. Through all their hardships, the East Indians made sure that their children were educated so that they would be able to rise in life,” said Sharma, whose own father came to TT in 1912.

He said even though his father was a well-read, educated man and could read and write Hindi and Sanskrit, he was considered, as were many of the new arrivals, as uneducated because they could not understand English.

Indo-Trinidadians and Afro-Trinidadians had been at odds with each other before, during and after the indentureship period, even though they were at the receiving end of discrimination by the whites.

“We have come together as a people and there are still odd pockets, but we usually see a rise in racial disturbance around election time because parties are race-based. We have interacted well with our African brothers and sisters,” Sharma said.

The NCIC president, however, felt that more attention should be given to East Indian culture saying Indian culture was not being given enough recognition.

“We have been fighting to keep the culture and traditions of our forefathers going through the years and we do not get total recognition of this fact. We are all citizens of Trinidad and Tobago yet there is no real cultural policy in this country...We should be given more official recognition for our culture,” Sharma said.

First vice president of the Anjuman Sunnat ul Jamaat Association, Haji Kamal Hosein, also felt that any racial discord was brought to the forefront during elections.

“During the 1970s when there was the Black Power Movement race relations had been at a simmering stage, but we had strong Indian leaders such as Bhadase (Sagan Maharaj) who were able to quell the disturbances. The 1990 insurrection also had more religious overtones than racial ones,” Hosein said. By CAROL MATROO



Indian Arrival Day, celebrated annually on May 30, commemorates the arrival of the first Indian indentured labourers from India to this country, in May 1845, on the Fatel Razack.

It was only celebrated as an official holiday in this country in 1994 when it was called Arrival Day — until 1995 when it was renamed Indian Arrival Day.

And while Indian Arrival Day has been largely seen as a “Hindu” holiday, the children of the indentured labourers include people of different faiths — Muslims, Christians, Pentecostals and Presbyterians, a reflection of this country’s diverse culture and beliefs.

Indian immigration spanned the period from 1845 to 1917 when over 140,000 East Indians were transported to TT. The immigrants were subjected to abuse, poor food and dangerous weather conditions. Nevertheless, these adverse conditions enabled them to form a bond which overcame their differences of language, caste and regionalism.

The arrival of the indentured labourers signalled not only a new labour force, but also a new culture, because the East Indians brought with them their food, dress, language, music, dance, religion and customs.

The Sunday Newsday spoke with several religious leaders and scholars who looked at why East Indians were brought to these shores, their contributions to Trinidad and Tobago, their struggles, culture and beliefs.

It was agreed that the East Indians were brought to rescue TT’s dying sugar industry, but even before the saving grace of the indentured labourers, there were the Chinese, Portuguese and Syrians. However, they were unable to withstand the long hours spent under the scorching sun or life within the barracks where they were delegated to live.

The East Indians were found to be hard workers, said president of the National Council for Indian Culture (NCIC), Deokinanan Sharma.

“They rescued the sugar industry. They worked hard and were known to be thrifty and family-oriented. They worked hard to ensure that their children would do better than them and would not have to endure the same hardships as they themselves had to endure.

“In their teachings, education was one of the things that they took seriously because they realised that education was one of the avenues to improve themselves. Through all their hardships, the East Indians made sure that their children were educated so that they would be able to rise in life,” said Sharma, whose own father came to TT in 1912.

He said even though his father was a well-read, educated man and could read and write Hindi and Sanskrit, he was considered, as were many of the new arrivals, as uneducated because they could not understand English.

Indo-Trinidadians and Afro-Trinidadians had been at odds with each other before, during and after the indentureship period, even though they were at the receiving end of discrimination by the whites.

“We have come together as a people and there are still odd pockets, but we usually see a rise in racial disturbance around election time because parties are race-based. We have interacted well with our African brothers and sisters,” Sharma said.

The NCIC president, however, felt that more attention should be given to East Indian culture saying Indian culture was not being given enough recognition.

“We have been fighting to keep the culture and traditions of our forefathers going through the years and we do not get total recognition of this fact. We are all citizens of Trinidad and Tobago yet there is no real cultural policy in this country...We should be given more official recognition for our culture,” Sharma said.

First vice president of the Anjuman Sunnat ul Jamaat Association, Haji Kamal Hosein, also felt that any racial discord was brought to the forefront during elections.

“During the 1970s when there was the Black Power Movement race relations had been at a simmering stage, but we had strong Indian leaders such as Bhadase (Sagan Maharaj) who were able to quell the disturbances. The 1990 insurrection also had more religious overtones than racial ones,” Hosein said.

He said East Indians had come a long way from indentureship and endured much to build the lives that their children and grandchildren have inherited today.

The ASJA First VP also commented on East Indians’ concentration on educating their children to prepare for their futures.

“They were able to do it because of their culture. The time when they came here they thought they would have a better life, but it was hard and they should be proud of achieving so much. They have maintained their religious practices which has stood them in good stead...This has kept them together.

“There are a lot of inter-marriages between Hindus and Muslims because they share common interests, their cultures fall in line with each other,” Hosein said.

Secretary General of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, Satnarine Maharaj, said East Indians had done more than save TT’s floundering sugar industry, but also became involved in commerce and excelled in the development of TT.

“We had done well until the government decided to get rid of the sugar industry. We had to readjust and that has been very difficult. All the promises made for land for agriculture and housing has not come to fruition and the people who were working to put this in place are dying out,” Maharaj said.

Maharaj said East Indians who were diversifying and opening businesses began doing more for themselves.

“Once upon a time if you wanted dry goods such as onion and garlic and peas you would have to go to a store on Broadway to buy this, so people from all over the country would come and buy their goods and – I am sure you didn’t know this – but there was an Indian home on Charlotte Street where they would spend the night and go home the next day.

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