In the first decades of the Victorian era, 1837 - 1851, the world, that is the world of Britain's fledgling second empire, was already putting into place the social patterns of race, religion and class prejudice. Previously, all this essentially were the perview of the aristocracy, but with the emerging middle class, underpinned by the industrial revolution of the mid-19th century, and Britain's unrivaled success in the European wars at the end of the previous century, attitudes and a sense of overall superiority were readily in the hands of the most ordinary people.
It was fashionable to be intolerant and disdainful of all other who in their misfortune were seen as different. In these Islands, the British administrators had enough problems with the 'high-toned' French and their touchy coloured cousins. The former slaves, now freed, were left to their own devices under the law of cause to assimilate as best they could.
But it was the Indians, arriving at a rate, who put a different spin on subjects like religion. Their culture, the faiths that they possessed, contributed to their being viewed at the bottom rung of society.
Christianity was the accepted form; western cultural values the underpinning factor. Even for the Africans this was a given, even though some of them still practiced African inspired religions and rites. Christianity was supreme. The new arrivals, however, who were to save the island's economy, were viewed as heathens. All of them - pagans. The Africans sought to put some distance between themselves and the newcomers, who were in turn not ... either.
My cousin Andrea de Boissière told me this story concerning the famous black solicitor and social agitator Mzumbo Lazare. Well-off, Lazare had an estate in Diego Martin. He never hired any Africans to work on his estate, only Indians. Unfortunately, he had a habit of referring to his Indian gardener as 'dog'. Well, one afternoon when Lazare's wife ... was entertaining the priests, the warden, his wife and other local gentry to tea and piano playing, the gardener appeared in their gorgeous midst. he called out to her:
"Hey Monkey! When Hog come, tell him Dog gone!"
In those days, government grants were made exclusively to Christian denominations. Muslim and Hindu marriages were not recognised as legal and were described as 'under the bamboo'. The end result was that a vast quantity, in fact the majority of Indians born here were technically illegitimate.
Visiting clergy tended to see Hinduism as unclean. John Morton, a Christian missionary and pioneer to the Indian community, thought it 'sinister', fostering a 'low sense of sin' (!). All this was voiced in the press and became common knowledge, and passed, as many a myth does, into history. However, Indian indentured labourers on the cane estates generally couldn't read English and didn't get the papers in those days, so all this was lost on them. They performed puja, maintained their devotions to the Gods they knew, loved and trusted, and in so doing, their lives continued to possess meaning.
Perhaps this was why they were able to resist conversion. A mere 11% of a population of over 100,000 Indians converted to Christianity by 1921. The newcomers to the segmented society did not share the host society's evaluation of their faith. There were conversions that were made so as to gain advancement in education, to grasp lifestyle beneficial to economic growth.
Lionel Frank Seukaran, statesman, veteran politician, a man of the world, was born poor to Brahmin parent in Montserrat in the opening decades of the 20th century. Trained in the priestly traditions of his ancestors, Krishna, as his name was then, was very upwardly mobile. He made his way to San Fernando, shoes in hand, and only put them on upon arrival at the Canadian Mission Headquarters.
Accepted for schooling, he 'converted' to Christianity. After several months at school, a good friend, who had also converted, came to him one early morning.
"Krishna," he said, "I can't take this Christianity. I going home."
"But Krishna, Pa go kill me if I is a Christian when I go home."
Lionel thought about it for a moment, and then said:
"No problem. Meet me in the bicycle shed first thing tomorrow. Bring a coconut, some ghee, a white handkerchief, a little rice and some mango leaves."
The boy heaved a sigh of relief. Krishna, the Brahmin, always a Brahmin in spite of his own 'conversion' to Christianity, was going to turn him back into a Hindu...
Basically, for the Indians, the Hindus and the Muslims alike, "their religion provided a psychological protection, a sense of self-worth with which to arm themselves against the contempt of the society," comments Dr. Bridget Brereton. "The pundits and imams became influential leaders in their communities because they could offer this kind of psychological aid. In much the same way that creole society and the dominant English held Indian religion in contempt, this was also extended to Indian history, music, dress, cooking, taste and style. The island had been cast in the format of Europe and Africa. The slave societies of the Spanish, French and English had over the centuries syncretised itself through shared experience, history and custom into a Caribbean reality that did not include anyone east of Suez."
Over the decades, since the end of indentureship, Trinidadians of Indian descent have by and large become if not creolised, but certainly Trinidadianised. A parallel experience, sometime bridged through human encounters, creole Trinidad and Indian Trinidad possess much in common. It is history or perhaps the lack of knowledge of our historic process that make us appear so different and at times so intolerant.
"Ignorance of our history is the cause of all our misunderstandings and discords," wrote Trinidadian historian Pierre Gustave Louis Borde in 1876. "In breaking with the past, ignorance deprives us of the lessons of wisdom which are always drawn from earlier misfortunes. It is ignorance which breaks the links of fraternity which exist naturally between children of the same country. No matter what has been said, it is not by erasing history that we arrive a unity.”