How the 19th-century flow of indentured workers shapes the Caribbean | The Economist

Of carnivals and controversy: How the 19th-century flow of indentured workers shapes the Caribbean | The Economist

WHEN Anthony Carmona, the president of Trinidad and Tobago, showed up in a Carnival parade last month wearing a head cloth, white shorts and beads like those worn by Hindu pandits, he was not expecting trouble. Nothing seems more Trinidadian than a mixed-race president joining a festival that has African and European roots. But some Hindus were outraged. “[O]ur dress code has never been associated with this foolish and self-degrading season,” huffed a priest. Trinidad’s cultures blend easily most of the time; occasionally, they strike sparks.    

The Hindu-bead controversy is not the only one ruffling feelings among Indo-Trinidadians. Another is caused by a proposal in parliament to raise the minimum age for marriage to 18 for all citizens. Currently, Muslim girls can marry at 12, girls of other faiths at 14. Muslim and Hindu traditionalists want to keep it that way.

 Another argument has been provoked by the disproportionate number of Trinidadians who have joined Islamic State (IS). About 130 of the country’s 1.3m people are thought to have fought for the “caliphate” or accompanied people who have. That is a bigger share of the population than in any country outside the Middle East. The government wants a new law to crack down on home-grown jihadists, which some Muslim groups denounce as discriminatory. The attorney-general, Faris Al-Rawi, is guiding both measures through the legislature.

Both debates are causing unease in the communities that trace their origins to the influx of indentured workers in the 19th century. This month marks the 100th anniversary of the end of that flow. By bringing in large numbers of Indians, mostly Hindus and Muslims, the migration did much to shape the character of the Caribbean today (see chart). The arguments about marriage and terrorism are part of its legacy.

The migration from India began in 1838 as a way of replacing slavery, banned by Britain’s parliament five years earlier. Recruiters based in Calcutta trawled impoverished villages for workers willing to sign up for at least five years of labour—and usually ten—on plantations growing sugar, coconut and other crops in Trinidad, British Guiana (now Guyana), the Dutch colony of Suriname and elsewhere.

Workers were housed in fetid “coolie” barracks, many of which had served as slave quarters, and were paid a pittance of 25 cents a day, from which the cost of rations was deducted. Diseases like hookworm, caused by an intestinal parasite, were common.

But the labourers’ lot was better than that of enslaved Africans. Colonial governments in India and the Caribbean tried to prevent the worst abuses. Workers received some medical care and were not subject to the harsh punishments meted out to slaves, notes Radica Mahase, a historian. In some periods the colonial government offered workers inducements to stay at the end of a contract: five acres of land or five pounds in cash.

Opposition from Indian nationalists and shortages of shipping during the first world war prompted the British government of India to shut down the traffic on March 12th 1917. By then, more than half a million people had come to the Caribbean. Today, just over a third of Trinidad and Tobago’s people say they are of Indian origin, slightly more than the number of Afro-Trinidadians; the share is higher in Guyana, lower in Suriname. Hindus outnumber Muslims. Many, especially those whose forebears were educated at Presbyterian schools, are Christians.

Caribbean people of Indian origin are as successful and well-integrated as any social group. Many of Trinidad and Tobago’s state schools have religious affiliations but are ethnically mixed; the government pays most of their costs regardless of denomination. Eid al-Fitr, which celebrates the end of Ramadan, and Diwali are public holidays. Many Hindus celebrate the religious festival of Shivaratri, then join in Carnival parades. “An individual can have multiple identities,” says Ms Mahase.

Politics still has ethnic contours. In Trinidad and Tobago, most voters of African origin support the People’s National Movement, which is now in power. Indo-Trinidadians tend to back the opposition United National Congress. Guyana’s president, David Granger, is from a predominantly Afro-Guyanese party.

But these distinctions are blurring. A growing number of Caribbean people identify with neither group. Nearly 40% of teenagers in Trinidad and a quarter in Guyana call themselves mixed-race or “other”, or do not state their ethnicity in census surveys. When both countries hold elections in 2020, these young people are likely to vote less tribally than their parents do.

