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All about Indians: A review of Trinidad During the 19th Century: The Indian Experience
Gerad Tikasingh’s 1976 PhD thesis (UWI, St Augustine) on Indians in Trinidad in the 19th century is one of the most widely consulted documents among historical researchers on the subject. It was the first locally produced thesis to examine Indians in Trinidad, and it was and remains a meticulously researched and formidably documented work. It was also a work of which nearly everyone who read it asked the same question: why isn’t this published?
Thirty-seven years later, it has been, as Trinidad During the 19th Century: The Indian Experience. The book has the benefit of nearly half-century of reflection on subsequent developments and subsequent scholarship on the issue. And what is evident from the beginning of the book is that the issue of epistemology is of premium importance. And from episteme come politics and consequences.
The thesis was written in the aftermath of Black Power. This meant the atmosphere in Trinidad was rife with much public expatiation of the African experience, and the tropes of struggle and oppression with which the Black Power cognoscenti, and their academic enablers, defined their experience. As a thesis, Tikasingh’s work differed, in terms of how the Indian experience would be defined. But in the public sphere over the next four decades, thanks to other academics, the Indo historical experience was conflated with the African experience.
Nearly a half-century after the thesis, The Indian Experience bristles and bridles at the mésalliance. The book is a much more polemical work than the thesis. This is evident from Tikasingh’s introduction, wherein he identifies “black bias” in historical scholarship, from which his work seeks to diverge, and takes grave issue with.
The bias (known these days as Afrocentrism), writes Tikasingh, manifests in three epistemological axioms, which do not stand up to examination. These were the assumptions that: Trinidad was a slave society; that Africans were natives, and Indians were immigrants; and indentureship was somehow analogous to slavery.
The first 138 pages of The Indian Experience are devoted to dismantling these axioms by examining the society from Spanish rule till 1845. Trinidad was not a slave society, Tikasingh argues. Slavery lasted only a half-century (from 1807 to 1838), and the society never settled into the institutional normativity of slavery.
For half Trinidad’s life as a slave colony (from 1807), the enslaved saw, heard, and exploited the fact of their impending liberation. They became difficult, and resisted their enslavers, behaviour that would be unthinkable in a traditional slave society, like Barbados and Jamaica, which societies had been designed around the institution.
Tikasingh argues, convincingly, that since indentureship lasted 72 years, and slavery 51, Trinidad might be more accurately defined as an “indentureship” society.
In this first section, Tikasingh traces the economic and demographic development of pre-indenture Trinidad. He dismantles the claims that Africans were natives, and the Indians were late immigrants by pointing to the island’s several “population makeovers” from the Cedula of 1783 to the introduction of Indians in 1845.
Many attempts were made to encourage black settlers from other islands, and (by 1841) some 13,281 black immigrants had come, but the plantations were dying for labour. Incidentally, he points out, intra-island immigration was fully financially supported by the State, and Indian immigration was only partially supported. And the black immigration from the other islands never stopped throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
He gives an overview of Trinidadian economic history from the beginning of the 19th century, and presents a plausible case that the economy was saved by the steady stream of labour from India. This has been pooh-poohed by mainstream historians, but the facts are there, if politics say otherwise.
And it is the politics, the social realities of Indian immigration materialised in the contact of cultures, and the human and power-wielding consequences which most interest Tikasingh. They are at the root of the epistemological and social/political problems.
A good example of a touchy political issue is the regional aversion to the sugar industry—when sugar continued to be cultivated elsewhere, like Brazil. The reality illustrated by the data, he points out, was that the Africans were unwilling to work on the estates, for obvious and understandable reasons of their recent experience of enslavement. Indians, because of their agrarian roots, had no such revulsion for the work, and the immigrant experience, though rife with injustice, hardship, and unfairness, was one the Indians chose gladly.
Tikasingh also discusses some of the much-bandied-about aspects of indentureship, like the contention that Indians were deceived or railroaded into emigrating. This might have happened in the early days of the scheme, but the consolidation act of 1864 addressed these abuses, and thereafter, Indian immigration “was one of the most regulated migrations that occurred during the 19th century.” He examines various stereotypes Creole society formulated about Indians: their litigiousness, their racial tendencies, and their untrustworthiness.
The polemical irruptions occasionally become overbearing, as they are repeated through the book. But in the main, Tikasingh’s argument is well-articulated and evidence-driven, and there’s a lot of evidence, some of which has not been seen before.
Most impressive is the documentation of the consistent institutional bias against Indians from even before their arrival. This was visible in the courts, the press and the immigration and education systems. The estates manipulated the law against labourers with impunity. Even when 80 per cent of the population was off the estates, any Indian could still be detained for not having a pass. This galvanised an organisation of Indians to petition the government—and catalysed the beginning of organised Indian politics in 1897.
In his discussion of education, he reveals the crucial intervention of the Canadian Mission in the person of the Rev John Morton in 1868. Before this, Indians were left out of the education system. By the end of the 19th century, the situation had changed radically. Education had transformed the Indian community, and it was around this is the time Indian political consciousness emerged, materialised in writing letters to the newspapers and forming association to protest what would today be called institutional racism.
What is also fascinating is that in the 19th century (as in the 20th and 21st centuries) the press was consistently used by the coloured middle classes against Indians. Tikasingh describes a revealing, and familiar to anyone who reads the papers these days, conflict during the San Fernando borough election of 1890. Mayor Robert Guppy and the San Fernando Gazette raged against one Albert Sammy, who, it was alleged, controlled a significant block of new Indian burgesses. According to Tikasingh: “The hysteria that was being whipped up against Indian burgesses in general and Albert Sammy in particular, was incomprehensible.”
Outside the polemics, the book’s 576 pages details the minutiae and overarching facts of Indo life. Tikasingh provides statistics on the number of castes among immigrants, the methods and areas of recruitment, education, the status of women, the geographic dispersion of Indian settlements, daily life on the estates, and the Jahagee relationships.
Despite this most impressive marshalling of material, there are some shortcomings. The author chose to self-publish. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but The Indian Experience would have benefited from a strong editor, and some pruning and compression.
There are two shortcomings with the structure of the book: first, the weak story arc. The book is presented as a series of sections loosely bound together rather than an unfolding story. The second major weakness is discursive: Tikasingh writes combatively, going mano a mano with Afrocentrism. He writes without the sense of security that critiques of Afrocentric epistemology exist within the West Indian academe (hard as that is to believe) and in the North American and western academe—as in the Black Athena debate.
A good editor would have restrained Tikasingh’s too-sharp, and too-frequent asperity (having made a point, he can’t leave it alone), levelled out the prose, and shaped the story arc of the book.
Nonetheless, The Indian Experience is a well-argued, well-documented work. Tikasingh has done justice to the material on Indians in the 19th century. Obviously historians will differ, perhaps violently, as to his interpretation and orchestration of the facts.
But the West Indian academe has for too long been complacent and guilty of laziness and self-indulgence. A work like this upsets those who need to be upset. This is one of the books every Trinidadian should read.
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