One of the more turbulent periods in Trinidad’s history was towards the end of the 19th century. This was a time when crown colony rule was challenged on many levels. The ‘Cannes Brulee Riots’ pitted the police against some of the island’s best stickfighters and white French creoles spearheaded a reform movement that brought them into confrontation with the colonial administration. But it was the Hosay Riots of 1880 that blood was shed to the extent that it was described as a massacre.
From 1845 to 1917, tens of thousands of Indians were shipped to this island to work in the cane. Amongst the multitude of faces of the bedraggled that stumbled ashore at the lighthouse jetty after the period of quarantine at Nelson island, there were those of a different timber.
Sharp-featured, bearded, harder, moving to the beat of a different reality, the Shiite minority was even a minority within the minority of Muslims who arrived in Trinidad. They brought with them a unique festival, a commemoration that marked a death.
The protector of immigrants, the official who oversaw the activities, work and welfare of the Indians, remarked that smoking ganja “helped to put the people into a state of exaltation on the day of the festival and with the drinking of rum it all degenerated into a mob as excited and wildly noisy and quarrelsome rowdies.”
Plantation servitude, endless hours of back-breaking work, the terrible homesickness, loneliness, frustration, disappointment and a multitude of other unrecorded factors were the cause for terrible emotions. Some of the Indians released them in the ferocious drumming, chanting, dancing, light and colour extravaganza that is the mourning ritual of Hosay. Whatever the reason, Hosay by 1880 had acquired a sort of symbolic value in the eyes of the Indians. Their cultural and national life and their self esteem were concentrated in the celebration of Hosay, a Mohurrun festival. Fr. Anthony de Verteuil, former principal of St. Mary’s College and renowned historian, wrote in his book ‘Years of revolt’:
“Every year the Hosay festival was celebrated on the 10th day of Mohurrun, the first month in the Islamic calendar, in order to coincide with the anniversary date on which imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Mohammed, was slaughtered at Kerbala, Iraq, some 1,370 years ago.”
Hosay was brought to Trinidad by the Shiahs, a sect within Islam representing perhaps 5% of the world Muslim population. Hosay itself was taken into India by the Islamic mogul conquerors more than 800 years ago. The faith of the Islamic invaders was adopted by many Hindus and adapted, for many of the converted did not completely give up their traditional and customary forms of religious expression. In this manner, the austere forms of this observance originating in Muslim Persia, became in India and as a result of transportation to Trinidad and occasion for colourful processions and the production of ‘Tadjahs’, drumming, elaborate rites and ceremonies. Great tadjahs were constructed on the estates, replicas of the tombs of the martyrs, and both Hindus and Muslims assisted financially. The building of the tadjah was passed down as an inherited craft from generation to generation., The creation was sometimes a result of a promise to God, or was a devotion to avoid misfortune.
The processions, the wild drummings, the spinning red and blue ‘moons’, the seizing of the day was alarming to all aspects of creole society both black and white. Memories of the Indian mutiny of just over 15 years before, when tens of thousands of English were massacred in India by both Muslims and Hindus, was fresh in the minds of the administrators. The other classes saw it as an opportunity to point out just how alien the Indians were. Against the reality that in 1881 there were 48,820 Indians in Trinidad, 31.8% of the population, and bearing in mind that almost all the Indians were adults and most of them male and concentrated in particular areas, the alarm felt and expressed was not entirely without reason. Clashes had been taking place for several years between the Hosay of adjoining estates, beginning at St. Joseph and eventually all over the cane belt. The reaction to this by the Sunni sect, the majority of Muslims was the penning of a letter to the Governor Sir Stanford Freeling, condemning the Hosay and distancing themselves from it and the appeal for its discontinuance.
The result was that the celebration was to be controlled, in fact regulated, and the processions were not to be allowed to enter the towns. During this period of the 1880s, there was increasingly for the first time labour unrest on the cane estates arising from various conditions, the most onerous being the nature of task work, but also actual living conditions. Tensions were rife because of the lack of women. Also by this time there were in fact a large percentage of Indians who had either served out their indentureship or had grown up here and were so acclimatised that they had left behind the subservient character of the freshly arrived indentured.