Trinidad’s jihadist problem is in part caused by the choice of new identities rather than by the embrace of established ones. Many of IS’s recruits are Afro-Trinidadian converts to Islam. Mr Al-Rawi, who is leading the fight to stop them, claims descent from the Prophet Muhammad through his Iraqi father, but has a more relaxed view of religion. His mother is Presbyterian, his wife is a Catholic of Syrian origin and one of his grandfathers was a Hindu.

The anti-terrorist and child-marriage laws he is promoting, though seemingly unrelated, are rebukes to rigid forms of identity. The anti-terrorist law would make it a criminal offence within Trinidad to join or finance a terrorist organisation or commit a terrorist act overseas. People travelling to designated areas, such as Raqqa in Syria, would have to inform security agencies before they go and when they come back. Imtiaz Mohammed of the Islamic Missionaries Guild denounces the proposed law as “draconian”.

The proposal to end child marriage affects few families; just 3,500 adolescents married between 1996 and 2016, about 2% of all marriages. But it has been just as contentious as the anti-terrorism law. The winning calypso at this year’s Carnival, performed by Hollis “Chalkdust” Liverpool, a former teacher, was called “Learn from Arithmetic”. Its refrain, “75 can’t go into 14”, mocked Hindu marriage customs and implicitly backed the legislation to raise the marriage age. Satnarayan Maharaj, an 85-year-old Hindu leader, called it an insult.  (see Calypso video below)

The government has enough votes in parliament to pass the law in its current form, but opponents may challenge it in the courts. Traditionalists may thus hold on to an anachronism imported from India, at least for a while. The bead-wearing, calypso-dancing president is probably a better guide to what the future holds.

Source: Of carnivals and controversy: How the 19th-century flow of indentured workers shapes the Caribbean | The Economist


Mighty Chalkdust (Dr Hollis Liverpool)—“Learn From Arithmetic” | Dimanche Gras 2017 (Calypso Competition)

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • demerwater  On 03/17/2017 at 5:50 am

    Reminds me of a similar outrage in Guyana when the Sparrow calypso “Marajhin” was released. I found myself questioning the fairness of it all; because, to me, it appeared that the Pandit’s wife was being held to a higher standard than the Pandit himself.
    But expressions of art uplift as many as they offend.
    I would point to the statue of Cuffy; and rest my case.

  • Thinker  On 03/17/2017 at 6:44 am

    Enough Blacks don’t know enough about Arab slavery in Africa or they would recoil in horror. A case of out of the frying pan into the fire. Chalkdust might be entertaining but commenting on the culture of other groups is somewhat arrogant. Change should really come from within a group especially given the racial tension between groups.

    • Micky  On 03/17/2017 at 11:08 am

      Believe it or not it was the blacks who were also involved in slavery too selling their own people to america and europe. This was highlighted in the new roots.

      • Micky  On 03/17/2017 at 11:11 am

        Black people had slaves too

  • Veda Nath Mohabir  On 03/17/2017 at 11:38 am

    Even Carmona decked out in the Hindu beads in a Bacchanalian event is insensitive from the Hindus’ PoV. Those beads have a deep cosmological significance which I will reveal later as I’m in a rush. As I often say, Hinduism is not WYSIWYG. it runs deeper.
    I notice too that Chalkdust is selective on whom (Hindus, the softer target) to attack whereas, the Muslims have an even lower age for girls’ marriage but get a pass. In fact, the low age for Indian marriage go back a millennium – to the Arab/Muslim invader-rulers of India.

    Veda Nath Mohabir

    • Thinker  On 03/17/2017 at 12:25 pm

      Yep. Chalkdust knows better than to offend any possible jihadists, especially with Trinidad producing more per capital than almost anywhere else.

