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Commemorating Indian Heritage Day: On being Indo-Vincentian

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by Dr. Arnold Thomas Tue, Oct 4. 2011

The recent remarks by Minister of Agriculture Montgomery Daniel in response to a placard during the banana farmers’ picket at the Ministry of Agriculture last month that “No boat ain’ bring me here” struck a chord, albeit an umbilical chord, among Vincentians. The remark should be seen in context: the placard called for the Minister to go, did it mean go away as Minister, or go away from St. Vincent and the Grenadines?{{more}} His reaction implied that protesters wanted him to leave SVG, which is rather absurd, and what was purely an economic/political issue was transposed into an ethnic one, which is rather unfortunate, judging from press and popular reaction.

As we all should be aware, the population of St. Vincent and the Grenadines is a mix of several ethnic groups: Caribs, Arawaks, Africans, Europeans, Portuguese, Indians and some later arrivals. In recent times, official recognition has been given to celebrating the heritage of various groups; thus Caribs, Africans and Indians during the year have their special days. Every year, March is celebrated as Heritage month, with March 14 declared an official holiday, as Heroes’ Day, in commemoration of the date in 1795 when Carib Chief Joseph Chatoyer was assassinated. This is the International Year of People of African Descent and over at the UN, Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves has been calling for reparations.

Meanwhile Indo-Vincentians this year have been marking the 150th anniversary of Indian Arrival (1 June) and the 7th October has been officially recognized as Indian Heritage Day. On that date in 1882 some 50 Indians marched from Argyle Estate to Kingstown to bring their grievances directly to the Government, which included maltreatment and the failure of the Government to keep the Promise of returning them to India on completion of their contract service.

On this occasion it would be fitting to reflect on what the terminology ‘Indo-Vincentian’ means to people of Indian origin as well as to other Vincentian citizens. Unlike Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname with much larger Indian populations who have maintained culture and religion and links with India, for us we have been in the melting pot. The pot has indeed melted over the years, so much so that we are in a distinctly fully integrated society in every sense of the word, except the way we look, which unfortunately sometimes continues to evoke the racial slur of being a ‘coolie’. I have to say this: when someone of Indian appearance says or does something that the other person does not like that person often lashes out with that coolie racial slur. And believe me this bigotry is not confined to people ‘who don’t know better,’ but sometimes emanates from ‘those who should know better.’ Racial prejudice from all groups and individuals is something endemic in our society against which we must constantly fight.

The story of how Indians came to SVG has been told before in these pages, and as Minister Montgomery would say, Indians came here by boat as indentured workers between the years 1861- 1880, from south India and north India. In all, 7 ships brought just fewer than 2,500 Indians between 1861 and 1880, most of whom were Hindus. It must have been a sight to the natives to watch the scores of strange looking people coming on shore, dressed differently, men in dhotis and loincloth and carrying their meagre possessions tied in a sack. Some would have brought with them their own mementoes from India: a jar, a drum, maybe some seeds like mango and other native plants, oh yes and ganja, the herb of the Ganges! However, by 1884, 1,100 had returned to India. The remnants moved off the estates in the early years of the 20th century to establish their own villages.

What happened to the Indians in St. Vincent? Why are they different from say the Indians of Guyana, Trinidad and Suriname? The answer must lie in their historical experience in St. Vincent and I would like to suggest the following reasons. I would like to suggest some of the underlying reasons and conditions that contributed to our situation. These include: no critical mass; competition to save heathens; breaking ties with India to make them feel at home in SV; absence of Indian school and temple/mosque; change in eating habits; change in dress styles. In the first place, of the 2,500 who came, 1,100 returned to India and in the post-indenture years (1890’s) the Indian population was further reduced by the twin disasters of the devastating hurricane of 1898 and the volcanic eruption of 1902.

As the number of Indians increased in the island, various groups and individuals began to take an interest in their religious welfare and by the late 1860’s, Christianity had gained some ground among the Indians, so that in 1868, an Indian had risen to be superintendent in a church, and was preaching to his countrymen on Sundays. Infants were being baptised in Christian churches and given Anglo-Saxon names after the manner of planters, managers and overseers, as part of the Christianization process. The churches were so active in baptising Indians, that it was not uncommon for one church to re-baptise someone who was already baptised in another church.

Attempts were deliberately made for breaking ties with India several ways and to create loyalty to St. Vincent, often by spreading rumours of the outbreak of famines and diseases, which acted as a powerful disincentive to return. Then too, because of limited numbers there was no Indian school, temple or mosque, unlike the three larger Caribbean territories where temples, mosques and schools for Indians were established. A school was established at Argyle for Indian children in 1884, but it closed a year later primarily because of the rush to get back to India and the poor turnout of children. Very early in the indenture experience, Indians were forced to change their eating habits from curried dishes to Creole foods, as it was not easy to obtain the ingredients for these dishes. Fish and ground provisions soon became the norm among the Indians. Then, as early as the first indentured lot, the Immigration Agent reported that the Madrasees had taken to wearing civilized dresses and the men had given up their loincloth. The end result was that very early in the immigration experience, Indians were re-socialised into Creole culture and thoroughly Christianised, with the children retaining hardly any Indian names.

These were the changes that were necessary in order to survive and become part of Vincentian society; so today when one identifies as Indo-Vincentian, it is simply to say that one is of Indian origin, but in popular talk, the Indian is still identified with having certain values and traits such as commitment to family, thrift, and being law abiding. I once bemoaned the loss of Indian culture in St. Vincent and the Grenadines to an Indian colleague of mine and his remark was very interesting: look at where you are now, you haven’t done so badly after all. Maybe he’s right in the sense that the loss of Indian religion and culture does not necessarily mean the loss of identity, for in the long process, we of Indian origin have played our part in the creation of a uniquely racially integrated Vincentian society. Today, we are proud of our Indian heritage and ancestry, but more important, we are irrevocably part of the Vincentian social and cultural tapestry. That means our identity remains right of the hyphen, Vincentian first and foremost. As people of Indian origin, we are part of a global network (Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin- GOPIO) and more importantly, for our future development we now have the opportunity, together with our other Vincentian brothers and sisters, to forge stronger links with India, which could only redound to our development.

Dr Arnold Thomas is the International Liaison SVG Indian Heritage Foundation and the Deputy Chair, GOPIO Academic Council.

Email: arnoldthom@yahoo.co.uk

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