Perceptions of wealth in the traditional Indian society in Trinidad
Almost 30 years of after the system of indentureship had been introduced, an Ordinance had defined a legal minimum wage. The plantations found a way around this by simply increasing the tasks to be performed. The result was lower wages. When this was added to the poor housing and almost total lack of amenities, there was considerable disappointment and depression on the sugar estates. Many protested that they were working “daywork” instead of tasks.
A variety of laws oversaw the working conditions of the Indians. By law, they were guaranteed not to work more than 280 days of work per calender year, with five days a week out of crop and six days during crop. A task was a body of work performed over a seven-hour period by an able bodied person. Day work, on the other hand, was nine hours in the field. However, up to fifteen hours was day work in the factory during crop time. The Ordinance laid down a minimum wage of 25 cents per day or per task and 16 cents for youngsters. Field work during crop went much longer than nine hours, but there was a little more to be earned.
The indentureship period was a boost to the plantation system and to the economy of the colony. Indians worked in both sugar, cocoa and coffee estates. The third crop of great importance to Trinidad was rice. This was entirely in Indian hands. Rice was introduced by Indians and to the present is mostly cultivated by them. By the 1870s, it was apparent that rice was being cultivated in the Caroni swamp; and to some degree in the Oropouche lagoon. In a 1960 study produced by Arthur and Juanita Niehoff entitled “East Indians in the West Indies”, it is said:
“In the first place there is a traditional sentimental value attached to growing and possessing large amounts of rice. Among Hindus rice is the one important crop in which religious rites are involved.”
Trinidad’s other agricultural harvests, sugar and cocoa, were not invested with supernatural beliefs by the Indian immigrants. However, rice fields were supposed to have guardian spirits, and many Hindus made offerings to them in form of rum, cigarettes, candles and biscuits at the time of harvest.
Rice is treated much more ceremoniously by the Hindu society in Trinidad than other crops. This also includes the preservation of religious traditions, e.g. that a small amount of the first rice crop were given to a Brahman, preferably a pundit (priest), or to a saddhu (religious ascetic). At pujas and weddings, rice is an intergral part of the ritual offering.
“The only other crops in this area to which religious ceremonialism is attached are watermelons and cucumbers, of which the first fruits are given to the Brahman,” write A. and J. Niehoff. “It may be relevant that both of these are grown in the rice fields during the dry season. That is, the fields which produce rice take on some of the sacred character which is attached to the grain itself.”
Apart from the religious standpoint, the possession of rice serves as a symbol of plenty. No matter how poor a family may be, to have several barrels of rice put away was an indication of worth. The possession of money, however, was another matter. Banks were generally not trusted by the Indians.
“The Indians came to Trinidad in search of better economic conditions,” write A. and J. Niehoff. “Those who came were consequently from the poorer classes of India and they had little more than their personal belongings when they arrived. What they have today is therefore a result of their efforts since they have lived on the island.”
The living wage, 1 shilling, 1 pence per day for men and 8 pence for women was even in those days hardly a sum upon which great future investments could be built. Thriftiness had to become a lifestyle beyond modest living for the Indians. As Niehoffs write, Collens described that the Indians ‘hoarded to a fault, often living on the plainest and coarsest diet in order to save money’.
However, in the 1870s and 1880s, Indians deposited large amounts of money in the local branches of banks. Not quite trusting the slip of paper they got in return, it so happened that sometimes an Indian would withdraw all his or her savings just to verify that it was really there! Many Indians didn’t trust banks at all and hid their money in hollow trees or buried it. Others again didn’t even trust in money and instead melted their silver coins and made beautiful bracelets.
“There are Indians of the present generation who remember this thriftiness to the point of deprivation among their emigrant ancestors,” write A. and J. Niehoff. “The old Indians were described by this son and his wife, who were by no means spendthrifts, as follows: ‘They didn’t spend their money. You could never tell a man was rich by looking at him. They wore plain clothes even if they could afford better.’”
Education was perceived as a way to an improved life, and by the late 1860s the opportunity was grasped. Historian Gertrude Carmichael remarks:
“Early in 1869, the Reverend John Morton proposed to Sir Arthur Gordon a scheme for the education of the East Indian children, to be entirely dependent on Government finance. The matter was raised before the Legislative Council by the Govenor who said:
‘The present system of education has failed to produce the anticipated fruits ... hardly an Indian child has attended a ward school, whilst the small number of children of these immigrants who are recieving any education are almost exclusively tobe found in private schools of the strictest denominatioal character and uninspected by the state.’”
It seems that 130 years ago, the education system in Trinidad and Tobago already had its familiar problems: inactivity of the Board of Education, the inefficiency of many of the teachers, and lack of supervision and local interest (as Governor Arthur Gordon said in 1869 in reference to the failure to educate the children of the East Indian community).
No satisfactory policy on schools for East Indian children was produced by the members and the chairman. It was the Reverend John Morton, the Secretary, who due to his personal enthusiasm, petitioned the Board of Education to open a trial school with government aid in San Fernando.
