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Who controls the past, controls the present
It was George Orwell who said, “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.” The phrase is eloquent in its description of historical description and the hidden power it exerts for how populations imagine themselves.
Take late 19th-century T&T as an example. Sometimes the narratives of division that fill many history books are so intense they lead the reader to guess there was no mixture then, ever, between our various social groups; just a census’s plurality of segments where cultures bounced off each other.
Now to look for mixture then doesn’t mean that 19th-century T&T was the multicultural space of 2013 either. It certainly wasn’t. Yet while it is true the two largest groups demographically today remained mostly apart during this initial period, the separation might not have been as complete as some have insisted.
For example, while scholars are correct to stress the heavy presence of East Indian arrivants in rural Trinidad, not all were sent to rural areas; some were sent to the plantations in and around Port-of-Spain, swelling the already overcrowded barracks and living in harsh conditions on estates to the north-west of the capital. The Peru estate (today’s St James), for example, survived the labour shortage after emancipation through the work of East Indians. Woodbrook plantation too.
In terms of the city limits of Port-of-Spain, immigration stats compiled from the General Registers of Immigrants by GIM Tikasingh state that by 1891 there were over 1,000 East Indians living in Port-of-Spain, the vast majority female. In this situation, some members of both groups were able to observe and interact with each other.
Outside Port-of-Spain we also know that on arrival Indian contract workers were assigned to a plantation where they were indentured for three years, and were lodged in loogies and barrack quarters, which were actually the living quarters of the original black slaves. So at the very least, observation of each other, and perhaps knowledge of common exploitation, might be suggested.
Of course, the environment of the plantation society was not a place where the rigidity and authenticity of the caste system could be maintained. As Des Voeux noted in his 1871 report to the British Parliament, not only did East Indians on occasion share quarters with “others differing in caste but sometimes also in race.”
While in the minority, some authors like Neil Sookdeo note that on Trinidadian plantations solidarity was sometimes based on estate work group in spite of racial difference. “In 1859, when competition and assault became blurred during Hosay observances, Creoles and Chinese went to the help of their workmates; loyalties to the estate transcending those of race in the fighting.”
According to Sookdeo, from the 1860s onward, Hosay itself attracted the “active participation of blacks…which included fasting to build castle-like structures and playing tassa drums.” Furthermore, “the distribution of Indians and Africans on the different estates created multiracial competitive units.”
Another important place to look for evidence of mixture is in 19th-century Indo-Afro sexual relationships. Audra Diptee’s work reassesses our understandings of the interracial sexual relationships between Indian men and women of African descent.
While interracial sexual relationships may not have been the norm, they probably occurred more often in 19th-century Trinidad than we are currently led to believe. Furthermore, as Diptee makes clear, some authors overlooked “the perspective of Afro-Creole women and have presented them as sexual objects to be had at the whims of Indian men when, in fact, these women had a decisive role in negotiating sexual relationships.”
Further evidence can be derived from the census of 1911, in which there are 1,515 people of mixed Indian origin. Interestingly 975 had Indian fathers and 539 had Indian mothers. Diptee’s work concludes that the sexual aversion portrayed in much scholarship of the period between Indian and Afro populations is “somewhat exaggerated in the existing scholarship.”
Now, the point here is not that we were a multicultural society in the 19th century. We weren’t. Yet to see our socio-cultural groups solely as billiard balls bouncing off each other, rather than on some level slowly observing, adapting, and blending to each other, erases the cultural processes between groups that contributed to the nation we’ve become today. Yes, it might not have happened everywhere at the same time. But culture is always moving and changing. It doesn’t remain the same.
• Dr Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at UWI, St Augustine
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