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East Indians in Trinidad

East Indians in Trinidad

ETHNONYMS: "Coolies" (now considered offensive; unacceptable in public discourse), Indo-Trinidadians, Overseas Indians (Trinidad)


Identification. The East Indians of Trinidad are descendants of indentured laborers who were brought to this island in the West Indies from the South Asian subcontinent during the second half of the nineteenth century. They were called "East Indians" by Europeans to distinguish them from Native Americans.

Location. Trinidad (now part of the West Indian nation of Trinidad and Tobago) is about 10 kilometers east of the coast of Venezuela, encompassing some 4,385 square kilometers between 10°03 and 10°50 N and 60°39 and 62° W. The climate is equable throughout the year, with a wet season from May to January and a dry season from the end of January to the middle of May. Sugar and other crops for export have been grown predominantly on plantations situated in the central county of Caroni and in the southern counties of Victoria and Saint Patrick. The majority of the original East Indians were brought to these areas and their descendants have continued to reside there. The major sources of revenue have been sugar and oil.

Demography. The first 225 "Coolies" (as they were then called) arrived in Trinidad on 30 May 1845. Mostly male, they were brought from Calcutta, India, to work for five to ten years as indentured laborers on the Trinidad sugar estates, replacing the former slaves of African ancestry who began to leave the estates after the passage of the Emancipation Act in 1833. The practice of indenture came to an end in Trinidad in 1920, by which time approximately 143,900 men and women had been brought from South Asia. The majority were recruited in the north, primarily from Bihar, the United Provinces, and Bengal. By 1985, the total population of Trinidad and Tobago exceeded half a million people. Those who considered themselves (or were considered by census takers) to be of solely African or solely Indian descent were approximately equal in numbers: 215,132 "Negroes" and 215,613 "East Indians."

Linguistic Affiliation. The immigrant indentured laborers spoke a number of Indic languages, and a few spoke Tamil, a Dravidian language. By the middle of the twentieth century, English was in common use, although Bhojpuri, a language of northern Bihar, was still understood by many. At that time, too, Standard Hindi began to be taught in Hindu schools. Sanskrit continues to be used in Hindu religious services. Muslim Indo-Trinidadians learn and use Arabic for religious purposes.

History and Cultural Relations

From the mid-seventeenth century on, the cultivation of sugarcane by slaves brought from Africa was a major source of prosperity for European owners of plantations in the West Indies. When slavery ended, the sugar cultivators attempted to continue the system by utilizing indentured laborers. Muslims as well as Hindusderiving from a wide range of casteswere brought to Trinidad from South Asia. All were initially housed on the estates in the wooden barracks vacated by the emancipated former slaves. The estate owners and their resident managers and overseers had no interest in maintaining the customs and practices of the East Indians and in fact discouraged and tried to eliminate any Indian social or political structure.

A minority of East Indians were able to achieve repatriation; most stayed on in Trinidad, bound to the sugar estates for a source of income, just as they had been under indenture. In the final decades of the nineteenth century, however, East Indians settled on Crown Land, frequently in swampy areas not especially suitable for the growing of sugarcane but capable of supporting other cropsmost particularly rice and other subsistence foods. Cutting cane was the only source of cash for many villages. By the mid-twentieth century, therefore, the majority of East Indians resided in rural communities in the sugar-growing regions of central and southern Trinidad.

Life in Trinidad, for all inhabitants, was much affected by a series of events that occurred during the middle decades of the twentieth century. First, during World War II, large numbers of U.S. soldiers and sailors were posted to the island to build and maintain military bases, introducing the "Yankee dollar" along with new perspectives on social relationships, as well as new dimensions of social, familial, political, and religious stress. Better roads were built, transportation improved, and isolation decreased as people in rural areas went in search of employment. Many rural East Indians found, for the first time, sources of income other than work in the cane fields. Bhadase Sagan Maraj, a Brahman and an early sugar-union leader, acquired considerable wealth through his dealings with Americans and became a leader in East Indian political and religious affairs. As head of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, the most influential Hindu religious organization, he fostered construction of schools and temples throughout the island. Political struggles in the early 1950s resulted in greater popular participation in government.

