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Life of a child —Part 2

Sunday, September 25, 2016
Back in Times
Country children with a boxcart in the early 20th century.

Last week we examined the existence of a typical lower to lower-middle-income child in the city of Port-of-Spain over a century ago. Today we look at what it would have been like for their counterparts in the countryside, particularly in the sugar cane belt. 

The very least advantage that urban children had over rural ones was that education was more accessible. Ward (Government) schools had indeed been scattered around the country districts from the early 1850s onward and these made little difference in the potential for upward social mobility of the child since the tutelage was often substandard and absenteeism was high. Least of all did the ward schools attract a student population from among the offspring of the indentured Indian immigrants who began arriving in earnest in the 1850s. 

Firstly, these people placed no great emphasis on a western cultural acclimatisation and though many opted to remain in the colony instead of being repatriated at the end of their contracts, they saw children as a labour force rather than as the future of their kind in a strange land.

It was only with the coming of missionaries from the Presbyterian Church of Canada’s Mission to the Indians (CMI) did schools catering mainly to the children of the indentureds appear. Even so, it would take many decades from their coming in the late 1860s before these schools had the desired impact. With some reluctance, boys were allowed to attend classes sporadically and girls, almost not at all in the early days. 

Children living in the noisome barracks of the sugar estates were looked down upon by their fellows whose parents had managed to purchase or rent a piece of land after their articles expired and were living in semi-independence. ‘Bong coolie chirren’ became a slur of derogation and shame.

Work began almost as soon as children were out of infancy. Little boys and girls of ages five to nine were employed at about ten cents per day in the grass gangs which saw their little palms becoming bloody as they pulled tough weeds from among the roots of the green canes.

As they grew older, the boys could graduate to taking care of the massive water buffalos or ‘hog cattle’ and then eventually at around age 13 to 14, work for a man’s wages doing task work of harvesting the cane at a shilling a task. Girls were needed in the home to care for younger siblings while their mothers were out in the fields and were also expected to take a meal out to them when noontime came and the felling of the canes stopped. 

This is not to say that there was no room for children of the cane to enjoy their lives a bit. For the boys it was cricket and pitching marbles with friends or perhaps spinning top which is a pastime that has gone the way of the dodo. Limewood and balata were carved into intricately tapered tops, balanced on ‘makfan’ or blacksmith-made nails.

Smoothed to a sheen with a piece of broken bottle, the tops were beautifully decorated with stripes and spun by winding a bit of cord around them and then pulling it free. A master spinner was held in high regard and even young men with a certain amount of idle time could be seen spinning. Girls had less scope for childhood games since they were expected to be married off as quickly as possible and thus absolve their parents of the responsibility of having to feed them.

As soon as a dowry and match could be arranged, the girls were wed in the ancient custom of child marriage, often to much older men, thus perpetuating a system of abuse which exists legally to this day and is shamelessly defended by some prominent people.  

Nevertheless, there were some avenues of escape, mainly provided by the CMI and its educational institutions. The growing realisation that their offspring could be freed from a life in the cane, spurred many parents to send their children to school and thus gave them the wherewithal for progress.

Such was the change in attitudes that by the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, a new professional class began to emerge with doctors and lawyers making up the majority of those who had been educated abroad and were now coming home. The existence of the child of the working class in Trinidad so many years ago, regardless of ethnic background is one of struggle against enormous odds.


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