Last Wednesday, July 1, the Indian community continued their annual celebrations and reflection on this day 161 years ago when their ancestors arrived in a new land they knew little about. Truly, this should be a national occasion because they are now fully integrated into the Vincentian community. Over the years they have contributed to the development of SVG. Significantly, in our first elections by adult suffrage, one of their members was elected to the Legislative Council as part of the “Eight Liberation Army” team. He, Evans Morgan, died a few months ago. Like the indigenous Garifuna and Kalinago people, they were able to set aside a day to reflect, commemorate and honor their ancestors. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the majority of Vincentians, descendants of people abducted, bought and brought from Africa. We observe Emancipation Day, but that is only part of our story. In fact, when we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, we gave honor and glory to Wilberforce and the so-called humanitarians and not to the people who fought and resisted and gave back this day possible. The legacy of slavery lives on, so we need to understand the nature and total impact on our country. I’ve always said that in the history of the English-speaking Caribbean, SVG has been treated as a footnote, but there’s a lot of things that are unique about us, perhaps having the period of slavery the shortest and being honored with an account of slavery by Ashton Warner, a slave from the Pembroke estate.
But the emphasis here is on the Indians who first arrived on June 1, landed at Edinboro, and were briefly lodged in the Commissariat building before being sent to the estates to which they were assigned. The ship, “Travaucore”, arrived after a 92-day passage from Madras, India. On board were 260 immigrants – 160 men, 62 women, 34 children under the age of 10 and 4 infants under the age of one. Lieutenant Governor Musgrave advised that there were no fatalities on board but two births and five people who were sick but did not require hospitalization. The question that needs to be asked is what necessitated their journey to SVG.
They came at a difficult time in the colony, 23 years after emancipation, as planters and liberated Africans tried to explore the frontiers of what was meant to be a new society. They had different and opposing views. The planters hoped to retain the newly freed workers on their land by limiting the alternative options they might have, such as land availability and wage controls they were willing to offer. New releases faced with limited alternatives were groomed for a time to continue working on the estates, but only when working conditions and wages were satisfactory to them. Tensions began to rise, and planters with colonial authorities saw immigration as their best option, hoping to find them from any source. The Portuguese arrived in 1845 and significantly five months before the arrival of the Indians, 119 so-called freed Africans arrived from Saint Helena, a British colony in the South Atlantic Ocean. The British had since 1807/8 abolished their slave trade and sought to seize slaves on ships from countries still participating in the trade. These were of course taken to their colonies and the planters took advantage of this.
The first group of Indians to arrive in 1861 and 1862 found themselves trapped in tensions that had turned into major riots from September to October 1862. The liberated people knew that the Indians were to compete with them and resented that did not participate in the riots of which they knew very little. The East Indians who were brought in under contract had major problems since the terms of their contracts were almost never honored. Despite the early challenges and tensions, Indians through churches and schools went through a process of creolization, so much so that in 1882 Lieutenant Governor Gore could notice that Indians and Creole workers were living in houses in courses in small villages. He said they seemed to like it “because of the breadfruit trees under whose shelter these little villages have sprung up and for the sake of each other’s company”. There would have been connections even during the voyages as there were occasions, such as with the arrival of Castle Howard in April 1862, that freed Africans were included among the Indians. The 1911 census noted that the Indian population had become quite naturalized, with most of them by then born in the colony. Many would have accepted the offer of return crossings to India, and some were able to travel to Trinidad and then to British Guiana. Records indicate that the number of Indian immigrants arriving in SVG is 2,472, of whom 1,050 returned to India.
The Indian experience was not that of enslaved Africans, but their beginnings were difficult, miserable and challenging. Some of this is captured in Lenroy Thomas’ book, STORIES OF OUR INDIAN ELDERS, the author using oral history to tell his stories as they have been passed down over the years. Today their story is a Vincentian story. In fact, theirs has always been part of a Vincentian story, a story of different peoples arriving at different times to build this country of ours, whose “faith” will hopefully “carry us through”.
Dr. Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian