By Bridget Brereton
Jul 7, 2011 at 12:54 AM ECT
Our recent celebration of Indian Arrival Day gives an opportunity to think about the way we remember our past—in this case, the past of those of us whose ancestors came here as indentured immigrants from India. In an interesting article in the T&T Review (June 6), Kevin Baldeosingh wrote about "Fact and Fiction of Indians' Arrival". I want to revisit this theme here, and in my next two columns.
An important part of the Indo-Trinidadian narrative is the idea that nearly all the people who came were tricked, deceived or forced to offer themselves to the recruiters in India. If it wasn't a matter of outright kidnapping, helpless, gullible folk were told lies about where they were going and what they would have to do there. (They were going to "Chinidad", the land of sugar, where they would simply have to "sift sugar"). Hardly anyone made a deliberate decision to go or had a clue about what was ahead of them.
Now, while trickery and deceit, or even force, must have played a role in many individual cases, it's difficult to accept that the great majority of the immigrants didn't in fact intend to leave India (though only for a time) or didn't know in a general way what would happen to them in Trinidad or the other colonies once they arrived.
The immigrants mostly came from several districts in the Bhojpuri-speaking area of Northern India. From the start of indentured immigration to its end, people returned—since the scheme included the right of repatriation to India. Is it possible that these returning folk didn't spread the word, in the villages and districts, about the voyage, the conditions of work in Trinidad, the hardships and opportunities involved?
Peasants, even illiterate peasants, are not necessarily stupid, and word spreads even in places where most rural folk couldn't read newspapers or letters. Probably the immigrants had a hazy sense of the geography of the Caribbean in relation to India. But most must have known they were going far, far away, were in for a difficult voyage of up to three months, and would have to work very hard on arrival.
Most of the adults who came as indentured immigrants had made a choice to come. It was a hard choice, and forced on them by any of a combination of circumstances: dire poverty; landlessness and oppression by landowners and officials; caste discrimination; gender oppression in the case of women, especially widows and deserted or runaway wives; the destruction of traditional industries by the British; periodic famines; personal or family troubles, such as debts, feuds, religious or caste disputes, legal difficulties, marital problems.
Some of the young immigrants were probably motivated by a sense of adventure, as Shamshu Deen said in a recent lecture on Nelson Island.
So did they come "voluntarily"? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that most made a conscious choice to leave India. No in the sense that they didn't want to leave. They were pushed to leave to escape terrible circumstances at home. They were no different in their motives than, say, Barack Obama's great-great-great-grandfather, who left famine-stricken Ireland for America in 1850.
So why the widespread idea, found in Guyana as well as Trinidad, that nearly all the immigrants were tricked into coming, or actually kidnapped, and had no idea what lay ahead of them?
Clem Seecharan, a Guyanese historian, has speculated that it is easier psychologically to think of the ancestors as helpless victims of fraud and wickedness, than to accept they chose to leave Mother India. It almost seems like a "betrayal" of the homeland, to think of them as opting to abandon her.
But the Irish don't think of the two million who left the motherland for America and other places in the 19th Century as having betrayed Ireland. On the contrary they are greatly celebrated, as we learned during the recent visit of that newly discovered Irish-American, President Obama.
Of course it's true that our Indian immigrants came as indentured labourers, bound by special laws and restrictions which made then—for a time—unfree. The penniless Irish immigrants of the same period, if they survived their Atlantic crossing, arrived as free men and women. This is an important difference. But in terms of motives for leaving their homelands, there was little difference between the two sets of immigrants.
It's interesting that a new memorial to the indentured immigrants in India doesn't use the "fraud or force" explanation for their departure. The Kolkata (Calcutta) Memorial, established at the site where so many of the immigrants were collected, awaiting shipment to the Caribbean, Mauritius, Fiji and Africa, was inaugurated in a high-profile ceremony in January 2011. The Memorial plaque, in Hindi and English, pays tribute to the indentured immigrants who went "to far away lands seeking better livelihoods for themselves and their descendants". No suggestion here that they were tricked or forced to leave; just a simple acknowledgement that they left India to find a better life for themselves and, especially, for their children and grandchildren.
• Bridget Brereton is Emerita Professor of History at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, and has studied and written about the history of Trinidad and Tobago, and the Caribbean, for many decades.http://www.trinidadexpress.com/commentaries/Narratives_of_arrival_-125122799.html