The achievement of independence by India and Pakistan in 1948 caused great excitement among both Muslims and Hindus in Trinidad. Indian movies began to arrive and became very popular. Extended visits in the early 1950s by Indian missionaries (known as the "Swamis") resulted in an increased interest in Hinduism on the part of many young men; at the same time, the new schools built by the Maha Sabha introduced the teaching of Hindi and Sanskrit along with customary Western secular subjects.

In addition, by mid-century, indentured immigration had become a thing of the past: most of the East Indian population was now Trinidad-born. Some were attracted to West Indian, even European, values and interests, but others sought to hold on to elements of their Indian tradition. As Indo-Trinidadians became increasingly "European" or "cosmopolitan" in lifestyle, their newly acquired wealth made it possible for some to seek out their South Asian heritage. Many young people, however, began to express dissatisfaction at what were seen as "old-fashioned" practices such as arranged marriage, virilocality, and caste restrictions on diet and intermarriage.

The West Indian nation of Trinidad and Tobago achieved independence in 1962. The oil industrry was nationalized in 1974just before an enormous worldwide increase in the price of oil. The ensuing "oil boom" prosperity affected all ethnic groups. For Indo-Trinidadians in particular, it precipitated a rapid shift from agriculture to the burgeoning fields of construction, commerce (especially in hardware, foodstuffs, and dry goods), and transportation.


The first houses constructed by East Indians in their new settlements were small, mud-walled huts with thatched roofs, essentially similar to those of their northern Indian home villages. In many cases a settlement pattern emerged that was also reminiscent of that of northern India: the more prosperous villagersoften of castes considered higher in rankclustered together in what came to be considered the more prestigious neighborhood, whereas poorer people (particularly those of castes considered in India to be "low" or "untouchable") resided in more peripheral neighborhoods.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Until the time of the oil boom, the most desired economic activity was rice cultivation: with a piece of rice land (rented or owned), a man could provide basic subsistence food for his family and feel reasonably secure. Land on which sugarcane could be grown could provide cash income but was rarely available. Most rural East Indians worked on the sugar estates; a few found work on estates producing other crops, such as cocoa. Those who became "drivers" (gang foremen) became men of power and influence in their home communities.

Apart from agriculture, East Indian men sought work as taxi drivers, on road gangs, and as laborers in the oil fields. In the communities near the Caroni Swamp, some men fished or supported themselves by "crab-catching"; they sold their catch in the weekly markets or daily in the villages. Education was prized, but, until the establishment of Hindu-sponsored schools, few men and fewer women had access to it. Christian-sponsored schools educated a small percentage of East Indians, and those who became doctors, lawyers, and schoolteachers were held in great respect. In most East Indian communities, a few enterprising women (and an occasional man) opened "parlors" (small grocery stores), usually under their houses. Most rural general stores, however, were owned by Chinese storekeepers.

Industrial Arts and Trade. A small number of East Indians made crude, undecorated pottery of red claymostly to provide items (e.g., bowls, shallow cups) needed for Hindu ceremonies. Few other industrial arts were known or practiced; most goodscloth, housewares, tools, and so onwere purchased in the shops or from itinerant peddlers.

Division of Labor. Although women worked alongside men on the sugar estates, most Indian men felt uncomfortable about this practice, and those who could afford to kept their wivesand, particularly, their daughtersaway from cane cutting. Rice cultivation was also primarily a male activity, but women often participated in the transplanting process. East Indian taxi drivers and road-gang workers were exclusively male, as were the cooks and musicians who worked at weddings and religious ceremonies. All Hindu priests and religious functionaries were male, but midwifery was a female occupation.

