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Posts: 1810

« on: October 30, 2013, 12:33:03 AM »

The Indian experience

By Bridget Brereton
Story Created: Oct 23, 2013 at 11:31 PM ECT

Part 1

Readers of this column will have noticed that I often use it to “introduce” new books relating to T&T or Caribbean history. As we approach Divali, it seems a good time to notice an important new book by Gerad Tikasingh, entitled Trinidad during the 19th Century: The Indian Experience.

This long and well researched book emerged out of a UWI, St Augustine, doctoral thesis entitled “The Establishment of the Indians in Trinidad, 1870-1900” which was written in the early 1970s. Tikasingh has expanded the thesis and incorporated some new research. The heart of the book (chapters 3 to 9), however, deals with the period which was the focus of the doctoral thesis.

Today, I want to consider Tikasingh’s challenge to what he considers to be the dominant historical interpretations of Trinidad’s history, which, he thinks, have been accepted as valid but never subjected to testing by the evidence: “everything points to the need for a new historical framework for the history of Trinidad”.

First is the assumption that slavery is the core framework for Trinidad’s history and that its slavery experience was the same as that of Jamaica or Barbados. In fact, he writes, it was “short, recent in history, and seemed to have been of a different nature than in other slave societies in the British West Indies”.

Trinidad was effectively a slave society for only about 50 years (1780s to 1830s), while indentured immigration lasted for over 70 (1845-1917)…so, he asks provocatively, “did not indentureship have a greater impact on the nature and history of Trinidad?”

I agree with Tikasingh that Trinidad was a full slave society for only about 50 years, and that in this—and in other ways—its slavery experience was significantly different from that of (say) Barbados, as I have written in this column and elsewhere. But I part company with him when he tries to suggest that slavery was qualitatively different in Trinidad.

To “prove” this, Tikasingh cites entry in the diary of Frederick Urich, a young German whose family managed or owned sugar estates in Trinidad; the surviving diary covers 1831-32. Urich mentions several anecdotes of enslaved people defying and disobeying their owners in ways which, Tikasingh says, could not have happened in Barbados.

But he doesn’t seem to recognise that in 1831-32 the British government’s “Amelioration” programme was at its height, encouraging the enslaved to use the new laws and regulations to assert their “rights” in the run-up to Emancipation. One ought not to generalise from this period about the whole span of slavery in Trinidad.

The second historical interpretation challenged by Tikasingh is that which sees all black people as “natives” of Trinidad while all Indians were “immigrants”.
Immigrants from the eastern Caribbean were accepted as effectively natives, belonging to the island, while even locally-born Indians were still immigrants, not quite belonging.

“The most fateful and outrageous misinterpretation of the history of Trinidad”, he writes, is the myth that Indians were “the only immigrants into the island”; that “all others were natives” while Indians were “some type of interlopers in this land”. I think there is some merit in this assertion, though in my view he overstates the extent to which historians (he doesn’t name any) have so argued.

Third, and here I completely agree with Tikasingh, he rejects the “myth” that indentured immigration was “some form of disguised slavery”. Indentureds were exploited but they were never semi-slaves; the differences between the two systems of labour importation and control were fundamental.

Ironically in my view, Tikasingh attributes the myth to what he calls “the Black bias” in the interpretation of Trinidad’s history. I say ironically, because it is precisely the “Afro-centric” view of that history which insists on the vast differences between enslavement and indenture and the unique nature of chattel slavery in the Caribbean. If anyone, it tends to be “Indo-centric” spokesmen who claim indentureds and slaves “suffered equally”.

The fourth misinterpretation that Tikasingh challenges is what he sees as a “bias” against the sugar industry and agriculture in general. In part this refers to the policies of black-dominated governments after Independence, not so much to interpretations of Trinidad’s history.

But this view leads Tikasingh, I believe, to fall into bias and misinterpretations of his own. All through the book, he stresses that the ex-slaves and their descendants, and the British West Indian immigrants, hated and “disdained” agriculture and were uninterested in acquiring and cultivating the land—in contrast to the Indians.

Refusing to be full-time wage labourers on the sugar estates is not the same as rejecting all forms of agriculture. Tikasingh ignores the thousands of black and mixed-race people—whether descended from Trinidad ex-slaves, West Indian or Venezuelan or “Liberated African” immigrants—who were peasant cultivators and cocoa contractors, cane-farmers, owners of small or medium cocoa estates, in the later 19th century. These people, along with ex-indentured Indians, were also buying Crown lands in this same period.

In my next piece, I’ll try to summarise some of the detailed and immensely rich information and analysis about the “Indian experience” in the 1870-1900 period which this important book contains.

