Our Readers' Opinions
October 9, 2015
Commemorating Indian Heritage Day: On being Indo-Vincentian

by Dr Arnold Thomas

October 7 is officially recognized as Indian Heritage Day. As we are all aware, the population of St Vincent and the Grenadines is a mix of several ethnic groups: Caribs, Garifuna/Kalinago, Arawaks, Africans, Europeans, Portuguese and Indians and some later arrivals. In recent times, official recognition has been given to celebrating the heritage of various groups; thus Caribs, Africans and Indians during the year have their special days.{{more}}Every year, March is celebrated as Heritage month, with March 14 declared an official holiday, as Heroes’ Day, in commemoration of the date in 1795 when Carib Chief Joseph Chatoyer was assassinated.

Why was October 7 chosen as Indian Heritage Day? It was on that date in 1882, some 50 Indians marched from Argyle Estate to Kingstown to bring their grievances directly to the Government, which included maltreatment and the failure of the Government to keep the promise of returning them to India on completion of their contract service. More about this event later in the article.

To put the matter in historical context, Indians came to St Vincent between 1861 and 1880 as indentured workers. In all, eight ships brought 2,475, most of whom were Hindus. It must have been a sight to the natives to watch the scores of strange looking people coming on shore, dressed differently, men in dhotis and loincloths and carrying their meagre possessions tied in a sack. Some would have brought with them their own mementoes from India: a jar, a drum, maybe some seeds like mango and other native plants, oh yes and ganja, the herb of the Ganges! However, by 1884, 1,100 had returned to India. The remnants moved off the estates in the early years of the 20th century to establish their own villages, such as Calder, Akers Hill, Richland Park, Yambou, Rose Bank and around Georgetown.

What happened to the Indians in St Vincent? Why are they different from say the Indians of Guyana, Trinidad and Suriname? The answer must lie in their historical experience in St Vincent and I would like to suggest the following reasons. These include: no critical mass; competition to save heathens; breaking ties with India to make them feel at home in St Vincent; absence of Indian school and temple/mosque; change in eating habits; change in dress styles. Apart from the large number that returned to India, in the post-indenture years (1890s) the Indian population was further reduced by the twin disasters of the devastating hurricane of 1898 and the volcanic eruption of 1902, which prompted more emigration to other Caribbean islands.

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

Other attempts were deliberately made for breaking ties with India and to create loyalty to St Vincent, such as spreading rumours of the outbreak of famines and diseases in India, which, of course, acted as a powerful disincentive to return. Then too, because of limited numbers, there was no Indian school, temple or mosque, unlike the three larger Caribbean territories, where temples, mosques and schools for Indians were established. A school was established at Argyle for Indian children in 1884, but it closed a year later, primarily because of the rush to get back to India and the poor turnout of children.

Very early in the indenture experience, Indians were forced to change their eating habits from curried dishes to Creole foods, as the ingredients for these dishes were not easily obtainable. Fish and ground provisions soon became the norm among the Indians. It was also not very long when the first indentured Madrasees gave up their traditional loincloths and the like and took to wearing civilized dresses, according to a report by an immigration agent. The end result was that very early in the immigration experience, Indians were re-socialized into Creole culture and thoroughly Christianized, with the children retaining hardly any Indian names.

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

These were the changes that were necessary in order to survive and become part of Vincentian society; so, today, when one identifies as Indo-Vincentian it is simply to say that one is of Indian origin, but in popular talk the Indian is still identified with having certain values and traits, such as commitment to family, thrift, and being law abiding. The loss of Indian religion and culture does not necessarily mean the loss of identity, for in the long process we of Indian origin have played our part in the creation of a uniquely racially integrated Vincentian society. Today we are proud of our Indian heritage and ancestry, but more important we are irrevocably part of the Vincentian social and cultural tapestry. That means our identity remains right of the hyphen, Vincentian first and foremost. As people of Indian origin, we are part of a global network (Global Organization of People of Indian Origin – GOPIO) and more importantly for our future development, we now have the opportunity, together with our other Vincentian brothers and sisters, to forge stronger links with India, which could only redound to our development. The report on the recent meeting in New York between Prime Minister Dr Ralph E Gonsalves and Indian Prime Minister Modi augurs well for future relations.

Finally a word about that march from Argyle to Kingstown on 7 October 1882: seven ring-leaders – Gunga Persad, Dhumar, Puttoolawl, Bhogroo, Rampersad, Kallideen (not to be confused with Kaloo Dean) and Saba were jailed for vagabondism, that is, leaving the confines of the estate without permission. The “Argyle Seven” were not vagabonds; they led the march for better living and working conditions on the estates. Don’t you think on this day they should now be accorded the status of heroes?

Please send your comments to:

Dr Arnold Thomas

GOPI International Caribbean Coordinator

P.O. Box 1181, Kingstown, St Vincent and the Grenadines

Email: [email protected]

Tel: 784 430 4186 (cell); 784 570 4186