As with every ethnic event, Indian Arrival Day affords ethnocentrists the opportunity to exaggerate, misrepresent, or lie outright about the virtues of their particular group. History, in particular, becomes twisted to serve such ends, with Indo spokespersons typically claiming that India is the foundation of world civilisation and “Indian” values the best hope for the future of humankind. (Afrocentrists make exactly the same claims around Emancipation Day.) However, it is almost exclusively Hindu Indos who adopt this tack, hence leading to the valid accusation that the May 30 celebration is really “Hindu Arrival Day”.
Historian Bridget Brereton, in her important seminal essay Contesting The Past: Narratives Of Trinidad & Tobago History, notes that “a more extreme kind of Hinducentric narrative has also developed, especially over the last twenty years. Perhaps its classic public expression was a public lecture by Surendranath Capildeo in 1989, which narrowly identified Indo-Trinidadians with Hindus, and argued that without Indians (Hindus) economic prosperity, law and order, modern life overall, would collapse in Trinidad.”
In a May 26th newspaper column in the Trinidad Guardian, Maha Sabha leader Sat Maharaj reproduced an essay by an unnamed “young student, Hindu born and educated in T&T, to investigate the history of his presence 12,000 miles away from the Janam Bhoom’ of his ancestors” which outlined “how his religious and cultural legacies are being preserved, both here in T&T and in India.”
Brereton precisely pulls out the main threads of the Indo (or Hindu) narrative in Trinidad (nearly all of which in Maharaj’s student’s article). Some of these claims can be historically validated, but most are mere political statements intended to foster group solidarity against real or perceived threats. This article lists the key claims of Indocentrists, as identified by Brereton, and examines how they match up against the historical evidence.
THREAD #1: “It begins with the period of indentured immigration (1845-1917), and it insists that the vast majority of the immigrants were deceived, tricked or forced to offer themselves to the arkatis (recruiters) in India, not volunteers.”
Evidence: Although it is true that trickery was sometimes used in the recruitment procedure, the number of returnees suggests that the majority of immigrants decided that they were better off in the New World society than in India. When indentureship ended in 1917, Indians made up 35 percent of the population of Trinidad. In 1901, Trinidad-born Indians were 44 percent of Indians; by 1921, they were 69 percent.
Between 1870 and 1917, a total of 26,466 returned to India, or a 20 percent return rate over the indentureship period. Historian K.O. Lawrence in his classic study A Question of Labour, argued that this decision to remain in the Caribbean was not really a choice. “Although a majority of the Indian immigrants failed to exercise their right to a return passage, it seems unlikely that many of them decided to stay in the West Indies apart from the few thousands who, as we shall see, accepted commutation in money or land,” he writes. But Lawrence himself goes on to suggest that the successful immigrant probably wanted to stay on to make more money, while the unsuccessful ones didn’t want to return to India to face the hardships of economic struggle and caste barriers. These seem entirely rational choices.
THREAD#2: “Implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, conditions on the journey are described in terms reminiscent of the Middle Passage.”
Evidence: Among the regulations governing the shipboard conditions for indentured emigrants was a stipulation that every adult was to be given 12 feet of space. This was hardly the case with enslaved Africans, who were usually packed tightly into a coffin-sized berth for their trans-Atlantic journey from West Africa to the Americas. The Government of Bengal recommended that the number of emigrants to the West Indian colonies be restricted to 350 in any one vessel so as to prevent over-crowding. The colonial regulations with respect to shipping stated that all immigrants were to be given three meals of good quality per day and outlined how the Indians were to be accommodated on board the ships. There were, however, high mortality rates at the depots. The Trinidad depot had an average death rate of 11.1 percent in the 1870s.
THREAD#3: Once arrived on the plantations to serve out their indentures, the narrative continues, the immigrants faced appalling conditions of working and living. They worked long hours on the estates, for minimal wages, bullied and harassed by the managers and supervisors, the victims of elaborate rules and regulations which saw many of them jailed for trivial offences like brief absences from work.
Evidence: The contracts for Indian indentured labourers were for five years. They were to work every day except Sundays and authorized holidays for nine hours a day. The death rate among the indentured labourers in Trinidad was 12 percent in 1865. Investigations determined that malnutrition was a key cause, so a law was passed for planters to provide daily rations for the first year of indentureship to all immigrants. As a result, the mortality rate fell to 2 percent.
The Indians received about 25 cents for a day’s labour but this amount varied, although it never fell below 20 cents per task. However, these stipulated hours were often increased by the planters during crop-time, and the Indians were also forbidden to leave the estates without a pass. If they did so, they could be arrested and jailed. In 1861, seventeen percent of newly arrived labourers in Trinidad had been charged for running away, mainly because they had not expected the work to be so difficult (a figure which may provide some indicator of the actual proportion of Indians who had been tricked into going to the Caribbean). But this problem was reduced by 1865, with the number of indentured labourers escorted back to estates totalling 1,138, or just 3 percent of the total immigrant population. Figures collated by historian Radica Mahase show that, of all minor offences in 1916, 30 percent were committed by indentured labourers, and 60 percent of all murders—this latter percentage all women, all due to infidelity (real or perceived) because of the gross imbalance between the sexes in the indentured Indian community.
As regards wage-rates, sociologist Dennison Moore in his book Racial Ideology in Trinidad cites figures on savings by Indians. These show that between 1882 and 1887, the number of immigrants making remittances to India rose from 222 to 515, who sent back between £1000 to £2000 per year to their birth-land, while between 500 to 600 of those returning to Indian that decade had deposited an average total of £10,000 in the Colonial Treasury ( £20 average per person). Moore’s figures for deposits by Indians in Savings Banks show an average of £28 credit at year’s end. These figures suggest that Indians earned more than a subsistence wage.
THREAD#4: Moreover, they achieved their successes in agriculture (and business) on their own: the idea that all Indians received free grants of land after their indentures were up was firmly (and correctly) rejected.
Evidence: Of the immigrants who stayed, only 11,843 persons (27 percent) got the land or cash benefits. Otherwise, land was purchased in the normal fashion by the majority of Indians. The offer of land in lieu of return to India was also stopped as far back as 1880, having lasted just 11 years – hardly a time-frame that would have allowed Indians to gain some property advantage that would operate into the latter half of the 20th century when Indo-Trinidadians social progress really started.
THREAD#5: Indians were oppressed by the colonial authorities, by Christian missionaries who attacked Hinduism and Islam and used unfair means to secure conversions.
Evidence: In India itself during the Raj, fewer than 3 percent Indians converted after 200 years of British rule. But it was Hindu strictures which impelled many of those conversions, since 70 percent of Indian Christians come from Dalit or tribal backgrounds. Presbyterian missionaries had specifically targeted East Indians for conversion from the 1860s, but statistics from historian Brinsley Samaroo show that, 100 years later, just 7 percent of the total Indian population in Trinidad were Presbyterian. In Trinidad today, 11 percent of Indos identify themselves as Christian.