Indians Abroad: A Story from Trinidad

By Namit Arora

[I somehow managed to write a 3,500-word essay on Trinidad without mentioning cricket, rum, or the steelpan. Can I be forgiven for that?]

NationalMuseum7 In April this year, I visited the Indian Caribbean museum near the town of Chaguanas in Trinidad. Set in a large hall, the museum had no other visitors. Its curator, Saisbhan Jokhan, 69, came out to greet me. Jokhan, I soon realized, not only loved to talk but was also a trove of information. As I began taking notes, he asked if I was a journalist. Yes, I said; I wrote for a venerable publication called 3 Quarks Daily, and I intended to write about the Indo-Trinidadian experience. His eyes lit up and for the next ninety minutes, he accompanied me in the museum, explaining and answering my questions.

The museum commemorates the history of a million Indo-Caribbeans whose ancestors came as indentured laborers from India between 1838-1917. Its panels include details on immigrant ships, copies of girmits, or indenture agreements, and rare archival photos of life on sugarcane plantations. Evocative objects abound: an improvised sarangi, a pair of wood slippers, a rotary sugarcane press like the ones still used in mofussil India, even a lifesize model of an indentured worker’s hut. Other displays show milestones in the life of the community, such as a 1970 photo of the first Indo-Trini policewoman; a panel on Alice Jan, the first lady of Indo-Trini culture; Indo-Trinis winning the right to build their own schools in 1952, allowing them to replace Christian teaching with Hindu teaching.

The museum is run by the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, a conservative Hindu organization that also runs many temples. Talking to Jokhan it struck me that he lived with a clear sense of ‘his people’, what they have suffered, what challenges awaited them. His tone, and the museum’s singular focus, brought to mind a pastiche of Jewish museums I have seen over the years. This too felt like a museum designed to preserve the collective memory of a people’s suffering and struggles, and Jokhan seemed to me the right man for the job: proud of his identity, devoted to his community, slightly paranoid.

Jokhan’s historical memory is alien to people like me who have joined the Indian diaspora in recent decades. We have fostered the stereotype of Indians as a model minority, led by professionals and marked by diligence and enterprise in the pursuit of opportunities around the globe. But most of the Indian journeys in the colonial era were very different. They involved harsh unskilled labor on sugarcane estates, horrible living conditions, and severe discrimination. Trinidad, which I will look at here, is one chapter of that past; others include Guyana, Suriname, Jamaica, South Africa, Fiji, Mauritius, and Réunion.

The Plantation Economy in Trinidad

Boodhoo Trinidad was colonized by the Spanish in 1592. A backwater for much of the next 200 years, it passed into British control in 1797. By then there were also many French, who were perhaps the worst slavers on the island. Despite the rights-of-man and other humanistic ideas then rising in Europe, the colonial French and the British remained enthusiastic slave traders. Hundreds of Africans were enslaved and taken to Trinidad each year just to replenish their high mortality from a brutal regime of work and disease-prone living conditions on sugar plantations; tens of thousands were imported over time. Children over age six were made to work. Corporal punishment was used—the master could administer up to 39 strokes for an infraction. Errant slaves were also disciplined in jails via flogging and torture; some were even mutilated or executed. In 1801, a negro slave owned by one Mr. Patrice was accused of witchcraft and burned alive at the stake. The slaves resisted in myriad ways and occasionally poisoned their masters, which then led to worse reprisals—tortures, hangings, and burnings—with decapitated heads sometimes hoisted at the entrance of plantations to intimidate other slaves.

In 1802, there were close to 200 sugar estates in Trinidad, with 2,261 whites, 5,275 free coloreds, and 19,709 slaves; the Caribs and the Arawaks had been more than decimated—their estimated pre-Columbian population of 40,000 had fallen to about 1,000. When at last the British government announced a ban on the transatlantic slave trade starting in 1807, the colonists protested bitterly. A slave owners’ petition to the King and British Lords called it ‘a vexatious and most injurious interference with the authority of the master over his slave’. But slaves continued to be bought and sold within the Caribbean islands. Slavery itself persisted in Trinidad until 1838; the slave owners demanded and received compensation from the British government for the ‘loss of their property’, which equaled the average market value of each slave in the preceding years.

