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The Politics of Representation in the Indian Labour Diaspora: 

West Indies, 1880-1920



Prabhu P. Mohapatra




(Prabhu P. Mohaptra is Reader, Department of history, Delhi University)






Contrary to the trend of neglect towards labour history research, which is true not only in the case of India but also in the world over, the recent past has witnessed a revival in Indian working class history. The turn of the present century has seen some helpful spurts of resurgence of the discipline with efforts to stimulate academic thinking and substantive research into the changing profile of the Indian working class. The establishment of Integrated Labour History Research Programme (ILHRP) at the VV Giri National Labour Institute, as a collaborative initiative with the Association of Indian Labour Historians (AILH) was in some sense is a part of this renewal and revival of labour history. Apart from instituting an 'Archives of Indian Labour', the programme initiated a 'Writing Labour History Series' and specially commissioned essays by leading labour historians in order to disseminate research in labour history to a wider public. Prabhu Mohapatra's essay, 'The Politics of Representation in the Indian Diaspora' forms a part of this series.


In the essay, the author brings together two important histories of labouring experience, which have been seen separated in the historiography. The first relates to the history of Indian labour emigrants in the colonial period to the overseas colonies of British empire, which the author sees now as an integral part of the larger history of Indian labour migration in the 19th and 20th centuries, which as is well known, contributes the basis of the formation of Indian working class. The second set of issues that the author discusses is the history of country formation on the one hand and the formation of class identity on the other.


The essay also examines the process of identity formation of Indian emigrants in the West Indies by locating it firmly in the context of the changing labour regime in the plantations, where the migrants have been placed as indentured labourers.


The author argues against the emergence of a singular identity in the Indian labour diaspora in the West Indies and demonstrates that neither cultural persistence nor "assimilationist" theories of identity formation can capture the multiple possibilities that could and did coexist during the period under study. The essay also successfully transcends the dualities of culture and economy as well as class and community, which have plagued the study of diasporic formations, especially those that were formed through long distance labour migration.

I hope that the publication of this essay will add new dimensions to the study of Indian labour diaspora and hence will be a valuable addition to the written history of Indian working class.



(Uday Kumar Varma)


On 25th of June 1887, a curious incident was reported in the San Fernando Gazette of Trinidad. At the end of the month of Ramadan that year, on the great festival day of Eid Ul Fitr the Indian Muslims of Victoria village and of nearby estates congregated for the mass prayer in the Little Masjid. A fracas began unexpectedly when several Muslims objected to facing east in the direction of Mecca for the prayer- they argued instead that they should face west as they were wont to do in India. Theological debates soon gave way to free exchange of blows between the votaries of Eastward and west ward prayer. Peace was restored after considerable period but with appeals to eminent lawyers Messers Wharton and Farfan to mediate in the dispute. Was the dispute simply due to ignorance as to the true direction of Mecca or was it a case of "following Custom" the much maligned traits that the  Indian Muslims shared with their compatriots? [i]


 This incident a small footnote in the longer history of community formation is  significant for another reason - indicative as it was of the travails of travel. Migration always meant transformation of lives and styles and involved living with changes that one did not choose or anticipate. Cultures had to be created ;they simply could not be transplanted.


However,  what interests me in this description of the incident  is the ways in which one can find the reflection of two competing and divergent theoretical formulations about the larger question of community and ethnic identity formation in the diaspora  context . The first view is widely known as one of cultural persistence which was popularised largely though the work of the anthropologists in the 1950sand 1960s. Main features of this theory may be summarised briefly. It argues that cultural identity is central to the process of distinctive community and ethnic formation in the diaspora- and that this cultural identity is transmitted largely through deeply embedded cultural symbols and value systems. In case of the Indian community formation the centrality of religious, caste and family patterns are stressed as institutional embodiments of these value systems.  More specifically in the case of the diaspora in the Caribbean it was argued that wherever Indian community was found in large numbers the deeply embedded institutional patterns of caste, religion and family values were carried (the so called cultural baggage) by the migrants to their new home land. These cultural values transplanted in the new surroundings shaped the emergent forms of community identities. In this view culture emerged as deeply resistant to change unleashed by modernsing forces of the new society. The classic ethnographic description of this process of cultural continuity is to be found in the work of  Morton Klass and Arthur Niehoff on  Trinidad conducted in the 1950s.[ii] Persistence of cultural values of the homeland in the disapora, it was argued, shaped the distinct ethnic identity of the diasporic community and prevented their assimilation into the prevailing cultural norms of the new societies. This explanation of ethnic distinctiveness was reinforced  and transformed by the emergence of  the enormously influential theory of plural society enunciated in the work of  M.G Smith in 1965 on the British  West Indies. In this study Smith characterised the multi racial societies of West Indies as being composed of population segments marked by distinct ethnic attributes that  lived in a state of “economic symbiosis and mutual avoidance”.[iii] Following as it did on the work of J.S Furnivall on the Colonial Dutch East Indies, Plural society theorists emphasised the fact that each ethnic group held on to its inherited cultural traits and  only interacted in the market place or due to the overarching political compulsions of the State. The influence of plural society theories was largely due to the close fit it had with the emergence of racialised politics of post independence West Indies. ( Despres 1967, Singer 1967.  Clarke 1986, Leys and Peach 1985, Ryan ) As is clear cultural retentionist arguments focused strongly on reified cultural traits that had been inherited from by the immigrant communities from their homeland- very much like the votaries of Eastward prayer in the example I have cited in the beginning of the essay.


However, very early on the arguments of cultural retention came under scrutiny in historical and other anthropological studies.  Instead of cultural persistence, what was emphasised now was the ways in which central features of a putative ethnic culture had been adapted to and changed in the diasporic context. This process of adaptation and transformation was termed “creolisation”. In case of the Indian diaspora it was argued for instance that the institution of caste identities had been largely attenuated through the experience of migration and in the new society- where caste status bore no implications for occupational and social mobility or resource control.(Schwarz 1967,Smith 1955, 1962, Nevadomsky 1982).  Similarly changes in the language patterns had led to extensive creolisation of  original language(Hindi, Bhojpuri) of the migrants and there was evidence of distinct adaptation to the dominant creolised English.  Creolisation thesis, as is clear, emphasised radical discontinuity and cultural transformation in diasporic identity formation .(Rodney 1981, Vertovec 1992)  In recent years the creolisation thesis has received much support from the Post modernist turn in social sciences  with celebration of hybridity ,migrancy and emphasis on improvisation in the  formation of identity. (Ulf Hannerz). One might with some qualification think of the upholders of the creolisation thesis as  votaries of Westward prayer in the example cited at the beginning.


My aim in this essay is not to provide a substantial critique of these two major views on identity formation that I have  telegraphically  described above, what I intend doing is to draw on the insights of both these formulations in order to historically examine the  process of identity formation among the Indain immigrant labourers in the West Indies ,specifically in British Guyana and Trinidad focused mainly in the period during which Indian labourers came in large numbers under the indenture system to populate the  plantation societies of the West Indies. 


At the outset I might briefly set out the main points of difference that I have with both the creolisation and cultural retentionist arguments. The first relates to the notion of community identity in the diaspora. Both the theories, I believe are  pitched at a general level and are applicable without discriminating between the different diasporic contexts-that is, it is assumed that the concept of diaspora itself is unproblematic .[iv]In the process what is lost sight of is the process by which immigrant communities are formed through their insertion into specific socio economic context. In case of the Indian immigrants in the West Indies – the way in which the immigrants were forced to  relate to the wider society  through their position in the labour regime on the plantations   has been insufficiently explored in the studies on community identity formation. I intend to demonstrate in this paper the crucial role of the changing labour regime in shaping the process of community identity of Indian immigrants. However by emphasizing the relationship which the labourers had with the labour regime I do not mean in any way that the community identity was in some sense  directly derived from the structure of the labour regime. It is here that I wish to  focus on the ways in which   identity is formed in the crucible of practices  of representation – it is through these practices of representations that structures of labour regime impinged on the process of identity formation. However it is also my contention that there exists no pre formed cultural identity that is then expressed through representations- in cognitive terms there is no identity imaginable outside representations (except perhaps as unconscious). This allows one also to think of identities as historically amenable to transformation and contest and also to imagine the coexistence of multiple  identities  along with different representations.


