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The Importance of West Indian History

By: Attorney Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth (Fort Lauderdale)

West Indian history dates back to the beginning of human civilization (as one of the three cradles of civilization was Southern India). However, its documented history is sparse and lacking. The primary reason is that the West Indians were not afforded an opportunity to record their history and experiences during their plight as indentured servants and colonial subjects.

West Indian history obviously begins in India. India’s rich history dates back 30,000 years. Around 4,500 BCE, the Indus Valley emerged with the first urban culture in South Asia. The Indus Valley civilization then declined because of a lack of monsoons. The Indian continent would later go on to flourish. Emperors and kings reigned over distinct regions. Nevertheless, there was still a sense of belonging to the motherland. With time, the Indian culture began to share certain commonalities. For example, devotional hymns in the Tamil language were widely imitated. This would later develop into the current Indian languages.

In the 16th century, the Mughal Empire ruled. The emperors were direct descendants of the infamous Ghengis Khan. They did not impose Islam and the locals were free to continue their native practices. The relatively peaceful empire allowed the arts to flourish with a mix of Persian and Indian aspects.

Modern India began when the British defeated the Mughals and ended the golden age of art and co-existence. One benefit was that the British presented India with a map. The map helped to alter the Indians’ perception of themselves from competing subgroups to a unified continent.

However, the poverty rate during the British’s colonization contributed to Indians seeking employment under the indentured servitude system. Some Indians accepted the job offer to work overseas for 5 years and then return home to India. Others were deceived and thought that they were only going to work in another part of India. They were placed in crowded holding areas and then faced 3 tough months at sea (or the kala pani) en route to the Caribbean. The Indians ate rationed food and shared communal spaces. The ship’s docking was probably welcomed by the Indians to end the difficult and isolating conditions on board. The Indians were eventually taken to their assigned plantations, which included communal barracks. They were forced into 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 agricultural trades. Britain initially refused to provide equal schooling. 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 far from home.

Education and other resources improved slightly, 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.

The continued hardships and displacement of the Indians who left India, to the workers in the Caribbean, and to the recent generations who left for northern countries explain the lack of thorough and diverse history sources. There were either no opportunities or rare opportunities to document history while traveling across the Atlantic, working in the fields, or relocating to a foreign area. Thankfully, younger generations are more likely to enjoy their parents and grandparents without the imminent threat of relocation for better opportunities. The undersigned therefore hopes to use this status to expand the field of West Indian history to highlight the value of the West Indians, especially when international investors are vying for Trinidad and Guyana’s natural resources.

Photos: Michael Baiz via Angelo Bissessarsingh's Virtual Museum of Trinidad and Tobago

Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth, Esq. is a business attorney. 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.

MDGR Law, P.A.

PO Box 101794

Fort Lauderdale, FL 33310-1794

(305) 684-3647

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