Posts: 1810

« Reply #1 on: November 08, 2013, 05:58:39 AM »

The Indian experience

By Bridget Brereton
November 06, 2013

Part 2

In this piece, I shall try to indicate the wealth of valuable information and analysis about Indo-Trinidadians’ experience in the later 19th century provided by Gerad Tikasingh’s Trinidad during the 19th Century: The Indian Experience. I will focus on chapters three to nine, which deal with the 1870-1900 period, as these (in my view) contain the best researched and most original material in the book.

Chapter three considers the immigration system. As I noted in my last column, Tikasingh rejects the view that it was a “new form of slavery”—a view that originated with anti-slavery activists in the 1830s and 1840s and has, he believes, been wrongly repeated by modern scholars. There were abuses in recruitment in India and on board the ships, but these were gradually remedied; it was one of the most closely regulated of all the many 19th-century migrations worldwide.

Tikasingh carefully considers why the immigrants came, citing both general (economic, social) and personal motives; where they came from; and their religious, caste and occupational backgrounds. He thinks (correctly in my view) that the great majority of the adult immigrants were neither tricked nor deceived into coming. Most of the 147,592 who arrived between 1845 and 1917 chose to come; they made the decision to leave India, even if they were often not fully aware of what lay ahead—common enough with all migrations, as Tikasingh points out.

In chapter four, Tikasingh analyses life on the estates, especially the indenture contract and how it worked in practice, as well as living and working conditions “on the ground”. While he notes the “penal clauses”, meaning the indentured person could be criminally prosecuted for breaches of the contract, he believes that on the whole few fell under these clauses, at least before the 1890s.

Tikasingh is in no doubt that the Indians, indentured and time-expired, were responsible for “saving” the island’s sugar industry, and by extension the whole economy. As he correctly argues, there is no evidence that indentured labour somehow retarded modernisation of the industry—quite the contrary, granted the major changes which took place in the 1870-1900 period. In his view, the role of Indian labour in “rescuing” the sugar industry, on which the whole economy depended, has been “overlooked” because of “deep and persistent antipathies towards the sugar industry”.

Chapter five carefully analyses a crucial shift: how ex-indentured Indians (along with their locally born children) moved off the estates and settled in villages as independent small farmers. In 1871, 68 per cent of Indians in Trinidad lived on the estates (indentured and free), by 1901 only 22 per cent did so. This was the era when the Indian population was transformed, when they put down deep roots as permanent, and often land-owning, settlers.
The land commutation scheme, by which some male ex-indentureds were given lots of Crown land if they gave up their right to repatriation to India, was important. But it only lasted for a few years (1869-80), and by 1900, Indians had bought twice as much Crown land as they had received through this scheme. Along with many people of other ethnicities (though Tikasingh doesn’t mention this), Indians bought land and became farmers—cultivating food crops, rice, cocoa and canes.

Chapters six and seven, which will be of special interest to many readers, analyse the culture and lifestyles of the Indians in this period: social life on the estates and in the new village settlements, the revival of traditional festivals, the disintegration of caste, the transformations in marriage and family patterns, the waning of the panchayat and similar institutions in a British colony governed by western law.

Of all the major institutions brought from India, it was Hinduism and Islam which “stood firm” despite the efforts of the Christian churches. Religion, especially Hinduism which around 80 per cent of the immigrants adhered to, was crucial for group identity and cohesion; in a world turned upside down, it provided an anchor for self-protection and self-identity.

Chapter eight looks at the education of Indian children up to 1900, concentrating almost entirely on the Canadian Presbyterian Mission; Tikasingh has done considerable research in the archives of the church in Canada. He is wholly admiring of the missionaries’ educational work, especially John Morton, the pioneer. Indeed, at times his praise reads as if from a 19th-century missionary publication, as when he writes of “the difference between the darkness of night prior to the arrival of the Canadian Mission and the brightness of a noonday sun after its arrival”.

In some ways the last chapter is the most interesting and original. Tikasingh shows how by the 1890s, articulate spokesmen for the Indian community had emerged. Through letters to the newspapers, petitions, organisation and political activity in San Fernando, these spokesmen defended the interests of the Indians. They protested against the use of “coolie”, and of “immigrant” for the long-resident and the locally born; they complained about new regulations that discriminated against ex-indentured and locally born Indians; and they formed the first formal Indian organisation.

This long book, based on original research and packed with valuable information, is the most important study of the Indo-Trinidad experience before 1900.

• Bridget Brereton is emerita professor of history at UWI, St Augustine

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