With these preliminary excursus on the weighty question of identity what  I propose to do however is far more modest – mainly by examining four different sets of representations of community identity  during the period  1880-1920 i.e in the last phase of the career of indentured labour regime in the West Indies. The first of these is about collective representations of community enacted and staged in the Muharram  festival by the Indian immigrants in West Indies. Then I take up three different styles of representations of community identity in public sphere activities by three individuals. Two of these were irrepressible and prolific letter writers in the colonial news papers  while a third is the author of one of the rare literary text produced by an |Indian during the period of indenture in the West Indies. What I will focus on of course is the different styles of representations of the community identity in its relation to the dominant labour regime and thereby hope to provide some clues as to the contradictory and often contested nature of the process by which community identity was fashioned during the period of indenture.





Changing Labour Regime


Before I undertake the analysis it  will be useful to mark out  the terrain of the labour regime on which these acts of representations were staged.  The labour regime to which the immigrants came was marked by transformations along two axes- that of the economic cycles of growth and stagnation benchmarked on the international sugar prices and the long term process by which indentured labour was changed into permanent settler.


Indentured labour from India was imported to the Caribbean colonies of British Guiana, Trinidad and Jamaica following the abolition of slavery in 1838. Resistance of the ex slave labourers to  the unreconstructed plantation labour regime  forced on the planters the necessity of sourcing " cheap and reliable labourers "from India. Several private experiments beginning in 1838 gave way to organised labour importation under colonial aegis. Planters and the colonial state jointly bore the cost of recruitment and disciplining of the immigrant labour, effected now under a series of ordinances promulgated from the 1840's onward collectively known as the Coolie Ordinances (consolidated in the late 1890s as  Immigration Ordinances of British Guiana (1893) and  Trinidad 1899).

These ordinances and the apparatus of enforcement and  `protection' that came into existence  regulated  every aspect of the working and to large  extent non working lives of the immigrants (e.g marriages and festivals, sickness ,housing and return to India). The central feature of the labour system that came into being was contractual servitude at fixed wages (25 cents or 1shilling per day) for a period of five years on a plantation  where the labourer was obliged to reside. He or she was for bidden to be outside the plantation without explicit permission of the planters since the essence of indenture lay in prohibiting the labourer from taking advantage of competition for scarce labour. The contracts were enforced by criminal breach of contract provisions of the  ordinances which punished breaches of contract by imprisonment and pecuniary levies. [v]It was to this extremely restrictive and oppressive labour regime that India immigrants were inserted to serve out  five to ten years of their working lives. After ten years of industrial residence in the colonies the immigrant  could seek repatriation back to India. [vi]Thia last provision was explicitly inserted in the contract  in order to distinguish indentured  servitude from slavery.


 Who were these Indian immigrants and how many of them came to the Caribbean. Between 1838 and 1917, excepting for few years in the early decades there was continuous annual importation of labour from India- totaling 238,000 to British Guiana, 145,000 to Trinidad, 50,000 to Jamaica and 40,000 to Surinam a Dutch Colony. Smaller numbers came to St’ Lucia, Nevis and Grenada.  The peak of importation was reached in the 1870s and 1880s after which the flow of immigration was relatively reduced.


While Immigrants came from practically every province of India, the overwhelming bulk - upto 80 percent were  drawn from the Gangetic plains of North India  from the two provinces of United Province  and Bihar. Of these again most were from the eastern UP and western Bihar districts culturally and linguistically contiguous Bhojpur and Awadh region.  A small but significant percentage of the immigrants were drawn from the southern India from the hinterlands of Madras from which they had embarked for the West Indies.


As to the caste and religious composition of the immigrants, the overwhelming bulk were drawn from several castes that together were identified as Hindus constituting 85 percent of the total immigrants. As with regions again practically all religious of India were represented in the rest but nearly all of them were Muslims (14.7%). Castewise the emigrants were drawn from a medley of caste but with 12-13 percent Brahmins and other upper castes, 35 percent agriculturist castes ( Koeri, Kurmi, Chasa etc),6 percent artisans and 32 percent lowcastes (dalits and other menial castes) they seemed to represent a perfect cross section of the  North Indian society from which they emigrated.


If there was a severe discrepancy between the `home' context and the immigrants it was in gender and age composition of the latter. Immigrants were predominantly single , male and in the prime age group of 20-35. Family migration was not the norm with only 15 percent  married couples, very few children and only 28 percent females(70 percent of whom were single). All evidence points to recruitment of immigrants individually rather than in groups, not usually from their home villages most having already been mobile and in search of employment before they were recruited in major cities and railway and road junctions of the region.[vii]


The nature of recruitment reflected particular nature of demand by the planters (of able bodied young fit for hard labour) which was geared towards continuous importation rather than local reproduction for its need of a servile labour force. Colonial labour policy militated against settlement of the labour force for the greater part of the period when indenture was in place. Deaths outs tripped births among Indian immigrants till the end of the 19th century- not an unexpected result given the skewed gender composition  of the immigrants .


Community formation on the plantations was thus beset with structural problems. Yet in spite of these there emerged an embryonic community centred round the estates. The spearhead of this were the time expired labourers who had finished their terms of indenture. According to the indenture contract they could apply for a free return passage to India after completing a further five years of residence in the colonies. Thus there grew around the estates small settlements or villages of ex indentured labourers who worked on the estates as well took up several other occupations. In the end after completion of ten years , many immigrants either  did not return or delayed their return. On the whole of the total immigrants who came to the colonies about 20 percent ever returned to India. This process of villagisation accelerated in the late 19th century with the sugar economy plunging headlong into a long crisis .


A slow but gradual mutation occurred in the plantation labour regime that came around to a policy of settlement of the immigrant labour-mainly by encouraging the ex indentured labourers to become part time estate workers and bear the cost of reproduction in small parcellised holdings. Thus grew in Trinidad by the turn of the century a cane farming small holders community and in British Guiana rice farming and a paddy proletariat emerged among the Indian immigrants. This process of villagisation transformed the character of community formation among Indians with slow emergence of differentiation within the Indian community.


This brief excursus was necessary to  show the changing nature of community formation  among the Indians. I have identified three phases in the process by which Indian labourers were transformed from temporary sojourners to permanent settlers in the colonies. The first phase from 1838- 1880 was  phase of growth of the plantation economy with  the centre of immigrant community being strongly centred on the estates and around it. Between 1880 till the end of indenture is the phase of villagisation with increasing diversification of occupation, the centre of gravity of community definitely shifts away from the estates into the villages and settlements.


The third phase in the post indenture period is marked by continuing decline in the social valence of the plantations and the increasing occupational mobility, differentiation among the Indian settlers and the move to urban areas by professionals and educated. These are necessarily broad phases -and there were overlaps between the phases and  the tendency towards settlement was accelerated or retarded according to the pace of the economic and political processes. Crisis in the sugar economy accelerated  diversification of occupation in the late 19th century while the crisis in the 1930's led to stagnation and strangulation of these processes. Further there were difference  between Guyana and Trinidad which was very significant both in the nature and character of settlements of the Indians as well as their specific responses to periods of crisis and boom.





Muharram in the Caribbean

A bemused " sight seer" was once witness to the celebration of Muharram or (Tadjha as it was called in British Guyana) on a sugar plantation in Demerara in British Guyana in 1897 and had exclaimed

 .... there is something very striking in the in the thought that this Muslim "Miracle play "should be  so firmly rooted in this single corner of the American  continent. If we count Trinidad as part of the British Guiana then this must be the only spot in the whole of the Western hemisphere where the martyrdom of Hassan and Hossein is annually commemorated. It is as though Good Friday were religiously observed in a single province in the middle of China."


 This singular incongruity led him onto  philosophical speculation about the East in the West and he further  ejaculated:

The Coolies bring their Tadjhas and Tom Toms and we give them trousers and other advantages of civilisation. They come here with their strange customs and superstitions and we give them in return free schooling and Western standard of living. What the result of this strange conjunction of the Orient in the Occident will be, what sort of a social cosmos it is going to produce I leave to others to foretell.[viii]


 He may not have been right about Good Friday in China nor about the advantages of trousers and civilisation but he  was not very far from truth in his observation about the strange location  of Moharram performances in the heart of West- except that he should have included Jamaica and Surinam as also the little island of Grenada  where too Muharram was celebrated.


