Engaging with My Indian Roots via Trinidad and Tobago

Posted on Tuesday, July 12th, 2022

Written by David MacDonald

From 1842, indentured labourers (including half of my ancestors) were sent to the Caribbean, with large Indian populations moving to Trinidad, Jamaica, and British Guiana. The system endured until 1917. British-made famines were common during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, making indentureship schemes attractive. Certainly, indentureship was better than the slave trade it replaced, but it was grueling all the same. The racism and hierarchy that was a product of the British imperial system continues to inform race relations and patterns of political power in Trinidad and Tobago (hereafter TT) even now. Indo and Afro-Trinidadians are about equal in terms of population numbers (roughly 35 percent each) with most of the people being descendants either of indentured or enslaved peoples.

David MacDonald having doubles on arrival in Port of Spain, 2018.

We have a country created primarily by people who did not “settle”, but who put down roots after the genocidal destruction of the Indigenous peoples. The two main political parties are ethnically based, and island politics are often divisive. The British sought to pit one group against the other, fostering stereotypes and racism which would continue long after independence in 1962.

The original passenger log of the first indenture ship Fatel Razack (1845) still available for viewing at the National Archives. My family came later, from 1857 onwards. Some records are online here.

The South Asian diaspora is about 32 million people, and my Mom is East Indian from the south of Trinidad. She grew up in the rural countryside in Barrackpore and Monkeytown and attended Naparima College, a well-known Presbyterian school, which has a famous cookbook and a large alumni association in Toronto. I am proud of my roots, but I also feel cut off from my Indian origins, something which is probably common for many diaspora peoples.

Our ancestors left India for Trinidad from 1857-1870, becoming girmitiya (indentured labourers), labouring on the Exchange, Esperance, and Jordan Hill sugar estates. Much of their culture, religion, and language were set aside during colonization. Diverse individuals were thrown together while crossing the kala pani (dark waters) and ties to the homeland withered. Much of the cultural and linguistic diversity was reduced as Indo-Trinidadians became through labour and colonization a more homogenous population.

My grandmother’s father was obliged to convert from Islam to Christianity in order to marry my great grandmother. When it came time for my grandmother to marry, my grandfather converted from Hinduism. As elders in the Presbyterian church they co-founded a community church at Lower Barrackpore. This is a vibrant community still, but I also feel that conversion created a temporal, linguistic, and cultural break with centuries of family and community histories.

Original sugar kettle on what remains of the family property, from the time my ancestors cut and cooked cane on the plantation.

Leaving Islam and Hinduism meant changing names (after baptism) and at least symbolically leaving those communities of culture, language, and belief. Interestingly, my Dad, whose origins are Scottish, went to Woodstock School in Mussoorie (India) as a boy and also learned Hindi. My parents each have different interests and identities shaped by India.

My mixed-race positionality is a backdrop for my research on race, identity, and Indigenous-settler relations. In 2017 I was selected as a University Research Leadership Chair, representing the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences (CSAHS). While much of this chair position was devoted to the comparative study of Indigenous-settler relations, I also sought to improve my knowledge of the unique racial dynamics of TT with roughly equal proportions of Indian and African descended peoples living and working side by side. However due to the way the country was colonized, Indian and African were strategically pitted against each other, and this evolved after independence into distinct ethnically based political parties: the People's National Movement (which has been supported primarily by the Afro-Trinidadian population) and the United National Congress (primarily supported by the Indo-Trinidadian population.

I also wanted to engage with how Indigenous rights were understood in a country with few white settlers. There are numerous Indigenous peoples in Kairi (its traditional name), but the main groups are centered around the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community in Arima the Warao, and several other smaller communities. Trinidad signed on to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 yet has done very little to formally recognize them or create opportunities for cultural revival or self-determination. In a former Spanish, French, and British colony where the descendants of enslaved and indentured peoples make up the majority, the relations are largely between Indigenous peoples and what some have called “arrivants,” those brought often against their will to the country, who did not choose to settle but forced to live in an oppressive environment where their labour and freedoms were taken from them.

Traditional smoke ceremony to honour Indigenous leader Hyarima.

In 2018, I developed relations with the Institute of International Relations at the University of the West Indies and with the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community, the only officially recognized Indigenous nation and organization in TT. I gave a keynote address at the kind invitation of Chief Ricardo Bharath Hernandez, and participated in a week-long celebration and commemoration of Indigenous Trinibagans. The events included a march to Parliament (the Red House) where the bones of Indigenous ancestors had been found during renovations. A public day with information about the Santa Rosa took place in downtown Port of Spain, as well as day of celebrations in the suburb of Arima, and a ceremony in front of the statue of the famed leader Hyarima, who defended his people in 1625 against the Spanish invasion.

March to Parliament 2018 to commemorate with ceremony the remains of Indigenous ancestors found on site.

There are conflicts of memory as well, which became obvious during the day of commemoration. Santa Rosa leaders and leaders of the Warao community had spirited exchanges over who was Indigenous to TT, and what forms of recognition and rights each deserved. There were also disagreements over history and historical memory, the role of Columbus, the state, and the Christian churches. The space for Indigenous identity, expression, activism, and self-determination is highly circumscribed, and my overall impression is of Indigenous peoples trying very hard to create and hold a small amount of social and political space. They face a lot of ignorance and denial from the general population, many of whom don’t even recognize that Indigenous peoples exist in TT.

Banner of the Warao Nation highlighting their identity and history.

As always, a big part of the problem is government, and the present administration has not done a good job protecting TT’s heritage. The remains of the “Banwari man” go back about 7,000 years. Named for the region where this man was discovered, this is the earliest human gravesite in the West Indies. When I visited the site, the custodian, known as “beard man” showed me the sheet of galvanized metal covering the grave, the fallen site sign, and the foundations of a planned but non-existent museum. While this was one of the country’s National Trust heritage sites, there was little pride in this unique past and as a country TT has yet to fully engage with its Indigenous history, present, and future.

Custodian “Beard Man” at Banwari Trace showing the remains of the 7,000 year old grave

As for ties between the Indian diaspora and India, things seem to be changing. Now there are more Hindu and Muslim shops, temples, enormous Indian outdoor stores under canvas circus-style tents like the “Fab Indian Expo” in Chaguanas. A percentage of the population are Hindu at 18 percent and Muslim at 5 percent. For the early girmitiyas, ties to the mother country were extremely difficult. Now they are considerably easier in terms of travel and tourism. But without many of the class, caste, and traditions of India, we girmitiya descendants cannot easily position ourselves within Indian society. We are not really “Non-Resident Indians” or “Overseas Citizen of India” who could easily slot back into Indian life, such as it was then or is now. Each diaspora community is different and it’s easier for those who retained their religion and culture over generations to make sense of India now. This has been true over the past century when Hindus and Muslims, especially the rich Indo-Trinidadians, rekindled links with the motherland and fought for Indian independence. But for those whose families converted long ago, that journey is considerably harder and there is a rupture which is difficult to bridge. I look forward to trying to bridge it in my professional and personal life, understanding better the challenges and opportunities faced by my ancestors so long ago.

Photos by the author in 2018.

David B MacDonald is Professor of Political Science at the University of Guelph

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