Image: Carey L. Biron
Image: Carey L. Biron

Such a long journey

How and why 145,000 people migrated to a small Caribbean island.
Image: Carey L. Biron
Image: Carey L. Biron

(From our archives: this article was featured in our October 2011 issue 'Dust of the Road')

I recently visited the Indian Caribbean Museum near the town of Chaguanas in Trinidad. Set in a large hall, the museum did not have other visitors at the time. Its friendly curator, 69-year-old Saisbhan Jokhan, came out to greet me and quickly proved to be a trove of information. The museum commemorates the history of a million Indo-Caribbeans, whose ancestors came as indentured labourers from the Subcontinent between 1838 and 1917. Graphic panels at the museum include details on immigrant ships, copies of girmits (indenture agreements) and rare archival photos of life on Caribbean 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 life-size 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; and Indo-Trinis winning the right to build their own schools in 1952, allowing them to replace Christian with Hindu teaching.

Well before the arrival of Subcontinental labour, Trinidad was colonised 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 slavers, known to be the worst on the island. Hundreds of Africans were enslaved and taken to Trinidad each year just to replenish the diminishing numbers due to the brutal regime of work and disease-prone living conditions on sugar plantations. Over the decades, tens of thousands were imported. Children over the age of six were made to work, and corporal punishment was widely used. Errant slaves were also disciplined in jails through flogging and torture; some were even mutilated or executed.

In 1802, there were close to 200 sugar estates in Trinidad, with 2261 whites, 5275 'free coloureds' and around 20,000 slaves. By this point, the local Caribs and Arawaks had been decimated, their estimated pre-Columbus population of 40,000 having fallen to about 1000. When at last the British government announced a ban on the transatlantic slave trade starting in 1807, the estate owners protested bitterly, with a petition calling the move "a vexatious and most injurious interference with the authority of the master over his slave". In fact, slaves continued to be bought and sold within the Caribbean islands, and slavery itself persisted in Trinidad until the late 1830s. At that point, slave owners demanded and received compensation from the British government, which equalled the average market value of each slave.

After their emancipation, most slaves promptly left the plantations to become smallholder foremen, or to work in Trinidadian cities like Port of Spain, engaging in petty trade in cloth, tobacco, fishing and semi-skilled labour. The few who stayed back now demanded higher wages and worked fewer hours. The whole plantation economy and the colonial enterprise risked collapse; something had to be done to secure a cheap, reliable and easily managed pool of labour.

The British government turned to China at first and brought 2500 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 indentures 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.

Becoming Kalkatiyas

The first immigrant ship from India, Fatel Rozack, arrived in 1845 after a journey of five months, carrying 225 Indians, mostly in their 20s, and over eight men for every woman. (The sexes were kept in separate quarters in the ship.) Jokhan showed me a copy of Fatel Rozack's passenger log, pointing out that the first Indian to disembark was coincidentally named Bhuruth Suroop, a colonial clerk's rendition of what might have been written as Bharat Swaroop. Trinidad is full of such tweaked spellings: Sewdass, Capildeo, Ramnarine, Dookie.

Until 1901, the ships were sailing vessels (Pal Jahaj); thereafter, they were steamships (Aag Jahaj) that cut the journey down from five to three months. About 145,000 Indians arrived between 1845 and 1917, in over 320 shiploads. The vast majority came from the densely populated Gangetic plain, from today's Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They had probably never been to a big city such as Calcutta, their boarding point, or seen the sea or interacted with Europeans. They mostly spoke Bhojpuri, a dialect of Hindi. Upon reaching their embarkation point, all recruits were medically examined. Many were deemed unsuitable and sent back to their villages. Only the youngest and the healthiest, nearly all of them in their late teens and 20s, were allowed on board. Thumbprints were taken and physical traits recorded; those selected were issued regulation clothing and a metal disc to be strapped to the arm, of the kind porters on Indian Railway stations wore until recently. A source of resentment at this juncture was the physical examination of women for venereal disease.

For most Indians, the primary driver in their migration was to escape economic destitution, which at that time had been intensified by repressive British taxation after the 'Mutiny' of 1857. A few others could have been leaving to flee or dodge investigation for a crime, or a family or caste dispute, or were simply led by a desire for adventure. Due in part to a double failure of the monsoon, a major famine had hit India in 1876-78, killing millions. Trained recruiters went from village to village promising good jobs in Damru Tapu (Demerara Island, in nearby British Guyana), with housing and wages that were many times those they received in India. Most villagers had no idea where this island was but the lure was strong enough to overcome the significant taboo of kala pani, or the Hindu stricture against crossing salt water which would render one an outcaste. Few women came at first, but after 1868 concerted effort raised their numbers to four women (the majority were single) for every ten men. While a better ratio, the continuing imbalance caused a host of social problems later, including violence against women.

Those who left from Calcutta were called kalkatiyas in Trinidad. Until 1870, a few ‘Madrasis’ came too, but were generally deemed unsuitable and ‘troublesome’, not least because many of them were urbanites. Altogether, about 85 percent were Hindu and most others, Muslim. Of the former, about 15 percent were Brahmins – more than the nine percent of the population they made up at home – and most of them, writes Trinidadian historian Radica Mahase, had “earned a livelihood from the land and were also vulnerable to changes in the rural economy.”


