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The Indian belle

Published: 
Sunday, May 27, 2012
An Indo-Trinidadian girl of the late 1890s in a simple cotton sari. She is wearing silver bangles and necklace (haikal) of gold coins.

This Wednesday, the nation celebrates the 167th anniversary of Indian Arrival. While it is a time for much grandiose exhibition and soliloquy, it would be well to look back on the largely neglected role of the Indian woman in the trials of arrival. During the era of immigration (1845-1917) women were far fewer than men.

 

 

Thus the Indian woman became a possession to be aggressively defended which sadly enough, resulted in frequent episodes of wife-murder wherein husbands who suspected their wives of infidelity punished the hapless spouses with the swipe of a sharpened cutlass.

 

The frail beauty of the Indian woman  fascinated men (including photographers who considered them to be of rare exotic appeal) in general, exposing them to unwanted attention, especially from white planters and overseers. More than just a few became mistresses of the planters, often against their wills. One such enchanted master of the 1890s wrote:

 

“Strolling along the shady side of a wide and busy street, I overtook a young girl. I should have passed her had I not slackened my gait when I came within a few steps of her, and, walking softly, measuring my paces with hers, followed behind the unknown wayfarer respectfully and at a proper distance to study and admire her costume, which was so neatly fitted to her slight and charming figure, so tastefully disposed, draped in such dainty folds and graceful gatherings, that the wearer of it made a most attractive picture.

 

“Her little feet were bare; nevertheless, she trod firmly, stepping lightly, with graceful poise. In time, I made a mental catalogue of her appearance from which an ingenious artist could paint a full-length picture of her. “I noticed that her teeth were regular and white, mouth small and regular, lips full and pouting; head gracefully poised, face oval, Grecian in type; nose delicate, straight, finely chiseled; ears small, well shaped, and well put on; hair glossy, raven-black, straight and long, braided carefully with dexterous fingers, and tied at the ends with orange ribbons; hands small and covered with rings.”

 

The delicate Indian belle was sacrificed in Trinidad to a lifetime of toil in the canefields where burdens were heavy only to be followed by domestic tasks. Many were child-brides, wed in an ancient tradition to men who were often old enough to be their fathers.

 

Those who married men of wealth dispensed with the simple, chaste garb of white cotton which they had worn for generations for heavy silver bangles and gold coin haikal—these being the public status symbol. Educational opportunities were few until the coming of the Presbyterian Church’s Canadian Mission to the Indians.

 

There was no voice which spoke for the Indo-Trinidadian woman. Nevertheless, the indomitable spirit of womanhood persevered and these were the mothers who raised generations of children who suckled on the milk of self-denial to rise beyond the canefields and form a people which is now both economically secure and socially uplifted.

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