Home > Themes > Waves of colonization and control in the Caribbean > Daily lives of caribbean people under colonialism > THE EXPERIENCE OF INDIAN INDENTURE IN TRINIDAD: LIVING CONDITIONS ON THE ESTATES


  • Sherry-Ann Singh History Department University of the West Indies St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago.

Indians workers in Trinidad

Throughout the entire span of the Indian indenture system in Trinidad (1845-1917), the living conditions on any given estate were hardly agreeable; and many times extremely sub-human. On the estates, Indians were assigned barrack-type quarters; many times the same barracks used to house the formerly enslaved Africans. Each room of the barrack building measured 10 feet square and 8 to 10 feet high and the partitions between rooms did not reach the roof, so that there was a total lack of privacy. Ventilation was often inadequate. Each such room accommodated either a married couple and their children or two to four single adults. Cooking was usually done outside, on the steps. 

Two persistent problems on the estates were sanitation and the provision of drinking water. Although some of the estates had sunk wells and water pumps, the facilities for storing rainwater on the estates were often inadequate. Even when there was adequate storage the water was still often polluted since both employer and labourers were careless about preserving the purity of the drinking water. The Indians themselves further exacerbated the situation by drinking water from the streams, ponds and canals. Until the twentieth century, stagnant drains and the absence of latrines created serious sanitation problems on most of the estates. Indians had to resort to using the fields. Thus, malaria, dysentery, cholera and such parasite related diseases as hookworm, ground itch and anaemia were rampant on almost all of the estates. Indians were also victims of occasional epidemics of yellow fever and smallpox. By law, each of the estates had to have a hospital to cater to the Indian indentured labourers which the District Medical Officers visited at fixed times. However, the condition of these hospitals fluctuated from good to deplorable. In the latter situation, the Indians had to stay in their barracks and were taken to hospital when the doctor visited. So acute was the Indian distaste for staying under such dilapidated conditions that a law had to be passed that imposed jail sentences on those who ran away from the hospital. Despite steady attempts at improving the health of the immigrants, investigations have revealed that on average, an indentured labourer in Trinidad was ill for up to four weeks per year. High infant mortality rate was a major source of concern throughout the period of indenture.

Due to the combined factors of the general lack of privacy in the living arrangements, the disappearance of the extended family system and the loosening of conjugal bonds, family life on the estates suffered tremendously. Throughout the entire duration of the system of indenture, there was an acute imbalance in the ratio of male to female immigrants. The eventual scarcity of Indian women had a severe impact on family life on the plantations since most Indian men refused to marry or cohabitate with African women. Competition for Indian women led to the erosion of caste restrictions and generated serious tension which often erupted in violence against unfaithful women and, sometimes, the loss of lives. Traditional Indian male-female dynamics were eroded. The practice of dowry in the Hindu marriage ceremony where the bride’s party gave gifts to the groom was reversed and replaced in Trinidad by the “bride price” where, now, the prospective groom had to “pay” for his bride. Marriages were noticeably unstable and “keeper unions” were quite common with their stability residing primarily in the satisfaction of the female. Inter-caste marriages and Hindu-Muslim marriages were common on the estates.

A wide cross section of the Indian caste system manifested itself among the indentured labourers. Hardly surprisingly, about 38% came from the agricultural castes, 31% from the low and laboring castes and about 13% from the Brahmin/priestly caste. These figures, however, carry with them a deep-seated ambiguity on the issue of authenticity of caste proclamations by the indentured Indians. Many are the stories of individuals changing their castes upon arrival in Trinidad or even at the depots in India. However, there was a significantly rapid attenuation and reworking of the Indian social system which could not reproduce itself under Trinidad’s extremely variant social, political, economic, ethnic and religious composition at the time. Thus, rather than the system itself, some elements of caste ideology and practices survived on the estates in variously attenuated and diluted forms. In fact, the process of caste disintegration and dilution began on the depots in India where all the immigrants, regardless of caste classification, had to share common space and facilities. This process would continue on the estates where shared living facilities and consequent indiscriminate contact among all the labourers further diluted many of the traditional taboos such as those associated eating and touch. All of the immigrants, save for a few, were reduced to the same social status. Occupation, instead of, as traditionally, being dictated by caste, was now determined by the estate overseer. Yet, though small in number, high caste men – or those with claims to high caste - , continued to wield some sort of influence among the Indians. Of these, the Brahmins, due to their role in religious and ritual performance and preservation, would emerge at the fore of Indian socio-cultural and even socio-political life on the estates.