In fact wherever Indian labourers were sent as indentured labourers be it  the African continent or the American  from Mauritius to Natal, to Fiji and the  Caribbean colonies Moharram had emerged  as the most important and spectacular festival of the Indian Diaspora in the 19th century. If the " sightseer" had been more knowledgeable he would have been acquainted with the Hosay massacre in Trinidad of 1884( as undoubtedly many of the contemporary missionaries were) he would have exclaimed greater surprise at the fact that Hindus and sunnite muslim labourers had even laid down their lives in order to assert their right  to celebrate a minority Shi sect festival.[ix]


On October 30 1884 , 6000 Indian labourers residents of sugar estates around the town of San Fernando  took out their processions of Tazias replica tombs of the grandsons of the prophet  and marched towards the town to complete the process of immersion of these tabuts to end the festival of Moharram like they had done for thirty years. But that year the Government had banned the procession from entering the town and imposed heavy punishment for infringement of the ban- yet the processionists marched on to the town to fulfill what they said was their "religious obligation". A short distance from the town troops and police mustered to stop the processionists opened fire at two entrances to the town - twenty two Indian labourers were shot dead and one hundred more injured. They had not attacked the police nor had they actually entered the town . When the dead were counted and the injuries toted up- a strange statistics emerged - 17 of the killed were Hindus and five Muslims, 76 of the injured were Hindus and nineteen Muslims and one Christian.


The Government had ostensibly banned the procession as it had argued that Hindus and other non Muslim participation indicated that the procession was not a religious one and its banning did not amount to suppression of religion of the immigrants. The enquiries followed and the governor of Jamaica Sir Henry Norman exonerated the government from allegations of interference with religion of the immigrants. Yet a timid Hindu labourer when asked by the Commissioner  as to why he a Hindu had joined the Muslim festival replied'" I did so because it is the custom of all the coolies in Trinidad to join Hosay". Strange indeed are the effects of traveling cultures-and customs, more so because in that same year Moharram processions in Agra in north west provinces had become the site for a major riot between the Hindus and Muslims. In the 1880's and 1890's more conflicts between Hindus and Muslims over the Moharram procession in several cities of North India and following them came the great round of conflicts over cow killing during Bakrid. Why indeed did Muslims and Hindus who fought and killed over Moharram in India jointly laid down their lives in far off Trinidad defending their right to celebrate it?


I have elsewhere analysed the reasons for both the unprecedented  hostility of the colonial state and planters to mass public manifestation of community  of Indians and  also the obstinacy with which the workers staked claim to public performance of community ( Mohapatra 2002). What I wish to note here is to trace the historical career of this popular community festival in the Caribbean.


If our bemused sight seer had lived till the third decade of the 20th century, he would have seen the passing of the indenture labour system into history and with it also the passing of the Moharram as the premier celebration of the descendants of the Indian immigrants.  In 1932 Tadjah was banned in the British Guiana by the colonial state , but already some time before that date it was definitely on the wane. ( Williams 1991) In Trinidad Hosay, as Moharram was called had been pushed back into a corner of the suburb of St James in Port of Spain and only survives till date because of its  exotic value as a tourist attraction for the Caribbean island country. In Surinam and as also in Fiji 1930's had seen the decline of Moharram, being now a minor festival in certain rural locations devoid both of its past grandeur and wide participation (Kelly 1988). In all these locations several other forms of religious festivals had already overtaken Moharram e.g. Ramlila, Ramjag and Deepavali for the Hindus and Eid Ul Fitr for the Muslims.


What then accounts for the dazzling rise of Moharram in the 19th century in the Indian labour diaspora and its subsequent fall from grace? I shall then in this section  try to explain some aspects of this puzzling phenomenon  associated with Moharram namely its immense popularity with the predominantly Hindu and Sunni Muslim emigrants , the cultural meanings that they derived from its performance and its unique place in the community formation in the 19th Century  as also the factors leading to its decline  in the post indenture period. I shall do so with reference mainly to Moharram in British Guiana and Trinidad   the two most important Indian labour importing colonies.  I hope too that in trying to answer some of these questions  and by tracing the course of performance of Moharram  over time  it would be possible to get a handle on the complex process of community  formation in the diaspora as well as in the context from which the emigrants came.


Let me anticipate here  the main line of my exposition  though some of it is already evident in the presentation of the problem itself. The coeval emergence and decline of Moharram with the indentured labour system  is an important feature of the problem that I have set out. My contention is that Moharram's  unique features and its wide popularity  as the premier religious and community festival bears an important relation with the labour regime in which the emigrants were inserted. It follows from  another  proposition  that community identity formation among the Indian emigrants and their descendents was deeply shaped by their relations, both involuntary and  expressive ,with the labour regime. The Colonial state played a constitutive role in the labour regime on the plantations and the changes it underwent over time and  directly shaped recruitment, organisation and disciplining of labour. To the extent then that Moharram symbolically expressed community aspirations of the emigrants it was necessarily refracted through their experience within the labour regime and with the colonial state. The relationship no doubt is not a simple unilinear one,  it was multiplex    (to borrow Craig Calhoun's facile phrase)- yet what has marked several contemporary  as well as later anthropological accounts of the diasporic community formation in general and Moharram or similar cultural performances  ( with perhaps few exceptions as Kelly and Chandra Jayawardane) is a deliberate erasure of the relationship these bore with the labour regime and the colonial state .


I believe and my research has convinced me that none of the major questions regarding ethnic and community festivals can be understood outside the labouring context in which they were performed. Ethnicity or community identity is not a historical entities and are part of the problem to be explained rather than the explanation itself. The origins of Moharram celebration in the Caribbean were definitely in the early years of indenture.  While in Trinidad Moharram festival was traced to its first celebration in 1855 in the Philippine estate in the Naparima area -its origin in British Guiana  is not well accounted for. Yet by the late 1850s contemporary news papers had taken notice of the celebration of this " tumultuous festival" of the ' coolies in Trinidad. They noted with wonder the  parade of " coolie castles" or " locomotive temples" as the tabut replica tombs of the martyred grandsons of the Prophet were termed, in the main cities of the island. They also noted the high spirits of the ' noisy crowds of coolies exhibiting much earnest gesticulation, making a great noise , dancing and capering" and  the vigorous fencing with sticks.  There was a certain amused tolerance of  this " false and foolish worship" of the heathen crowd.[x] (The Trinidad Sentinel Aug 6 1857, Port of Spain Gazette ( hereafter POSG) July 13 1859)


These early reports  noted that the local black population participated  in these parades in great numbers as onlookers in search of novelty while they scarcely mentioned the religious denominations of the Indian immigrants. It was and remained for along time a  festival of coolie religion which was broadly termed idolatry. What was noticed consistently was the public display of Moharram - which was by the late 1850's called " Hosay"  or " Hosein" in Trinidad in imitation of the lamenting chant of " hai hassan hi hosein" and simply Tadjah in Brtish Guyana. (In Jamaica it was known as Hussay). The ignorance as to the religious import of the festival was widespread and it was left to the missionaries specially interested in proselytising among the Indian immigrants in the 1870's to decode it for the edification of the public and officials alike.  A bewildered  Trinidadaian newspaper wondered in 1871 if the Tabuts displayed were " Gods" and if the god worshipped was the amorous Krishna. John Morton the first Canadian Presbyterian missionary in Trinidad had to dispel   (He had arrived in 1865 in Trinidad)  these  notions by providing the basic information on the story of Kerbala and its religious meanings for the Shhite sect of the Muslims.  However , the missionaries both in Guyana and Trinidad were deeply hostile to the Muharram celebrations- disliking the idolatrous aspects of the Muharram celebration, unruly congregation as also the attractions it held for the Christian lower class black population.  From the 1870's Christian missionary opposition to Muharram's public festival aspect  was an important ingredient in the making of the colonial state and planter's reaction to the festival.


In spite of occasional forays by the missionaries, contemporary accounts of the Muharram remained fixated on its processional and public manifestation.  It was only in the 1882-84 in the prelude to the Hosay massacre in San Fernando that somewhat more detailed accounts of celebration of  muharram can be found in the Official correspondences, judicial reports and the major enquiry report on the incident by Sir Henry Norman.  The first somewhat comprehensive anthropological account of the Moharram was by Mary Beckwith a folklore specialist who studied the festival in  1923 in Jamaica. It is from these scattered sources that I have tried to  delineate some of the important features of Muharram in the English speaking Caribbean in the 19th and early twentieth century.


Hosay, tadjah or Hussay  was in the 19th century celebrated on the first ten days of the  first Islamic month  of Muharram or twelve new moons after the last celebration( since Islamic calendar was lunar one with alternating months of thirty and twenty nine days). The festival commemorated the death of the Prophets' grandsons Hassan and Hosein  and especially the latter's death in the battle of Kerbala at the hands of the Ummaid enemies of the house of Ali. The festival consisted of three parts: ritual construction of the replica Mausoleum of the martyrs over the period of ten days at the sighting of the new moon, taking out of Alams or Flags representing the martyrs and their families and other memorabilia associated with them e.g Horse shoe shaped Nal sahibs representing the horse Dul Dul of Hosein and parading them from the seventh night onwards accompanied by tassa drum beatings and fencing with the sticks and finally climaxing on the tenth day when the tabuts were taken out and displayed in public, and a grand procession of tazias of various estates were sent off to be immersed in the river or sea in a grand procession accompanied by singing of ritual lament or Mersiahs by women. For most part of the 19th century, the grand spectacle of the Muharram procession found its culmination in the coastal cities of the colony Georgetown, Port of Spain , San Fernando. It was there that the elites of the colonies witnessed the parade of tazias from their balconies and as the years passed they witnessed with horror the growing size of the  processions and the " diabolical activities accompanying it namely stick fighting and the incessant chants of "hai hussain hai hassan". By 1880's for instance the procession in San Fernando a cute little planter town with population of 5000, was invaded annually by the Hosay procession consisting of about 15 to 20000 Indian labourers.


It is clear from the accounts of the 19th century from which the above descriptions of the festival has been gathered, that the Muharram was by far the most important community festival of   labourers. The question that needs to be answered however is what cultural meanings were sought to be represented in this festival and in what way was community identity of the Indian immigrant labourers expressed through this festival? By answering this it is possible to explain the reasons for the marginalisation of this festival in late indenture and post indenture period.

Community identity can be best understood by  examining its concrete manifestation in public and collective performances.  Through collective performance community  was affirmed , powerfully inducing feelings of solidarity and  a sense of belonging. A common sense of belonging is the result as well the pre requisite of community performances.

Experience of migration and the long sea voyage bound the Indian immigrants together and their closeness was enhanced further by the fact that most immigrants were recruited from  the same linguistic and cultural region in India( nearly three quarters of Indian immigrants came from the Bhojpur and contiguous Awadh region in the Gangetic United Provinces and Bihar). Further the Plantation labour regime provided an overarching commonality of experience irrespective of inherited differences of creed and caste to the Indian immigrants. The primary identity of Indian immigrants in the plantation setting remained that of "Coolie", nominally meaning an unskilled wage labourer but in fact a pejorative racial appellation for all Indians. Nothing marked out the Indian immigrant as the member of the lowest social group in  Trinidad more than the spatial and temporal immobilisation which was imposed by the five year indenture. It was this attribute of immobilsed labour implicit in the term "coolie" which was extended to the whole community of Indian immigrants and their descendants. Understandably, community aspirations of Indians was asserted in opposition to the "coolie" identity and the physical and cultural immobilisation imposed by the indentured labour regime.


The structure of Hosay and the procession provided an adequate frame for expression of  community aspirations of the Indian immigrants and their decedents. First of all given the popularity of Muharram as an important public festival in northern India, most of the immigrants were familiar with the rituals and observances associated with it.  The festival and the procession incorporated a spectrum of practices, which allowed for participation by all the Indian immigrants irrespective of caste and religious affiliations. These ranged from the strictly religious observances of prayer, fasting and keeping of vows and construction of the Taziyas by the devoted to ostensibly secular ones of ritual stick play, singing of mersiahs(in which women were most prominent) ,carrying banners and other memoribilias , tassa drumming and as spectators. Secondly, since the festivities centered round the estates, the pooling of resources in the construction of the tazias and participation in the procession as members of the estate  reinforced estate based solidarity of all the immigrant labourers. Finally it was the procession in which various estates came together that allowed for congregation of all immigrants from various estates thus physically representing the whole community of Indians. The visual impact of the massed participants undoubtedly provided a powerful stimulus to community feeling as did the proud display of the magnificent structure of taziyas as unique cultural symbols of the community.


It was the processional aspect of  Muharram , which was perhaps the most important reason for its popularity among the immigrants. The articulation of community identity in a processional form was specially important in the context of the spatial immobility of the community engendered by the indentured labour system.   Through the  Hosay procession, the community manipulated already existing spaces and places  but gave them a new albeit temporary meaning. The  Hosay procession  performed at least three functions which were crucial for expression of community identity: an integrative ,a transgressive and a reiterative one.


The route of the procession integrated normally segregated plantation communities and physically linked the bounded space of the plantations with the city or town centre. It was thus that the community was structured  by the procession and at the same time as it imprinted itself on the existing space. In its' transgressive aspect, the procession  narrated a counter discourse to the normal spatial immobility imposed on the immigrants. By occupying the highway and marching through the centre of the towns Indian immigrants laid claim to the public spaces which were ordinarily denied to them. While indentured immigrants were bound by law not to be outside the plantations without explicit permission of the  managers  even non indentured immigrants and  their descendants were required by law to possess with them certificates of exemption from indenture and were liable to be arrested as vagrants or deserters. Public spaces, highways and towns were especially fraught places for the Indians. By occupying spaces and places in the procession, even though temporarily, Indian labourers symbolically transcended  both their "coolie" status and the implicit bounded space in which they were located. The Muharram procession then literally mobilized an immobile community.


However, the counter discourse of space was not formulated in opposition to the established authority structure even though the procession did not draw its legitimacy from any explicit legal right to occupy spaces and places.  Rather, the transgressive and liminal aspects were normalised through the reiterative function of the procession. By repeating over the years ,fixed routes, destinations and orders of estates in the procession, the community arrogated to itself an implicit right to occupy, and march through pubic spaces. It was  custom rather than  any specific legal right which was invoked by the participants in the Hosay procession of 1884  to go to San Fernando. The heavy investment in customary spatial rights was also at the root of conflicts over orders of precedence in the procession. Custom also made space sacred as was asserted by the Babajees about San Fernando in 1883. By integrating, mobilising and investing customary rights on  public places and spaces , the Muharram festival and the procession powerfully articulated community aspirations and religious belief, the sacred and the profane were not separated either in the practices or in the minds of the participants.


A final feature of the processional form of Muharram needs to be noted here. While I have drawn attention to the relation between the expressive forms of community and the specific condition of labouring existence (Integration, mobilisation,public representation) it must not be inferred therefore that the procession was in some sense a direct expression of the labouring identity of the indentured immigrants workers. In fact in the Muharram and the procession if any thing was visually absent was any direct reference to the labouring condition on plantation. I would even suggest that Muharram procession allowed the Indian immigrants to negate their overwhelming existence as Coolie labour and represent themselves as full-fledged moral and cultural community. Muharram drew its sharpest meaning for the participants in the evident contrast with their daily condition of labour- and this was the meaning that was powerfully conveyed to the wider public through the Procession. However despite this caveat, because of the way in which the processional form of Muharram became an expression of community assertion- it also emerged as potentially powerful vehicle for representing collective grievances. In my analysis of the 1884 Hosay Massacre I have demonstrated the special conditions in which the community assertion and class grievances were uniquely combined in the Muharram procession in Trinidad.

 ( Mohapatra 2002) The Muharram of 1884 in Trinidad came in the wake of a unprecedented strike wave that swept through the colony between 1882-1884 as planters tried to counter the crisis of falling sugar prices by intensification of work . The threat of insurrection appeared imminent to the planters and the colonial state as they panicked in face of massed display of Muharram procession. By banning the procession and brutally enforcing the ban the colonial state sought to unlink the class and community assertion expressed in the Muharram.


Having elaborated the cultural meanings that were sought to be expressed through Muharram I need to explain its eventual decline over time as the premier community festival of The Indians in the diaspora. Muharram grew in size and importance with the growth of the plantation economy and its decline coincided with the severe crisis of plantation economy in the late 19th century. But the most important factor for its decline remained the unabashed hostility of the colonial state to the Moharram procession. The first attempts at controlling the procession had been initiated in Guyana in 1869 when a special ordinance required specially chosen headmen to be seek permission and be responsible for order in the procession. This was followed in Trinidad in promulgation of ordnances banning the procession from public roads and towns and confining it to the estates. Finally the large scale shooting down of the workers in 1884 to enforce the ordinance broke the back of this community festival. A new ordinance in 1885 In Trinidad  made the celebration of the festival a Muslim affair with punishment for non Muslim celebration. I have argued that community representation in public spaces was the most powerful source of popularity of the festival- denied this vital expressive quality and by confining the festival to individual estates this festival was starved of the oxygen of publicity. Allied to this was the sustained hostility of missionaries and orthodox sections Muslims to the pagan display in the festival. But the factor that worked incessantly in the background was the gradual move away from the plantation and the process of villagisation that was initiated as a response to the crisis of the late 19th century. As the locus of community formation shifted away from the plantation and the estates Muharram could no longer become the preferred mode of community assertion. There was a definite shift from public display of community to more inward and exclusive forms of religious observances (such as ramayanjag, flag worship for hindus and EID for muslims).This process of retreat from Public display however was soon overtaken by a new form of engagement in the emergent public sphere in the colonies.





