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Indians Arrival – 149 years ago


The Indian Association in St.Vincent and the Grenadines celebrates Indian arrival to this country on June 1st. They undoubtedly have some documentary evidence justifying this date for the lieutenant Governor’s report of June 7, 1861 reported on the arrival of the barque ‘Travaucore’ on June 2, 1861 after a passage of 92 days from Madras. There were 260 immigrants; Men (160), Women (62), Children under 10 (34), Infants under 1 (4). He reported that the ship was free from any epidemic, that no deaths occurred but that there were 2 births on the voyage.{{more}} 5 persons were on the sick list but required no hospitalisation on their arrival. The group of new arrivals was housed at the Commissariat buildings at New Edinboro. They were subsequently distributed to the following estates- Rabacca (4), Tourama (40), Argyle (30), Adelphi (25), Calder (20), Rutland Vale (20), Sans Souci (15), Mt. Greenan (15), Mt.Bentinck (15), L’Ance Joyeaux (Bambareau) (15) with 1 individual kept as an Interpreter. Two months later the Lieutenant Governor had made the Governor aware of the fact that applications for 276 Coolies had been on the records of the Immigration Agent. £1,000 was lodged with the Immigration Board in London and £6,739 was held in the Island’s Treasury for Immigration. In his view the need for Immigration was urgent. He indicated that they needed another ship with Indian immigrants “at the earliest possible time in the next season.” He expressed the hope that “…the agents at Calcutta and Madras will consider the unsatisfied requisition for a second ship last year as one still to be met and that they will already have made provision accordingly, but to prevent any misunderstanding” he was asking the Governor to forward the application he was then making.

Previous to this the ‘Amity Hall’ had arrived on march 1849 with 234 liberated Africans from Sierra Leone. Other ships with liberated Africans had arrived at different times including the ship the ‘Tartar’ from St.Helena in 1860. The Portugese, on the other hand, had started arriving from Madeira in 1845. Lieutenant Governor John Campbell in 1849 had stated his dissatisfaction with Madeira immigrants He wrote as follows, “While they continue under contract and are taken care of upon estates, they maintain a comfortable condition except in one or two unhealthy localities and are effective labourers, but when they become their own masters and go from place to place with a view of making money in any way, sickness and death too often overtake them.” An interest in Immigration had continued and at a special conference on Immigration held by the Legislative Council in 1858 a keen desire was felt for Chinese immigrants. It was however Indian immigrants who were more readily available. On April 11, 1862, interestingly, the ship ‘Castle Howard’ arrived with 307 Indian immigrants from Calcutta and 14 liberated Africans.

The interest expressed in Immigration and the readiness with which funds were provided for immigrants conflicted with the readiness with which the immigrants were taken up by the estates. One obvious factor had to do with the state of the sugar industry at anytime. In fact in November 1861 shortly after the Lieutenant Governor had been voicing the need for more Indian immigrants he had to cancel an order for the second shipload they had been calling for from India. He admitted that only one could have been dispersed at that time. The planters seemed very reluctant to take the immigrant labourers when they arrived. The view was expressed that each planter hoped that his neighbour would take the immigrants when they arrived while he would concentrate on using Creole labourers. What appeared also to have been at stake, as expressed by Lieutenant Governor Robinson in 1884, was an effort to keep wages stable by denying work for a time to Creole labourers while concentrating on Indian immigrants. There was always the fear following Emancipation that the Creole labourers who had been freed from slavery would combine to avoid work except at wages determined by them. Goodluck Clarke, a labourer along with two others reported to the 1882 Royal Commission that they were willing to work to better their condition “but since the introduction of Indian immigrants they are unfairly dealt with and have no protection even before some of the police magistrates.”

What was quite clear was that there was an effort to divide and rule by providing competition between the African and Indians. Walter Rodney dealt in detail with this issue as it related to Indian immigration in British Guyana. At issue was not only Indian immigration but immigration period because there were enough Creole labourers to work the estates. A Colonial Office memorandum described immigration into the Windward Islands as a case of ‘putting water into a sieve’’. While immigrants were being called for there was significant emigration from the island, particularly to Trinidad. The problem with the sugar industry was certainly not a labour problem so immigration had little impact on the industry.During the period 1838-1918 an estimated 5,610 immigrants came to St.Vincent, among them 2, 472 Indians. Of that number of Indians 1,050 were reported to have returned to India. The issue of back passages for Indian immigrants was a major one with claims for back passages and bounties impacting heavily on the colony’s finances. Once Indian immigrants lived in the colony for 8 years they were entitled to back passages. This was unconditional if they were under indenture for the whole period. If back passages were not claimed within 18 months after the completion of the 8 year period they became invalid. They could however re-indenture under certain rates of bounty instead of claiming back passages. It was noted that from the mid 1880s more persons were claiming back passages. This was to some extent a result of the low price of sugar and the resulting reluctance of planters to employ Indians who were not under indenture. The refusal of planters to employ immigrants whose period of indenture had ended would have resulted in heavy demands on the colony for back passages. The authorities attempted to get out of that situation by seeking employment for Indian immigrants in Trinidad and British Guiana and a number of them did migrate to those colonies.

There were some interesting issues related to immigration. One of these had to do with the relationships that developed on board on voyages that lasted in the case of Calcutta to St.Vincent for three to four months. In 1871 on the Dover Castle one such relationship developed between a man coming to St.Vincent and a woman going to Demerara. This had a happy ending for the woman was allowed to stay in St.Vincent and was replaced by a woman who had originally been bound for St.Vincent. Of interest was that each woman had a child of about two years old. Each journey had its share of births and deaths. From the documents I have been able to examine, 14 deaths and 6 births were the largest numbers recorded on any one trip. The immigration story is an interesting one and the arrival of the Indians from 1861 is a large part of that story that is still to be told within the context of developments in St.Vincent. One should note the riots of 1862 on estates on the windward side of the colony, just a year after the arrival of the first set of Indians. In the Mt. Bentinck area Indian and African immigrants were forced out of the field when they refused to join the strike. There was clearly an awareness that the immigrants were brought in to provide competition and reduce their bargaining power and this created a degree of tension on the estates. It was however not the cause of the strike.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.