The East Indians

By 1844, it became apparent that efforts to replace emancipated slave labor with Portuguese, Chinese, or African workers were not going to be sufficient. As a result the British government agreed to allow immigration from the Indian subcontinent to the West Indies. The immigration was permitted from the ports of Madras and Calcutta, and was to be undertaken at public expense. These workers were to be indentured, and required to serve a five year contract at a predetermined wage rate. Trinidad’s initial quota was set at 2,500, and the first ship arrived on May 10, 1845 with 217 immigrants aboard. This ship was called the Fatel Rozack. Legal immigration continued until 1917.

The laws regulating the immigrants were numerous and complex. These laws included regulations for the arrival and allotment of the immigrants, their dwellings, food, health care, pay, discipline, and contract termination. The immigrants mostly lived in barracks, with little sanitation and privacy. Pay was lower than the local prevailing wages, and the work was difficult. Indentured servitude was little better than slavery, and the immigrants resisted their employers in a passive way. In his book, The People of Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Williams notes that on one Trinidad plantation “one day in every three was lost through sickness”. Although a portion of these days were due to legitimate illness, Williams gives examples like French Guiana in 1875, where statistics show that the average immigrant worked only twleve days in a month.

Another issue was the expense of returning the immigrants to India after their contract was completed. Many chose not to renew their indenture and accepted the guaranteed passage home. By 1924, Williams notes that approximately one-quarter of all Indian immigrants introduced into Trinidad and British Guiana had returned home. This situation eventually reached a point where more Indians were returning home each year than arrived. In an effort to reduce this exodus, the Indians were offered grants fo land as an incentive to stay. Many chose this route, and a new class of landowner was the result.

As time passed, Indians became more successful economically, and they are now in a position of significant economic and political strength in the island.

(The information in the preceding section was drawn largely from The History of Trinidad and Tobago by Dr. Eric Williams.)

The Journey

Immigration to Trinidad began in 1845, as mentioned above, and continued until 1848, when a temporary economic downturn stopped the process. It resumed in 1851, and continued until 1917.

The process began with an Emigration Agent, hired buy the Trinidad Government, who in turn employed Indian recruiting agents. These recruiting agents used whatever means necessary to convince people it would be beter to emigrate than to starve at home.THe prospective immigrants were rounded up at local depots, then made their way to Calcutta, the chief port of India at the time. In Calcutta they were made to bathe and were given new clothes for the journey. They also underwent a medical inspection. The immigrants would spend anywhere from one to three weeks at this depot before boarding a ship headed for Trinidad via the Cape of Good Hope. These vessels were mostly three masted schooners, around 500 tons.

A fellow researcher, Richard Cheddie, has compiled a list of ships that carried Indian Immigrants to Trinidad during the period of indenture.

The voyage lasted an average of three months, but the actual durations varied greatly. Mortality rates were high in the beginning, an average of one in eight in the 1850’s. This rate soon dropped down to one to two percent.

Once the ship docked, the immigrants were brought to shore and met by Immigration Agents. They were then all housed in a large structure until they could make a deal with a planter who needed labor.

The Estate

On the estate the immigrants lived in barracks type housing. Each building had several rooms which measured approximately 10′ x 10′ x 12′. These rooms would house a couple with all their childer, or up to four single adults. Privacy was virtually non-existent. Cooking was done outside, and sanitation was poor. The estate was required to have a hospital, and provide a Doctor every two weeks.

The immigrants were paid a fixed wage, and normally worked five days a week, except during harvest time. The day usually started at around 6:00 in the morning, and depending on the pace of the individual could be over as early as 2:00 p.m.

(The information in the preceding two sections was drawn largely from Eight East Indian Immigrants by Father Anthony de Verteuil)


Here is a list of books that contain information on Indian immigration to Trinidad. In some cases I have provided links to resources where I located them. Libraries may be able to acquire them for you on inter-library loan.

Breaking the bonds of indentureship : Indo-Trinidadians in business, by Dave Ramsaran.

East Indians in Trinidad : A Study of Cultural Persistence, by Morton Klass

East Indians in the West Indies, by Arthur and Juanita Niehoff

Eight East Indian immigrants : Gokool, Soodeen, Sookoo, Capildeo, Beccani, Ruknaddeen, Valiama, Bunsee, Fr. Anthony de Verteuil

Indentured labor, Caribbean sugar: Chinese and Indian migrants to the British West Indies, 1838-1918, by Walton Look Lai.

Indian Emigration, by G.S. Arora (published in India, found at the Library of Congress.)

A Short History of the East Indian Progress in Trinidad and Lives of Famous Indians, 1845-1984, by Samuel Doodnath.

Solving East Indian Roots in Trinidad, by Shamsu Deen.

Survivors of Another Crossing : a History of East Indians in Trinidad, 1880-1946, by Marianne D. Soares Ramesar.

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