By: Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth, Esq.
A West Indian is much more than an immigrant. The formidableness of a West Indian dates back to the beginning of human civilization, as one of the three cradles of civilization was Southern India. Humans eventually branched out from those cradles of civilization and populated the rest of the world.
Fast forward to 1834, Britain began transporting Indians to its colonies under the indentured servitude system. This was Britain’s new way to maintain its reign on the sugar trade following the abolition of slavery. The Indians signed contracts to work abroad for an average of 5 years and then return home to India. Some willingly became indentured servants, and some were deceived into joining. They were placed in crowded and chaotic holding areas prior to boarding the large ships. Once on board, Indians faced 3 tough months at sea (often referred to as the kala pani by the Indians) en route to the Caribbean. The Indians ate rationed food portions and shared communal spaces, as they endured rough waters and uncertainty.
The ship’s docking was probably welcomed by the Indians to end the isolated period wherein they were stuck on the ship, in subpar conditions. The Indians were eventually taken to their assigned plantations, which included communal barracks divided by gender or families. The Indians were forced to hard labour cultivating sugar, cocoa, and rice in exchange for low wages. Moreover, like slavery, indentured servitude was condemned for its oppressive, violent, unhealthy, and depressing nature.
From 1834 to 1917, Britain transported approximately 2 million Indians to 19 colonies around the world. Many Indians never made it back to India. This was either because the British deemed it too expensive to transport them to India as previously promised, and/or the Indians decided to stay and begin a new life with the land they were granted.
The Indians who ended up staying in Trinidad and Guyana often continued the grueling labor associated with the sugar, cocoa, and rice trades. Britain continued to rule over the colonies and initially refused to provide equal schooling for all. As a result, employment opportunities were limited for the “West Indians,” as they became known. Some West Indians had to take jobs in towns and villages that were far from their homes and families.
Education and other resources improved slightly, thereafter, but many West Indians felt that there were better opportunities in the United States, Canada, and Europe. This caused a surge in emigration. Once again, many of the Indians (turned West Indians) had to leave their parents, families, friends, and life as they knew it in order to attempt to secure a more promising future.
Americans celebrate Independence Day to pay tribute to the colonists’ victory against the British during the Revolutionary War in 1776. As we celebrate this 4th of July, let us also recognize the several generations that had to leave their families behind and ended up in the United States: the Indians who left India, the workers in the Caribbean who had to work in regions away from their families, and the recent generations who left the Caribbean for northern countries. These sacrifices have afforded younger generations security to enjoy their parents and grandparents without the imminent threat of relocation for better opportunities.
In closing, West Indians today are a product of these parents and grandparents who overcame nearly insurmountable obstacles. And they should remember that, in adverse times, they are genetically built to overcome any ocean of challenges.
Happy 4th of July, West Indians!
Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth, Esq. is an American civil litigation and bankruptcy attorney of Trinidadian and Guyanese descent. She graduated magna cum laude from the University of Miami with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science, a minor degree in History that focused on the slavery and indentured servitude eras, a minor degree in Criminology, and a Juris Doctor degree. The Law Office of Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth MDGR Law, P.A. Virtual Law Office: (305) 684-3647 www.mdgrlaw.com