The Brown Atlantic – Indians crossing the seas to the West Indies

Black History Month has been celebrated every October in the United Kingdom for the last 30 years when there are many events showcasing the story and contribution of our diverse history. I wanted to write and reflect a little bit more on my own West Indian heritage. It is something I have to explain regularly.

Are you Indian? Pakistani? Mauritian? …These are frequent questions I have faced since moving to the UK. Because of my brown appearance, I have also been asked on holiday in Spain, Italy and France. In 1995, one elderly solder in Amiens, France called me over to ask me where I was from as he thought I was Brazilian. I have no problem with people asking me where I am from but it is a long story that I frequently have to repeat. It sort of goes like this “…I am Trinidadian but I am Indian by race as my ancestors were Indians who went to the Caribbean as indentured labourers to work on the sugar plantations after the end of slavery”. That is a mouthful! However, it is certainly a true story about Indian Indentureship as a global movement of people to distant lands in the new world that resulted in a human journey rich in history and later integration in what we now know as the West Indies. Some photos here are kindly linked from the UK National Archives image library.

National Archives - 7643279364_eba109e1f6_o
Description: Coolies arrived from India at Depôt. Location: Trinidad and Tobago Date: 1870-1939 Our Catalogue Reference: Part of CO 1069/392 This image is part of the Colonial Office photographic collection held at The National Archives, uploaded as part of the Caribbean Through a Lens project. We have attempted to provide place information for the images automatically but our software may not have found the correct location. We need your help to fill in the gaps, to unearth the missing stories, the social and cultural memories from this selection of colonial recordings. Do you recognise anything or anyone in the photographs? Do they provoke any personal or historical memories? If so, please leave your comments, tags and stories to enrich our records. If you would like to get involved in our community project Caribbean through a lens, we would love to hear from you. For high quality reproductions of any item from our collection please contact our image library

That is the short version. Here I am going to elaborate as it will also serve as a refresher in a voyage of self-discovery. There were a large number of East Indians who moved to the Caribbean as indentured labourers to provide a workforce that would replace the now freed African Slaves. Indentureship was used to entice Chinese, Europeans, Portuguese, Syrians, Lebanese and East Indians in chronological order to the Caribbean. The Fatal Razack was the first ship to bring indentured labourers from India to Trinidad in 1845 with 227 immigrants. This migration continued until 1917 and is referred to as ‘The Brown Atlantic’. There are both positive and negative outcomes of the resulting mass migration as written and discussed by academics, taught at school and oral stories told from my own circles and elders in Trinidad. I have always wondered to myself why my ancestors left India? I am still not sure what were their motives to leave India.

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Indians were brought to the Caribbean “under dubious circumstances” and lived in the same conditions as some of the former African slaves. Lomash Roopnarine writes in ‘A critique of East Indian Indentured historiography in the Caribbean’ that “Indians were treated more or less like black slaves during indenture with little or no opportunity to challenge the institutionalization of their indenture contract”. It certainly may have had its challenges after leaving Asia in what was considered a highly advanced society, had ancient religions and an already rich culture. Regardless, even though some may argue the ‘wool were pulled over their eyes’, large numbers set bound to new lands across seas and the Atlantic Ocean. Professor Clem Seecharan, at a recent event at the British Library, believes with our collective hindsight, it was also an opportunity to escape from whatever battles or personal baggage our ancestors wanted to leave behind in India. This is the similar story for all immigrants to North and South American in the last four centuries.

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Growing up in Trinidad, my elder relatives would tell stories of ancestors who came before us to the Caribbean. Unfortunately we have not traced our ancestors back to India, but these anecdotes and stories have been passed on over the 170 plus years. Ideally, it should be documented whilst we can remember the details such as in this archive by the National Council for Indian Culture. Social media has helped recently as older relatives would verify and add what they know to photos of persons and events that occurred. I recently found out that my maternal relations were most likely not indentured labourers but business migrants who came via French Martinique. They were also not based in the plantations, but in the city of Port-of-Spain. One thing that was certain – they were adamant on hanging on to their rich Indian culture, religion and heritage. Who can blame them after seeing for themselves how the colonial imprint had erased other indigenous and migrant cultures in the West Indies.

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At the time, my ancestors would have found it difficult, if not impossible, to keep in touch with their relations in India – they would eventually lose the connection with these Indian relations, their immediate roots and the location routes that they took before their arrival in the Caribbean. My mother told me a while ago that when they were growing up in the 1950’s, that they had no idea that they would go to India one day. It probably still is a dream for most Trinidadian Indians (Indo-Caribbeans or East Indians as we now called ourselves) to travel back to India one day. In the academic world in the 19th century, “few studies have concentrated on the re-integration of ex-indentured Indians to their former communities and even the second time…the reason for this discontinuity and disconnection in the study of indenture from India and the Caribbean has to do with the great distance and poor communication networks between the two locations. Discontinuity might have to do with language and cultural barriers. The culture of Indians in the Caribbean changed immensely from the original homeland. To some extent, new communities were created overseas”.