Voice of the Settler Indian : A Son of India in Trinidad


In the aftermath of the crisis of 1884 , a  new mode of public sphere activity emerged quite suddenly in the Caribbean. This was in the form of  writing letters to the leading journals of the colonies. The first letterwriter to emerge from the ranks of the |Indians wrote under the  nom de plume of   A Son of India in the San Fernando Gazette in 1888  a widely circulated daily in  Trinidad. This was the leading  Creole (Black) newspaper of the colony and championed the cause of the educated  Creoles who were demanding greater share in the affairs of the colony.  It is in this newspaper that A son of India began writing a series of letters  and essays  drawing attention to the demands of the Indian community.  Three factors seem to have given rise to this  public representation form  .First the emergence of a substantial number of Indians, ex indentured labourers who had diversified out from the Plantations  and had formed the nucleus of the  Indian settler community. Second from within this small but rapidly growing section there emerged a miniscule group of Indians educated in English largely through the proselytising effort of the Canadian Presbyterian Mission in Trinidad which opened its first school for Indian children in 1871 (By 1888 there were 52 Schools in several estates and villages with three thousand children of the settler  Indians  and  10 educated Indian were employed as interpreters and shop clerks in 1880) Third  the institution of the Royal Franchise Commission  enquiring into the question of electoral enfranchisement in the colony in 1888 gave a fillip to  public agitation for elected and representative government largely led by progressive Creole middle class .[xi]


It is significant that the first letter of A son of India   in December 1888 was written as an address to the new Governor William Robinson , articulated the demand of the growing settler Indian community.[xii]  The themes set out in the letter seemed to have persisted through out the career of this pioneer Indian letter writer. First there was the demand  that efforts should be made by the government  to retain the Indian labourers in the colony rather then repatriate them. Secondly the most important incentive for retention was  for the government to intervene actively to provide education to the  Indians taking into account their special needs as the bulk of them were outside the purview of  any education effort at all. In it there was the demand to provide for compulsory education to all Indian children. Thirdly, the language of Imperial  citizenship is deployed by the author  to seek governmental welfare and stake a permanent claim on the colony.( “It is not too much to ask from the Government these privileges ,for we consider ourselves part and parcel of the great British Empire and not aliens…)   Finally  there is a conscious effort to refute the  ascription of low status to the  Indian community on the ground of their low caste origins, illiteracy and  position as bound labourers on estates. This is done in several subsequent letters by drawing on the glorious past of the Indians and by the fact that not all of the immigrants were of low caste but contained a fair proportion of high caste and middling castes. [xiii]


In demanding special attention of the government for  the education of Indian community, A Son of India  irked several  pro planter lobbies and also the Creole middle class  .  The former thought it as useless expenditure on  a  class  whose main occupation should be and would remain for labouring on the estates as ‘Coolies”. Port of Spain Gazette , the pro planter newspaper of the colony reacted to this novel form of public activity and demand for education by asserting that  most Indians will ‘enter the school as a coolie and emerge from it the same coolie”. [xiv]The emergent Creole middle class continued to castigate the immigration and the immigrants as causes of demoralization to the colony  and a potent factor for depressing the labour market.[xv] They saw in the demand for education emanating from the settled Indian community another instance of state pampering and special privilege.  Even John Morton the Canadian Presbyterian Missionary who played a leading role in setting up schools for Indians was irritated by the demand for non denominational education for Indians demanded by  A Son Of India.[xvi]  The  author who himself was a christian  and  trained in missionary school was acutely aware of the reluctance of Indian s to enter denominational schools for fear of losing their religion  . He sought to highlight the need for advancement of the settler population through education rather than conversion as a means of “amalgamating to Western civilization”. [xvii]  Apart from these A Son of India through his letters commented on the major legislations affecting the Indian community such as the Immigration Ordinaces  and ordinances for Indian marriages. And on the Report of Sergeant Commins.(1893).[xviii]


In what way was the Indian community identity expressed in this new form of public activity  by the letter writers? The community that was imagined had as its nucleus those who had made Trinidad their home- this included the rapidly growing peasant proprietors involved in cultivation of crownland  and others who had diversified in activities outside the plantation in trading, huckstering and market gardening. The spearhead of this group was the small educated Indians mainly of Christian denomination . There was no attempt to exclude the indentured immigrants but as was evident they were seen as the source for recruitment into this rapidly expanding nucleus. Thus the letter writers did not oppose immigration as the Creole middle class did and were all for its encouragement  but it was imagined that they could only become full members of the community by graduating out of the estates . The emphasis on education as a means of acquiring citizenship and permanence was also indicative of the character of this  putative community. While the problems of indentured labourers were sometimes raised in his letters, there was no attempt at criticizing the indenture system directly nor any substantial issue of wages, working conditions and terms of contract taken up in these letters. The ascription of low status of coolie identity  to the whole Indian community was contested  but in some sense there was also  an implict acceptance of this condition.  By 1889, the term Coolie was thought to be too degrading to be designated as the appellation for Indian as a whole- the PRESBYTERIAN mission  led the way under pressure from its exclusively Indian members to change the name of the mission from Coolie Mission to East Indian Mission. As a new community began to be imagined around the settlers, there were attempts to begin rudimentary organisation of the Indian community at the end of the century in 1897 with the establishment of the East Indian Congress in Trinidad .


While the settler community of Indians came to chart out a different path of involvement with Colonial Public Sphere in the late 19th Century, what happened to the Indentured Indian workers the century as a response to the crisis of the Plantation economy? In the next two sections I take up two different styles of representation of community  in the work of the Songwriter Lalbehari Sharma and that of Bechu.




Lalbehari  and the  poetry of indenture


It is widely assumed that Indian Immigrants were illiterate and   their education happened subsequent to their entry into the plantation. This image neatly fits into the idea of the plantation and indenture as a school for development of the immigrants. However there is enough evidence contrary to this popular image to suggest that literacy was not entirely absent among the immigrants- a fair number among them were literate in native languages of India such as Hindi, Urdu and Hindustani. In the first place familiarity and reading of important religious texts was fairly common among  Indians- it is possible that the upper caste Brahmins and Muslim clerics and ritual specialists were perhaps over represented in this section. Despite this it is also true that the Indian diaspora has produced far few public texts for the posterity in forms of memoirs, autobiographies and other literary texts.   It is in this context of near absence of any public text authored by the immigrants that  the rare  work of  Lalbehari Sharma an indentured labourer in Guyana published in 1916 quite at the end  of indenture period has some significance.[xix] The work  entitled  “Damra Fag Bahar” (Holi songs of Demerara)written in Nagri script and in  a mixture of Bhojpuri and Avadhi language was a collection of original songs meant for recitation during Holi festival. The language of the text and the construction of the poems   followed the 16th Century textual forms of the epic Ramcharit Manas ( The Story of Rama) by Tulsidas  with a mixture of  couplets(Doha )quatrains( Choupai), freeverse (Kabita),and rhymes (Chautal,Ulara) which were well known in the main recruiting ground of the immigrant population in Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Western Bihar. It is evident from the mixture of the forms utilised in the text that the author expected familiarity from his readers and audience of not just the themes but also the sequences and rhythm of the text. The text is eminently recitable apart from being readable too. The explicit audience of the text is a collective of singers and listeners-or as he wrote in the preface of the text gayanpriya rasik (connoisseurs of songs). Yet it is evident  in the structure of the collection and in the references to the landscape sprikkled with names of settlements and estates where Indians resided , that the audience and readership is explicitly the Indian community of Guyana.

While ostensibly intended to entertain the community the text was also confessional that is the poems were meant to cleanse the inner world (antah karan pavitra) and provide an outlet for anxieties and worries of the author. The collection of songs are in three parts; the first introduces the author to the audience and relates the story of his present condition and daily life in Guyana, the second part are collection of songs about the Holi being played by epic charcters of Rama, Sita, Krishna and Radha. The third part consists of philosophical and  esoteric prayers (bhajans). 

The introductory part is of obvious interest to my analysis though I will also refer to the overall theme of anxiety ,lament and alienation (viraha) that pervades the text. The story of the author is briefly described. He was born in Chapra district in the Bhojpur region of Bihar in Mairatand village and currently resident in Goldenfleece estate in Essequibo in British Guyana. The first description of the country is that of  a “bad country”(KuDesh) bereft of dharma and conscience (vivek) where the author has enlisted himself as a Coolie  after abandoning the path of Vedas and having had to accede to do lowly work(Kukarma). From this it appears the author was a Brahmin  who feels himself to have been degraded by becoming a coolie. A brief account of daily life on the plantation follows; beginning with work bell at five in the morning at the barracks and the Sardar’s call to work. In the field following the Sardar arrives the Sahib (overseer/manager) dressed in hat and with a whip and the workbook in hand who deducts pay for short work. This supervision distresses the author as he contemplates his work in a country surrounded by Police stations and laments how the poor are deceived (Bhulayeke) to emigrate to this country. This distressing theme is interrupted with the description of the Saturday/pay day when men and women in gay dress receive their pay from the sirdar. The author in the last section contemplates how to carry on thus for five years worrying about  when he will be eligible for ticket of leave from the plantation. The passage of time on the plantation and the constant anxiety leads some to become renouncers (Sadhu and Fakirs) while others wander in distress and anxiety wondering how to carry on . The section ends with an advice to the indentured workers to remain patient and to remain on the plantation like in the village back home under the benign guidance of the Sirdars. In this account we have the story of overturning of moral order and descent into moral anomie that plantation work produces as also the anxious desire to escape the anomic coolie status. It is significant that  the answer that is provided in this section of the text is  to reinstate the order of the village now under the Sirdar. 

However it is in the next two sections that the author displays his poetic prowess by weaving in themes of gay abandon represented in the play of Holi by Ram and Sita and Krishna and Radha with acute sense of  longing of the women abandoned by their husband. The theme of erotic play and viraha permeates these songs interrupted often with  philosophic exhortations to abandon the illusions of the worldly goods. The world is after all a  false dream –the world of money,power ,family and fame is mere illusion and not ones own.(Akhir Jhoot Jagat hai Sapna –Dhan Daulat Parivar badhai-Yeh Sab Maya Nahin hai Apna,Akhir Jhooth Jagat Hai Sapna).

While it is evident the author here draws on perennial themes of Nirgun poetry of Kabir and Dadu about the illusory nature of the world what is interesting is the juxtapostion with the description of the plantation world in Guyana.  To the audience and singers of this collection the resonance with their daily life under plantation must have been strong. By describing  the world of money ,power and fame as illusory a parallel is  sought to be struck with  the plantation world  and the life in it which itself is some sense morally degraded . Similar parllelism could be found in the intense desire of the abandoned women for her distant husband or that of Radha for Krishna and the desire for release from the plantation. Yet the response to both these predicament is to be found by patient inward contemplation about the true nature of the world and establishing stability and harmony through out ward compliance with the village like order on plantation and by chanting the name of god(Without the name of Ram the world is like a beautiful woman without her nose) in the company of the good(satsang).

What the author is advocating is a sense of detachment from the surrounding world that will enable the community to pass through the period of moral degradation forced on the immigrants by their insertion into the plantation regime. Thus there exists an existential critique of the indenture system through which a potentially moral community can be established  but this critique itself is not enough what is required is an inward transformation and detachment from the outer world. What is significant in this text is first of all a complete lack of engagement with the labour regime (except in amoral sense) and with the colonial public sphere: there is no attempt to imagine a better world  or bettering oneself  or the community through that enagagement.  I will suggest the identity that is sought to be represented by this text indicated one of disengaged community and the style of representation of this imagined community is that of inward contemplation. Yet this may not be enough as a characterisation since what destabilizes the attempted normalization is the intense almost erotic desire to escape the conditions of existence imposed by the real world of plantations. 

It is perhaps important now to explore the final aspect of representation of identity that developed under the indenture system . This I do through the account of a remarkable and in some sense atypical  individual attempt at engaging with the plantation order and the colonial public sphere.




Bechu: A Coolie Critique of Indenture


On a presumably balmy Sunday morning on November 1,1896, readers of the largest circulating daily newspaper of Guyana, the Daily Chronicle were surprised by the appearance in the columns of the newspaper  a letter signed by Bechu , Indentured Immigrant of Enmore estate  Ex Sheila 1894 . If the fact that a letter  written in flawless English by an indentured coolie was itself an unprecedented act, what must have astonished the readers of the newspaper further was the content and style of the letter. 


Will you kindly ,permit  me through the medium of your widely circulated paper to say a few words with regard to the official investigation which has been made concerning the rate of wages paid to the indentured labourers in Plantation Non Pareil? BEING A coolie myself , and an indentured one in the bargain I have up to now refrained from saying anything in the matter…

With this  modest disclaimer began the career of Bechu the indentured coolie who wrote letters to the editors of several newspapers of the colony for the next four and half years  brilliantly dissecting and exposing the façade of legality and claims to public good  by planters and the colonial state and championing the cause of the immigrant labourers.  So powerful were his indictment of the indenture system that  Royal Commision on West Indies which visited Guyana in 1897 invited him to present evidence and a  written submission -  a rare honour for a mere coolie. His exposes stung the planter class so much that he was  twice prosecuted for libel (1898 and 1899) both times the jury being equally divided did not convict him. He found admirers galore among leading Creole politicians and sworn and bitter enemies among planters. His mordant wit, erudition, catchy style and precise and irrefutable arguments brought a whiff of fresh air to the stuffy, flowery prose laden  public discourse conducted in the colonial newspapers. He made defence of public good an admirable cause and his success emboldened a few Indian immigrants to follow his footsteps. But as suddenly as he had arrived he one day bade farewell to return to India in 1901. In this brief incandescent career, Bechu developed a sharp and completely new perspective on the Indian immigration a view from below that was nevertheless in dialogue with the perspective from above. 


It is to the elaboration of this perspective that I now turn basing myself on  some of his letters written to the Daily Chronicle and the debates he entered      into in the pubic sphere and his submission to the Royal Commission. 


It might be useful to contextualise the career of Bechu in the last decade of the 19th century.[xx]  Sugar prices had steadily declined in the last decades of the 19th century reaching their lowest between 1896and 1903. In British Guyana acreage under sugar cane having reached a peak of 80,000 acres in 1890 fell by one fourth to 67,000acres in 1900. Sugar exports fell from 130,000tonnes  in 1888 to their lowest ever in thirty years to 84,000 tonnes in 1900. Buffeted by lower prices and competition from bounty fed continental beet sugar  Guyanese plantations were in deep crisis, as estates after estates were merged or abandoned of the 113 estates in 1880 only 52 estates remained in 1901.


Cost cutting and wage bill reduction was the preferred weapon of the planters to counter plummeting profits. Intensification of work and reduced wages and unemployment was rampant on the plantations. Yet surprisingly the average annual importation of indentured labour(4000)  to the plantations remained nearly the same between 1880s and the 1890s. This incessant gluttony for bound labour even when  the free labour was in abundance  was the characteristic response of the planters  to the crisis. It is  in this context that naked exploitation of immigrants was visible beneath the carapace of indentured system based on supposedly voluntary contract . [xxi]Bechu’s critique was not only probing and pointed it also made its mark because of the crisis.


The immediate context for Bechus letter in November 1896, was the riot of indentured labourers at Non Pareil in October.[xxii] Indentured workers protesting against low wages and increased tasks at the plantation struck work enmasse and  went to the Protectors office to complain. This right was allowed under the Immigration ordinances. But on their return they were confronted with the Police who rounded up the leaders on the pretext of conspiring to create disturbances. The workers refused to give up the men and Police fired on them 72 rounds killing 4persons and severly injuring 40.  Bechus letter was the first public protest against this brutal repression .

Bechu  began by  questioning the  inquiry on wages done post facto which found the wages to be ‘ample”. Bechu reproduced his own contract which mentioned explicitly that every indentured laborer was entitled to a wage of 1shilling for seven hours of field work and if working on task his wage could not be lower than this minimum guranteed wage. Any work or task above that was to be paid by overtime by the hour. Bechu argued that the protest of the punt loaders at Non Pareil was justified as they received wages below the guarnteeed minimum wages and overtime for nearly fourteen hours of work a day. He followed it up by arguing that the while indentured workers were regularly convicted for breach of contract on trivial issues no planter is ever prosecuted for the rampant violation of  contract to pay minimum wages. While acknowledging the prevailing depression in trade he wondered why should the indentured worker bear the sole burden for that. He ended by quoting from the bible “ Unto every one that hath shall be given ,and he shall have abundantly, but unto him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath”.[xxiii]


The letter  was received in stunned silence and in the next six days only one letter appeared  heartily supporting Bechus argument.[xxiv] But within a few days  a planter named Langton  published a lengthy essay in the newspaper Argosy  entitled “A History of  East Indian Immigration”  which sought to counter the arguments of Bechu [xxv]. Apart from the stereotyped  planter view of coolie immigration as a benefit to the indentured labourers  and how indenture immigration was crucial for the survival of the economy of the colony ,the key issue of  guaranteed minimum wages was taken up. Langton argued that the coolies were explained on their arrival at the colony that their earnings were dependent on successful completion of tasks and  that average effort would earn them the guarnteed minimum wages. It was the laziness of the coolies which prevented them from completing the task and earn the minimum wage.

Bechu replied  point by point to Langton and other planter correspondents  arguing that the government must ensure that the coolies get the minimum wage of 1 shilling a day.[xxvi]

In a subsequent letter he exposed the planters attempt to use the Non Pareil riot  in  order to demand  protection for West Indian sugar. Planters had started a campaign in the London press arguing that the condition of sugar industry under competition from bounty fed sugar from the continent was  so bad that they were compelled to reduce the wages and that social unrest like the non pareil riots would recur more frequently if protection was not granted to their sugar through countervailing duties. Bechu pointed out that under no circumstances can the Planters reduce the wages of indentured coolies and if the planters admit that they were in blatant violation of the contract . He also pointed to the hypocrisy of planters demanding at the same time more indentured labourers when they could not even pay minimum wages to them.[xxvii] He had written in one of his letters  “ We are all alive to the fact that these are hard times ,but if the planters are unable to keep to the terms of their contract – let them liberate  those who wish to be liberated- set free-and then there will be no occasion for dissatisfaction even if the men can not earn six pence per diem”. [xxviii]In taking up the guarnteed minimum wage issue  Bechu fully exploited the contradictions of the indenture contract and rendered visible the blatant violation that went in the name of freedom of contract.  Contract should bind both parties; not freedom for planters and bondage for the labourers. Bechu’s expose irritated the planters – several of them doubted his existence, thought he was hankering for notoriety, and wondered  how if he was so educated he could escape the scrutiny of the recruiting agencies in India .One planter even suggested that  he should be packed off to India. [xxix]Bechu’s reply to this slander was humorous and full of wit .[xxx] To the question who is Bechu he replied in one of his letters ”A queer looking specimen of –it is believed – human race ( but evidently the rarest description) because when I was exhibited in the Calcutta Zoo most people, naturalists included were ready to swear for true that , that I was the Missing Link, but since there was no Darwin to declare me to be the Simian Pure, I unfortunately lost my chance of making a fortune”. When planters wondered if he was a real live Indentured emigrant he replied “ “It is a positive fact that I am a real live animal and what is more surprising I am allowed to go about unchained”. To the question about his education Bechu replied “ If it is possible to educate monkeys why should not the ‘ connecting link” between man and him be taught as well. If the Planter is death on education he should lose no time to shut up schools and do away with Education Commission else in course of time he will find “ too much educated coolyman” in this colony.”  As Bechus letters caused furore the issue of coolie immigration  and issue of countervailing duty came up  for dicscussion as the  Royal West Indian Commision came visiting the colony in February 1897. Bechu’s notoriety earnd him an invitation to  the commission.


It was in his evidence before the Royal West Indies Commission that  Bechu  displayed his full analytical and rhetorical powers. Quoting from previous enquiry commissions, from famous novelist Trollope and other literary luminaries Bechu argued that the indenture system  was a veiled system of slavery or a “despotism tempered by sugar”. [xxxi] 


Citing his own personal experience as an indentured worker Bechu pointed out that the concept of equality embodied in the contract was never applied in practice nor were the specific provisions of the contract adhered to by the planters or enforced by the colonial state. Work hours were long and the task system allowed the planters to pay regularly lower wages than the stipulated minimum. He pointed out that even though safeguards for protection was there in the contract , the structure of plantation authority negated them easily. Workers found it difficult to complain against the drivers and overseers for fear of being prosecuted on trumped up charges under breach of contract provision. He pointed out that the large number of prosecution of immigrants  by the planters was  a device used by planters to lower the earnings of the immigrants as much as a way of terrorizing the workers to submission. He also noted the rampant practice of concubinage and sexual exploitation of Indian women by overseers and managers which was a potent source of conflict and a direct result of which was the prevalence of wife murders among Indians.  The most important critique of indenture that Bechu advanced was two fold  first it was explicitly inequtitous specially on the issue of payment of minimum wages. Secondly indenture immigration was a weapon in the hand of the planters to keep the labour market permanently depressed and the irony of it was that the Government revenue through custom duties which subsidised immigration expenditure was largely derived from the consumption goods of the labourers. He opposed further immigration because it was in fact directly contrary to the interests of the Indians  both indentured and free who were resident in the colony. Instead he suggested that  time expired Indian immigrants be provided incentive to settle down by  providing them land instead of return passage. 


Although elements of the critique of indenture had been articulated earlier by the rising Creole middle class , ( such as lowering of wages, subsidy to the planters)  opposition to indentured immigration often meant opposition to Indian community presence itself. Bechu’s position was distinct in that he argued from the experience of a indentured coolie showing that it was  in fact not in the interest of the Indians to support further immigration  and that interests of both Creole and Indian labourers ,free and indentured immigrants were hurt by the indentured immigration system. 


From the evidence before the Commission  the question that bothered the planters who was Bechu and how he arrived in the colony  was revealed. He submitted that he was  a Bengali orphan raised by Presbyterian missionary lady in Calcutta and raised by her and had lived and worked with other missionaries as a copyist and domestic help. Though he was never educated in a school he had been taught by the missionary lady as a child  and his interest in literature  he had cultivated himself .  As to his arrival in the colony, he said he had been in much reduced circumstances when a recruitr offered him a job in the colonies ,his preference was for Trinidad and as a clerk ,but he was forced to come to Guyana as the recruiter refused to let him go without paying for the time he spent waiting for the ship. He was assigned to plantation Enmore and worked in the fields for five months when due to repeated fever he was allowed to work in the house of the Deputy manager. His employers were obviously kind and he had had no cause to complain against them as he was always paid his due of 1s a day.


Bechu’s evidence before the commission  made him an instant hero among the Indian community and also the reform minded Creoles. Planters were understandably upset and  sought to malign Bechu before the commission and more so afterwards.[xxxii] Planters stooped down to calumny not just Bechu but all Indians as born liars. One Planter quoted Macaulay’s infamous statement  about the effeminacy and low cunning of  Bengalis “ what the horns are to the buffalo,what the paws are to tiger what the sting is to the bee…deceit is to the Bengali”. [xxxiii] To this Bechu characteristically replied by quoting Shakespeare “ Cursed be who moves my bones..” and  Longfellow ‘Lives of  of  great men…’ . [xxxiv]Planters often were at a loss to match his words while  several defenders of Bechu arose  from the ranks of Indian and Creoles.[xxxv] Through out the next three years Bechu kept up his attack on the plantation system both at the level of policy and by exposing specific instances of  oppression practiced by the planters. [xxxvi]He exposed individual instance of cruelty as in the case when a sick indentured worker was forced out of the hospital and sent to work after which he died. [xxxvii] Bechu’s letter to the newspaper landed him in a libel suit which dragged on for a whole year  and he was acquitted only when the jury failed to twice failed to reach a decision.


He also periodically brought up issues of stoppage of wages, sending of armed police to stop immigrants from complaining and also the plight of  Indian hawkers who were rounded up by police and prevented from hawking their wares in the towns.[xxxviii] He vigorously pursued the question of minimum wages to the labourers by several times challenging the planters to produce evidence of such payments. It is interesting that never once were the planters able to produce such evidence, lapsing back to inanities like the  moral  development of immigrants under indenture, paternal care of the planters  and economic benefit of emigration to Indians.[xxxix]


At the policy level one interesting debate that Bechu initiated was on the issue of reindenture of time expired immigrants. Bechu had suggested very early on that  instead of an expensive indenture immigration , time expired labourers may be persuaded to  reindenture themselves with a suitable incentive of the $50 bonus. He kept on repeating this suggestion as an alternative to indentured immigration for some time. [xl] The suggestion of re-indenture might   appear  to  go against the grain of the general critique of indenture as it would only lengthen the period of indenture . However the suggestion was not in any sense contradictory to his critique  because they were pitched at different level. Central to Bechu’s critique was the fact that continuous importation of labour under indenture served to depress the wages to starvation level and led to unemployment among the free labourers both Creole and Indians. The only long term solution  was the abolition of indenture  immigration altogether- but in the short term  the solution to the unemployment of the free labourers  could be  in re-indenture if planters could be persuaded to forsake costly importation costs and instead pay statutory minimum wages . His  advocacy of re-indenture has to be understood in the context of his insistence that indenture contract legally guaranteed the a 1s a day wage- this when the wages offered to free labour had fallen well below the minimum guaranteed wages of indentured workers. It is interesting that none of his planter opponents ever took up the suggestion of reindenture as an alternative- because they realised that this was only the thin wedge to dislodge the whole indenture system altogether. Bechu had always argued that the main prop of this obviously oppressive system was the annual importation-  that was the life blood of the system.  Towards the end of his stay in Guyana Bechu’s letters became increasingly strident in its denunciation of the immigration system In his last letter to the newspaper before leaving for India , Bechu  pleaded that immigration be stopped for three years  as an experimental measure.[xli]  But what  he thought of the indenture system on the plantations is evident from one of his last letters where he cited several of his compatriots preferring to be in jail where they were assured a meal a day  to the work on the plantation. He wrote “ In India , Sir we look down with contempt on a man who has been to the Jail, buit here the best of us dare not do so for we can hardly tell when we shall have the misfortune to be sent ourselves”.[xlii]


Bechu left for India sometime in April 1901 ; he had been released from indenture in 1898 when a prosperous Indian shopkeeper impressed by his advocacy paid his indenture fees to the colony. Why did he stay on for three more years or why did he decide to go back- we have no clue about it. And about his career back in India- we do not know. He vanished as suddenly as he had arrived on the public sphere with his letter on November 1 1896.


But for a period of five years Bechu represented the indentured immigrants and sought to give them a public life.  The essence of the indentured labour regime was the denial of public existence of the workers-  in some sense the coolie was the planters children and that was the effect of  their immobilization , peculiar legal subordination and ethnic separation from the larger body of labourers. By making their presence visible in  public discourse Bechu in some sense gave theoretical articulation to the practical critique the indentured workers  periodically  made in their rebellion against the indenture system.


His mode of representation of the indentured workers provided the basis for solidarity of different sectors of the workers in the colony. In other words he made possible a  labouring identity for the Indians. In many ways his critique was far superior to the nationalist critique of indenture  that emerged  in the first decades of the 20the century which explicitly denigrated the labouring identity of the indentured immigrants and focussed on their moral degradation.




In this essay I have tried to argue against the emergence of a singular identity in the Indian labour diaspora in the West Indies during the period of indenture. Neither cultural persistence nor creolisation theories of identity formation  can capture the multiple possibilities that could  and did coexist in the period under study. I have demonstrated  that by examining four different styles of representation of identity  which emerged in the last decades of the 19th century when the plantation societies were in the throes of a deep crisis. What was common to all of these was that they shared  the same relational field that I have identified as the labour regime. Each of these forms of identity bore a relation with the labour regime without  in any way being derived from or determined by it. Representational practices ranging from the collective to the individual  mediated these relationships. My aim in this essay has been to in some sense transcend the dualities of culture and economy ,class and community that has plagued  the study of diasporic formations specially those that were formed through long distance labour migration.



End Notes


[i]  John Morton , the Canadian Presbyterian minister found the habit of “ following custom “ to be one of the most irritating obstacle to proselytisation. See Sarah Morton John Morton of Trinidad and His Life p 196.

[ii] Morton Klass , 1961, Arthur Niehoff ( 1962)

[iii] M.G.Smith  The Plural Society in British West Indies, Los Angeles, 1965

[iv] For a  critique of the notion of diaspora as applied to the Indians in West Indies see Mohapatra 1996

[v] For the process of enforcement of indenture laws  in the West Indies see K.O.Laurence A Question of Labour , Kingston 1992 p and also Mohapatra (forthcoming).

[vi] For the changing policy of repatriation see Laurence, op cit p

[vii] Grierson (1883).

[viii] The Daily Chronicle , Georgetown, 1897.

[ix] For detailed account of the Hosay Massacre of 1884 see Kelvin Singh The Bloodstained Tombs  and Mohapatra 2002

[x] The Trinidad Sentinel Aug 6 1857, Port of Spain Gazette July 13 1859

 [xi] See Port of Spain Gazette(hereafter POSG) , on the Royal Franchise Commission , in September 12 1888.

[xii] Letter of A Son of India San Fernando Gazette (hereafter SFG) 8th December 1888.

[xiii] See letters of A Son of India  in SFG   jan December 4 1889,Feb 25 1892.

[xiv]  See letter of A Son of a Gun in POSG Dec 16 1892 .

[xv] See letter of Fairplay SFG December 16 1892 as an example.

[xvi] Letter of John Morton SFG Feb 18 1892, 24 march 1892.

[xvii] Letter of A Son of India  in SFG  January 21 1892

[xviii] letter of A Son of India  SFG Jul4 1896

[xix] Lalbehari Sharma Damra Fag Bahar,Georgetown, 1916.( India Office Library, Hindi Pamphlet Collection)

 [xx] For the condition of British Guyana in the last two decades of the 19th century see Alan Adamson (1972), Rodney(1881) and Laurence (1992).

[xxi] Alan Adamson has calculated that on anaverage 13 strikes on the estates took place between 1884 and 1903 in the British Guiana, Adamson (1972)p p106-109

[xxii]  Rodney 1881. p158. See also the account of Non Pareil riot in DC October 18-21 1896

[xxiii]  Letter of Bechu in The Daily Chronicle (Hereafter DC) November 1 1896.

 [xxiv] Letter of J. Wharton in DC Novemebr 5, 1896.

[xxv] Langton ,Argosy  Georgetown ,Novemeber 21.

[xxvi] Letter of Bechu  DC Dec 9 1896.

[xxvii] Letter of Bechu  DC January 7 1896.

[xxviii] Letter of Bechu  DC December 22 1896.

[xxix]  See letters of Langton in DC  Dec 12 1896, Planter in DC January 9 1897.

[xxx]  Letter of Bechu . DC Jan 12 1897.

[xxxi] See Bechu’s written evidence in Report of the   Royal West Indian Commission, 1897 Volume Appendix C p 131 and his evidence in  Vol III p 1131 See also DC February 2 1897.

[xxxii]  See evidence of J. Thomson in ibid.

[xxxiii]  Letter of Civis Mundi DC February 12 1897.

[xxxiv]  Letters of Bechu , DC  Feb 14 1897 .

[xxxv] See letters of East Indian Descendent and Ramswammy in DC , 9 Feb  15 Feb , 22 Feb 1897.

 [xxxvi] Letters of Bechu  in DC in July 28 1898, August 27 1898 on stopping of wages and repatriation problems.

[xxxvii]  Letter of Bechu DC Sept 18 1898.

[xxxviii]   Letters of Bechu in Dc March 5 1899, August 22 1899 and April 14 1900  as examples.

[xxxix]  See letters of Planter, Norman Bascom, Creole Planter etc in DC Feb 5 1899 , Feb 8 ,1899  and Bechu’s relies in Feb 7 and Feb 8  and  Feb 11 1899  As an evidence of the last point one planter pointed out that all the letters sent from India to the colony were without paid postage while the letters from the colony were were all with paid post. Bechu  replied to this by saying that that was areflection on the postage service of the colony since anyone who wanted his letter to definitely reach its destination made sure that it was “bearing’ since that at least ensured its receipt.

 [xl] Letter of Bechu  Feb 2 1897,April 18 1899 , Jan 12 1900 .

[xli] Letter of Bechu, DC  February 5 1901.

[xlii] Letter of Bechu  in DC January 9,1901.




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