“In 1871, the first school for East Indian childeren was opened in Cipero,” writes Carmichael. “Government aid amounted to £175 per year for a teacher; $5.50 as result fee for every child who showed reasonable progress in the annual examinations and a 50 cents capitation fee per quarter for every child who recorded thirty attendances. Under these conditions it was possible to send a child to school to make a small profit towards the rent of £200 per year for which the mission was responsible.”
With four hours’ teaching per day devoted to secular objects, and outside of this complete freedom of religious instruction, the education scheme found the support of the planters in south, and by 1874, twelve school were open, ten supported entirely by planters, one by the Mission itself and one by the government. By 1899, Rev. Morton directed 16 schools, 14 of which received government support.
The importance to the colony’s economy of its agricultural sector is today hard to understand. The extent to which this sector had collapsed in the period right after the abolition of slavery was such that virtually all economic growth had been seriously threatened. The recovery was slow but steady. The impact of the new immigrants was felt in many ways as is reported by Daniel Hart, Senior Civil Servant, who in 1865 states:
“Crop of 1864
78,678,000 lb Sugar; 5,090,017 lb Cocoa; 13,329 lb Coffee; 72,120 lb Galls. Rumm; 1,729,640 Galls. Molasses; 55,500 lb Cotton. - Population 90,000.
No doubt some estates have made good crops, and those crops have yielded to the proprietor a fair, or even a handsome nett return, but how many estates have done so? On the other hand, it cannot be denied that without the large number of immigrants that have been introduced, the present crops could never have been made.”
The immigration of thousands of people from a completely different culture was not without its problems in the eyes of the Victorian westeners, however. In the days before radio and television, even before colour photography (black and white photography had barely been invented in 1838 and was still a complicated, expensive and poisonous affair), people had no idea of what people from other parts of the world looked like and behaved like. This led to immense cultural clashes in the 19th century, which Hart describes:
“It is stated that on their arrival in the French Colonies, the Indians are, previous to landing, made to attire themselves as civilised beings. For this purpose proper clothing is provided for them- nor are they permitted to be engaged as shopkeepers or traders in any way. In Trinidad the eyes of the inhabitants, high and low, are to behold these people almost in an entire state of nudity- it being contended that there should be no interference with them in this respect. ... Surely there should be no reason why they should not be told that they must clothe themselves as other people do- and if this were done, it would also tend to benefit trade- as the Dry Goods merchants would necessarily have to increase the importations.”
In many ways, the local population (which was in itself constituted of European and African immigrants and their immediate descendants) misunderstood the Indians’ way of life completely. Because the Indians were not Christians, they were considered as people who did not respect the ‘laws of God and Man’, as Hart describes:
“They cannot tend to the general benefit and advancement of the Colony to that extent as they ought, or, no doubt, would do, were the frequently and quietly exhorted by the clergy who should without, in the slightest manner, infringing on their Faith or Religion (if they do possess either, which is doubtful) remind them that the laws of God demand that every man should labour honestly and industriously six days of the week for his daily bread, and that the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord his God.”
The thiftyness of the mostly dirt-poor and displaced Indians also was interpreted as a disadvantage by the Europeans.
“Indians have no motive for any great exertion. Their simple wants are confined to a few pounds of rice, and a few peppers, and thus one or two days’ work is sufficient to provide them with a week’s subsistence. Hence, the limited extent of labour that is performed by or obtained from them as a whole.”
Daniel Hart as the statesman and economist was not only observant in the ‘cultural clashes’ between the local planters and the immigrants from far-away countries, he also deduced what action needs to be taken in order for the situation to improve:
“From all this follows the necessity for the planters to do all in their power for the benefit of their labourers. This should be one of their primary objects. Attention to their wants and comforts, together with sound and wholesome advice, would tend to do much good. Nor can it be denied that it is within the means of every planter to do a considerable amount of good in this way. Measures such as these, aided by the labour of the clergy, will, no doubt, tend to make the Indian and Chinese labourer more treatable. This would render the task of dealing with them less irksome. The advancement of an island like Trinidad, where there is such a mixture of nations, depends in a great measure upon the spiritual attention and instruction of the labouring population; the stringent enforcement of the p olice-laws; and the prevention, by the strong arm of the law, of vagrancy and idleness.”
Daniel Hart’s overall attitude and point of view is typical of the colonists. Underlying it all is the real fear of a collapsing economic future.
The reality, however, was that there was actual privation in the Sugar Belt, if not the entire agricultural sector. The vast majority of indentured Indians earned far less than the minimum wage that was legally guaranteed to them. Strikes on the estates began to occur. They appeared to be spontaneous. They were basically concerned with the collapse of working conditions as the Indians understood it. Some 50 strikes occured between 1870 and 1900.
“They usually occured in response to planters increasing tasks, reducing wages or withholding accustomed privileges; the strikes were defending existing plantation conditions from interference by planters rather than demanding new and better ones, and so the strikes were not a serious threat to the indentureship system.” (Dr. Bridget Brereton, ‘Race relations in Colonial Trinidad’)
In fact the system provided little protection for the indentured. More often than not the Protector of Immigrants, an official member of the Legislative Council, sought to protect the interest of the planters and not those under his charge.