By all accounts, the voyage itself was a searing experience for most. Including the crew, about 500 travelled on an average voyage. Conditions on board were not as bad as on the former slave ships, but space was still cramped and there was no privacy. Rice, daal and other provisions were carried for the entire journey. A few Indian supervisors, sirdars, accompanied each ship, keeping order, distributing rations and guiding activities such as cooking and cleaning. Even though old social distinctions were challenged in this setting, the division of labour on the ships often reflected the old world: cooks drawn from the upper castes, sweepers from the lowest. Besides cooking, cleaning and washing, the voyagers also spent their time playing cards and kabaddi. Each ship was provided with a dholak (drum) and other musical instruments; singing was encouraged to raise flagging spirits.

The first quarter of the journey took the ship through the Bay of Bengal to the Cape of Good Hope, where the passengers suffered from the bitter cold of the southern seas. Poor sanitation often led to outbreaks of cholera, typhoid, dysentery and whooping cough. 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 significantly: in what was obviously an extreme case, in 1858, on a ship named Salsette, 106 of the 197 Indians died. There were occasional shipwrecks, pirate attacks and on-board fires. Scanning the numbers, I estimated the average death rate en route during the 19th century to be around five percent. While many suicides were recorded, many babies too were born on board. The intense experience of the voyage forged lifelong bonds of jahajibhai and jahajibehen – brotherhood and sisterhood of the ship. The solidarity it forged became the basis for a community in the new world, often transcending caste and religious distinctions.

After tinkering with various indenture contracts to somehow stay within the colonial labour laws while maximising their return on investment, the colonial government finalised an ordinance in 1854. This 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 stay of five years, during which time the labourers 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 offence – and even the sheltering of absentees and deserters, led to criminal penalties and jail; the employers incurred no similar penalties for breaching their 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 faiths, wrote a leading Canadian missionary, fostered ‘a low sense of sin’. Their rites were ‘degrading and uncivilised’. 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.

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 labour shortage, and now the glut of potential workers worsened race relations. Wages for plantation labour fell – from 50 cents a day in 1842 to 25 cents a 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, Christianised, with better jobs and political acumen, and even had a voice in the press.

The vast majority of Indians did not convert to Christianity, clinging 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 colour and different culture (though sex was another matter, as were illegitimate children).

Most Indians were also poor, uneducated and insecure, and so became easy objects of social contempt and discrimination. The barracks they lived in were dirty and overcrowded; malaria and hookworm infestations were rife. Poverty and poor diet created legions of decrepit and emaciated Indians, provoking further antipathy. At Christian missionary schools, Indian kids were ridiculed for their religion and pressured to convert, so not many Indians sent their children to school, until Canadian Presbyterian missionaries finally set up schools in Indian communities. As historian Bridget Brereton writes: ‘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 the Indians – even the planters for whose benefit they came.’


Despite these conditions, within a generation, Indians had not only rescued the sugarcane industry of Trinidad, but had become its mainstay. To keep the experienced workers from returning, a new scheme in 1869 offered them land after 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, many bearing names such as Calcutta, Barrackpore and Fyzabad. They grew wet rice and vegetables, and raised cows and buffaloes brought from India. They also imported mangoes, guavas, tamarind, pumpkin, lentils, melons, ginger, mustard and a host of other plants.

Unfettered by the imperatives of plantation life, the Indian settlements now permitted alternate forms of social organisation. 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 Indians.

By the turn of the century, a new political sensibility had started to emerge. A few Indians had begun to speak for their community in the island’s press. Owing to their efforts, the commonly used term ‘coolie’ was replaced with ‘East Indian’. As late as 1911, however, over 97 percent of the Southasian community was still illiterate. More than 70 percent were still agricultural labourers, 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 that term,” writes Brereton.

The indenture system eventually ended in 1917 when Indian leaders like Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Mohandas Gandhi and Madan Mohan 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 percent 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,” noted an exhibit in the museum. Today over half a million identify themselves as Indo-Trinidadians, making up over 40 percent of the country’s population.

The curator 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: “Aapka naam kya hai… aap kahaan jaata hai, what is your name… where are you going,” he demonstrated. His parents spoke good Hindi, he said, and he took classes as a child. He pointed to a Singer sewing machine, the kind he saw his mother use in his childhood, and told me that he attended bhajans, wore tilak and learned to perform Hindu rituals as a child.

In The Enigma of Arrival, V S Naipaul, one of Trinidad’s best-known writers, 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.” 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. Phagwa, or Holi, is a national festival; May is celebrated as Indian Heritage Month, and 30 May is celebrated as India Arrival Day. The country’s current and first female prime minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, is Indo-Trini – her party marketed her as ‘our local Indira Gandhi’. This arrival too has been a long time in the making.

~Namit Arora is a Delhi-based essayist, travel photographer, documentary filmmaker, and former Internet technologist. (

(Himal Southasian, October 2011)

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Himal Southasian