Thursday December 14, 2017

Images of Indentureship

The NCIC wishes to thank Mr. Angelo Bissessarsingh and The Virtual Museum of Trinidad and Tobago for providing us with the photographs and research for this page.

Below you will find some of the most captivating images of Indentureship and East Indian Ancestry in Trinidad and Tobago.

Child Brides, Trinidad 1915

Bal Vivaha, child marriages and betrothals originated in the pre-Mughal era of Indian history as a means of creating a tangible bond between two families. It was practiced in both high and low castes as a means of social interaction. When Indian indentured immigrants began arriving in Trinidad in 1845, this ancient and odd (to Western Eyes) marriage custom was brought wholesale to the island. Children as young as five were often engaged, but in Trinidad, the average range of ages appears to have been 11-15 with a girl of 18 being a veritable old maid. My own great-grandmother, Sookhia Mahabir was married at 14. Since there was a dearth of Indian women in Trinidad, dowries (tilak) were rare. This would be a payment in compensation to the family of the dulaha (groom) by the dulahin's (bride) family. Instead, a bride-price (dahej) was often paid by the dulaha's people in a complete role reversal. Sometimes the dahej and tilak were nominal and comprised a set of lothar and tharia (brassware) or could be quite lavish and include cattle, land, cash and even jewelry. In this monumental photo, two prospective child-brides seem to wait with trepidation, their fate as married women. In some cases, where the families of the girls were poor and needed money, the dulaha could be many years older, sometimes in his 30s, although this occurrence is rare. Normally, daughters younger than 13 stayed with their parents a year or two after marraige before moving in with their husband's family. This foto also shows a complete set of lothar and tharia which could have been part of the dowry. The dearth of extensive jewelry on the young brides seems to suggest that they are of modest means, although their clean and substantial muslin and calico saris do not imply dire poverty. FOOTNOTE: Child brides were often extant among some pretty important Euro-Trini families too. Two of those I know are: 1) Yldefonso De Lima (1864-1927) who founded the Y. De Lima chain of stores in 1888, married his 13 year old sister-in-law after his first wife's death around 1914 or so. He was nearly 50 at the time. 2) Sir Ralph Woodford (Governor of Trinidad 1813-28) was over 40 when he wooed and engaged Soledad, the 15 year old daughter of his solicitor general, Antonio Gomez. He presented her with an expensive silver cruet as a betrothal gift, and planned to marry her the following year (1829) but unfortunately, he took ill and died. I would imagine Soledad was relieved since it was widely rumored in the colony that Woodford was an avid homosexual and his predilection for the company of stalwart young men and nubile lads was well known. His marriage to Soledad was supposed to have been engineered to dispel this notion. As a matter of course, Soledad married a handsome, glib and spendthrift French aristocrat, Roget de Bellouget, who soon squandered his fortune and his wife's inheritance from her wealthy father, died insolvent, and left his poor widow to struggle in genteel poverty until her own death in 1907 at a very great age.

 

 Wealthy Indian Couple 1899

Although the majority of Indentured coolies were poor, downtrodden masses trying to wrestle a living from the soil, some individuals acquired considerable wealth, either through large scale agriculture or commerce. In San Fernando especially, the Indian merchant was an economic powerhouse as early as the 1880s, when people like Albert Sammy and Janaki Maharaj were considered powerbrokers. This photo shows a typical wealthy couple of the era. The man is taking a pull at a clay hookah which most likely contains a mixture of local tobacco and ganja, which was legally sold through licensed dealers much like a liquor permit. The woman is bedecked with much heavy jewelry particularly a nakphul (nose ring) heavy silver bracelets and a gold-coin haikal, which was a necklace made by soldering gold sovereign coins together. The haikals were primarily made by Y. De Lima and Co. and were manufactured well into the 1930s. Three were known to exist, one being stolen from the National Museum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Water Buffalo, Central Trinidad 1924

The Asian Water Buffalo was imported into the island in the 1870s as a beast of burden for the vast acreages of sugar cane covering the plains from Caroni to the Naparimas. The animal was also called the bison and hog cattle locally. These docile cattle were immensely strong and unusually adapted to working in swampy conditions where zebu bulls and even hardy mules would founder. Well into the 1970s and 1980s, the occasional bison cart could still be seen lining up at the scales during croptime, drawing a cart loaded with cut canes, cutting a strange and primitive figure among the tractors and trucks. Even today, bison carts still may be seen in places like Barrackpore where a few of these animals survive. The water buffalo provided the genetic stock for the buffalypso, which was a unique hybrid sub-species, engineered by pioneering veterinarian, Dr. Steve Bennett.

 

Coolie Children

In 1879, an Englishman visiting an estate in Central Trinidad (Felicity) wrote of the children of indentured immigrants resident in the barracks; "The coolie is generally a creature with little or no sense of personal hygiene, but his children are positively filthy little urchins. They reek of excrement and urine, and their oil-soaked locks are teeming with lice and ticks. Few bathe daily, and they are left uneducated although there is a coolie school in the town." While this description sounds harsh, it is not altogether biased. While cleanliness is a big issue for higher castes, many of the Indians who came to Trinidad (1845-1917) were of low, agrarian and sudra (untouchable) castes, a fact which was hidden with name changes when they registered at the immigrant depot on Nelson Island. The barrack-rooms in which they were housed lacked even the most basic sanitary facilities with the canepiece being a toilet and a barrel of water being a bathroom for male and female alike. Children in particular were neglected. Until the coming of the Canadian Mission to the Indians in 1868 under Rev. John Morton, most did not go to school. Male children were expected to begin work as early as five years old, earning 20 cents a day during the rainy season as part of 'grass gangs', assigned tasks in weeding the cane. Girls were expected to stay at home, launder, prepare meals and look after younger siblings. Left to their own devices, the children ignored cleanliness. Lice were a major problem, as most did not bathe with soap, and heads were doused in coconut oil to prevent them 'cactham sick' This photo clearly shows elder children looking after babies. At least two are wearing clothes cut down from the garments of their elders.

