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The infamous Indian barracks

Sunday, May 20, 2012
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A typical set of barracks on a Naparima estate circa 1910.

When Indian indentured labour began arriving in the British colony of Trinidad in 1845, certain provisions had to be made for accommodating the newcomers. Aside from a food ration for the first two years of the five-year contracts, medical attention from a physician and housing were mandatory.


The latter was the source of much contention, since it consisted of the infamous barracks—long ranges of single rooms, barely separated from each other and lacking even the most basic amenities. Robert Guppy a 19th-century lawyer and a man of noble character, described the barrack system of housing to a Royal Commission in 1888:


“As first in the list of evils which afflict the Colony, I look upon the system of housing the Indian immigrants in barracks….The barrack is a long wooden building, 11 or 12 feet wide containing perhaps eight or ten small rooms divided from each other by wooden partitions not reaching the roof. By standing on a box the occupant of one room can look over the partition into the other one and can see their boys and girls if they have children. All the noises and talking and smells pass through the open space from one end of the barrack to the other. There are no places for cooking, no latrines. The men, and women, boys and girls go together in the canes or bush when nature requires. Comfort, privacy and decency are impossible.”


This was no exaggeration, since the claustrophobic environment of the barracks made life tense and dismal for many immigrants. Sadly, due to these conditions and the fact that numerically, men exceeded women by a significant ratio, adultery and resulting wife-murders were common, as Guppy also indicated: “If a man is sick, he is not allowed to be nursed by his wife, he must perforce go to the hospital far away, leaving his wife perhaps without the means of subsistence to her own devices. With all this, can anyone wonder at the frequent wife-murders and general demoralisation amongst the Indian immigrants?”


The only escape was for a family to save its pittance earned from toil, purchase a bit of land elsewhere and move into a mud hut of its own. Some barracks, however, like those at Orange Grove, were a little better, having washing facilities as well as a many acres of provision grounds where labourers grew rice and vegetables for consumption and sale. When Presbyterian missionaries began establishing schools for the children of the immigrants in the period 1870-1920, those who lived in the barracks were looked down upon as “bong (bound) coolie chirren”.


The psychological and sociological impact of barrack life was immense. It is one of the harrowing experiences of the diaspora which never really disappeared, since barrack-dwellers were common well into the 1980s in some of the sugar-belt areas. Even today, there are still estate barracks in places like La Romaine which have been converted into decent dwellings.


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