Some 25 years after the introduction of indentureship saw very basic changes in the overall socio-economic situation of the Indian immigrants. By the 1870s, the vast majority of Indians were resident on the estates. About 67% of which, nearly 40% in total, were indentured. At the turn of the 20th century, only 21% still lived on the estates, of which just some 8% were indentured.
While Trinidad-born Indians made up just 16% of the total Indian population in 1871, this ratio had risen to 44% in 1901, almost as many as Indian-born immigrants. by the early years of the 20th century, the majority of Indians were already living off the estates. They were starting up small settlements and villages, vegetable farming and livestock rearing, crafts and smalltime trading in the context of peasant proprietorship. This was the beginning of a pattern from which Indian life in Trinidad would eventually develop. It constituted a fundamental change from estate life, where the very necessities for survival were bound to the requirements of the owner. In terms of social leadership amongst the Indians, estate life caused traditional forms of leadership (e.g. cast) to take second place. New leadership patterns emerged to suit the needs of the plantation owner, e.g. the driver of the estate owner would become an influential person amongst the Indian labourers.
The move away from estate life was caused by a worldwide depression in the cane sugar industry in the 1880s. Deteriorating conditions on the estates meant that people had to fend for themselves or else go hungry. Wages fell and fell. All this caused an outflow from the estates into the villages and settlements. As small holders, the Indians grew food crops and, when possible, rice. They went into cocoa, both as contractors and as freeholders. They began to grow sugarcane as independent cane farmers from about 1885. The Indians contributed to local food production very significantly, even as their situation on the estates grew worse.
Indians during this period of transition and uncertainty developed a trait that was to brand them in the eyes of the creole society. This was the habit of thrift. Not sharing the creole society's attitude to showing wealth through clothes and ostentatious life styles, the Indians were accused of being miserly. But in much the same manner of many a first generation immigrant, be they Chinese, Portuguese or from the middle East, the Indians would save all they could and live in poverty so as to achieve future goals. Basically through ignorance of the cultural values of the Indians, Trinidadians of all races evolved a range of stereotyped attitudes towards them. Basically all were unfavourable - the pettiness of colonial island life obviously sought for a scapegoat. The Indians were seen as deceitful, but in fact were no more so than anyone else! They were thought to love litigation. No one in those days considered that the Indians may have no understanding of the 'moral force' of an oath or a promise in western terms. Indians were seen as prone to violence, especially towards women. Nobody thought of the disparity in number between Indian men and women, and the extent to which poverty and need may drive a woman with children from one protector to another. The collapse of traditional restraints against adultery, as would obtain in family life as opposed to barrack conditions, contributed to this.
At a time when here was no television or magazines, and ordinary people had no idea what other people looked like or wore, the Indian way of dressing - or rather, in Western eyes, not dressing - appeared as barbaric to Trinidadians. The manner of decorating women in silver and gold was regarded as pagan by the Christians and was consequently sneered at. What was not known amongst the creole society is that Indians generally did not put trust the banks, and some rather worked their coins into jewelry which their wives and daughters wore - another reason for her to not run away from the owner of that wealth, too!
Religious prejudice bore down on the newcomers. The religious practices of the Muslims and Hindus were regarded as equally bizarre by the Catholics, and dealt with contempt. A society which was already segmented along race and class lines as the result of the previous historical circumstances, joined forces to alienate the latest arrivals and would do so at a later date to elements of the Ottoman empire who sought refuge here - the Arab immigrants from Lebanon and Syria.
Very few Indians were literate in English before 1917. In 1911, 97% of the Indian-born population was illiterate. Compared to Creoles, hardly any Indian children went to school. Indian parents, fully understanding the pressure of creole society, kept their children at home, away from creole teachers whom they feared would ill-treat their children, ridicule them and try to convert them.
The Canadian Missionary Schools, established in 1868, gave thousands of Indian children the opportunity to learn to read and write. They were a westernizing influence, and many benefited from the generosity and kindness of the missionaries.
The Indians started to arrive in Trinidad in 1845 and continued to come until 1917. By the time that indentureship ended, some Indian families were into their third or fourth generation. Many families had adopted western values, were educated and cultured in the context of the New World. On the other hand, many remained on the land. The evolution of the Indians was not parallel to creole Trinidad in terms of access to education, the production of political leadership, or the assimilation of western cultural values until after the last war and the advent of party politics.