Indian Diaspora in the Caribbean: A New Connection
Sachi G. Dastidar
During a 2016 visit with my wife Shefali to the Caribbean islands of Dominica, Guadeloupe, Martinique and St. Lucia we were pleasantly surprised to hear questions about our identity: Are you Caribbean-Indian or from Mother India? – But never, are you from the U.S.? With our look that is understandable. We have been to over a dozen islands in the Caribbean. Earlier during our visits to Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean and Guyana in South America we were mostly treated as a “local” because of the large “Indian” community.
Offering flowers and durba (top 3 blades) grass in memory of souls lost
With historian Dr. Sahai
In all four islands, the place of Indian diaspora, Indian and Hindu culture varies widely. In all these islands Indians were brought either by France or England as indentured laborers – after abolition of the slavery – beginning of mid-1800s. All these islands in the Caribbean changed hands among various European colonizing countries. Among these both St. Lucia and Dominica are now sovereign nations with English as the official language yet in both Islands people speak a French-based Creole at the street level and at home, on radio and TV, and it is also taught in oral and written form in schools, and efforts are made to keep the language alive. People often said this linguistic mixture is because when France ruled they opened schools in French, but the British rulers didn’t care about education. Since they got independence from Britain English was made the official language of schooling as well of the administration. In both of these two island nations population is heavily mixed with African, European, Indian, Chinese, from other parts of the world and indigenous Carib communities. Thus one often hears that “my mother is Indian” or “my grandfather is Indian” or "We have Indian ancestors in our family" and similar descriptions. During one of our long rides through the winding road from Vieux-Fort to Castries in St. Lucia our taxi driver Francois proudly said “You know we are heavily mixed. I am Indian and wife is of African origin. We do not have separate African, European or Indian areas but some among our mixed population is planning to bring some Indian culture and Hindu festivals back as in Trinidad. Many of our Creole food is influenced by Indian cooking, spices, etc.” These were the agricultural laborers brought by European masters for growing sugarcane first, then banana, cacao, etc. Some laborers and slaves were able to bring some of their traditions from home. In Dominica people often asked if we were from Trinidad as they have more trade, travel, commercial, cultural and educational connection with English-speaking Trinidad. During our visit to St. Lucia people were curious to know if we came to see a West Indies-India Cricket Test Match as it was being held in St. Lucia near the northern town of Rodney Bay which we were visiting. In these nations a small number of Hindu Indians found shelter who came after the partition of India in 1947, especially the Sindhis – from Pakistan’s Sind Province – who took to shop keeping and petty business. Some of these hardworking Sindhis now own many businesses. One of them, Mr. Naresh Kripalani, welcomed us to his clothing and souvenir store Kripalani & Sons in the downtown of St. Lucia.
With Olivier & Anna Sahai
Yoga Class at Guadeloupe; Photo by Olivier Sahai
Although transportation of Indians in the English-ruled Caribbean is well known yet very little in known in India and outside of transportation by France to the French-ruled islands. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that there is an “Indian diaspora” who are part of the fabric of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Over a century some Indian tradition and Hindu rituals died down as many Indians took to Christianity. Before Indians arrived large numbers of Africans were brought in as slave workers. At French Guadeloupe authorities have not only built a Slave Museum highlighting the sufferings and achievements of Africans but also supported a “Memorial for Indian Laborers” in Pointe-à-Pitre, at the very place were the first indentured landed from sail-ship "L'Aurélie" from Pondichéry, southern India. The monument was dedicated in 2004, as the 150th anniversary of Indian Arrival on December 23, 1854 was officially commemorated with a full year of celebrations, visits from Indian officials, artists, etc. The dedication plaque says in French “of the 42,326 Indians brought 24,891 perished due to torture and during transshipment, and 9,460 returned back to India” thus remaining about 10,000 who had survived and prospered in Guadeloupe. This monument was built in cooperation with “federation of Bharat (i.e. India) in Guadeloupe.”
Soufriere, St, Lucia
Public Library, St. Lucia
City Hall, Castries
A person who has taken a keen interest in his ancestry is the author-writer-professor Jean Samuel Sahai, one of the descendants of Indian workers. Sahai has authored books and research papers on French on the history of Indians in the French islands. Although in both French-speaking Guadeloupe and Martinique (and earlier we visited Saint Martin) many Indians took to Christianity yet in the recent past there has been attempts by some to rediscover their Indian heritage and even connect with their ancestral Hindu tradition. Thus the Indian Memorial a Hindu symbol Trishul – Trident –adorns the monument. And as we the visitors offered flower and durba – top three blades of – grass to the adjacent ocean water in memorial to lost souls in Hindu tradition, a person of French background Jean Sahai chanted a Hindu shloka. In Basse-Terre Island of the twin islands that make the butterfly-like Guadeloupe we were welcomed by Mr. Olivier and his Italian-French wife Anna to their beautifully-designed home on top of a hill that now acts as a Hindu shrine where a Hindu monk Nithya Swarupananda of Tamil Nadu State of southern India delivers weekend sermon to hundreds from India translated for devotees into French by Professor Jean Sahai. During our short visit we were told that are similar others forums where a connection with lost tradition now brings not only Indo-French but also Euro-French, Afro-French traditions as well as people of mixed ancestry. On our way to southeast of the island near Caspesterre we passed a southern Indian Tamil-style Hindu mandir (temple.) After our return Sahai sent us pictures of Kali Puja at Guadeloupe.
Dominica View from Hotel
In the northern town of St. Pierre in the French island of Martinique as we negotiated to buy some local fruit the lady asked us in French, “Indian? From India?” We said, “Yes.” We couldn’t further explain our complex identity for lack of French. She replied in French, “Me too. From Pondicherry.” I asked “Tamil?” She replied, “Tamil Indian. My name is Giselle” as she attended other buyers. Then she added for my wife, “No money from Indian mom.” Shefali insisted that she take money "otherwise we won’t take anything free." She insisted in French “No money from Indian mom.”
St. Pierre, Martinique
Fort-de-France Downtown Festival, Guadeloupe
October 11, 2016
Thank you very, very much Uncle and Auntie!!
Your article is also rich of rarely spread info not only on Guadeloupe but also the varieties of Caribbean aspects, for this I want to thank you both, that makes our short time together sound great and beautiful!
Hope to see you in US, maybe I should start thinking about it! Money is the bottom line... I can of course intervene at one of your events.
All the best, keep in touch!
Thanks for visiting w/ us and staying in touch.
March 12, 2017
March 12, 2017
Good piece Sachi...thanx for sharing!!
Aubrey W Bonnett, Ph.D
Department of American Studies
SUNY, College at Old Westbury