Indian Indentured Servants Helped Shape Trinidad's History
Honoring the Past
May 30th is recognized as Indian Arrival Day in Trinidad and Tobago. It honors the day that the first set of Indian indentured servants arrived in Trinidad on May 30, 1845 on the ship, The Fatel Razak.
Recognizing these dates are important because it is not easy to learn this history. I grew up in Miami. They didn’t teach us the history of India, or Trinidad, or Indian indentured servants in Trinidad. My grandparents didn’t know much and my parents knew even less. Our parents, grandparents, and ancestors were preoccupied working in the fields and migrating to new countries for a better life. Their schooling and access to books were often limited. This is the predicament of nearly all of us in the diaspora.
One day I was looking for a new book to read. I was on an indefinite maternity leave and my first born took long naps. I finally had the time to read for leisure after working 10-hour days for years as a lawyer in a large firm. I started googling books on the history of Trinidad and Guyana. Luckily for me, I was in the Age of Information and gradually got access to these books. So as I read, I started sharing, and this is what I learned:
The indentureship period lasted from 1845 to 1917. Approximately 147,000 Indians worked on sugarcane and cocoa plantations. The majority of Indian indentured servants were never able to return to India, and stayed in Trinidad.
However, an analysis of their history shows that the Indian indentured servants and their descendants, like the enslaved Africans, retained certain traditions and created a unique lifestyle in Trinidad.
The Indian Indentured Servitude System
The British implemented the indentured servitude system following abolition of slavery. The plantation owners needed a labor force to fill the void. after slavery ended.
The indentured servitude system was initially explained as Indians working overseas for 5 years. At the end of the 5 year term, the Indians were to be given a choice to either stay abroad or return home to India.
The reality is that there are numerous accounts of Indians being kidnapped or deceived into participating in the indentured servitude system. Some recruiters told Indians that they were only going to work in a separate part of India. Many Indians were desperate for work because of the high poverty rate in Britain’s colonized India.
One million Indians would be sent to the Caribbean, South Africa, Mauritius, Fiji, Malaysia, and other regions. Even if they wanted to return home to India, many were forced to stay in their new land and leave behind their old life in India.
History of Trinidad and Tobago
As for the Indians in Trinidad, they added to a population that mainly consisted of natives and formerly enslaved Africans. The native tribes were primarily the Arawak and Carib. There is dispute as to the native’s original name for the island but Christopher Columbus renamed the island "La Isla de la Trinidad" in 1498. The islands were taken by Spain following Columbus' discovery.
Spain then enslaved Africans to work on the plantations. Enslaved Africans began arriving consistently in Trinidad around 1776 when Spain invited foreigners to settle the island. The settlers mostly came from the neighboring French Caribbean islands and brought enslaved Africans. In 1783, Spain, in an effort to increase Trinidad’s population further, offered free land and tax benefits. At one point, the enslaved Africans outnumbered the plantation owners and free workers.
The Africans did their best to preserve African traditions despite inhumane oppression, and despite being thousands of miles away from home. This perseverance would eventually spawn the gift of Trinidad Carnival-- a celebration that many around the world look forward to annually. Carnival has its roots in the French Catholic ritual of Shrovetide (where Hedonism was celebrated prior to Lent) and West African culture. It was initially only for upper class whites, and the Africans and Indians were not allowed to participate. It wasn’t until emancipation that Africans, and later Indians, took Trinidad Carnival and made it their own.
In 1797, the British invaded Trinidad and Spain surrendered without a fight.
Slavery was abolished in Trinidad in 1838. In 1845, the British began the Indian indentured servitude system.
The Fatel Razak
On February 16, 1845, the Fatel Razack left Calcutta, India with the first set of Indian indentured servants bound for Trinidad.
Approximately 225 Indian passengers spent 103 days at sea crossing 14,000 miles. The estimates are that between 3-6 people died on the journey.
The Fatel Razack landed in the Gulf of Paria on May 30, 1845.
Dookie Meah was one of the Fatel Razack’s passengers. His name is listed as number 4 on the ship’s register. He went on to work at the Exchange Estate in Couva. He also founded Trinidad’s first mosque.
Trinidad’s New Culture with Indian Influences
Trinidad and Tobago has become a unique nation that retained traditions from Africa and India, but also formed a distinct new culture. The beautiful culture includes its language, its music, and its food.
Trinidad’s most recognizable food is doubles. Doubles is a Trini delicacy. It comprises of two baras filled with channa. In other words, curried chickpeas and fried flat breads. People often add sauces, chutney, and cucumbers. It started off as street food but is now served in restaurants around the world.
Doubles can be made with variations, and everyone has their preference. Some people prefer the bara to be thick. Others prefer thin bara. Some like the channa thick, and others prefer it more runny. Doubles are usually recommended to any tourist by a Trini.
The curry and the bara may derive certain elements from Indian cuisine, but it is definitely a Trinidad product.
The History of Doubles
There is some dispute as to the origin of doubles. There are two theories as to the origin of doubles. Most accept that it was created in the 1930s by a Muslim-Indian family in the city of Princes Town.
One theory says that Mamool Deen and Rasulan Ali started selling fried channa in their outdoor kitchen. They then began selling bara. Later the couple started putting the channa on the bara. The infamous name, “Doubles” came to be when a customer asked that the couple “double up” the barra to make a sandwich.
Mamool’s two sisters were married to his wife’s two brothers. The brother-in-laws then joined Mamool’s business. A (classic) Trini family feud erupted over land when Mamool disagreed over one brother selling doubles in his area, instead of a different area. The family feud has continued for decades.
The other theory says that it was one of the Ali brothers (Mamool’s brother-in-law) who started the doubles business in Barataria. This second theory is promoted by the Ali family. However, the generally accepted theory is that Mamool was the creator.
“Although the name "doubles" has never been trademarked, the dispute goes on even as the dish has become an iconic Trinidadian food having been adopted and co-opted by many others.”
They say that you should know where you are coming from so that you can know where you are going.
Trinis in the past have not always had access to their history. The resources were scarce. And they were also working to survive. Working in the fields. Immigrating to the U.S.A and U.K. Working to make it. The internet, coupled with the security of not having to relocate to a new country, has made it more feasible for the descendants of Indian indentured servants to learn about their history.
The Age of Information comes at a valuable time when Trinidad is the largest oil and natural gas producer in the Caribbean, and when foreign investors are capitalizing off of the same.
Perhaps knowledge of this history can enable future decision making to include fair dealings with Trinis and foreign parties. This knowledge can also give ourselves and our children the self-confidence that can be wavering in the diaspora.
By: Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth, Esq. | Trademark Attorney for the U.S., Caribbean Diaspora, and Indian Diaspora. Melissa writes articles about the importance of trademarks, and Caribbean business, oil, and history. (754) 800-4481 | ,www.mdgrlaw.com | ,www.westindiandiplomacy.com |
History of Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Williams.
An Introduction to the History of Trinidad and Tobago, Bridget Brereton.
India in the Caribbean, David Dabydeen and Brinsley Samaroo.