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Getting It Right

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
March 20, 2017

Whenever a significant occasion arises, Kamla, in her ethnic enthusiasm, always muddles things up. When she was elected in 2010 she declared that the "hostile recalcitrant minority," an observation that Dr. Williams made, had become the government of the country. I have argued previously that Dr. Williams was speaking about the behavior of a small segment within the Democratic Labor Party, but this fact has never interfered with the ethnic narrative of discrimination that some of our Indian leaders continue to propagate.

On March 18, 2017, speaking at a function at the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, the Opposition Leader continued that narrative. She said: "Much like 100 years ago, East Indians are still fighting for recognition and fighting against long-held perceptions about the Hindu faith and Indian people. While many [people] believed East Indians were treated well and received land and gifts from landowners and the sugar cane plantation owners, that was not the case...Every Indian who owned a piece of land paid for it" (Express, March 19).

The Hindus, like all other non-European people who came to this land, fought the colonial authorities to perform their religious rites. The struggles of the Muslims in 1884 and the Shouter Baptists during the 19th century prove the point. It is also true that Indians were given lands in lieu of their return passages to India.

Before we begin to recount the heroic stories of Indian self-reliance and self-sacrifice, it is important that we get our stories right, particularly in an age of fake news and cavalier disregard of the facts.

On May 30, 1845 after ninety-six days at sea, the Fatel Rozack arrived in Port of Spain from Calcutta, bringing 225 East Indians to the island. This voyage was the continuation of a policy that began on January 4, 1836, when John Gladstone, a planter in Guyana, wrote Messrs. Gillanders, Arbuthnot & Co., informing them that his company, in light of the upcoming end of apprenticeship, would institute different arrangements "as far as possible, independent of our negro population" (John Scoble, Hill Coolies). Four hundred and nineteen Indians landed in Guyana in 1838. They were assigned to the Gladstone plantations.

The morning after the Indians arrived in Trinidad, Governor MacLeod visited the Fatel Rozack to inquire into their conditions. He discovered that "several of them who had been in Mauritius and who spoke terrible French afforded me the opportunity of conversing with them freely. From what I could learn they all seemed perfectly contented and in good spirits" (MacLeod to Lord Stanley).

Two conclusions can be drawn from the governor's assertions. First, we cannot accept the governor's word that the Indians were "perfectly contented and in good spirits" after a harrowing sea-voyage of 96 days. Second, as distinct from what Kamla contends, several Indians had re-indentured themselves, their having worked in Mauritius previously.

While Indians were treated in a horrible, inhumane manner, a point I illustrated in "Living As Dogs," there is no doubt the Indians were brought to Trinidad to undercut the progress that Africans were making at the economic front.

The introduction of the Indians proved a mixed blessing for Africans. The Port of Spain Gazette [POG] noted that the arrival of so many Indians placed the labor market in a healthy and satisfactory position. It asserted: "Any planter who is able to pay a fair price for labor, can obtain a reasonable and tolerably steady supply of that grand desideratum" (June 19, 1846).

Lord Harris, governor of the island, did not agree fully with the POG editor's enthusiasm or the West India Committee in London that was sending the Indians to the island. Although he welcomed the new immigrants, he signaled the difficulty of absorbing them, given the frequency and abundance with which they were being sent to the island.

As successful as the Indian presence was in dampening the wages of the laboring population, the need to procure labor at a "remunerative price" remained an issue. The cost of labor was still prohibitive and the recruitment of Indians was an expensive proposition. Lord Harris noted that "after deducting the value of their labor at the average rate, there is a dead loss on every Coolie, man, woman and child, for this year at 100 which must be borne either by the proprietors or by the mortgagee or by the island generally."

By December of 1846, Lord Harris changed his tune. He was confident that Indian labor had managed to put Africans back in their place. He rejoiced that Indian immigration "had a most valuable moral effect on the Creole laborer and has shewn him that he cannot quite do as he likes. This effect will of course be increased by the addition of 4,000 during the next year" (Harris to Earl Grey).

These are sobering facts. When Kamla talks next, I hope she talks about the impact Indentureship had on her African brothers and sisters and how, in 2017, we can rectify the conditions of poor Africans who still remain at the bottom of the economic pile.

Professor Cudjoe's email is scudjoe@wellesley.edu. He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.

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