Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
‘East Indians' are so-called to avoid confusion with Trinidad's long-disappeared indigenous population. Historically separated from the Afro-Trinidadian population by religion and lifestyle East Indians or Indo-Trinidadians have remained culturally distinct.
With the growth of the oil economy and modernization, Afro-Trinidadians tended to work in the petroleum sector and in urban, public-sector employment, while Indo-Trinidadians stayed predominantly in rural areas and in agricultural jobs. This pattern remains more or less the same today, with Indo-Trinidadians predominating in the countryside and Afro-Trinidadians representing a majority in urban centres.
Nevertheless Indo-Trinidadians are well represented in the urban private sector where there is little or no Afro-Trinidadian presence and the rural Indo-Trinidadians dominate the agricultural sector, where also there is little or no Afro-Trinidadian participation.
Emigration from Trinidad and Tobago, as with other Caribbean nations, has historically been high; most emigrants go to the United States, with Canada and Britain receiving most of the rest.
East Indians first arrived in Trinidad as indentured labourers from colonial India in the second half of the nineteenth century following the abolition of slavery in 1833. Between 1845 and 1917 more than 150,000 indentured (Muslim and Hindu) labourers were brought to Trinidad by British migrant labour contractors primarily to work on the sugar estates. (See also Guyana, Jamaica, Surinam, and Guadeloupe). Many migrants originated from north Indian states like Bihar, Gujarat, Rajastan and Uttar Pradesh.
Seeds of ethnic tension
The race, colour, and class-conscious environment that was colonial plantation society all but ensured that the newly arrived East Indian workers would enter onto the lowest rungs of the colony's social hierarchy.
After a 300-year ancestral presence the newly emancipated African descended population had already absorbed many colonial plantation-society values, which made it highly unlikely they would readily accept the new arrivals as social equals or seek close alliances.
Five years of compulsory but paid ‘apprenticeship' labour following abolition had enabled many former slaves to accumulate capital. This they often pooled in order to buy abandoned estates and set up free villages thereby becoming landowners. In contrast the newly arrived East Indian migrant labourers were then landless and were often placed into the same buildings that were formerly used to house the slaves on the sugar plantations.
The largely Christianized African population viewed the religion of newly arrived East Indians with great reservation. To them the Hindu faith with its elaborate polytheistic shrines and non-familiar rituals seemed to possess all those elements that Protestant colonial missionaries had long described as ‘un-Christian pagan practices.'
By the end of the 19th century formerly enslaved Africans had also already realized that literacy, education and good colonial-language skills could provide them with social and economic advantage.
All of these elements combined to ensure that the island's African descended population would not willingly seek to establish close relations with the then unskilled and unlettered newly arriving East Indian indentured labourers. For the most part the newcomers were left to themselves; in and around the rural sugar estates and essentially excluded from the mainstream of the island's colonial society for several generations.
From East Indian to Indo-Trinidadian
Under the prevailing socio-economic conditions, religion, ethnic pride and cultural retention became important survival mechanisms for East Indian immigrants and their descendants. These factors served to enhance individual self-esteem, sustain community values and helped maintain a distinct identity that could resist absorption into the predominantly Christian, Afro-European Creole multicultural mix.
Negative perceptions of the Indo-Trinidadian population began to change markedly in the early 1950s when the descendants of East Indian émigrés increasingly began to acquire land, establish their own private agricultural ventures and more especially vigorously purse educational opportunity and increasingly enter the professions.
Over the years Indo-Trinidadians have increasingly become an integral part of Trinidadian society. Indo-Trinidadian influence in local culture and politics continues to grow and over several decades some intermarriage has also taken place between Indo-Trinidadians and other groups.
Tensions between the Afro-Trinidadian and Indo-Trinidadian communities surface only sporadically and are usually related mainly to adverse economic conditions or political opportunism.
In the 1980s, when oil prices dropped steeply after the boom years of the 1970s, approximately 75,000 East Indians are estimated to have migrated to Canada.
In 1990 an abortive coup by an extreme Muslim group led to widespread looting in Port of Spain; many of the shops and businesses looted belonged to Indo-Trinidadians.
Indo-Trinidadians continue to wield increasing influence within the overall Trinidadian multicultural mix. Bhojpuri, known locally as Hindi, which is still spoken by a few Indo-Trinidadians is now widely used in very popular music genres such as ‘Chutney Soca.'
Eid-ul-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim Month of Ramadan and is the most important date on the Islamic calendar, is now an official public holiday in Trinidad and Tobago. This is indicative of a growing recognition of Islam as a major Indo-Trinidadian religion.
Furthermore the original arrival of East Indians in the country is observed on May 30 as Indian Arrival Day. This makes Trinidad the first country in the world to officially recognize East-Indian Indentureship and Divali The Hindu festival of lights is also now a national holiday given in recognition of the Hindu faith.
On the other hand Afro-Trinidadians can only point to one official holiday that specifically acknowledges the Afro-Trinidadian presence. It is August 1, which is celebrated as Emancipation Day and recognizes the freedom from enslavement of the African descended population.
Some Indo-Trinidadians continue to assert that they remain underrepresented in senior civil service and protective service positions as well as among recipients of state-sponsored housing grants and scholarships.