This year on May 30, TT will celebrate the 174th anniversary of the migration of Indians to Trinidad but not many people know about the harsh conditions that the early indentured labourers faced when they first arrived. Little is also known about their fight to preserve their heritage and ensure that future generations would know about their history.
Veteran broadcaster and Heritage Communications chairman Hans Hanoomansingh along with Shamshu Deen, a genealogist and researcher, believe that it is crucial to highlight these issues and educate people about the community’s achievements.
Several prominent achievers of Indian descent should be celebrated for Indian Arrival Day, Hanoomansingh said, like the late Noor Hassanali – whose ancestors came through the indentureship system – who became the highest office-holder in the land as president.
This year, the pair would also like to highlight Nelson Island. The island should be a part of this year’s Indian Arrival Day focus because it was the first port of arrival for many Indians before they were sent to various estates.
Hanoomansingh said in spite of these challenges the indentured labourers at the completion of their contract stayed back and were able to achieve levels of prominence “that were unbelievable for people who were classified as labourers indentured to sugar, cocoa and coffee plantations.”
Deen’s brother, Kamalo, has also created a movie which traces the life of their great great grandfather Munroe Deen, called Jahaji Family which they hope will be premiered in the near future.
“It’s a little history lesson. It starts with little touches of the Amerindians and what the Europeans met when they got here. There are some slave scenes as well and then they get into indentureship itself. He added that the Hosay riots and the Canboulay riots are also featured in the movie.”
Another Indian icon they believe should be specially remembered is the labourer who built the Lion House in Chaguanas, Pundit Capildeo. Hanoomansingh feels it is important to recognise Capildeo’s achievements because of all that his future generations accomplished.
“His children and grandchildren achieved prominence. Four of them served in Parliament. Within the same family writers emerged.”
The most well-known writer of the Capildeo family is Nobel Prize in Literature winner, VS Naipaul. He said that Naipaul’s accomplishments were remarkable considering his grandfather didn’t speak English.
“We are not celebrating indentureship, we are celebrating the triumph of our ancestors over terrible conditions from the time of departure from India in cramped conditions,” he said.
Deen, who has been credited with helping over 300 families reconnect with their roots from India, is passionate about making sure that the indentured labourers’ history is not only preserved but accurate as well.
He developed a deep interest and love for figuring out his ancestral roots as a child when he questioned his elders about their past. That passion guided him to help others discover their original families in India. Deen helped both former prime ministers Basdeo Panday and Kamla Persad-Bissessar to find their ancestral roots in India.
Deen, who is also a gardener, said when immigrants first got to Nelson Island they were processed and also quarantined. The island was chosen by the government of the time because it had the easiest terrain and it’s only five acres of land.
“The process of bringing people to Trinidad started in 1845 on the Fatal Razack but from 1866 they started to bring people through Nelson Island. Approximately 120,000 people were processed at Nelson Island between 1866 and 1917,” he said.
A reminder of this piece of history still exists on the island as two buildings which were used in the processing of the immigrants still stands today, he continued.
“In fact one of the buildings is very historic for Trinidad and Tobago in that it was built in 1802 by slave labour by a group called the Kings Negroes. It is very significant for Trinidad because as far as I know it is the oldest built structure in Trinidad.”
After health checks those who were sick were sent to two hospitals. Those with minor illnesses remained on the island at Marion Hospital and the others were taken to the Colonial Hospital in Port of Spain.
When the entire process was completed after 10-14 days, they were sent to estates. Deen, originally from Gasparillo, estimates that they were distributed to about 245 estates by train and mule carts. Some were taken by steamers from the capital city to San Fernando.
He has a lot of experience with the labourers’ early story because of his research and a particular project where he met with survivors of the last days of indentured labour.
“We went and met with the people who were living proof of India. I wanted to get the personal side of it. I wanted to get the stories. I wanted to find out what made them leave their parents, their village to come all this way and how did they do that.” The last of these survivors died about three years ago at 104, he said.
He revealed that he intends to publish a book in the near future about this project. He is hoping to name it The Precious Few.
Hanoomansigh added that the purpose of remembering these cultural icons is to enlighten people about how much has been achieved by a group of people who came to this country as labourers.
“They came as labourers but their contribution has been significant in the development of Trinidad and Tobago. These are the ancestors who introduced Hinduism and Islam to this country as well as Indian fashions and foods. This emerged out of circumstances, out of poverty.”
Indian Arrival Day like all other ethnic holidays in the country should be celebrated with reverence and respect to our ancestors, he said.