    • Justin Jarrette  On 03/29/2017 at 5:19 pm

      At the same time, though; there are 3 times as many Hindus in T&T than there are Muslims so more Hindus available to possibly be involved in the practice.

  • Albert  On 03/17/2017 at 12:32 pm

    “commenting on the culture of other groups is somewhat arrogant.”

    Perhaps if done in a negative way. No expert but it seems one of the cause of conflict between the races in Guyana is ignorance of each other. Worse yet, base on observation from work experiences, it seem the average member of each major group knew little of his/her “culture” whatever that is. Could a group have tolerance for others whose culture they do not know.

    It’s a pity we hear little from social workers who have work in these communities and know the people. Telling the truth is not always pleasant.

    • Thinker  On 03/18/2017 at 2:09 am

      Frankly, in a modern state, one wants to ensure that young people can pursue their education before being pressured into marriage. In India itself the minimum age is higher than Trinidad. We don’t need to hear specifically from social workers but from progressive community leaders. Outsiders just muddy the waters.

  • Veda Nath Mohabir  On 03/18/2017 at 12:25 am

    The so-called ‘Hindu beads’ or MALA/Maalaa string (Sanskrit: garland) contains 108 beads. Hindus consider this number as very auspicious and sacred, so much so that many mantras are repeated 108X; and their architecture/construction of temples use this number. For example, used in the Angor Wat temple in Cambodia – dedicated to Lord Vishnu. (Yes, South East Asia was heavily Hindu in the past and Thai Kings still use the “Rama” official title for at least the past 240 years).

    Astronomy provides some remarkable evidence to support Hindu belief in 108. As just a couple of notable examples: Whether by coincidence or design, both the Sun and Moon are approximately108 times their diameters from the Earth (actual: 107.4 and 109.8 on average, respectively). Furthermore, the diameter of the Sun is virtually 108 times (actual: 109) the Earth’s. In other words, virtual MALAS of 108 Sun and Moon disks, respectively, can be laid out bridging the distance from the Earth to these celestial bodies which the devotee can mentally walk on to reach these celestial deities. Thirdly, a virtual mala of 108 Earth disks – or spheres, as beads – can be stretched out along the diameter of the Sun.

    There are more cases exhibiting this 108 ‘fractal’ number . I may send an abbreviated article (I wrote to magazine a year ago) to Cyril to see if he’ll publish it so more eyes can read about Hindu intellectual achievements.

    So, those langhoti wearing, idol-woshipping Hindus knew some scientific facts that I have not seen documented anywhere else. They have science on their side. As I said earlier, Hinduism is not just WYSIWYG.

    So, we see that Pres. Carmona committed SACRILEGE by wearing the sacred beads as part of his outfit during Bacchanal. And, Not forgetting that Chalkdust is a bully, and coward too, by targeting only Hindus.

    (Ps. If you saw the recent CNN “Believer” doc.on Hinduism by (Muslim) prof, Reza Aslan, you will see that dishonoring Hinduis is good business. If you haven’t Google ‘Reza Aslan Believer Aghori’ and hope you have a strong stomach).

    Veda Nath Mohabir

  • Gigi  On 03/18/2017 at 12:54 pm

    Western cultural influence has always managed to create more racial/ethnic/religious conflict in its rush to show tolerance for diversity through forced imposition steeped in ignorance. The PPP are wise to reject the pnc/wpa/apnu cultural cohesion by these adherents of cultural ignorance. For a president of a country to think that dressing up as a devout religious figure to participate in a most irreligious and crass event is embracing cultural differences highlights his own ignorance and lack of cultural awareness. The more westernize these folks try to act the more foolish they look.

    Yesterday, St Patrick’s day was a good example of cultural ignorance. My husband saw me dressed for work and said “what, you’re not wearing green?” I replied that I’m not Irish. His response was “everybody is Irish on St Patrick’s day just like everybody is Spanish on Cinco de Mayo.” I replied only for those who want an excuse to drink themselves into a stupor because that’s all they relate the two occasions to. It’s no different from all the try hards celebrating Phagwa/Holi recently in Guyana. How many know what the celebration is about. Definitely not the Junior minister of education in Guyana. Why she felt the need to trot out and pronounce on the occasion is testament to the crass cultural ignorance and foolishness of the those in the current administration.