The emergence and spread of Hindu schools in the 1950s fostered a greater willingness on the part of East Indians to send their daughters to school, and the prosperity of the oil boom accelerated this trend: by the 1980s Indo-Trinidadian women teachers were equal in number to their male counterparts, and large numbers of young women had gained employment in the Civil Service.

Land Tenure. From the time Crown Land became available, purchase and ownership was by individuals. Some land was suitable for sugarcane and was worked by the owner with the aid of his sons and whatever hired labor he could afford. Land suitable only for rice, on the other hand, was usually rented out in small parcels (the owner keeping only enough for his family's needs). Those who rented rice land assisted one another, particularly at harvesttime: those with contiguous fields formed communal groups, and together they harvested one another's fields in agreed-upon succession.


Kin Groups and Descent. Indentured laborers began to form new kinship networks even before they arrived in Trinidad. Close relationships formed on shipboard were maintained for years, even generations. Considering themselves too intimately related to allow their children to marry each other, jihaji bhai, as they were known, helped one another find spouses for their children, as relatives in separate villages did in India. Over time and generations, bilateral kin networks developed; some were islandwide. Most East Indians, at least until the mid-twentieth century, preferred to seek spouses for their children in communities other than their own. There was much variation from community to community, from caste to caste, and from individual to individual: some discarded all Indian practices of kin ties and marriage, whereas others tried to maintain and enforce traditional practices, even forbidding marriages between children born in the same community.

There is disagreement among scholars over the question "What happened to 'Caste'?" Few men were able to follow traditional caste occupations, and the economic relationships between castes were never reconstructed; nor were marriage-circles or other forms of caste networks. Nevertheless, the majority of East Indians maintained some degree of caste identification over generations, and this sense of affiliation affected marriage and association patterns. Ideally, one inherited caste membership from both parents, but when parents were of different castes, membership was claimed in that of the father. Values and attitudes reflective of Indian caste hierarchy and separation persisted, although in increasingly attenuated form. After the mid-twentieth century, however, caste identification and whatever degree of marriage restriction had been imposed clearly began to disappear throughout Trinidad.

Kinship Terminology. Although in northern India there is considerable regional and caste variation in kinship terminology, Trinidad East Indian practice reflected the predominance of Hawaiian cousin and bifurcate-collateral uncle terminological systems. The practice of calling all cousins of whatever degree of separation by the terms for "brother" and "sister" particularly separated East Indians from their African- and European-descended neighbors. Muslim East Indians permittedin fact preferredmarriages between parallel cousins; among Hindus, such marriages were considered incestuous.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages were for the most part arranged; dating or other association between unmarried and unrelated boys and girls was condemned by almost all East Indians as late as the mid-twentieth century. Increasingly, however, young people were demanding their right to "free choice" (which meant, in practice, the right to see the prospective spouse at least once before the marriage, along with a right of refusal). Throughout Trinidad, instances of young people marrying without parental permission and ignoring caste and other restrictions increased, and by the 1980s dating had become acceptable throughout the island. Today caste identification has become irrelevant (except for some Brahmans), and marriage with Europeans has become acceptable, but many Indo-Trinidadians, particularly in the rural areas, still disapprove of marriage with Afro-Trinidadians.

Domestic Unit. For many of the higher-ranked castes, the patrilineal joint family (i.e., married brothers and their families sharing the same household) was the ideal social unit; others preferred the nuclear-family household. Both were present in the new settlements, but by the second half of the twentieth century the nuclear-family household had become the predominant pattern among Indo-Trinidadians.

Inheritance. Traditionally, male children expectedand indeed, for the most part, still expectto inherit most of the parental property, dividing it equally among themselves. The biggest problem concerning inheritance derived from the fact that until 1945 marriages performed by Hindu priests were not legally recognized. An unscrupulous brother of a deceased East Indian could therefore claim to be the only "legal" heir, thus disinheriting the "illegitimate" children.

