Neilson's Island, called Nelson Island, was a quarantine depot through which tens of thousands of Indians, possibly all Indians, passed on their way to the various estates where they would spend the next five years or, in some cases, the rest of their lives.
Like Ellis Island in the United States, it was their first disembarkation and their first encounter with natives of their host country. Gregory Duruty, who lived to a great age, worked in his youth in the Colonial Secretary's office and was aware of the arrival of the last of the indentured Indians to come to Trinidad aboard the S.S. Ganges in 1917. Duruty arrived on Nelson Island with a camera and a gramophone and took these pictures, capturing a unique moment when cultures clashed.
They, the newly arrived, had never seen these new devices - a machine that produced musical sounds, and as for the camera, they had no idea what it was. Interestingly, the record that Gregory played that day was world-famous Rudy Valley's singing "I ain't got nobody and nobody cares for me". This refrain, ironic, played over and over as the young Indian girls danced and arranged and re-arranged the hair of Gregory's friends, young Trinidadian women. The Indian men stood in rows for their photographs to be snapped. The significance of the words of the song may well have been lost on all of them, and the significance of the occasion, it being the last of the indenture to arrive in Trinidad, hardly grasped. Such is the naiveté of beginnings on the one hand and the enormity of an ending on the other!
The transportation of a total of 143, 939 persons to Trinidad from India over a period from 1845 to 1917 radically altered the ethnic composition of Trinidad's population. Already, the nature of the island's population had been very different from the other islands of the Caribbean which had fallen into the hands of the British at the end of the Napoleonic wars. Tobago and Barbados, for example, had a population made up almost entirely of people of African descent, and a small English contingent of planters, merchants and administrators, the vast majority of whom were transients.
In Trinidad, however, the population in 1845 consisted of a coloured black middle class aspiring to respectability, resident French, some resident English, and Spanish people left over from the previous century, some Chinese, arriving Portuguese, Italians, Germans, Irish, a few Jews, the newly freed slaves, and Africans taken off slave ships bound for Brazil and set free in Trinidad. With the sustained influx of East Indians from a variety of casts and backgrounds, and of Indian Muslims from different parts of India, Trinidad's ethnic mix was well underway to being unique.
For the close to 144,000 Indians who arrived in Trinidad, the majority of whom stayed on and started families of their own, it meant the commencement of the creation of a parallel society, one that was to blend in part with the overall population, while at the same time becoming as Trinidadian as what was once described as their 'host environment'.
The attitude of many people towards the arriving Indians in the 1870s and onwards was much influenced by the black and coloured professional middle class, people who opposed indentureship not on humanitarian grounds, but because it was seen as a symbol of the power and privileges of the European planter class, represented by colonial rule, with whom they were at loggerheads. Crown colony rule was an economic reality. It meant employment for the ruling classes, and the educated black and coloured middle classes saw indentureship as a hindrance to their own advancement.
A negative attitude to indentureship readily progressed to hostility and the ridicule of Indians - as seen in early calypso - and opposition to the indentureship system, born of reactionary attitudes towards coloured prejudice. Despite the fact that the Indians, through dint of hard work, had solved the colony's financial situation 40 or 50 years before, reform militants generated false notions about the Indians. Several prominent spokesmen, C.P. David, Q.C., the first man of with African ancestors appointed to the legislature, opposed indentureship. Another prominent spokesman of this group was Sir Henry Alcazar, who pointed out the abundance of labour and maintained that further immigration would only depress wages and cause unemployment. He said that the (black) masses were being pauperised by the artificial state of things created by Indian immigration, and that the labour market of the colony, especially in the sugar districts, was so overstocked that the earnings of the working classes were miserably low. "They are unable to find more employment than is absolutely necessary to keep starvation from their doors."
Newspapers, owned by coloured people, such as the 'New Era' and the 'San Fernando Gazette' maintained a steady attack on indentureship.
This negative attitude towards the indentureship system per se - even though it was directed against 'white' establishment and not against the Indian labourers - contributed to negative stereotyping of Indians as a whole, and became institutionalised in Trinidad. During the period of economic depression in the latter decades of the 19th century, the wages of labourers were reduced and tasks increased. Employment was high. Charles Kingsley wrote in the 1850s: "There are 8,000 human beings in Port of Spain alone without visible means of substistence."
The creoles' anti-Indian sentiment continued as a 'gut feeling', as prejudice, long after its main cause - the opposition against indentureship as a part of the colonial power structure that took away work - had long since been forgotten. Ironically, it was a 'black' reaction to the 'white' power structure of the day that contributed to the alienation of a large percentage of the population. The Indian immigrants entered a society that was basically hostile to them, where attitudes ranged from contempt to fear to indifference. They, in turn, reacted in a defensive manner. They were separated from the local population both residentially and occupationally. Religion, family life, the cast system, all served as a buffer for the indentured towards a hostile society, and long after the root cause had been forgotten, it still served to create separation and segmentation in the body politic.