Cane field 8023250953_4b60496b7d_o
Description: Trinidad and Tobago. ‘Sugar loading in the south of the island’. Photograph No.: ZZZ 73308 H. Official Trinidad and Tobago photograph compiled by Central Office of Information. Copyright hand stamp of Anne Bolt, Paddington, London, on reverse. Location: Trinidad and Tobago Date: [1948] Our Catalogue Reference: INF 10/359/9 This image is part of the Central Office of Information’s photographic collection held at The National Archives, uploaded as part of the Caribbean Through a Lens project. We need your help to fill in the gaps, to unearth the missing stories, the social and cultural memories from this selection of colonial recordings. Do you recognise anything or anyone in the photographs? Do they provoke any personal or historical memories? If so, please leave your comments, tags and stories to enrich our records. If you would like to get involved in our community project Caribbean through a lens, we would love to hear from you. For high quality reproductions of any item from our collection please contact our image library
This is some of the challenges faced by academics, but the same applies to all descendants. It is a sad result of indentureship but also a warning that immigrants lose links with their ‘Motherland’. My Italian migrant relatives who live in the United Kingdom are considerably more fortunate in that they have only been here over 50 years – they can still speak the language, communicate by modern technology, and travel to the continent is only a few hours away to see relatives. This was not the case and still is not the case with Indian heritage – the family connection has long gone over a hundred years ago! It has only been in the last 25 years or so that affluent Trinidadians are able to travel to their ancestral India in group-organised tours. I haven’t been to India as yet, but still hope to travel there one day.

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Over time, Indians were able to assimilate and integrate with other migrants in the West Indies. When Indians arrived in Trinidad, “on estates, residents workers of both races shared similar experiences and conditions, although tendency developed for creoles and Indians to do different, specialised tasks”. There was some recording of tensions, such as “Trinidadians of other races were not sympathetic to the new arrivals and they freely expressed their contempt for the Indian religions, culture, method of dress and family life”. In Jamaica, some Indians were “cordially welcomed by their Black brethren, generously offered them oranges, sugarcane, and various descriptions of fruit, as well as bread, cakes, and trifling articles of clothing for their children”. Yet actual conflict between the races was rare. I am sure there would have been tensions at times too, but generally many races and cultures tolerated and got along despite the circumstances. It seems Indians were also in a position to resist and organised discontent against colonial government as the years progressive.

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I still have a book we used in secondary school called ‘Social Life in the Caribbean 1838-1938’ by Briget Brereton. Reading it again does reinforce some of my own oral stories heard from ancestors such as Indians hanging on to their own traditions, culture and religion. My mother’s family told stories of having only Christian schools in Port-of-Spain, and that they were encouraged to convert but this was vehemently resisted by my Hindu grandparents. Children were also encouraged to work at an early age on the plantations to help in households such as the case with my father. Canadian Presbyterians missionaries were also instrumental in educating young Indian children but also in the hope of converting them to Christianity. Further education schooling for all children were only made compulsory later on. Despite this, it is amazing that so much of their original Indian culture has survived! Indians eventually adopted and integrated Creole Caribbean cultures too, such as Creole fashion, language, names, food, etc. Brereton states, “the educated middle class made up largely of Christian Indians grew up in both territories (Guyana and Trinidad), and was an important group from about 1900”.

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One point highlighted in my research is that there was few women heroines pointed out, but Roopnarine writes “Are we to believe that the movement of 500000 Indians from their homeland to the Caribbean and years of indentured experience did not produce one single outstanding female indentured servant? From a colonial perspective, this memory never existed.” I also read that Shaleela Hosein interviewed Indian women in rural Trinidad to determine their historical experience through their eyes – “the result is a remarkable oral narrative that exemplifies strength, stability and strong leadership among Indian women in latter stages of indentureship. It seems a contradiction to Indian migrants being subservient and submissive”. From my own family history and neighbourhood – we were told and saw women who worked extremely hard in rural agricultural jobs in the plantations to support their families. Eventually there was, and still is a push and emphasis on education for all. These migrants must have been tough to decide to leave India for the unknown Caribbean, and to make the journey across the Atlantic. This toughness must still be in our DNA. Remember that there was none of today’s modern technology.

