East Indians in Trinidad - History and Cultural Relations
From the mid-seventeenth century on, the cultivation of sugarcane by slaves brought from Africa was a major source of prosperity for European owners of plantations in the West Indies. When slavery ended, the sugar cultivators attempted to continue the system by utilizing indentured laborers. Muslims as well as Hindus—deriving from a wide range of castes—were brought to Trinidad from South Asia. All were initially housed on the estates in the wooden barracks vacated by the emancipated former slaves. The estate owners and their resident managers and overseers had no interest in maintaining the customs and practices of the East Indians and in fact discouraged and tried to eliminate any Indian social or political structure.
A minority of East Indians were able to achieve repatriation; most stayed on in Trinidad, bound to the sugar estates for a source of income, just as they had been under indenture. In the final decades of the nineteenth century, however, East Indians settled on Crown Land, frequently in swampy areas not especially suitable for the growing of sugarcane but capable of supporting other crops—most particularly rice and other subsistence foods. Cutting cane was the only source of cash for many villages. By the mid-twentieth century, therefore, the majority of East Indians resided in rural communities in the sugar-growing regions of central and southern Trinidad.
Life in Trinidad, for all inhabitants, was much affected by a series of events that occurred during the middle decades of the twentieth century. First, during World War II, large numbers of U.S. soldiers and sailors were posted to the island to build and maintain military bases, introducing the "Yankee dollar" along with new perspectives on social relationships, as well as new dimensions of social, familial, political, and religious stress. Better roads were built, transportation improved, and isolation decreased as people in rural areas went in search of employment. Many rural East Indians found, for the first time, sources of income other than work in the cane fields. Bhadase Sagan Maraj, a Brahman and an early sugar-union leader, acquired considerable wealth through his dealings with Americans and became a leader in East Indian political and religious affairs. As head of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, the most influential Hindu religious organization, he fostered construction of schools and temples throughout the island. Political struggles in the early 1950s resulted in greater popular participation in government.
The achievement of independence by India and Pakistan in 1948 caused great excitement among both Muslims and Hindus in Trinidad. Indian movies began to arrive and became very popular. Extended visits in the early 1950s by Indian missionaries (known as the "Swamis") resulted in an increased interest in Hinduism on the part of many young men; at the same time, the new schools built by the Maha Sabha introduced the teaching of Hindi and Sanskrit along with customary Western secular subjects.
In addition, by mid-century, indentured immigration had become a thing of the past: most of the East Indian population was now Trinidad-born. Some were attracted to West Indian, even European, values and interests, but others sought to hold on to elements of their Indian tradition. As Indo-Trinidadians became increasingly "European" or "cosmopolitan" in lifestyle, their newly acquired wealth made it possible for some to seek out their South Asian heritage. Many young people, however, began to express dissatisfaction at what were seen as "old-fashioned" practices such as arranged marriage, virilocality, and caste restrictions on diet and intermarriage.
The West Indian nation of Trinidad and Tobago achieved independence in 1962. The oil industrry was nationalized in 1974—just before an enormous worldwide increase in the price of oil. The ensuing "oil boom" prosperity affected all ethnic groups. For Indo-Trinidadians in particular, it precipitated a rapid shift from agriculture to the burgeoning fields of construction, commerce (especially in hardware, foodstuffs, and dry goods), and transportation.