WoodfordSquare4 After their emancipation, most slaves promptly left the plantations to become small holders, or to work in cities like Port of Spain, engaging in small trades in cloth, tobacco, fishing, and semi-skilled labor. The few who stayed back now demanded higher wages and worked fewer hours. This was clearly anathema to the planters, who worried about production, profit, and losing out to the beet sugar produced in Europe itself. The whole plantation economy and the colonial enterprise risked collapse. Too much capital had been invested—including in sugar factories with steam engines, ports, and other infrastructure—to let this happen. Something had to be done to secure a cheap, reliable, and easily managed pool of laborers.

Well, thought some in the British government, how about getting laborers from Asia? They turned to China at first and brought 2,500 Chinese to Trinidad. But the long voyage proved too expensive, and the Chinese authorities required a return ticket guarantee. In Trinidad, the Chinese mortality rate was high; many bought out their indenture and moved to other trades—a disaster from the planters’ standpoint. The British then turned to their own colony of India, which had regions with a climate similar to Trinidad’s and millions of poor peasants, who, the British surmised, had better odds of surviving tropical diseases.

The Coming of the Indians

Sailship The first immigrant ship from India, Fatel Rozack, arrived in 1845 after a journey of five months, carrying 225 Indians, most in their twenties, and over eight men for every woman. It had separate areas for men and women. Jokhan showed me a copy of its passenger log, pointing out that the first Indian to disembark was coincidentally named Bhuruth Suroop—a colonial clerk’s rendition of what I might have written as Bharat Swaroop. Trinidad is full of such tweaked spellings: Sewdass, Capildeo, Ramnarine. Until 1901, the ships were sailing vessels (‘Pal Jahaj’); thereafter, they were steamships (‘Aag Jahaj’). Jokhan pointed me to a list of ships that made the passage, the number of passengers in each, and the deaths en route. The mortality rate varied a lot. In 1858, on a ship named Salsette, 106 of the 197 Indians died. Scanning the numbers, I estimated the average mortality during the 19th century to be around 5%.

About 145,000 Indians came between 1845-1917 in over 320 shiploads. The vast majority was from the densely populated Gangetic Plain, from what are now UP and Bihar. They spoke Bhojpuri, a dialect of Hindi. Their primary driver was to escape economic destitution—intensified by repressive British taxation after the Indian Mutiny in 1857—and for a few perhaps to dodge a crime or a caste dispute. Due in part to a double failure of the monsoon, a major famine hit India in 1878-79, killing millions. Trained recruiters went from village to village promising good jobs in Damru Tapu (‘Demerara Island’). The lure was strong enough to overcome the significant taboo of Kala Pani, or crossing salt water, which rendered one an outcaste. Few women came at first but after 1868, concerted effort raised their numbers to four women for every ten men—though better, the continuing imbalance caused a host of social problems later, including violence over and against women. Because they left from Calcutta, they were also called Kalkatiyas. Until 1870, a few Madrasis came too, but were deemed unsuitable and troublesome, not the least because many of them were urbanites. About 85% were Hindu and most of the rest Muslim. Of the Hindus, about 15% were Brahmins—more than the 9% in their home population—and most of them, writes historian Radica Mahase, had ‘earned a livelihood from the land and were also vulnerable to changes in the rural economy.’

Coolies After tinkering with various indenture contracts to somehow stay within the law while maximizing returns, the colonial government finalized an ordinance in 1854. It required indentured Indians to live on a plantation for five years and work at least fifty hours a week, at wages that were below those of the non-indentured. They could not step off the estate without a ticket of leave, or they would face time in jail. A ‘free’ return passage was allowed after an additional five years of stay, during which time the Indian could work voluntarily on an estate, or pay a special annual tax not applicable to the rest. Failure to adhere to this contract—a civil offense—and even the sheltering of absentees and deserters, led to criminal penalties and jail; the employer incurred no similar penalties for breaching his side of the contract. A great many of these plantations were in the region around Chaguanas, surrounding the museum where I stood.

In official documents and in the press, the Indians were referred to as ‘coolies’ and ‘our heathen population’, whose religions, wrote a leading Canadian missionary, fostered ‘a low sense of sin’. Their rites were ‘degrading and uncivilized’. In 1884, when Indians came out to defy a new law against religious processions by publicly and peacefully celebrating Muharram, the colonial police shot dead 22 and injured over 100. Many protests and uprisings were ruthlessly put down. Until 1945, neither Hindu nor Muslim marriages were given a legal standing—reserved only for Christian marriages—making Indo-Trini children technically illegitimate and legal inheritance difficult. Indians were stereotyped as deceitful and miserly (most saved for their life back home or from habit), and contempt for their ‘unclean’ ways was rife. Despised for their ‘uncivilized’ dresses, their women were sneered at for wearing bangles and rings. I saw a few such Indian dresses on display in the museum, alongside cooking utensils, a grinding stone, and agricultural implements (too bad photography wasn’t allowed).

Chaguanas34 To keep wages low, the colonial government of Trinidad, unable and/or unwilling to stand up to the powerful planters, continued to bring Indians when they were not needed. There was no labor shortage, and now the glut of labor worsened race relations. Wages for plantation labor fell—from 50c/day in 1842 to 25c/day in 1870—including for the Afro-Trinidadians, who came to resent the new arrivals. In relative terms, the Afro-Trinidadians, though still very disadvantaged, were better educated, more proficient in English, more urban, Christianized, with better jobs and political acumen, and even had a voice in the press. The vast majority of Indians did not convert to Christianity, and clung on to their faiths more tenaciously than other immigrant groups in Trinidad, including the Chinese. The Indians were politically unplugged, socially conservative, and culturally insular—a situation surely not helped by their habits of caste, family, and religion, nor by their reluctance to cohabitate with others of a darker color and different culture (though sex was another matter, as were illegitimate children). But there were always exceptions; in the past week alone, I had met two Afro-Trini women with ‘pure Indian’ grandmas, who must have left their communities to live with Afro-Trinis; their Indian families likely ostracized them for it, at least for a time (I wish I had asked if this was known about them).

Most Indians were also poor, uneducated, and insecure, and so became easy objects of social contempt and discrimination. The barracks they lived in were insanitary and overcrowded; malaria and hookworm infestation were rife; nor were they given any shoes. Poverty and poor diet created legions of decrepit and emaciated Indians, provoking further contempt from others. At Christian missionary schools, Indian kids were ridiculed for their religion and pressured to convert, so not many Indians sent their kids to school—not until a Canadian Presbyterian setup schools for them in their own communities. Bridget Brereton, a historian of Trinidad, writes:

NationalMuseum2 The Indians entered what was an essentially hostile environment, and the host society became even less sympathetic as time went on and it became clear that they would be a permanent element in the population. Planters, officials, upper-class whites, educated colored and black Creoles and the black working class all, to different degrees and for different reasons, reacted unsympathetically to the arrival of the Indians. Interaction between the races was at a low level, and the Indians were quickly consigned to the lowest rung of the socio-economic-cultural ladder. …

In short, the coercive indentureship, the legal separation of the Indian population, the harsh economic conditions of their existence, the low-status jobs that they filled, all operated powerfully to make all sections of the Trinidad society despise them—even the planters for whose benefit they came.

Despite these conditions, the Indians had, within a generation, not only rescued the sugarcane industry, they had become its mainstay. To keep the experienced workers from returning, a new scheme in 1869 offered them land after their ten years of work—provided they renounced all claims to the ‘free’ return passage to India. Many others purchased Crown land from their savings. In due course, many Indians completed their indentureships and became peasant proprietors in new villages, with names like Calcutta, Barrackpore, and Fyzabad. They grew wet rice, vegetables, and raised cows and buffaloes brought from India. They also imported mangos, guavas, tamarind, pumpkin, lentils, melons, ginger, mustard, and a host of other plants. Unfettered by the imperatives of plantation life, their settlements now permitted alternate forms of social organization. A panel I saw in the National Museum states: ‘On completion of their contracts many remained to become productive, useful citizens. East Indians did not easily assimilate into the Creole culture. In 1940 they still retained, almost intact, the way of life—dress, religion, language, music and food of India.’ Racial discrimination, however, remained a major barrier to assimilation and fostered a sense of solidarity among the Indians.

