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The passage of shame

Published: 
Sunday, May 28, 2017
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Oil painting of an East Indian woman by Rudolph Bissessarsingh.

Rape, mutilation, sexploitation of women of African descent were skeletons in the closet of civilised European historians of the day.

So too was the new horror of East Indian women who were either kidnapped, enslaved, lured and duped into taking the arduous voyage to the West Indies.

Between 1845-1917—143, 939 East Indian immigrants were shuttled to Trinidad.

In the case of women, the villages that they were either recruited from or captured were hidden or altered on the documents.

In the first phase, some came from the Chota Nagpur of Bengal, some from the ghettos of Calcutta and Madras.

By 1870 the major recruiting areas were Orissa, the Punjab, Bihar and Oudh. The ratio of women to men very rarely rose above 40:100 and the perception of the recruiters in the beginning was that women were not as valuable to the estate labour force as men, especially when they had children.

Older women rarely stood a chance of being recruited and it is documented that black hair dye was used by the recruiters to make them more valuable.

Many women especially of dark-skinned complexions were also viewed as promiscuous and prostitutes. On board the ship, the caste system separated them from each other as many women of a high caste were also recruited, forced to accept the promise of a better life because of famine in some parts of India.

Some were forced into what is described as depot marriages to make them more valuable. Muslims were kept separate from Hindus on the voyage.

Many female recruits found themselves on ships they had not opted for or certain destinations. It was not until the early turn of the 20th century that female doctors were hired to examine the East Indian women.

Prior to this, these devout Hindus and Muslims suffered the indignation of being ‘medically’ examined by questionable male figures.

The women were given a sari, two flannel jackets, a woollen petticoat, a pair of stockings and a pair of shoes.

Usually these were so deteriorated as to render them unwearable. Each immigrant also had a ‘tin’ or identification disk hung around his or her neck.

Rape, suicide, beatings, forced prostitution, marriages and in some extreme cases, murder were all a blot on the new disguised slavery known as indentureship.

Many actually jumped overboard to their deaths before reaching their destinations. The rations given to them were as meagre as the clothes on the voyage.

They had to huddle together even when they had to use the toilet for fear of rape, sometimes gang rape. It is recorded that some just walked away from their depot husbands upon reaching Trinidad.

This was the darkness of the voyage from India to Trinidad and the untold shame and scars that these women had to bear. It was human trafficking at its worst and definitely not a cause for celebration.

What we should celebrate is the tenacity, courage, toil and contribution of those who endured the kala pani in creating our present landscape.

This year, 2017, marks the 100 years celebration of the abolition of East Indian indentureship. It is through the research of Prof Bridget Brereton, Prof Brinsley Samaroo, Prof VA Shepherd that we learn of the atrocities of that cleverly disguised system of slavery known as indentureship. Angelo had noted that even the faded photos of East Indians were always doctored to depict them in a dehumanised and denigrated form, little more than animals so that the British Capitalist system could be validated in their cruelty to the East Indian immigrant. It was the rejection starting with the Sepoy Mutiny of the Indian people on the continent and their expressed dissatisfaction that brought an end to this blot on our history.

—Rudolph Bissessarsingh

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