Socialization. Both mothers and fathers invariably preferred sons to daughters. In the event of divorce or other family breakup, children were often claimed by the parents of the father. Weaning was late, often delayed until the children were almost of school age, and all members of the family contributed to the warmth and easy discipline of the early years. Physical punishment, particularly of small children, was rarely resorted to by East Indians. Girls stayed close to home, discouraged even from going alone to a nearby shop, and restrictions increased as they reached puberty. Boys had much more freedom. Although some families encouraged education for sons and even daughters, for most East Indian children before the oil boom, adolescence meant early marriage for girls and an introduction to cane cutting or other employment for boys.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Few of the traditional Indian socialstructural elements received any recognition or support within the Trinidad legal or social system, and few survived for long. Nevertheless, in the newly emerging East Indian settlements, powerfulif informalsentiments maintained such practices as caste endogamy and neighborhood exogamy for decades. Leaderscalled "big men"emerged in most areas, maintaining peace in their communities by settling disputes and by punishing (sometimes by beatings, more often often by the imposition of fines or ostracism) those who violated tradition.

Political Organization. By 1956, the People's National Movement (PNM), under the leadership of Dr. Eric Williams and supported by most Afro-Trinidadians (and many Christian and Muslim Indo-Trinidadians), began to dominate the political scene. Hindu East Indians, however, preferred to support "Indian" parties over the years, beginning withn the Democratic Labour party (DLP) led by Bhadase Sagan Maraj. The death of Williams in 1981 and a continuing economic recession precipitated by falling oil revenues led to a realignment of voting blocs and to the fall of the PNM in 1986. After considerable turmoil, including, in 1990, a violent effort to topple the government by Black Muslims (during which the prime minister and half the cabinet were taken hostage), the PNM regained power in 1992, an outcome largely attributable to the widely detested austerity program imposed by the then-governing National Alliance for Reconciliation. Party fragmentation and realignment along ethnic and interest-group lines continues.

Social Control and Conflict. Bhadase Sagan Maraj and the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha received and maintained widespread loyalty because the Maha Sabha, with Maraj's financial support, had provided East Indians with non-Christian-controlled schools. By the 1980s, however, opposition to the Maha Sabha (and Brahmanical control) was developing among the educated youth and the wealthier and more cosmopolitan elite within the Indian community. New and independent political bodies and religious organizations appeared on the scene, although the Maha Sabha maintained support among the less educated, poorer, and more rural Indo-Trinidadians.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The overwhelming majority of Indian indentured laborers considered themselves Hindus, but most of them were from rural, unsophisticated backgrounds; they left theological questions to the priesthood, which had, in fact, relatively few representatives with real knowledge. Furthermore, Trinidad East Indians were cut off from communication with India until well into the twentieth century, and so had little knowledge of the changes taking place in Indian Hinduism. For most Hindu East Indians, therefore, the practice of their religion entailed making offerings (in some cases, animal sacrifices) to guardian spirits and to divinities at shrines and small temples, along with observing calendrical holidays and events such as Diwali (a festival of lights) and Holi (also known as Phagwa; a springtime festival of play and singing). In addition, pujas (ceremonies involving prayers, offerings, and a celebratory feast) were sponsored by families on birthdays or to give thanks for good fortune.

Almost from the day the first immigrants arrived in Trinidad, Christian missionaries sought them out. Some East Indians were converted to Catholicism and some to evangelical sects, but the Presbyterians of the Canadian Mission were most successful, particularly because they alone, among Christian groups, built schools in some of the new Indian settlements. Nonetheless, the majority of Hindu (and Muslim) East Indians did not turn away from ancestral religious practices.

There has been a great resurgence in interest in religion among both Hindu and Muslim Indo-Trinidadians. Trinidad-born disciples of the Swamis who came in the 1950s have become influential in the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha and have risen to leadership in India-derived sects, such as the Divine Life Society, and in the movement that accepts Sathya Sai Baba, a holy man of Bangalore, as an incarnation of divinity. Muslim organizations, such as the Sunaat-ul-Jamaat, have fostered stricter religious observance and the building of mosques. Hindus have contributed to the construction of new temples throughout Trinidad, and the ornate and costly yagna seven days of readings from sacred Hindu texts and celebrationhas become extremely popular.

Religious Practitioners. Few of the Brahman priests had much training beyond what was imparted by their fathers. Non-Brahman East Indian attitudes ranged from full pious acceptance of Brahmanical authority through reluctant acceptance for want of alternatives. By the 1980s, new movements had emerged that permitted individuals (usually men) other than Brahmans to serve as religious officiants.

Even in the early years of Indian presence in Trinidad, there had been religious officiants other than Brahmans among castes considered (in India) too "low" or "polluted" to be served by Brahmans. To protect their communities from illness and other misfortune, these men annually sacrificed goats or pigs to deities such as Kali. Despite Western education and Hindu reform movements, animal sacrifice continues, particularly among the poorer Indo-Trinidadians, and some of their beliefs and traditional practices have emerged in the form of new religious movements.

Ceremonies. Most Indo-Trinidadian Hindus observe life-cycle rites at birth, marriage, and death and sponsor pujas at special occasions such as the building of a house or the celebration of a recovery from a life-threatening illness. There are calendrical events in which most members of the community participate and, for some, weekly services at the temples.

Observant Muslim Indo-Trinidadians attend weekly services at one of the many mosques to be found on the island; many mark yearly calendrical events and adhere to traditional Muslim practices such as daily prayer and fasting during the month of Ramadan. One Muslim calendrical eventknown in Trinidad as "Hosein" or, more popularly, as "Hosay"has been co-opted by non-Muslims and even non-Indians into a version of Carnival, much to the resentment of pious Muslims.

Arts and Medicine. The indentured Indians brought with them many of the folk arts of rural India, for instance the making of simple pottery for domestic and religious needs and of crude, painted-clay religious statuary. A number of simple musical instruments are still in use, and accompany, along with the ubiquitous harmonium, traditional hymns. Indian cinema has influenced music, wedding costumes, and much else in Indo-Trinidadian life. In more recent decades, because of increased travel and the influence of television, East Indian young people, like their their Afro-Trinidadian counterparts, are greatly attracted to contemporary Caribbean, European, and U.S. popular music. A number of Indo-Trinidadian writers, most particularly V. S. Naipaul, have achieved world renown.

Few traditional Indian medical practices survived for very long in Trinidad (midwifery being the only significant exception). By the middle of the twentieth century, most East Indians chose to go to a Western-educated doctor when ill.

Death and Afterlife. Most Hindusalthough they believed in reincarnationtended to leave theology to the priests, preferring to concentrate on observing the appropriate rites at the death of a family member. Until the mid-twentieth century, this desire was impeded by laws in Trinidad requiring burial in cemeteries and prohibiting cremation. Few Hindu East Indians, however, erected gravestones or revisited the graves. Muslim and Christian Indians observed the mortuary, burial, and commemorative practices of their respective faiths.

See also Trinidad and Tobago


Klass, Morton (1961). East Indians in Trinidad: A Study of Cultural Persistence. New York: Columbia University Press. Reprint. 1988. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press.

Klass, Morton (1991). Singing with Sai Baba: The Politics of Revitalization in Trinidad. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

LaGuerre, John G., ed. (1974). Calcutta to Caroni: The East Indians of Trinidad. [Port-of-Spain]: Longman Caribbean.

Malik, Yogendra K. (1971). East Indians in Trinidad: A Study in Minority Politics. London: Oxford University Press.

Vertovec, Steven (1992). Hindu Trinidad: Religion, Ethnicity, and Socio-Economic Change. Warwick University Caribbean Studies. London: Macmillan.


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