On May 10, 1845, a ship named Maidstone had arrived at Old Harbour Bay, Jamaica. In it were 261 people from the Indian Subcontinent – 200 men, 28 young women and 12 children. Most of them were from the northern Indian states of Rajasthan, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. They had sailed the rough seas in search of a new beginning and a new life – free from poverty, destitution and caste discrimination. But little did they realize that they were heading out to a new world as post-slavery slaves. Their lived experience was rather different from what they had imagined. But their story is one of survival and hope.
Their new beginning resulted from ending an old system of oppression. With the abolition of slavery in 1834, the former slaves were emancipated. Unencumbered from their colonial masters, they sought other jobs and economic independence. Labour was in short supply. The colonial planters wanted to stop the freed slaves, mostly of African descent, from making economic gains. After many failed attempts to attract Europeans to flood the market with cheap labour, they looked to India with a simple strategy – woo people who could toil for a pittance. As they could not have slaves anymore, they invented an ingenious new term – “indentured labourers”.
Many of them were lured into their ‘contracts’. In 1861 a report of Beyts, the Protector of Immigrants wrote:
The coolies who are ensnared by those unprincipled intermediaries are often grossly deceived… women are enticed away from their husbands and their families.
The next year (1846) 1,852 people had arrived – five times more than the first batch of people from India who had set foot in Jamaica. The year after that (1847) 2,439 people had arrived in Jamaica. In seven decades between 1845 to 1921, over 36,000 Indians migrated to Jamaica as ‘indentured labourers’.
Upon arrival, they were given a pair of clothes, some agricultural tools and cooking utensils. Lumped onto mule carts and overcrowded freight trains, they were sent in groups of 20 and 40 headed by a Sardar, to plantations in Portland, St. Mary, Clarendon, and Westmoreland. Sometimes they were forced to walk long distances to get to plantations.
Aliens – the Post-Slavery Slaves
This new class of post-slavery slaves were paid one shilling a day – less than what former slaves used to make. Of that meagre income, two shillings and sixpence were deducted every week for rice, flour, dried fish or goat, peas and seasoning rations. With their movement restricted and bound to plantations, they lived in sub-human conditions in squalid barracks on the plantations, where several families were dumped into three or four barracks. They were forced to work long hours almost every day of the week. Many of them suffered from yaws, hookworm, and malaria. If caught not working because of ill-health, they would be fined or imprisoned. Despite Quinine being available, the planters did not provide them with the necessary medical attention. They were referred to as “Coolies” and treated as dirt, less than human.
Many found it hard to find acceptance in the society. They were subject to social and cultural ridicule, placed low on the social scale and were called “aliens” who spoke in “different tongues”. Even those that learned to speak English were considered to be speaking “bad English” (widely considered to be a sign of backwardness), “indecently dressed” with “strange customs” and habits. Little or no consideration was given to their religious beliefs and their religious associations were not recognized. Many African Jamaicans too had opposed the import of “pagan” Indians. A note written in 1845 states:
The importation of a number of heathen and pagan foreigners with their religious superstitions, idolatry, and wickedness, will act most injuriously on the morals of the [black] population and hinder the efforts that are now in operation for their moral and religious improvement.
The Morning Journal (a newspaper that openly supported white and African immigration but opposed Indian immigration) published a letter sent to the editor under the name of “Publicola”, which reads:
Better for Jamaica if her soil had never been pressed by the foot of a Coolie – it appears to be of little advantage to them – [for] they show little disposition to imitate us and will never make a material progress in our customs.
This racism and ethnocentrism were not a one-way street. While on the one hand, the African Jamaican population regarded Indians to be beneath them. On the other, many fair skinned Indians looked down on black skinned African Jamaicans, considering them to be beneath them in the social hierarchy. Indians clung on to each other, had a tendency to be close knit and socially aloof. Statements made by leaders of several Indian associations also led them to believe that Indians preferred ethnic exclusivity and did not consider themselves to be Jamaican. For example, Mr. Coy, the East Indian National Union’s Solicitor-General, is reported to have said to the Royal Commission:
The majority of Indians regard themselves as a separate community. Only a very minor proportion . . . feel that they are Jamaicans.
Time-Expired-Indians and repatriation
When their term of indenture ended (between one year and five years), they were given certificates of freedom and were called “Time-Expired-Indians”. Many of them longed to head back to a land they considered home. But they could be repatriated only after spending another two years in Jamaica. Those who renewed their term due to economic need were called “Second-Term-Coolies”.
Desperate calls for repatriation by many Indian Jamaicans also reiterated the belief that many Indians did not consider themselves to be Jamaican. Letters from Indians who wanted to be repatriated also show despair and desperation to leave Jamaica. An indentured labourer named Poiri who came to Jamaica in 1903 on the Ship Dahomey, wrote a poignant letter to the Protector of Immigrants in 1920’s:
I am very much desirous to go home and I shall be very gratitude [sic] if you kindly send me away to India by the next ship. I feel very sad in Jamaica. I am willing to pay passage and clear off from this island.
