At yesterday's Indian Arrival Day celebrations, an opportunity to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the arrival of the Fatel Razack to the shores of Trinidad and Tobago through dramatic re-enactment was lost. It was a sacrifice made in the interests of safety, as beaches remained closed in the interests of public safety.
The 225 travellers who arrived on that vessel, those that followed and their immediate descendants would experience much greater restrictions. They set forth from India with promises of wealth and opportunity, but arrived to a far different reality, as colonial interests abused the conditions of indentured labour to their advantage and pressed an isolated people, far from home, into working under conditions that were far from those promised to them.
Between 1845 and 1917, 143,939 Indian citizens migrated to Trinidad, largely drawn from the agricultural Uttar Pradesh and Bihar regions of north India. Few were educated, all were the product of decades of British rule of India dedicated to subjugating what was considered an inferior race. The three-month journey across the kala pani, the unimaginably vast black waters, which many were introduced on their first journey by sea, was a terrible experience. Cholera, typhoid, dysentery and measles cut a debilitating swath through the overcrowded boats.
The indentureship of Indian citizens was a response to the abolition of slavery in the British colonies, urging business interests to seek a new source of cheap labour. The acquisition methods might have changed and become less brutal, but it was never gracious. Conditions for the newly arrived labourers were subhuman. Education of children was largely ignored until the 1870's and the beliefs and religious practices of the arrivants were actively suppressed, and minor infractions – largely cultural differences – were punished vigorously.
At the end of their contracted period of indenture, normally five years, 90 per cent of the labourers remained in Trinidad despite these difficulties. Many either could not afford the price of a ticket home or had uncertain prospects on a return to India and chose a future on the developing colony. That gamble is part of the underpinnings of our modern Trinidad and Tobago.
The sweat, tears and blood of those early migrants represent a parallel story of growth and adaptation to the terrible story of slavery in these islands, and both experiences are tilled into the soil and soul of this nation.
Later this year, TT will have a general election that will bring two parties, largely divided along racial lines, into contention for the endorsement of the electorate. The celebrations of African Liberation and Indian Arrival should serve as an opportunity to reflect on our shared heritage, common challenges and guide our campaigns to larger national issues of governance and accountability.