THE EAST INDIAN LEGACY IN ST LUCIA
"For my spirit, India is too far", writes Derek Walcott. Albeit not so far that he cannot write, in the following verse,
"these fields sang of Bengal, behind Ramlochan Repairs there was Uttar Pradesh".
Far and near at once: the story of East Indians in St. Lucia is full of this paradoxical sense of historical distance yet generational proximity. Indian immigrants arrived in St. Lucia not so very long ago - yet they slipped away from India in such a remarkably unremarkable manner. "There are no more elders. Is only old people". Whereas a sizeable group of descendants of former African slaves continue to yearn for Africa, the grand- and greatgrandchildren of Indian indentured workers rarely look to India for political or spiritual guidance. Their lives and futures appear to be firmly located in the West Indies. The question remains: how did East Indians get to come to St. Lucia, and under what conditions?
With the full abolition of slavery in 1838 inevitably ahead of them, planters everywhere in the West Indies frantically began to look for another source of cheap, reliable labour to work their estates. They found this in south-east Asia. Between 1845 and 1917, hundreds of thousands of indentured workers sailed from India to the Caribbean. Most went to Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica - but some six thousand set foot on shore in St. Lucia. Just over 1,600 people arrived here between 1856 and 1865 and another 4,427 Indians sailed to St. Lucia between 1878 and 1893.
By 1891, there were some 2,500 East Indians in St. Lucia (colloquially known as 'coolies'), in a total population of 42,220 souls. Two years later, the last batch of indentured workers arrived on a ship called the 'Volga', totalling 156 people. Some of the other ships on which they sailed here are the 'Leonidas', 'Chetah', 'Royle', 'Bann', 'Bracadaile' and the 'Poonah'.
The labour contracts under which East Indians worked varied, but as a rule, they were bound to work on a designated estate for five years in return for a wage, housing, clothing, food and medical care. After five years they could choose between owning ten acres of land or ten pounds sterling or they could, after a further five or ten years of 'industrial residence', get a free passage back to India.
By 1895, 721 Indians were still indentured in St. Lucia: 361 males, 152 females, 13 children and 195 infants. In 1896, their number had dropped to 149 and a year later, in 1897, the last Indians finished their labour contracts. By the turn of the century, St. Lucia had a free East Indian population of 2,560 persons.
The records show that about half of all indentured labourers went back to India after finishing their contracts. Dozens, perhaps hundreds more would have liked to return, but became economic hostages after the Immigration Fund ran dry, leaving no money for return passages. Thus, all time-expired Indians who had arrived in 1891 on the 'Roumania' and in 1893 on the 'Volga' were forced to settle in St. Lucia, despite possibly having families waiting for them back in India.
So what do we see at the start of the twentieth century?
Two and a half thousand East Indian men, women and children, settled in a dozen villages around the island, usually near one of the central sugar factories that dominated St. Lucia's economy until the 1950s.
"When sunset, a brass gong".
Walcott again. A brass gong, sounded to assemble the village elders. An assembly that remained sacred even to a younger generation of Indians who were destined not to perpetuate their elders' traditions:
"sacred even to Ramlochan,
singing Indian hits from his jute hammock
while evening strokes the flanks
and silver horns of his maroon taxi,
as the mosquitoes whine their evening mantras,
my friend Anipheles, on the sitar,
and the fireflies making every dusk Divali."
Music, rites such as the Festival of Lights (Divali), some culinary traditions: they remain today at a time when, while some East Indians of the first and second generation are still alive, their youngest children are already seven generations or more removed from 'Calcutta', the place where their ancestors originated from, as they like to say. More likely, it is the port from which they were shipped.
Indentured labourers in St. Lucia probably came from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in Northern India. They were rural people - agricultural labourers and small farmers - of fairly low caste, although not usually the poorest people in their homeland. Many owned farms, cattle and property in India and came out to the Caribbean with a purpose: to save money and return home for a better future. Others, most notably women, used indentureship as a 'vehicle for emancipation', with the period of indentureship the price they paid for eventual (perceived) personal freedom. About two-thirds of indentured women were single: widows, 'deserted women', women who had run away from unhappy marriages, former prostitutes, single mothers and others.