StJames7 By the turn of the century, a new political sensibility had started emerging. A few Indians had begun to speak for their community in the island’s press. Owing to their efforts, ‘East Indian’ replaced the term ‘coolie’. But as late as 1911, over 97% of the Indians were still illiterate. Over 70% were still agricultural laborers, doing the worst kinds of manual jobs; in the towns, ‘they filled miserably paid, generally despised jobs as scavengers and porters, ‘coolies’ in the true sense of the term’.[1] Even in 1921, only 187 Indians were categorized as ‘officials and professionals.’ ‘Indians were far behind in the education stakes by the end of the indenture system,’ writes Brereton, ‘and this explains their late entry into the high-prestige occupations.’ Curiously, as labor movements forced the colonial government to become more representative through increased voting rights, the instinct of the Indian community was to ask for a separate electorate (which was denied)—a development with striking parallels to a similar demand by the Dalits in 1930s India.

The Enigma of Arrival

StJosephWoman3 The indenture system eventually ended in 1917 when Indian leaders like Gokhale, Gandhi, and Malviya agitated and introduced a resolution in the Indian Legislative Assembly in 1916. The indenture period for the last arrivals expired in 1923. Altogether about 25% had returned to India. More might have, were it not for ‘lack of arrangements, inadequate return passage and the danger of shipping [as well as] fear of social disgrace in the motherland.’ [2] Today over half-a-million identify as Indo-Trinidadians, making up over 40% of the country's population. The Afro-Trinidadians make up another 40%, while the rest identify as mixed, including combinations of Carib, Spanish, African, British, French, Chinese, Indian, Syrian, Venezuelan, and others. I was continually fascinated by the unique faces that such unions have produced. The corporate ‘multicultural ad’ in Trinidad is interesting to behold.

Jokhan disappeared into his office and returned with copies of old newspaper clippings on Indian immigration, and even a glossary of some Bhojpuri words they used. He has lost the language of his ancestors but knows a few Hindi words and phrases. He demonstrates: ‘aapka naam kya hai’, ‘aap kahaan jaata hai’. His parents spoke good Hindi, he said. He took Hindi classes as a child and learned to read and write it. He pointed to a Singer sewing machine, the kind he saw his mother use in his childhood, then told me that he attended bhajans, wore tilak, and learned to perform Hindu rituals as a child.

Chaguanas11 Notably, the caste hierarchy among the Indians flattened over time, led by the leveling experiences of the five-month sea voyage, laboring together on the fields, and tight living conditions in the plantation barracks—not to mention intermarriage and adultery owing to a scarcity of Indian women. What’s left of caste today is in the realm of rituals: many Hindus still turn to Brahmin priests for their rites of passage ceremonies—a world portrayed by the author VS Naipaul, who grew up in a Brahmin family of Trinidad in the 1930s-40s. His family ‘abounded with pundits’, he wrote, but he was ‘born an unbeliever [and] took no pleasure in religious ceremonies. They were too long, and the food only came at the end’. He didn’t understand the language ‘and no one explained the prayer or the ritual. One ceremony was like another.’ As a youth, Naipaul ‘remained almost totally ignorant of Hinduism’ but from it he perhaps ‘received a certain supporting philosophy.’ From this outpost of a fossilizing Hinduism, he would later travel to its center and heap scorn on India’s caste obsessions, unthinking religiosity, and ‘spiritualism’.

NaipaulHouse3 Naipaul’s father, a journalist and aspiring creative writer, married into the prominent Capildeo family, from which came the leading politician Rudranath Capildeo. The Capildeos had a large home in the town of Chaguanas, the Lion House, where Naipaul’s novel, A House for Mr. Biswas, is set (the lion sculptures are awful!). Knowing his place in the world, wrote Naipaul, required him to understand the roots of his society and people, which led him to Africa, India, and many Muslim nations. He would later speak glowingly about ‘the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement’.[4] The themes that scholars see in his writing include ‘post-colonial identity and nationalism, the fiction of history and the history of fiction, home and belonging in a world characterized by flux, movement and cultural contact.’[3]

To what extent did Trinidad incline Naipaul to see the societies he visited as half-made—full of rage, hysteria, or mimic men—trapped in narrow identities, short on self-awareness? Did the dysfunction of his own society in early/mid-20th century constrain his way of seeing, or did it expand his powers of observation and analysis? Important as he is in so many ways, he is also just a man—at times a pompous one—with his own blind spots; his early social context remains crucial to understanding his intellectual journey. In The Enigma of Arrival, Naipaul wrote:‘the island had given me the world as a writer; had given me the themes that in the second half of the twentieth century had become important; had made me metropolitan in a way quite different from my first understanding of the word.