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Coincidently at the British Library, recently I attended a talk based on the book ‘Sugar Sugar –bitter sweet tales of Indian Migrant Worker‘s’ with the author Lainy Malkani and the same Professor Clem Seecharan mentioned above. There was great discussion on this topic, and Professor Seecharan mentioned various thoughts, such as we should see indentureship as an opportunity for our ancestors from what would have been a hierarchical (caste) system in India. It gave people opportunities too to move away and get upwardly mobility. It may have also been a myth that they were not aware of what they were signing up too – some wanted to come to the Caribbean. Apparently some Indians also returned to India, but most indentured migrants stayed.

Recent article. Source: Economist.

It is also very hard to trace migrants as they came from various Indian villages and changed names etc. Professor Seecharan also shared some insight that the French governed Tamils, and they would have settled in Martinique. This also seems to make sense with my maternal ancestors. He was not that enthusiastic about tracing his own family tree to Guyana. It was also the first time I heard about indentured labourers going to work in Fuji – but I was aware of Mauritius, South Africa etc. There were lots of other questions from attendees at the Knowledge Centre event, especially for Indian descendants like myself who now live in the UK. Tracing families in India may be a tough task due to poor and inaccurate record keeping, and would require a lot of time researching through archives and records. It is great if you can trace your background as recently shown for celebrities Liz Bonin and Noel Clarke on the TV Series ‘Who do you think you are’.

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Indians weren’t always bound or stayed in plantations. Brereton continues that as time passed, Indians adopted “most aspects of western culture and their lifestyle become more and more distant from that of their parents and grandparents. They were businessmen and professionals, civil servants, teachers and clerks, based in towns, especially San Fernando in Trinidad, New Amsterdam and Georgetown in Guyana. They began to form organisations to protect their interest and first entered political life in the early 1900’s”.

It is with pride and admiration that we can now look back at our ancestors who came to the Caribbean and contributed to its’ economic, social, political and cultural development – and made it their home like everybody else. Some notable Indo-Trinidadians are listed here on Wikipedia. There is still a strong link with India for some of the population with simple things such as Bollywood movies, songs and fashion still very popular. Television helped to connect some of the disconnected just as the Internet does today. I recently saw young Trinidadian Indians singing Hindi songs at a wedding and they knew all the lyrics despite not knowing the language. Cricket is also another uniting force with India, Britain and with our African brothers in the Caribbean. Professor Seecharan said that C.L.R. James’s book ‘Beyond the Boundary’ is one of the best books ever written in English, and he obviously had admiration for C.L.R. James.

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There is much to celebrate personally. My own grandfather was a well-respected businessman by the 1950’s, and my father a dedicated worker with 50 years in the sugar industry. There are many ways that Indo-Caribbeans have contributed to the region and even to the wider world with later migration to Canada, America and the UK. Nobel Prize Winner for Literature, V.S. Naipaul, was a family friend and he has written books that make us look at ourselves such as ‘A House for Mr Biswas’. In the arts and culture, we are tenacious with our own Indian culture, but have also created our own fusions, and some spicy flavours – such as with the Chutney Music genre. Yet too, we are still proactive and keep intact our ancient religions, traditions, language to some extent, fashion, dance, food…and our homes reflect that. Indian Arrival Day is now celebrated annually with a public holiday on 30th May in Trinidad.

7643565602_211f236921_o
Description: 23. Walker Street – the owner is not a barrack dweller. Location: Frederick Village, Trinidad and Tobago Date: 1949 Our Catalogue Reference: Part of CO 1069/401 This image is part of the Colonial Office photographic collection held at The National Archives, uploaded as part of the Caribbean Through a Lens project. We have attempted to provide place information for the images automatically but our software may not have found the correct location. We need your help to fill in the gaps, to unearth the missing stories, the social and cultural memories from this selection of colonial recordings. Do you recognise anything or anyone in the photographs? Do they provoke any personal or historical memories? If so, please leave your comments, tags and stories to enrich our records. If you would like to get involved in our community project Caribbean through a lens, we would love to hear from you. For high quality reproductions of any item from our collection please contact our image library

This post is just scratching the surface of years of history – colonialism, end of slavery and global migration at that! I am a product of that triangular Brown Atlantic passage, and from my perspective – it as a great way to view the world. I also wanted to highlight this rich, sometimes forgotten heritage for Black History Month in October. We know the story of Columbus heading west in his search for East Indian Spices, but his voyage ending up in what is now known as the Americas and Caribbean. Funny and ironic, that my East Indians ancestors eventually also sailed west to settle in the melting pot of the West Indies. It is also great that some of us kept our Indian names in defiance, that our culture has survived but also that there has been integration, inter-racial marriages, social cohesion, fusion, adoption and adaptability with other communities and cultures. Generally it is a great example of the positive influence for multiculturalism and mass immigration that our Indian ancestors have played in the hemisphere. They should be appreciated and celebrated for their innovations, continued development and colourful contribution they make to the region. The journey surely has not ended yet.

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