Migration of indentured labourers to St. Lucia was never very great but due to the island's low population density and their uneven distribution throughout the island, East Indians gained a fairly high profile in the ethnic make-up of the island. Essentially, Indian communities sprang up around the central sugar factories: Pierrot, Augier, Belle Vue and Cacao around the Vieux Fort factory; La Caye and Dennery near the Dennery factory; Marc and Forestiere near the Cul-de-Sac factory, and Anse la Raye near the Roseau factory. Also, a small Indian village arose in Balca, close to Balenbouche estate.
Planters preferred indentured labourers to free workers of African descent because the contracts rendered the Indians more dependable. But in terms of physical endurance, East Indians were generally considered weaker. And while it is true that 25 to 30 percent of East Indians were in hospital at any one time suffering from malaria and spleen disease, 'dry-islanders' such as Barbadians living in St. Lucia displayed the same susceptibility to these illnesses.
Moreover, the living and working conditions of indentured workers at the end of the 19th century were worse still than those of free people - and those were having a hard enough time as it was. There is the telling testimony of Colonial Surgeon Dr. Dennehy, who in 1897 testified that, "The coolies, to save money, run themselves down by underfeeding. When they come into hospital they pick up 10 or 12 lbs. in weight in as many days. Then they go out, work off their fat, and come in again to recruit". At the same time, it was said about other St. Lucians that they preferred not to be taken to hospital, "as for the sake of economy the diet has been cut very low, and they think they are not well enough fed."
While interracial relations in St. Lucia never became as bitter a source of contention as they did in Trinidad or Guyana, East Indian elders worked hard at 'protecting' their families from miscegenation. They did so with mixed success. From early in the twentieth century, there was already a high enough rate of interracial sexual relations - usually between black men and Indian women - resulting in a sizeable mixed black/Indian population (colloquially known as 'Douglahs'). But interracial marriages remained unusual until at least the 1950s. It is only in more recent decades that St. Lucia has essentially become a melting pot of racial and ethnic distinctions - never mind the fact that there are still distinctly 'Indian' areas in St. Lucia, and never mind that many people continue to colloquially indicate themselves and others as 'Koolies', 'Blacks', 'Negroes', 'Béchés' (whites), 'Shabeens' (fair-skins), 'Redskins', 'Syrians' and other such terms now shunned in official communications.
Derek Walcott puts his finger on it so well. Where academics and others often drown their own voices in the sugar water of political correctness, St. Lucia's Nobel Prize laureate for Literature speaks the sober - if not harsh - truth about the racial coming-together of St. Lucia since the second half of the twentieth century:
"they had started to poison my soul
with their big house, big car, big-time bohbohl,
coolie, nigger, Syrian, and French Creole,
so I leave it for them and their carnival -
I taking a sea-bath, I gone down the road."
At the end of the day, creolisation has created it all: the process whereby peoples and cultures from an 'Old World' are transposed to a 'New World' where they proceed to recreate and reproduce themselves, shaping a culture and society that it neither a continuation of its old, constituting parts, nor something unrecognizably new. In St. Lucia, creolisation has formed everything: from the uniquely vibrant annual carnival celebrations, to its society in which descendants from Africans, Indians, Europeans and Eurasians have come together and worked out a new social order: one permeated, as most modern countries nowadays, with materialistic values and concerns. At the start of the 21st century, perhaps the really important difference is that at least here in St. Lucia, if one cares to look out for them, there are still the fireflies making every dusk Divali...
* Derek Walcott, 1992. 'The Schooner Flight' and 'The Saddhu of Couva'. In: Collected Poems, 1948-1984 (Faber & Faber, London, Boston).
* West India Royal Commission 1897. Report of the West India Royal Commission, app.C, vol.3, part VII: Proceedings, evidence, and documents relating to the Windward islands, the Leeward islands and Jamaica.
Jolien Harmsen holds a Ph.D in Caribbean History. She is the author of 'Sugar, slavery and settlement. A social history of Vieux Fort, St. Lucia, from the Amerindians to the present" (St. Lucia National Trust, 1999). She is currently involved in writing a general history of St. Lucia and a series of crime novels set in the Caribbean.