Letters & Opinion

African and Indian Descendants are Equal Claimants to Caribbean Heritage and Culture

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Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

MAY has much for many, including a long list of International Days – from May Day to Mother’s Day, World Bee Day to World No Tobacco Day – and (for purposes of this article) from African World Heritage Day to Indian Arrival Day.

The last two follow each other (May 5 and 6), the first focusing on highlighting Africa’s contribution to world heritage, the second recalling the arrival of indentured laborers from India to keep the production line going on Caribbean plantations as Slavery’s end approached.

Arrival of enslaved Africans is well documented, shared and appreciated, but while Indian arrivals may also be well-documented, there’s a wide difference between how they’re memorized or observed regionally.

Indian culture is very much alive in Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago and Surinam, where nationals of Indian descent make-up sizeable proportions of the population, including a majority in Guyana.

And while Indian culture lives and thrives through various manifestations — from Diwali and other religious festivals to Chutney music and Hindu language teaching in those three larger CARICOM nations, nationals of Indian heritage are still (largely subconsciously) seen and treated as ‘other citizens’ who just don’t share the same history or culture.

Indian influences are very strong in national politics in the three countries, where electoral politics is also largely driven by the Race, Religion and Culture.

However, one patent failure of Caribbean politicians after over five decades of independence has been the inability to unite African and Indian descendants’ strengths as commonly-equal national units, if only on their common basis of having both ‘arrived’ in the region, uprooted and transported from very distant shores — each differently, but both put on sailing shops for long trips to lands unknown and destinations of no return.

In the smaller Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) islands, students of Indian descent are as largely deprived of their true history and origins as those of African descent and therefore just as interested in tracing their roots and culture.

The false narrative that actually distorts history and invents arguments to feed and prolong artificial divisions between Sons and Daughters of The Caribbean is unfortunately being kept alive for partisan political gain by those who know better.

But, fortunately, that level of politically-based racial acrimony has not entered the equation in the Eastern Caribbean islands, where the level of mutual understanding of how each other’s ancestors arrived and what’s happened since is still below sufficient.

In Saint Lucia, there are several communities (Forrestierre, Morne Ciseaux and Augier), the island’s second Governor General, Sir Boswell Williams, was of ‘pure Indian’ descent and the first woman to be elected to the national parliament after Independence, Mrs Heraldine Rock, was also ‘pure Indian’ – by appearance.

Saint Lucians of Indian extract represent a still-growing minority, but there’s no ‘Lucian’ without an ‘Indian friend’, inter-marriages and communal copulation between citizens of Indian and African descent have never been a problem, the number of citizens falling into the ‘Mixed’ bracket still referred to as ‘Douglah’ is larger than appreciated — and the number of prominent Saint Lucians of shared Indian origin leading national and regional entities is also still largely overlooked, applicants’ ‘race’ never a usual social or political yardstick.

But on the upside, Saint Lucia is also the only island in the six independent OECS nations with the equivalent of a Hindu temple where religious creeds and beliefs are taught and shared according to original traditional and actual Hindu teachings.

Yet, Indian Arrival Day is hardly observed, except by the persons seeking their roots and/or the related local association promoting appreciation of Indian history and culture.

Saint Lucia still observes a national public holiday on December 13 in Saint Lucia, originally designated to celebrate an ‘arrival of Christopher Columbus’ that never happened; and ‘Emancipation Day’ is still also celebrated likewise every August 1st.

But not Indian Arrival Day…

The Republic of India hardly ever makes good news in the mainstream world media, emphasis always more on its overpopulation and extreme levels of poverty, achievements in education, science and technology and as an active participant in the costly global Space Race.

Now, its unfortunate position as producer of the most COVID-19 vaccines in the world and yet unable to vaccinate its people fast enough to avoid the escalating calamity of thousands dying on sidewalks outside hospitals because they can’t get beds or oxygen, is the perennial biggest COVID-19 headline story.

But all that cannot be allowed to mask the fact that fellow citizens of Indian descent are as Caribbean as all other nationals of African or European, Chinese or Portuguese descent.

Whether our ancestors came to be sold as slaves or exploited as indentured servants, it’s absolutely important to know that the supposed ‘contracts’ that bound the Indian indentured laborers to the plantations were also mere certificates of ownership written in English and deliberately mis-interpreted to paint real pictures of promised lands of milk and honey not too far away.

But, like many Africans kidnapped, extracted and transported to the Caribbean to be sold into slavery, many Indians also jumped off the ships to their deaths by drowning, instead of allowing themselves to be misled into uncertain trips to lands unknown in conditions akin to slavery, with promises of land to remain, or a return passage.

It’s good that Saint Lucians of Indian descent are as interested as their fellow citizens of other racial descents, except that the zeal is not as apparent as it could, should and can be.

Indeed, just as Caribbean History has to continuously be researched and earlier teachings re-interpreted and shared globally, it’s as equally important to ensure that Indentureship is also thoroughly revisited, not only to correct deliberate mis-interpretations of historical wrongs, but equally – if not more importantly – to ensure Caribbean people of Indian descent are not marginalized as ‘others’, but equal claimants to Caribbean Heritage and Culture.

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