East Indians in Trinidad - Kinship

Kin Groups and Descent. Indentured laborers began to form new kinship networks even before they arrived in Trinidad. Close relationships formed on shipboard were maintained for years, even generations. Considering themselves too intimately related to allow their children to marry each other, jihaji bhai, as they were known, helped one another find spouses for their children, as relatives in separate villages did in India. Over time and generations, bilateral kin networks developed; some were islandwide. Most East Indians, at least until the mid-twentieth century, preferred to seek spouses for their children in communities other than their own. There was much variation from community to community, from caste to caste, and from individual to individual: some discarded all Indian practices of kin ties and marriage, whereas others tried to maintain and enforce traditional practices, even forbidding marriages between children born in the same community.

There is disagreement among scholars over the question "What happened to 'Caste'?" Few men were able to follow traditional caste occupations, and the economic relationships between castes were never reconstructed; nor were marriage-circles or other forms of caste networks. Nevertheless, the majority of East Indians maintained some degree of caste identification over generations, and this sense of affiliation affected marriage and association patterns. Ideally, one inherited caste membership from both parents, but when parents were of different castes, membership was claimed in that of the father. Values and attitudes reflective of Indian caste hierarchy and separation persisted, although in increasingly attenuated form. After the mid-twentieth century, however, caste identification and whatever degree of marriage restriction had been imposed clearly began to disappear throughout Trinidad.

Kinship Terminology. Although in northern India there is considerable regional and caste variation in kinship terminology, Trinidad East Indian practice reflected the predominance of Hawaiian cousin and bifurcate-collateral uncle terminological systems. The practice of calling all cousins of whatever degree of separation by the terms for "brother" and "sister" particularly separated East Indians from their African- and European-descended neighbors. Muslim East Indians permitted—in fact preferred—marriages between parallel cousins; among Hindus, such marriages were considered incestuous.

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