Indian arrival: History, culture, identity

By Tiara Jade Chutkhan

Tiara Jade Chutkhan

People of Indian descent have been living in the Caribbean for almost 200 years, making up a large percentage of the population in countries such as Trinidad & Tobago and Guyana. Although the largest groups are known to reside there, Indo-Caribbean communities exist all across the Caribbean, in Jamaica, Grenada, Martinique, and St. Lucia to name a few.

Following the abolition of slavery in 1834, British plantation owners in the West Indies looked to source new labour for their sugar estates. They sought out different groups of people who could perform the work previously done by the now free Afro-Caribbeans. During this time, small groups of workers were brought from China and Portugal, but the largest numbers came from India. The indenture period lasted 80 years and during this time, roughly 500,000 Indian indentured servants were brought to work in the Caribbean islands. Majority of indentured Indians came from the areas of Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar, but there were also small numbers from Punjab, Madras, and Bangladesh. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were generally poor areas, and purposely targeted by recruiters. Recruiters preyed upon the most vulnerable in society; those living in poverty or areas experiencing famine and women looking to escape from abusive marriages or life on the streets.

Men and women alike were tricked and misled, in some cases even kidnapped. They were made to believe they would earn far more money than what was actually given. Recruiters promised them land to build homes, as well as return passages home at the end of their contracts, something very few ever received. Illiteracy rates were high, meaning most people stamped their thumbprints on contracts they couldn’t understand.

Their journey took between 10-20 weeks depending on the final destination. Conditions on the ships were poor, and in 1856-57, the average death rate for Indians traveling to the Caribbean was 17%. Diseases like dysentery, cholera and measles were common causes of death. Women traveling alone faced the greatest risk to their safety as they were often victims of assault and rape by crewmates. But it was also aboard the ships, traversing the dark waters or kala pani as they called it, men and women found community amongst each other. They referred to each other as their jahaji, meaning ship brother or sister. They shared stories, formed relationships, sang songs, and dreamed of what their new lives would be like.

After the first few ships left the ports of Calcutta, it became clear that the numbers of men and women migrating were drastically uneven. The Whitby and the Hesperus, the first two ships to dock in Guyana, brought a total of 396 Indians, with only 22 being women. Fearing this would create conflict for men looking for partners, a quota was later enforced; 40 women for every 100 men. Ships were not to set sail unless they had the required numbers.

Once they arrived on their respective island, labourers were given one set of clothing, farming tools and cooking utensils. They were divided into groups of roughly 20-40 and sent by mule cart to their assignment plantation. Their contracts required them to work from sunrise to sunset, an average of 7-9 hours per day, six days a week. Field labourers were paid about $2.50 a month, women less, and were supplied rations and space for small kitchens and gardens.

In the years following indenture, Indo-Caribbeans did their best to settle into their new, permanent lives in the Caribbean, though not without struggle. They practiced their religions and customs, though often unrecognized or in secret, cooked their native foods, and tried to preserve pieces of their ancestral languages. Those who had the opportunity to return to India after their terms were often treated as outcasts by their communities, condemned for leaving in the first place. Unable to adjust back to their old lives, many caught ships back to the Caribbean and settled where there were large Indian populations.

In the past 50 years, Indo-Caribbeans have migrated once again, with the majority settling in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. Whereas past generations concentrated on assimilating into the culture of their new homes, current generations are seeking a deeper connection to their culture, history and community. Many Indo-Caribbeans often struggle with their identity, feeling left out of Caribbean spaces, and not accepted in South Asian spaces. This question of identity is one that many are actively working through, and in doing so, sharing their journey and experiences through social media, community work and art.

Organizations such as Brown Gyal Diary and the Indo-Caribbean Canadian Association strive to connect and collaborate with the Indo-Caribbean community here in the GTA and worldwide, providing culturally specific spaces and initiatives, sharing resources and history, and creating representation of Indo-Caribbean culture, identity and lived experience.

Like our foreparents who dubbed one another jahaji, it is these efforts to form sisterhood/brotherhood and strengthen our communities that will ensure that current and future generations of Indo-Caribbeans understand their history and identity with while seeing themselves represented in a positive light.