    The custom of underage brides is not limited to Hindu and Muslim cultures, but I fully support this positive move by the men of these cultures to call for an end to this practice given that they are the ones that this practice usually favors. Guyana, on the other hand, needs a harsh law to punish all the pedophiles roaming the country. Guyana also needs a ban on underage marriages to prevent the pedophiles from rushing to marry these girls to prevent prosecution.

    Terrorists, Mr Al-Rawi, or freedom fighters – the meaning can be quite nuanced when seen from different perspectives. Western powers and their select ME allies are destroying, terrorizing and displacing millions in the ME with other devastating consequences being felt, surely you jest.

    • Micky  On 03/18/2017 at 2:00 pm

      Oh my goodness paedophilies are on the roam and rampage throughout guyana.

      There is no one to protect the little vulnerable children because the abuse is going on in the homes. So disgusting, sad and makes me want to be sick. Guyana you have no shame

      • VOCAL  On 03/18/2017 at 2:06 pm

        Guyana full of Dutty old men .

  • Albert  On 03/18/2017 at 2:49 pm

    Gigi you have covered a great deal. I agree with you on some parts.

    What are the reasons/fears of parents that urge them to push for “early marriage”. What are some of things that happen to those young women who don’t get married, or marriage fails? Pedophile marriage is not the only outcome in their lives. I know of one answer but you could write on this open board what I cannot.

    Most people I know in Guyana want to be westernized. They act and want the latest from America: clothes, food, liquor, technology, education ………….they even want to get their babies born in America. Is that not importing western culture in Guyana. So what is Guyanese culture. …pepperpot and masquerade.

    Have you experienced the reaction of foreign men to the idea of their young daughters in America talking about or going on dates. One nearly killed his daughter. Wonder if it has to do with “Guyanese culture”.

  • Ron Saywack  On 03/18/2017 at 3:14 pm

    Adolescent marriage should be outlawed everywhere on the planet. A child should be allowed to be a child and to develop in every aspect of life including physiological, emotional, psychological and otherwise before marriage.

    At 12 or 14, the human child is still in the developmental phases. Therefore, he/she must never be forced into marriage. It is unfathomable that this perversity and abomination is still entrenched in so many cultures. That Trinidad considers raising the minimum age of marriage to 18 for all citizens is a step in the right direction. It should have been done a long time ago.

    Science has shown that the PFC (prefrontal cortex) is reached at age 25 for males and age 21 for females. As such, it makes even more sense to outlaw child marriage.

    Generally, adolescents have not yet achieved the necessary preparedness or established the foundation (finance and education, for example) or reached maturity for the institution of marriage and attendant parenthood.

    It is inconceivable and incomprehensible that anyone, anywhere, in the modern age, would take offence and object to raising the marital age to 18, for whatever reason, religious or otherwise. It is even more incomprehensible that an adult would even consider marrying a child. Such obscene and reprehensible practice must be stopped once and for all.

  • Micky  On 03/18/2017 at 5:07 pm

    There are plenty sick sick sick weirdos who find children attractive. They need to be locked up and key thrown away. The family turn a blind eye too. In Guyana there is no adverts telling children to be careful of strangers because it is a family member doing it to their child

  • Veda Nath Mohabir  On 03/18/2017 at 9:52 pm

    I agree that the minimum age should be raised.

    However, India and Hindus are the favourite targets by many western media (and in T&T by the Archbishop – one reason the Hindus are playing stubborn telling him he should “mind his own business’ and look at the child abuse by priests). While on subject od hypocrisy, last week there was BBC report on abuse of children sent to Australia/New Zealand. This is one of a string of such child-abuse by both Catholics and Protestant denominations esp. in residential schools, convents ret al.

