East Indian Women Sweeping, an oil painting by Rudolph Bissessarsingh. ￼
In his book A Turn in the South, VS Naipaul, who was born in 1932, writes: “In the Indian countryside of my childhood in Trinidad there were many murders and acts of violence, and these acts gave the Trinidad Indians, already separated from the rest of the island by language, religion, and culture, a fearful reputation.” In the 19th century, Trinidadian men typically carried weapons ranging from knives to swords to pistols—indeed, the last item could be readily purchased from stores in Port-of-Spain and San Fernando. Only in 1844 was legislation passed in an attempt to control violence, with Ordnance No 8 making it a capital offence to wound anyone with the intent to kill. According to historian C R Ottley in his book East and West Indians Rescue Trinidad, the first person to be executed the following year under this law was an East Indian man who had attacked a woman and maimed her.
In that era, Indian men in central Trinidad carried the same stigma that young black men from Laventille have today. Almost half of all crimes were committed by Indians, although most of these were minor offences like having unlicenced dogs, traffic violations and, of course, leaving the sugar estate without permission or other breaches of the indentureship contract. However, in his autobiography Inward Hunger, Dr Eric Williams recalls how, on the night of June 24 in 1911, when Trinidadians were celebrating the coronation of King George V, a Chinese shopkeeper was murdered and his shop set afire; seven Indian men were charged and three of them were convicted and hanged. This was one of 16 murders committed by Indians that year, who also accounted for two-thirds of shooting with intent and one-third of manslaughter convictions in the colony. Williams notes, “Half of the prisoners in 1911 were Hindus or Muslims.”
The Colonial Office actually had a separate category for murders in the Indian community, in which domestic murders were rife. Between 1895 and 1900, for example, there were 26 killings among Indian immigrants in Trinidad, and 21 of the victims were women. In part, this penchant for violence was due to the sex imbalance that was a direct result of unequal numbers of men and women coming from India in search of a better life on Trinidad’s sugar estates. But the 1911 Census noted that “The excess of males in the total population is...caused by East Indian immigration, and the statistics of previous Censuses...induce one to believe this is diminishing.”
Even though in most societies women typically outlive men, the Trinidad Indian cohort curiously had more widowers than widows—an average of 140 men whose wives had died, as compared to an average of 85 women whose husbands had died. For the rest of the Trinidadian population, there were more women than men over the age of 75. The higher number of Indian widowers suggests either that marriage conferred some longevity benefit on men, or shortened women’s lives or, possibly, that long-lived men were more likely to get married. The 1931 Census further noted that “East Indians regard the marriage ceremony as an essential institution of social life and accordingly early marriages are not infrequently contracted, though they are seldom ratified by registration. The tendency of East Indians to describe themselves as married where the conditions of the law have not been fully carried out has embarrassed both enumerators and tabulators.”
When the supply of indentured labourers from India ceased in 1917, Indians comprised 15 per cent of the population, or about 50,000 people, but Trinidadians of Indian descent accounted for 17 per cent (58,000). Two generations after their arrival, Indians thus made up one-third of the colony’s population, but 40 per cent of native Trinidadians. By 1931, according to the Census, Indians accounted for 114,946 or 28 per cent of the population, with 83 per cent born in the colony, meaning that, just 86 years after the first labourers arrived in 1845, there were more locally-born people of Indian descent than African descent in Trinidad. Native-born Trinidadians, including Indians, accounted for just 45 per cent of the population. Put another way, although Indians were a minority and considered by African-Caribbean people as alien, Indian-descent people very early became Trinidadians as defined by place of birth.
In 1911, one Indian boy out of ten and one Indian girl out of 14 went to school, as compared to the rest of the population where half of boys under 15 attended school and two out of every five girls. Illiteracy among the general population was 53 per cent, but for East Indians it was 96 per cent. Nonetheless, Indians had already begun to lay the foundation for their descendants’ future. (See Table One) A 1918 ad in the PoS Gazette from the Trinidad Government Savings Bank listing accounts which had been inactive for ten years gives some insight into the financial status of the working class. In the Port-of-Spain branch, most of the customers were labourers who had up to 17 shillings in these accounts. But Rampirith from Cunupia had £8 in his account, Mithania from Arouca had deposited £11, and Rampersad from Icacos Village had £12. In the San Fernando branch of the bank, most of the depositors were also labourers, nearly all Indian and therefore most likely sugar estate workers, with £14 being the largest sum from Bugaloo of Usine St Madeline. All this suggests that agricultural workers, whose wages ranged from 40 cents to 60 cents a day (or $8 to $10 a month), were still able to save part of their incomes even during the war years. To contextualise these rates within the cost of living, a 1936 report of the Wages Advisory Board noted that in 1920 a basket of groceries for one healthy man cost between $2 and $2.50 per month. But Indians had a reputation for frugality to the point of malnourishment. Historian K O Laurence in A Question of Labour records that, between 1910 and 1917, Indian labourers remitted a total of £57,981 to India, which was an average of $81 per person.
Thus, although Indo-Trinidadians were still mainly poor sugar workers, several had already begun establishing themselves among the hitherto exclusively white business class. A 1921 notice in the PoS Gazette about the election of directors of the San Fernando Cinematograph Company Ltd included “Messrs Sultan Khan, M A Ghany, F Mahabir and S Boodoosingh.” Three of those four names were to remain leading business and political personages up to the late 20th century. Between 1921 and 1930, Indians continued to return to India after their contracts ended. In this decade, the Indian population in the colony dropped by just over 14,000, with 7,982 going back to India and the rest dying. So only a small minority of Indians—seven per cent—chose to leave Trinidad.
One hundred years later, as shown in Table Two, nearly all who stayed are better off by all standard measures than the average person in India.
Sources: CSO, Williams 1969, Ryan 1996. Source: CIA World Factbook, UNDP
TABLE 1: Indian progress in past 100 years
1917 96% illiterate 50% Indian 99% labourers
2017 66% scholarship 25% Indo-Trinidadian 42% of business persons, 59% law winners firms, 80% doctors
TABLE 2: Comparative indicators for India and T&T
Indicator India Trinidad and Tobago
Sex ratio 1 female to 12 males 1 female to 1.06 males
Infant mortality 30 per 1000 15 per 1000
Life expectancy 69 years 73 years
Functional literacy 61% 85%
Source: Kevin Baldeosingh, Trinidad Guardian
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