Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The East Indians in Trinidad

by Jean de Boissière

Full of the typical anti-colonial sentiment of the times, the young author looks at the conditions of East Indian indentured life in Trinidad. Written in 1937.

After 1834, the slaves, given the liberty to work for a shilling a day or starve, thought freedom meant freedom and scorned the wages offered by the sugar companies. They went into the hills of Trinidad where they formed primitive communities that were entirely self-supporting.
Instead of solving the labour problem, emancipation merely proved to be the progenitor of a host of future problems. To solve the immediate difflculty, the ever-resourceful British government hit upon the plan of importing indentured labour from British India.
The Indians recruited in Bombay and Calcutta were even more greatly deceived than the "freed" slaves. They were cruelly misinformed about the great possibilities of Trinidad by the recruiting officers and immigration touts, who associated that backward, almost feudal, island with the fabulous development then going on in the United States. With this portrait of paradise across the seas painted for them, they signed labour contracts that sold them into an even worse slavery than the Africans had had to endure.
With the African, in ordinary cases, the value of a strong body in the open market had made the physical well-being of the slave a matter of concern to the owner. His old age usually was secure in a hut on the master's estate. The East Indian, after serving his term of indenture, which gave him wages just barely sufficient to keep him alive, was released just when the useful period of his life was over and his need of security had begun.
Under the terms of these infamous contracts, they received one shilling a day for their labour. What was the actual value of this shilling and its purchasing power was not told to them. They were housed in what proved to be overcrowded, filthy barracks. At the expiration of their contracts, they were friven the choice of remaining free citizens in the land or being repatriated at the expense of the government.
Thousands of them, unable to save a penny out of their miserable wage, returned to their native land, with which they had completely lost touch, penniless, old and broken irreparably. Those who stayed did so only because they had children who had established roots in the island. To these children belongs the credit for laying the foundation of the power of the East Indian community in Trinidad.
These young East Indians worked on the sugar estates alongside the newly arrived contract labourers from India. Here they saw the conditions under which their parents had worked. They would see a party of white and mulatto overseers hide in the canefields to ambush a recent arrival who had revolted against the unexpectedly harsh conditions by refusing to work. The pain inflicted upon the backs of their brown brothers was not.hing to the hatred each stroke of the tortuous leather cut into the souls of these East Indians of the second generation.
They buried their hatred in their hearts and worked and saved. Born agriculturists, they performed miracles of thrift to purchase small holdings of land. On these, they made every inch produce all it was capable of doing. With all the disadvantages they faced, in two generations they became the largest group of peasant proprietors in the island.
The full story of the settlement of the East Indians on the land will no doubt one day be told. It is already written indelibly in the events of the past half-century. The swamps of Oropouche and the fever holes of Fyzabad, all its settings, and then in the backwoods the struggle curved. The government remained indifferent to the questions of a water supply, roads, public health, education and indeed of every sort of public service—which alone justifies the imposition of taxes.
Oil with historic precedent helped to break this indifference. The impenetrable lands were promising an importance that can only be gauged by the dishonesty, secrecy and cunning in  which the situation was allowed to develop.
As the third generation was growing up, much to everybody's surprise, petroleum oil was discovered in Trinidad. Oil in such quantities that it was destined to make the island the richest of the West Indies; but the mineral rights were theirs.
Local and English companies were formed for exploitation. In advance of their geologists came a non-conformist minister. He saw opportunity knocking at his door and set out to win leases and lands from the unsuspecting peasants. With the aid of a pious mein and some soul-saving meetings, innumerable blocks of land in the richest oil-bearing districts shortly appeared as the property of the minister. A system of expropriation, common under capitalism, was at work in deadly earnest.
Because he had to work alone, the minister missed a lot of valuable pieces he might otherwise have swindled from th unsuspecting peasants. Those peasants whom he had missed, and some who had been cunning enough to wonder what lay back of all these efforts to secure lands and leases, were in a few years to make fortunes almost overnight.
Meanwhile, the expropriated ones soon lost the small sums they had received for their land (and oil) in an island where mad commercial scramble was rapidly replacing the former stable agriculture. These unfortunates would invariably end up sleeping, almost naked, in the streets of Port-of-Spain, waiting for a ship to carry them back to India that was merelt a figment of their imagination.
Others lapsed into the position of under-paid labourers on the sugar estates, taking  place of the contract labour that had been stopped during the war vears. They were undornourished while every ounce of energy thev possessed was used up in the broiling sun of the canefields. In the night, many took refuge in tho illusory world created for them by the smoke of the ganja leaf.
By l 920, oil had got over company-forming, land-filching stage and was flowing from the numerous derricks by the millions of barrels. The East Indians who had held their land against all effrorts of law and religion to dislodge them, now began to cash in. With the oil gushed their royalties. A definite era of prosperity lay ahead.
As usual, it all went to their heards with the rapidity of imbibing. They imported and raced highly-bred horses. They built large, uncomfortable houses and furnished them with red plush sofas and sea grass chairs.
With practical experience they soon learnt that life as lived by the West Indian ruling class was not all it was cracked up to be. And the difficulty of winning races (with horses, no matter how highly-bred), without having sufficient experience of the turf, was not long in becoming obvious to them.
When eventually to their Eastern eyes the incongruity of red plush and sea grass became a painful sight, they abandoned these childlike efforts to follow the ways of a people they had looked up to in their ignorance and turned their attention to educating their children in the philosophies of the East and consolidating their fortunes.
In attempting the latter, they found that the principle that kept them from winning races on the turf was the same as that which prevented them from making any headway against what was crystalising into a rigid monopoly of all trade by a small group of British and creole men, all working for the overdrafts thev had at the English and Canadian banks.
The chief difficulties put in their way was getting credit from the banks, exclusion from the higher councils of government and most unjust partiality in favour of monopoly in the administration of the laws governing commerce. With all this against them they still continued to hold their own against the entrenched interests.
If the East Indian community had heen comprised solely of a class of suddenly wealthy individuals, it would have met the same fate as its French prototype. But the prolific breeding capacity of all Eastern peoples had been at work and they were now more than one-third of the island's population.
The largest pure racial unit. Although unaware of it themselves, it was the down-trodden masses of the race that had saved it from extinction as a class.
Continuously stale-mated in commerce and dissatisfied with the second-rate social position offered them, they turned their attention to the one line of action opened to them. They entered the political arena.
Here the solidarity of their race made them more successful than any other subject people in the island. While the solitary French of Captain Cipriani had had to assemble a heterogeneous mass of followers, the numerous East Indian politicians had their mass following already formed and hungry for leadership.
This leadership was at first divided hetween the old business men and the younger generation. The older ones, weary and satisfied with the status quo, which left them barely hanging on to their fortunes, sat on the benches of the stacked legislature like frizzled fire-crackers. The younger ones, mainly muzzled by the third-class civil service positions they held, dissipated their discontent by creating a Moslem-Hindu controversy,
This storm over nothing (on the whole the race was more or less apathetic to the religion of their forebears) was cleary nurtured in the Indian section of the local press. There would be columns of Hindu anti-Moslem propaganda and vice versa. This was reaching the stage of splitting the East Indian community when their race threw up the leader who was to show them the true course.
This young man shows them that they should neither waste their energies squabbling over problems that belonged to oId India ,or accept the defeat of "inferior success" as meted out to their elders. He teaches them to consider themselves now as West lndlians and in a merging unity with the peoples of the other islands seek to break the bonds of class and race which binds them to most of their agonies.

No comments: