The Indian experience
Readers of this column will have noticed that I often use it to “introduce” new books relating to T&T or Caribbean history. As we approach Divali, it seems a good time to notice an important new book by Gerad Tikasingh, entitled Trinidad during the 19th Century: The Indian Experience.
This long and well researched book emerged out of a UWI, St Augustine, doctoral thesis entitled “The Establishment of the Indians in Trinidad, 1870-1900” which was written in the early 1970s. Tikasingh has expanded the thesis and incorporated some new research. The heart of the book (chapters 3 to 9), however, deals with the period which was the focus of the doctoral thesis.
Today, I want to consider Tikasingh’s challenge to what he considers to be the dominant historical interpretations of Trinidad’s history, which, he thinks, have been accepted as valid but never subjected to testing by the evidence: “everything points to the need for a new historical framework for the history of Trinidad”.
First is the assumption that slavery is the core framework for Trinidad’s history and that its slavery experience was the same as that of Jamaica or Barbados. In fact, he writes, it was “short, recent in history, and seemed to have been of a different nature than in other slave societies in the British West Indies”.
Trinidad was effectively a slave society for only about 50 years (1780s to 1830s), while indentured immigration lasted for over 70 (1845-1917)…so, he asks provocatively, “did not indentureship have a greater impact on the nature and history of Trinidad?”
I agree with Tikasingh that Trinidad was a full slave society for only about 50 years, and that in this—and in other ways—its slavery experience was significantly different from that of (say) Barbados, as I have written in this column and elsewhere. But I part company with him when he tries to suggest that slavery was qualitatively different in Trinidad.
To “prove” this, Tikasingh cites entry in the diary of Frederick Urich, a young German whose family managed or owned sugar estates in Trinidad; the surviving diary covers 1831-32. Urich mentions several anecdotes of enslaved people defying and disobeying their owners in ways which, Tikasingh says, could not have happened in Barbados.
But he doesn’t seem to recognise that in 1831-32 the British government’s “Amelioration” programme was at its height, encouraging the enslaved to use the new laws and regulations to assert their “rights” in the run-up to Emancipation. One ought not to generalise from this period about the whole span of slavery in Trinidad.
The second historical interpretation challenged by Tikasingh is that which sees all black people as “natives” of Trinidad while all Indians were “immigrants”. Immigrants from the eastern Caribbean were accepted as effectively natives, belonging to the island, while even locally-born Indians were still immigrants, not quite belonging.
“The most fateful and outrageous misinterpretation of the history of Trinidad”, he writes, is the myth that Indians were “the only immigrants into the island”; that “all others were natives” while Indians were “some type of interlopers in this land”. I think there is some merit in this assertion, though in my view he overstates the extent to which historians (he doesn’t name any) have so argued.
Third, and here I completely agree with Tikasingh, he rejects the “myth” that indentured immigration was “some form of disguised slavery”. Indentureds were exploited but they were never semi-slaves; the differences between the two systems of labour importation and control were fundamental.
Ironically in my view, Tikasingh attributes the myth to what he calls “the Black bias” in the interpretation of Trinidad’s history. I say ironically, because it is precisely the “Afro-centric” view of that history which insists on the vast differences between enslavement and indenture and the unique nature of chattel slavery in the Caribbean. If anyone, it tends to be “Indo-centric” spokesmen who claim indentureds and slaves “suffered equally”.
The fourth misinterpretation that Tikasingh challenges is what he sees as a “bias” against the sugar industry and agriculture in general. In part this refers to the policies of black-dominated governments after Independence, not so much to interpretations of Trinidad’s history.
But this view leads Tikasingh, I believe, to fall into bias and misinterpretations of his own. All through the book, he stresses that the ex-slaves and their descendants, and the British West Indian immigrants, hated and “disdained” agriculture and were uninterested in acquiring and cultivating the land—in contrast to the Indians.
Refusing to be full-time wage labourers on the sugar estates is not the same as rejecting all forms of agriculture. Tikasingh ignores the thousands of black and mixed-race people—whether descended from Trinidad ex-slaves, West Indian or Venezuelan or “Liberated African” immigrants—who were peasant cultivators and cocoa contractors, cane-farmers, owners of small or medium cocoa estates, in the later 19th century. These people, along with ex-indentured Indians, were also buying Crown lands in this same period.
In my next piece, I’ll try to summarise some of the detailed and immensely rich information and analysis about the “Indian experience” in the 1870-1900 period which this important book contains.