After the end of the system of indentured labour, many Indians called for repatriation, which continued into the 1940s. Fifty percent of these calls came from Jamaican-born Indians who were of the view that India was home and that the colonial government was responsible for their entrapment.
This led to the African-Jamaicans feeling like the Indians did not have a right to scare resources of Jamaica. A letter published by the Jamaica Times from the Organizer-General of the Afro- West Indian League (AWIL) read:
Simply being born in Jamaica does not make one a Jamaican, in the same way that a chicken hatched in an oven cannot be called a bread.
Ethnocentric ideas, economic competition, and perceptions of appropriating social hierarchy led to tensions between various ethnic groups. In the colonial era, Jamaica was a racially and ethnically segregated society.
Nearly 170 years later, Jamaica is a harmonious, multicultural society known for its plurality – united by shared camaraderie and common brotherhood. Many have intermarried with people of other races. Today Jamaica is their true home. On May 10, every year, they celebrate the day they landed in Jamaica as India Heritage Day.
There are many imprints of cultural and geographic diffusion from India to Jamaica. Indians have introduced over 75 plant species, festivals and culinary novelties to Jamaica – Bombay Mango, Tamarind, Curry Goat, Diwali, and Ganja are just some of the examples.
Ganja, Bob Marley, and Bombay Mango
The indentured labourers were the first to import Mango from India and introduced it in Jamaica. Known as Bombay Mango, today, it is one of the most important Jamaican exports to North America and the rest of the world.
Marijuana, known as Ganja, influenced the Rastafarian movement, and is a remnant of India Jamaica diffusion. In his insightful book “The Ganja Complex”, Ansley Hamid, an anthropologist at Columbia University, writes about the connection between East Indians, the Rastafari, and Marijuana:
Bengal had also been a traditional centre of experimentation and cultivation of cannabis indica…. In Jamaica, with the barest excitement, the ganja complex transcended the boundaries around the Asian population which had originally nourished it and had taken vigorous root among local Jamaican Africans. A majority of the rural Jamaican African population rapidly grew to believe that it was a beneficial substance, imbued with spiritual and religious properties.
This influenced the Rastafarians so much that they believed that “the herb is the key to new understanding of the self, the universe, and God. It is the vehicle to cosmic consciousness”.
Bob Marley, the iconic singer, songwriter, and face of Rastafarian movement had a lot to take from Indian practices, including Ganja and his dreadlocks. Seeking togetherness in Jamaica and across the world, Bob Marley’s iconic song ‘One Love’ asks a question melodiously
One Love! One Heart!
Let’s get together and feel all right …
Let them all pass all their dirty remarks (One Love!);
There is one question I’d really love to ask (One Heart):
Is there a place for the hopeless sinner,
Who has hurt all mankind just to save his own beliefs?
India and Jamaica: A Shared Fraternity
Today, India and Jamaica stand together as two sovereign nations, sharing mutual respect, co-operation and common understanding. Speaking to the Madras Courier, Indian High Commissioner to Jamaica Mr Sevala Naik said:
India-Jamica relationship have been established based on a shared cultural heritage and historical commonality… We are also members of the commonwealth and of course we share the same love for cricket. The Jamaican Indians are completely integrated, assimilated and their contribution is very significant to the economic development of Jamaica. There are few who still maintain contacts with India based on their cultural heritage. They follow Indian festivals. Last year they also celebrated Holi festival for which I was invited. They celebrated Divali festival on a large scale. Infact, India is one of the first countries to recognise Jamaica and establish our diplomatic relations soon after their independence in 1962.
Though a small percentage of the population, Jamaican Indians are now very successful – going on to occupy positions of high office and trade. Many of them are globally successful, having moved on to establish themselves across the world. Kampala Harris, the American senator is of Indian and Jamaican heritage. Jamaicans and Indians engage in trade, technology and cultural exchange.
Pharmaceuticals is the leading sector. In recent times other sectors have also picked up – particularly in IT and BPO sectors. There are already two big companies operating in Jamaica – Hinduja group with 2000 employees and Sutherland with another 6000 employees. These are owned by India based companies and Indian ownership. Now there is an increasing awareness of other sectors as well. Tourism and health sector are two such sectors with huge potential. There are good number of Indian doctors working in Jamaica. Many Indian corporate hospitals from India have expressed interest in setting up in Jamaica. Having said that, there is also huge interest in Indian cinema as well. As Indian high commission we have been hosting cultural events on a regular basis – such as classical dances and musical nights. And, lately the Bollywood influence is showing good outreach – we have screened Bahubali here in Jamaica very successfully. Some of our TV serials are dubbed in English and are broadcast in Jamaica. There is a lot of interest in Indian drama series too.
A peep into memory lane shows the many hues of a world that was. It tells of how humanity kept old animosities aside and triumphed.
Today, the tides of time have changed. Jamaicans of African and Indian descent have come together to share and collaborate as one nation, just as how India and Jamaica partner, share and collaborate as democratic, sovereign nations in mutual respect and harmony. Most of all, it tells stories of courage, fortitude and shared humanity that overcame all the odds that pit human beings against each other.
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