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1845: The Indians and indentureship

August 8, 1999

WHATEVER lies they were told back home, it's certain that the indentured Indians didn't come here for their health. The licensed immigrant recruiters in India hired men known as arkatias to scour the villages for willing migrants. Arkatia refers to a hook, like the kind used to catch fish.

Each man caught earned the recruiter three pounds, each woman three pounds, 13 shillings and sixpence. In 1845, 300 arkatias covered 5,000 square miles and brought in 3,000 Indians. An arkatia might have earned 50 pounds-a fortune in nineteenth century India.

The District Magistrate of Ghazipur described in 1871 how immigrants were tricked into migrating: "The arkatias entice the villagers with a wonderful account of the place for which the emigrants are wanted and bring in their victims from long distances to the neighbourhood of the licensed recruiter...

"The arkatia disappears. On arrival at the sub-depot, the intending emigrants are told the exact facts of their prospects, and on hearing them, decline to proceed. Very well, says the licensed recruiter, you are all at perfect liberty to return, but I have here a little bill against you for road expenses, and as you have no money I must have your lotah (bowl) and dopattah (dhoti) and anything else that will procure me a refund of the amount I have expended. The wretched coolie may be a hundred miles from home, and finding that he has the option of returning penniless (and naked)... and of emigrating, chooses the latter. But this is not voluntary emigration."

The first immigrant ship to Trinidad, the Fatel Rozack, a Muslim-owned vessel, landed 225 Indians at Nelson Island on May 3, 1845, only six of its passengers having died on the journey. Of those who survived, one was an idiot and three unfit for work. But once the British took over the business of shipping immigrants, packing them in the ships like sardines, conditions worsened.
From 4.5 per cent dying at sea in 1851, the toll rose to 17.3 per cent in 1857. On the Roman Emperor 88 died out of 313, on the Maidstone 92 of 375, on the Merchantman 120 of 385.
Subsequent labour on the estates ruined the health of even the robust. Indians lay sick on the roads and pavements of Port of Spain. The Colonial Hospital was overcrowded with them. Those who didn't make it there littered the canefields with their skeletons. Particularly debilitating was ulcerated feet.

We have no knowledge of the Indians' dental problems, nothing but VS Naipaul's anecdote in India, An Area of Darkness, about an old lady, a friend of his mother's family, who everyone called "Gold Teeth Nanee". Later he exaggerated her story in My Aunt Gold Teeth:

"She was short, scarcely five foot, and she was very fat. If you saw her in silhouette you would have found it difficult to know whether she was facing you or whether she was looking sideways... She did, indeed, have gold teeth. She had 16 of them. had married early and she had married well, and shortly after her marriage she exchanged her perfectly sound teeth for gold ones, to announce to the world that her husband was a man of substance."

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