East Indians in Trinidad - Orientation

Identification. The East Indians of Trinidad are descendants of indentured laborers who were brought to this island in the West Indies from the South Asian subcontinent during the second half of the nineteenth century. They were called "East Indians" by Europeans to distinguish them from Native Americans.

Location. Trinidad (now part of the West Indian nation of Trinidad and Tobago) is about 10 kilometers east of the coast of Venezuela, encompassing some 4,385 square kilometers between 10°03′ and 10°50′ N and 60°39′ and 62° W. The climate is equable throughout the year, with a wet season from May to January and a dry season from the end of January to the middle of May. Sugar and other crops for export have been grown predominantly on plantations situated in the central county of Caroni and in the southern counties of Victoria and Saint Patrick. The majority of the original East Indians were brought to these areas and their descendants have continued to reside there. The major sources of revenue have been sugar and oil.

Demography. The first 225 "Coolies" (as they were then called) arrived in Trinidad on 30 May 1845. Mostly male, they were brought from Calcutta, India, to work for five to ten years as indentured laborers on the Trinidad sugar estates, replacing the former slaves of African ancestry who began to leave the estates after the passage of the Emancipation Act in 1833. The practice of indenture came to an end in Trinidad in 1920, by which time approximately 143,900 men and women had been brought from South Asia. The majority were recruited in the north, primarily from Bihar, the United Provinces, and Bengal. By 1985, the total population of Trinidad and Tobago exceeded half a million people. Those who considered themselves (or were considered by census takers) to be of solely African or solely Indian descent were approximately equal in numbers: 215,132 "Negroes" and 215,613 "East Indians."

Linguistic Affiliation. The immigrant indentured laborers spoke a number of Indic languages, and a few spoke Tamil, a Dravidian language. By the middle of the twentieth century, English was in common use, although Bhojpuri, a language of northern Bihar, was still understood by many. At that time, too, Standard Hindi began to be taught in Hindu schools. Sanskrit continues to be used in Hindu religious services. Muslim Indo-Trinidadians learn and use Arabic for religious purposes.

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