In general, life on the plantation, focused as it was on the maximum extraction of labour, was not conducive to the substantial reconstruction of any aspect of religious, cultural or family life on the estates. In addition to the highly labour intensive days, there were many rules and regulations that directly curtailed Indian religious and cultural practices. For example, Hindus were prohibited from beating drums at their wedding ceremonies which were traditionally held at nights since they disturbed the peace. The “Muharram Massacre” of 1884 provides a most palpable example of the nature of such restrictions. Yet, despite the many encumbrances, elements of Indian religion and culture were eventually evident on almost all of the estates. By the 1860s, rudimentary 2-3feet tall structures, the earliest Hindu temples, began dotting the plantations; spaces were similarly claimed by the Muslims. Simple domestic ceremonies such as the puja - with or without an animal sacrifice - were being conducted. The sometimes daily recitation from the religious texts such as the Ramayana became a common occurrence after a long day’s work, providing the indentured labourers with the much needed respite and solace from their otherwise wretched and drudging situation. Even communally observed festivals took birth on the plantations in the form of theMuharram/ Hosay celebration and the Ramleela festival. The intense social, religious and cultural diversity due to the wide sweep of immigration saw the process of cultural, religious and social reconstruction being a highly creative one, marked by substantial levels of telescoping, adjustment and substitution. Syncretism was also evident in the growing participation of Hindus in such highly ritualistic Christian religious practices as All Saints’ Day and the visiting of the Catholic figurine in Siparia, who many Hindus eventually adopted as “Sipari Mai” or “Mother Siparia”.

Life on the plantations hardly took into account the particularities of Indian social life. Thus, Indian marriages, both Hindu and Muslim, were not recognized as legal unless registered with the District Immigration Agent, and the children born of such unions were deemed as illegitimate. Consequently, there were persistent problems over inheritance of property and governors had to even re-grant lands to the children of Crown grantees who had failed to register their marriages and had died intestate. This provides a very vivid example also of the clash of civilizations wherein, for the Indians, their religious ceremony was all the validation needed, while the Colonial authorities only recognized those unions that were officially registered; something that the Indians did not subscribe to. Hindus had to also resort to burying their dead since permission was not granted for the traditional method of cremation. Alcohol and ganja consumption was quite common among the Indians and, unsurprisingly, many ordinances and laws were implemented and revised in attempts at curbing the widespread and increasing drunkenness.

Before the 1870s, little effort was made to provide education for the children of the Indian immigrants. Indians were also resistant to sending their children to the ward schools because of the linguistic, racial and religious differences. In the 1860s a small number of estates and churches had established their own schools for the Indian children; the most notable of such institutions being the Tacarigua Orphanage and Training School set up in 1856 to care for Indian orphans. It was however, the sustained efforts of the Canadian Mission, initiated in Trinidad in 1868, that saw a substantial rise in the formal education of Indian children. Within five years Rev. John Morton had succeeded in opening twelve schools in close proximity to various estates, many of which were financed either wholly or partly by estates. Teaching was initially done in English, but both standard Hindi and the vernacular were increasingly used “to explain the English”. The emphasis was on reading, writing and Bible knowledge. The number of Indian children attending these C.M. schools slowly but steadily increased. However, because of the prevalence of child marriage and the destined roles of Indian women as wives and mothers, it proved extremely difficult to persuade the Indians to send girls to school. A notable number of the Indian males became teachers at the C. M. schools and several became catechists and preachers. The C.M. schools were also producing Hindi interpreters for the government and clerks in offices. Most of the Indians who acquired post primary education and subsequent employment via the Canadian Mission, however, fell prey to its underlying mission of proselytizing. In other words, during the period of indenture the only way out of the canfields was through conversion.

Catégorie : Daily lives of caribbean people under colonialism

Pour citer l'article : Singh, S.-A. (2013). "THE EXPERIENCE OF INDIAN INDENTURE IN TRINIDAD: LIVING CONDITIONS ON THE ESTATES" in Cruse & Rhiney (Eds.), Caribbean Atlas, http://www.caribbean-atlas.com/en/themes/waves-of-colonization-and-control-in-the-caribbean/daily-lives-of-caribbean-people-under-colonialism/the-experience-of-indian-indenture-in-trinidad-living-conditions-on-the-estates.html.


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