East Indians in Trinidad - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Until the time of the oil boom, the most desired economic activity was rice cultivation: with a piece of rice land (rented or owned), a man could provide basic subsistence food for his family and feel reasonably secure. Land on which sugarcane could be grown could provide cash income but was rarely available. Most rural East Indians worked on the sugar estates; a few found work on estates producing other crops, such as cocoa. Those who became "drivers" (gang foremen) became men of power and influence in their home communities.

Apart from agriculture, East Indian men sought work as taxi drivers, on road gangs, and as laborers in the oil fields. In the communities near the Caroni Swamp, some men fished or supported themselves by "crab-catching"; they sold their catch in the weekly markets or daily in the villages. Education was prized, but, until the establishment of Hindu-sponsored schools, few men and fewer women had access to it. Christian-sponsored schools educated a small percentage of East Indians, and those who became doctors, lawyers, and schoolteachers were held in great respect. In most East Indian communities, a few enterprising women (and an occasional man) opened "parlors" (small grocery stores), usually under their houses. Most rural general stores, however, were owned by Chinese storekeepers.

Industrial Arts and Trade. A small number of East Indians made crude, undecorated pottery of red clay—mostly to provide items (e.g., bowls, shallow cups) needed for Hindu ceremonies. Few other industrial arts were known or practiced; most goods—cloth, housewares, tools, and so on—were purchased in the shops or from itinerant peddlers.

Division of Labor. Although women worked alongside men on the sugar estates, most Indian men felt uncomfortable about this practice, and those who could afford to kept their wives—and, particularly, their daughters—away from cane cutting. Rice cultivation was also primarily a male activity, but women often participated in the transplanting process. East Indian taxi drivers and road-gang workers were exclusively male, as were the cooks and musicians who worked at weddings and religious ceremonies. All Hindu priests and religious functionaries were male, but midwifery was a female occupation.

The emergence and spread of Hindu schools in the 1950s fostered a greater willingness on the part of East Indians to send their daughters to school, and the prosperity of the oil boom accelerated this trend: by the 1980s Indo-Trinidadian women teachers were equal in number to their male counterparts, and large numbers of young women had gained employment in the Civil Service.

Land Tenure. From the time Crown Land became available, purchase and ownership was by individuals. Some land was suitable for sugarcane and was worked by the owner with the aid of his sons and whatever hired labor he could afford. Land suitable only for rice, on the other hand, was usually rented out in small parcels (the owner keeping only enough for his family's needs). Those who rented rice land assisted one another, particularly at harvesttime: those with contiguous fields formed communal groups, and together they harvested one another's fields in agreed-upon succession.

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