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Living As Dogs, Part 1

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
November 6, 2016

I am glad Brian MacFarlane has agreed to withhold a section of his 2017 presentation, "Cazabon—The Art of Living." MacFarlane has argued that the Cazabon era, which he identified as the 1880s and 1890s, "was the most beautiful time—art was fabulous, fashion was glorious, and the architecture was amazing and full of such intricate details." Two questions arise: "A beautiful time for whom?" and, "What was happening to Indo-Trinidadians during the Cazabon period?"

Michel Jean Cazabon was born in 1813 and died in 1888. His most prolific period as an artist spanned the late 1840s—when William Burnley and John Lamont commissioned him to paint several Trinidad scenes—to about 1862 when he brought out his "Views of Trinidad." He left Trinidad in 1862 and went to Martinique. After he returned to Trinidad in 1870, his career began to fade.

It is true his "East Indian Group" and "East Indian Women," painted around 1860, were exhibited at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London in 1886. Cabazon died two years later, but his reign, for all practical purposes, had ended. I am not too sure what glory MacFarlane wishes to depict.

MacFarlane promises to include in his portrayal "elements of his country's East Indian indentured labor force" (Express, October 24). Another question arises: What aspects of the East Indian labor force does MacFarlane intend to portray?

Part of my problem with the cursory, uninformed examination some of our artists and scholars offer about Indo-Trinidadians is that it fails to take into consideration the tremendous sufferings the latter underwent in this country. Much of their pain is erased, which leads many commentators to flatten their experience and make gratuitous generalizations about our historical and cultural past. This is true for Indo- as well as Afro-Trinbagonians.

To complicate the narrative about "the East Indian labor force" that MacFarlane hopes to present, I offer an aspect of the Indo-Trinidadian experience that occurred at the beginning of the Cazabon era. I hope MacFarlane includes it in his presentation.

The place is Point-a-Pierre; the plantation is Carolina Estate; the story is told by Choonee, the Sirdar; the interpreter is a black man. This story is taken verbatim from a report Choonee made at Union Hall Police Station on September 6, 1847. The report reproduced below is dated May 1, 1848. I use the "C" word to retain the authenticity of the story. Since the story is long, I use the more poignant excerpts to sensitize Trinbagonians of the pain our Indo- brothers and sisters suffered during that early period of their stay in this island:

I am a Sirdar of a gang of 20 Coolies of the Carolina estate. A Coolie of my gang named Been, about fifteen days before his death, became affected with giggers in his right foot. For sometime after being so affected, he died at his work, during which he got no permission from his manager [to leave the estate.]

From the day when the sore became so extensive as to prevent his going to work, the manager stopped issuing all allowances of food to him, and he received no more food from the manager to the day of his death which occurred about a month ago [August 1847].

During the whole period of his illness, neither doctor nor manager came to see him. I have no doubt in my mind but that Been died from neglect and want.

I made a report of his death to Mr. Lack, the overseer of the estate, the manager Mr. King being absent. Mr. Lack ordered a coffin to be prepared for Been and he was then buried by his brethren.

Mr. Jackson came to inquire about the cause of his death. During the course of Been's illness I saw him frequently crying and complaining [emphasis in the original] of want and neglect, and that no doctor or other English gentleman cared about him.

That he was brought to this country to be put to death, and if the Indian Company knew of the Coolie's suffering they would send them back to their own country. The deceased Been had no family. There must be money due to him for services previous to his falling sick, and discontinuing to labor which the manager must have in his possession as I am sure the deceased Been never received it.

I am sure of it because...Been sent me frequently to Mr. Lack for the pay that was due him in order to buy nourishment and food [emphasis in the original] but I was always told to go away and I would get it some other time which other time never came, and his wages are still due to his family.

To be continued on November 20.

Professor Cudjoe's email address is He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.

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