IT IS EASY to romanticise the journey – which we commemorate today – made centuries ago by members of the East Indian community. But for many, indentureship was a fraught experience which formed the backbone of what is undoubtedly one of the world’s great immigration stories. Let Indian Arrival Day be a celebration of how human society is enriched when we cross boundaries and find a home in one another.
Those who think the journey across the Kala Pani was a jejune one should think again. According to historian Fr Anthony de Verteuil, “the immigrants were pushed to emigration by the appalling conditions in their homeland, rather than drawn by pecuniary prospects in Trinidad.”
In his book, Eight East Indian Immigrants, the historian notes, “The wage of 25 cents a day paid to the immigrants in Trinidad was altogether a fortune to the labourer in India, where the average wage was 6 cents a day and continued employment was not assured.” Recruiters used “most dubious methods to entice people to go to the West Indies.” These methods sometimes included fraudulent promises and even kidnapping.
But there were other reasons for migration from India, including factors such as the Hindu prescription against the remarriage of widows, family quarrels, escaping the penalties for petty crime and, most especially, the constraints of the caste system, particularly on the untouchables.
For all these reasons, the profile of those who came was varied. According to historian Bridget Brereton, from 1876 to 1885, 18 per cent of the immigrants to Trinidad were upper caste, while 82 per cent were from the lower to middle castes.
Rich and poor alike endured a perilous journey. Many died and their corpses were consigned without ceremony to the deep. The cause of death could be diarrhoea, dysentery or many other diseases, though, sometimes, according to de Verteuil, “immigrants jumped overboard and committed suicide.”
Indian Arrival Day is therefore also a memorial. The labourers who arrived in 1845 on the ship Fatel Razack had tremendous odds stacked against them. Yet, they became a new labour force, assisting the economic development of Trinidad and, in the process, forever enriching our society.
We live in a time when immigration is a fraught issue the world over. From the rise of anti-immigrant parties in the UK, Germany, France, and Italy to Trump’s Mexican wall, xenophobic bigotry seems ubiquitous. This is equally true here in Trinidad and Tobago where foreign nationals are routinely denied their rights and subject to unlawful deportations.
Recent rumblings due to the hijab controversy may have dampened the Arrival Day festivities somewhat, but that should not stop us from reflecting on our history and our shared values as a nation. For, in the end, we are all foreigners who have inhabited this land.