Trinidad gained independence from British rule in 1962 and has since prospered from its oil and natural gas resources, not to mention the world’s biggest source of asphalt. This has made it no longer profitable to produce sugar. I saw one of the last big sugar factories that had recently shuttered. The crop that led Europeans to transport so many Africans and Indians to its shores, for which generations were then held in bondage and oppression, has now been driven out of the island.

Hallof Justice4 Today the Indo-Trinis have come up in the world and are well integrated. They are fully literate, dominate many professions, and visibly contribute to their country’s arts, festivals, and music, domains long associated with Afro-Trinis. Phagwa, or Holi, is a national festival; chutney music stands alongside calypso and soca during the Carnival; May is celebrated as Indian Heritage Month and May 30th is celebrated as Indian Arrival Day. The country’s current and first female Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, is Indo-Trini (her party has marketed her as ‘our local Indira Gandhi’). Though ethnic identities still loom large in national politics, it is no longer rare to see mixed Indo- and Afro-Trini couples walking hand in hand, or Indo- and Afro-Trinis shooting the breeze in bars and on beaches—liming, as they say—more so than what I remember from my previous visit 16 years ago. For a society with such deep roots in dislocation and degradation, it seems to me nothing short of a miracle that the hope enshrined in their national anthem—‘here every creed and race find an equal place’—has come such a long way to fruition.


Click here for more pictures from Trinidad & Tobago. More writing by Namit Arora?

Another version of this essay with additional details appeared in Himal Southasian, Oct-Nov 2011.

Notes and Glossary:

  1. Bridget Brereton, ‘A History of Modern Trinidad 1783-1962’, Heinemann, 1981, p 110. A lot of facts and dates used in this essay come from her excellent book (though she does not mention the Hosay massacre, which I think deserves mention in the chapter, The Newcomers, 1838-1971). She specializes in Caribbean social history.
  2. S. Siewah, ‘The ships that came during indentureship’ (an article displayed at the museum; provenance not specified).
  3. Jennifer Rahm and Barbara Lalla, ‘Created in the West Indies: Caribbean Perspectives on VS Naipaul’, Ian Randle Publishers, 2011.
  4. VS Naipaul, ‘Our Universal Civilization’, Wriston lecture delivered to the Manhattan Institute in 1990.
  5. Judith M. Brown, ‘Global South Asians’, Cambridge, 2006.
  6. Eric Williams, ‘History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago’, 1942, Eworld Inc.
  7. One Arrival, an article by Ravi Dev on his great-grandfather’s journey to Guyana (some more here).
  8. Gaiutra Bahadur, ‘Coolie Women Are in Demand Here’, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2011.


  1. The Bitter Sweet Harvest by Ann Stapelton, 2007, National Museum, Port of Spain.
  2. Cane Farmers by James Isaiah Boodhoo (1932-2004).
  3. Evening scene on Woodford Square, a historic center of political activism in Port of Spain.
  4. This is what the sailship Fatel Rozack might have looked like (source). The Indian Arrival Day in Trinidad & Tobago is celebrated each year on 30th May.
  5. Newly arrived coolies in Trinidad, 1897 photo (source).
  6. Replica of an Indian worker's hut on a sugar estate.
  7. Chaathee, a cleansing ceremony held six days after childbirth, apparently as performed by Indo-Trinis in the 1940s; National Museum, Port of Spain.
  8. Buss Up Shut, a very popular Indo-Trinidadian meal in Trinidad & Tobago.
  9. A woman from Trinidad, with Carib, African, and Indian blood. Her grandma was from India.
  10. An Indo-Trinidadian woman selling cassava and dasheen at the Chaguanas Market.
  11. The family home of VS Naipaul in Chaguanas (The Lion House, aka Anand Bhavan, “Mansion of Bliss”), now uninhabited.
  12. Freshly minted lawyers, or are they barristers? On the steps of the Hall of Justice in Port of Spain.