Thursday, February 22, 2018

Remembering Sogaree

...Trinidad and Tobago's oldest surviving indentured labourer passes on


Donstan Bonn

This article was published in an Express special magazine to commemorate Divali 2012. It told the story of Indian indentured labourer Sogaree Jattan, who died last Saturday, at age 110, one day after the Indian Arrival Day holiday -


ON May 30, the day after Indian Arrival Day,  Soogree Jattan celebrated her 108th birthday. What makes Soogree special is not only she is one of the longest living persons in Trinidad but she is also one of the three surviving indentured labourers in the country. She is the eldest of the three. She arrived in 1907.And everyone who knows her refers to her as Ma.

Ma was not born on May 31 but no one knew the day she was born.

 According to Dr Jerome Teelucksingh who is a history lecturer at the University of the West Indies St.Augustine Campus, "the Fatel Rozack departed the Calcutta harbour, in India, on 16th February 1845 with 231 Indians.

The correct name of the ship is Fath Al Razak meaning "Victory of Allah the Provider but it is commonly referred to as the "Fatel Rozack."

The government of the day estimated Ma to be about three years old when she arrived at Nelson Island- the place where all indentured labourers were sent before being dispatched to the various estates. This island is one of the "Five Islands" located west of Port-of-Spain in the Gulf of Paria.

Nelson Island was the place where the indentured labourers would have been given proper meals, medication, and their official documents before being sent out to work.

Her parents, Ganesh and Tulsie Pooran were sent to work on sugar estates in the district of Caroni, California to be exact. The Poorans were potters also and they sold their pottery in the local markets when they were not working on the estate.

When both her parents died when she was just 10-years-old, Ma began working on the same estate for a shilling a day. Para grass is a good source of nutrition for cows and other beasts. But it can be detrimental to the production of cane. It was this type of grass that Ma had to clear from the estates as part of her job duties.

She was unable to continue the tradition of pot making in the family. She became the mother figure at that age for her younger sister and brother.

She spent  most of her early life living in the barracks with her family. And although she never to school or learnt to read and write, when she actually became a mother, she ensured that her five children went to school. Ma never married.Her last child Dhanraj Soogree is a medical doctor specialising in emergency medicine in Toronto Canada. In 1967, Soogree left Trinidad after attending ASJA Boys College in San Fernando to pursue a medical degree at the University of Toronto.Soogree's father met his mother in California.

Most of the information about his mother  came from him.

Today, Ma spends her time at her house at Standford Street in California built on a former cocoa estate that Soogree's father worked on. She is being taken care of 24/7 by persons working for an agency hired by Soogree to take care of his mother. In June , Soogree visited his mother for a week.

Ma's children are the reason for her greatest joys she said when the Express visited her recently. She said she no regrets in life and she was " ready to die." Ma could still eat for herself and walk with the help of a walking stick. She spends her time mainly relaxing, watching television and chatting with visitors.

Soogree said his mother  laboured hard on the estate and at home to take care of her family and they lived for many years in extreme poverty.

He said even though they were lacked many material items and money, there was always plenty to eat.

" I didn't realise how good we ate then. We had a garden and she would plant different things. We had chickens and cows. We would get cheese and dahee from the cows. My father was a fisherman so we would go fishing for conch, muskels, shrimp and crab. Almost every day we would have those things to eat."

He said, "Because mostly all the indentured labourers were poor and everyone came from the same background and experiences we stuck together. If you needed anything, a little bit of curry or some dhal you could always go and ask your neighbours."

Soogree  and his father would help his mother  cut cane on the estate, sell in the market and fish when he was not in school and so earned money to help pay for his tuition which was not free at the time. Only primary school education was paid for by the government. The fee then for secondary education was $10 per school term Soogree said.

It was only about four years ago that he discovered his mother had taken care of his aunt and uncle who died.

" One day my aunt was calling my mother ma and I asked her why  and she told me it was because my mother took care of them like a mother," he said.

Ma left the estate when she retired. She travelled out of the country once to visit Pooran in Canada when he was a medical student. But she did not like it there Soogree said mainly because of the food and everything else. Ma is a vegetarian.

She is an extremely genuine person who loves to take care of the sick and elderly Soogree said of his mother. She loves to listen to Hindu prayers and when she was physically fit, taking care of her animals especially her cows. She made sure her children knew about God in the way that she did, through her knowledge of Hinduism.

As of recently, she has been getting glimpses at how her life used to be.

One of her great great grand daughter Esther Boyd only found out that her great great grand mother was a former indentured labourer on Mother's Day when she went to visit her.

Boyd said she was shocked and elated at the fact that Ma was an indentured labourer.

Boyd, 35 first met Ma on the day of Boyd's grandmother's funeral in February 2001.Boyd who lives at Enterprise Chaguanas said it was a joy and a shock to know that Ma was still alive when her grandmother died.

 She lost contact with the family but visited them earlier this year.She received directions from other family members.  She left her contact number with the nurse. The nurse  told her Ma was a former indentured labourer and Soogree contacted her that same night. He said he was looking forward to meeting her when he came in June- additional  reporting by Susan Mohammed.

(from the Multimedia Desk)