    Now, lets have a comparative look around the world starting with USA. esp New York (14), New Hampshire (13F & 14M) et al. See this and Link.

    “The age of marriage in the United States is 18, with two exceptions—Nebraska (19) and Mississippi (21). However, most states have exceptions allowing marriage at younger ages with parental consent, judicial approval, in cases of pregnancy, or in a combination of these situations. Most states allow parties aged 16 and 17 to marry with parental consent alone. In many states, children under 16 can be married too, in special circumstances. The absolute minimum age set by statute varies by state between 13 and 17, while in 27 states there is no statutory minimum age if the other legal conditions are met. Although in such states there is no set minimum age by statute, the traditional common law minimum age is 14 for boys and 12 for girls – ages which have been confirmed by case law in some states”.

    Next, look world-wide. Checkout esp Iran (9) and Saudi Arabia (10). Also, there is part of my my proof when I say India’s (even though it is now18 & 21) historically was set low by the Muslim invader-rulers.

    Veda Nath Mohabir

  • Albert  On 03/18/2017 at 11:05 pm

    “It is inconceivable and incomprehensible that anyone, anywhere, in the modern age, would take offence and object to raising the marital age to 18”

  • Albert  On 03/18/2017 at 11:58 pm

    “It is inconceivable and incomprehensible that anyone, anywhere, in the modern age, would take offence and object to raising the marital age to 18”,

    I don’t disagree with you on 18 years but keep in mind some females are more psychologically mature at 16 than others at 26. Readiness for reproduction comes when a female can produce eggs. In fact with modern science (cloning) you don’t need sperms for females to reproduce.
    I think some men, even at 30, are not mature enough for marriage.

    Finally, is marriage, and one woman to a man, not a man made institution. It seem otherwise with reality.

    Like to provoke thought.

  • Vocal  On 03/19/2017 at 11:18 am

    16 year old is just a child and should not be getting married😣 it is the old men who make these laws up.

  • Veda Nath Mohabir  On 03/20/2017 at 12:07 am

    I just looked at the third episode in Reza Aslan’s CNN Believer series and the last two are mild compared to the first on what he deemed a Hindu cannibalistic sect.

    This episode is causing huge uproar wherever Hindus are esp in India, England and USA – because 99.999.. Hindus/Indians don’t know of this sect, much less as Hindus. Why he referred to the obscure Aghori sect as “Hindu” is, to my evaluation, that as a Muslim, he is trying to shift the focus from the myriad atrocities in Middle East and other Muslim nations by demonizing (literally) Hindus, Islam’s antithesis for the Murtis (idols) and so-called, polytheism – which is not understood by Abrahamic religionists.

    This is similar to the Archbishop of T&T, as well as Chalkdust, attacking/mocking Hindu marriages while ignoring (partly due to fear, as well as, ‘people of the book’ amity) the Muslims even lower marriage age for girls. And, as I showed in the earlier links, worldwide, many countries and US states don’t have a minimum age, or the age is similar to Hindu in T&T (In India, it is 18 & 21).

    Here, the only Hindu US member of Congress, Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii and Prof Juluri chastise CNN and Reza Aslan:

    “Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu elected to the US congress, also tweeted this week that she was “disturbed” by the program.

    “CNN is using its power and influence to increase people’s misunderstanding and fear of Hinduism,” she wrote

    “Aslan apparently sought to find sensationalist and absurd ways to portray Hinduism.

    “Aslan and CNN didn’t just throw a harsh light on a sect of wandering ascetics to create shocking visuals – as if touring a zoo – but repeated false stereotypes about caste, karma and reincarnation that Hindus have been combatting tirelessly.”

    Vamsee Juluri, a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco, said it was “unbelievably callous and reckless” of CNN to “push sensational and grotesque images of bearded brown men and their morbid and deathly religion” in such a tense atmosphere for Indian-Americans. ”

    This demonization occurs even in American academia. I will post on that later.

    Veda Nath Mohabir

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: