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May 30 this year will mark the 169th anniversary of the arrival of indentured immigrants in Trinidad. They were brought here to replace the African slaves after slavery was abolished in 1838. But eight years earlier, in 1838 itself, Indian indentured immigrants started arriving in what was then known as British Guiana, now known as Guyana.
The passage from India to Guyana, Trinidad and other indenture destinations was torturous and humiliating. There are not many historical documents available for researchers. Nevertheless, both in T&T and in Guyana, valiant attempts have been made to source historical documents and write about the indentured immigration experience.
A Guyanese woman, Gaiutra Bahadur, has written a book titled Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, which focuses on the sexual exploitation of Indian women who were brought to Guyana and elsewhere to work on the sugar plantations. In Coolie Woman, Bahadur traces the journey of her great-grandmother from India to the West Indies as an indentured sugar plantation labourer, whose kind were called “coolies” by their colonial masters.
After the abolition of slavery, the British transported more than a million indentured Indians to more than a dozen colonies from 1838 to 1917, a traffic that was a third the size of the British slave trade.
Every “indenture” ship had a number of British officers with responsibility to ensure that its cargo of Indian immigrant labourers arrived safely at its destination.
In his Handbook for Surgeons, a superintendent in the Coolie Emigration Service, Scotsman Janes M Laing, a surgeon, instructed novices in the trade to study the rule against molesting women.
He stated, “The surgeon’s duty was delicate. In effect, he had to police the nocturnal activities of a crew he technically had no authority over. He was marooned outside the chain of command, able to discipline no one but the emigrants.” Laing explained the protocol in the case of violations. He insisted that the captain “punish any offences by officers or the crew, and punish any by the emigrants yourself.”
Author Bahadur wrote of an incident: “On 23 November 1875, the protector of emigrants on St Helena, the south Atlantic island where indenture ships often stopped to refuel, boarded the Ailsa for routine checks. He soon found himself surrounded by the women aboard, who fell at his feet to complain about Dr Holman.
“Later, as the protector and the surgeon were in the captain’s cabin, hundreds of emigrants stormed up from the ‘tween decks’ to demand Holman’s ouster. They threatened to jump overboard if he was allowed to sail on with the ship. And they made slashing gestures at their throats, indicating Holman’s fate if he stayed.”
The emigrants claimed that the doctor did not give them enough to eat. They said he pinched and slapped the women on the bottom. And they charged that he forced several women to sleep with him.
Ms Bahadur writes, “For decades, surgeons urged that vessels transporting ‘coolies’ be barred from transporting salt, which made ‘tween decks’ damp and unhealthy, but the practice persisted and the emigrants continued to succumb to fever. And their stomachs often churned from unfamiliar, religiously forbidden or spoiled food.”
She continues, “The ship reports refer to putrefying pumpkins, potatoes past their prime, milk that had curdled, tins of mutton gone bad, dhal infiltrated by dirt and drinking water laced with rust and cement. In the few first-person accounts by survivors of the crossing, the theme of being reduced to animals recurs: they slept like cattle, and they were fed biscuits fit for dogs.”
And the author observed, “During the most catastrophic years of the ‘coolie’ trade, between 1854 and 1864, the death rate on ships to Guyana was 8.4 per cent, equal to that on slave ships in the final decades of the 18th century. But by the time my great-grandmother sailed, the mortality rate on most indenture ships had fallen between one and two per cent.”
Our female ancestors who arrived in Trinidad as indentured immigrants shared the same experiences as their female counterparts who went to Guyana. Like the Guyanese Indian indentured women, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers were equally strong and resolute women.
My own image is that she was smart and resolute and almost single-handedly controlled the home and all its needs.
The far-flung villages and sugar estates did not provide banking facilities and the Indian community used their women as “living, moving bankers.” Family finances were usually invested in jewelry, and the womenfolk, on their arms, from elbow to wrist, wore silver jewelry called churi. The Indian women also wore heavy silver bangles on their ankles called kara. Other jewelry adorned their heads and faces.
Since it was the intention to return to India, the Indian immigrants did not invest in land and property until much later, when some decided to make Trinidad their home.
The Guyanese experience as researched and documented by Gaiutra Bahadur is shared by the women, our female ancestors, who came to Trinidad.