Originally published May 30, 2019
“Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars. This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles, and if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture, those icons and sacred vessels taken for granted in their ancestral places. Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent.” —The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory, Nobel lecture, Derek Walcott
The first line of this is an often-quoted sentence, but I felt the need to write the extended piece to set context for this article: a reminder that our ancestry, and who we are as Trinbagonians, is a beautiful assemblage of fragments, and as a society we are still evolving.
We know the story of the arrival of East Indians to these shores. Fr John Thomas Harricharan explained in an interview with John Babb of the Trinidad Guardian in 1985, when emancipation occurred in 1830, there was still land to develop and a desperate need for cheap, unskilled labour. Other groups were tried unsuccessfully.
Then the first group of 237 East Indians arrived on the Fatel Rozack in 1845. India was the perfect labour resource for the British colonisers: the climate in India was similar; they had by this time conquered “a major part of north India”.
“There was a triangular connection,” says Fr Harricharan, author of several books on the Catholic Church in Trinidad and society. “You had the planters here, the British Government in England, and the British Government with India in its grasp.”
In 1846, with the ill-treatment of the indentured labourers in the hands of a planter Wilkausen, the British Government suspended “coolie labour” twice—1847 and again in 1849. Resumption occurred in 1851.
There was an inevitable clash with the now ex-slaves, some of it based on competition for resources: ex-slaves may have stayed on the plantations for higher wages, but the East Indians’ arrival undercut that. Then there were the differences of language, religion, race and lifestyle.
Yet, as is the story with so many migrant groups, hardships were endured, poverty being one of them, and heavy political discrimination (Hosay Massacre in San Fernando in 1884 when participants were fired on during the celebration resulting in deaths and woundings).
The story then is one of survival and adaptation. This is one of the facets of Indian Arrival Day: a recognition of the contribution to the shaping of the islands of Trinidad and Tobago in every sphere—political, economic, cultural and social.
The group chanced the Kala Pani to a destination alien to them, and possibly hostile, in the hope of a better life where they could be allowed to contribute and in so doing save themselves in a new and different environment.
The Presbyterian and Catholic Churches reached out to them, converted a few, educated many more. Some went on to lay the foundation for priests of East Indian descent (read Fr Michael Makhan’s story), who were committed to the faith but also faced some discrimination in the early days.
Beyond that, embedded in the holiday, is a celebration of one fragment that makes a Trinbagonian, a Trinbagonian. There are more who inhabit the complexity of our collective consciousness: the First Peoples, the Spanish, the French, British colonisers, the Africans, the Portuguese, Chinese, Syrian/Lebanese….
Photo by Alberta Studios