 

Lunchtime 1920

This iconic foto shows a scene that was played out countless times under merciless sun in the canefields of Trinidad during the period of indentureship. Here, the labourers squat on a railway line to take a meal. The looming clouds overhead obscure the light, but this break may have been mid-morning, since cane-cutting often began at 4:00 a.m and earlier to avoid the brunt of the sun. They eat from tin carriers which may have held a bit of roti and aloo, talkaree or maybe dal-bhat (dhal and rice) or khora bhat (pumpkin and rice) there is no shade in the stubbled canefield so the meal must be taken in the open sun. There is a drainage canal in front of the lunching group, and it is possible that after consuming the meal, they would have bathed their brows and hands in the muddy trench and then returned to work.

 

East Indian Wrestlers circa 1915

Most WWF, WWE, NWA, and WCW fans would know that Indian wrestlers have made significant contributions, namely Tiger Jeet Singh, Tiger Ali Singh, and most recently, The Great Khali. Well in Trinidad, wrestling was a popular entertainment, and was specially marked by the number of Indians who competed. A popular arena was in St. James (then known as Coolie Town) behind a rumshop on the corner of the Western Main Road and Patna St. The matches were often quite intense and sometimes appeared in reports in the POS Gazette. This rare photo shows some rather sorry-looking specimens of gladiators and spectators about to enter into a match. It is interesting to note that two Indian wrestlers later became famous men. The first was Chandericker 'Chanka' Maharaj, who moved in the 1930s from being a well-known grappler to a seat on the City Council of POS. The other luminary was none other than the formidable Bhadase Sagan Maharaj, who sucessfuly pinned the then American Champion, John Gooch in the 1940s. Bhadase's height and good physique put him at an advantage over the 5'9" Gooch.

 

Cooking the evening meal 1940

This Indian couple is preparing a simple meal. It is a bit of an un-traditional photo since tey are using rather un-traditional utensils, particularly the cast-iron coalpots in place of earthen chulhas. The woman is preparing the ubiquitous sada roti while the man is frying something...perhaps baigan , aloo or plantain. Shortly after the influx of Indian Indentured Coolies as a source of cheap, reliable labour, Trinidad’s Colonial Government under Lord Harris (1846-53) realized that the new arrivals had by necessity, to be fed on foods that they were accustomed to in India otherwise they would suffer malnourishment . Thus, large quantities of Indian food began arriving in the colony. Paddy rice ( Trinidad was already familiar with creole hill rice or red rice thanks to the industry of the ex-American black soldiers of the 1816 Company Villages) , split peas (dhall) , ghee, curry spices, all originally imported exclusively for the Indians, began to find their way into shops and soon formed a foundational part of the national cuisine. For newly arrived indentureds, the estate commissariat was supposed to supply them with food rations and clothing for the first year of their five-year contract. This edict was often ignored, and some unscrupulous planters even deducted the cost of the rations from the pittance paid to the Indians. Strictly speaking, the ration allowance was as followed: For every male over 18 years of age per month: 45lbs. of rice, 9lbs. dhall, ¼ gallon ghee or coconut oil, 1 ½ lbs. salt, 6 lbs saltfish, 2lbs onions and chillies. Annual endowments: 1 small iron cooking pot, 2 cotton shirts, 2 dock trousers, 1 woolen cap, 1 felt hat, 1 woolen cloth jacket, 2 woolen blankets. Women and children received half the rations of men. A woman’s clothing allowance was also allotted, comprising cotton slips, woolen skirts, handkerchiefs, and blankets. Most estates allowed the Indians provision grounds to supplement the rations, but the mighty Woodford Lodge did not as they squeezed every stalk of cane from its lands. At the depot for incoming Indians (up to 1917) at Nelson Island, provisions for the transients ( who were detained several days for medical inspection before assignment to estates) consisted of rice, pumpkin, live mutton and chapattis.

 

Croptime 1899

In this photo from 1899, in an unnamed Trinidad canefield, a timeless scene is depicted.....the white overseer astride his horse, while the servile indentured Indian labourers stand sheepishly off to one side…cut canes are being loaded on carts for transit to the usine where they will be processed into sugar. In the canefields of 19th century Trinidad, especially in the Naparimas, the vast majority of overseers were Scottish with a smaller number of Irishmen. They were largely young men of little or no formal education who would normally have few prospects in the UK, and so were sent out to the colonies to act as the intermediary between the labourers and the owners of these estates who were largely absentee British landlords. The overseers, particularly the Scots, were Protestant to a man. Many died soon after arrival, the combination of tropical diseases and cheap booze being too much for them. The English administrative elite and the native French Creoles looked down on these hardy Highlanders as boorish and crude. Indeed, the Indians felt the brunt of their tempers, for even though corporal punishment of a labourer was punishable by law, many overseers took delight in a few well placed bootings and clandestine horsewhippings to keep the coolies in line.Many Scots overseers kept mistresses, particulalry among the Indian women under their supervision. In fact, an entire sub-ethnicity of fair-skinned, grey eyed Indians was created from these unions which were the norm rather than the exception. These bastard offspring stood out in the short, dark throngs of their mothers' countrymen. One way for a cuckolded Indian husband to explain how his wife had given birth to a white child was to say that one had ancestry in Kashmir where the Indians are tall and light skinned, and that the colour was just passing down having skipped several generations. Indeed, Rev. Harvey Morton, son of pioneering CMI missionary John Morton, was well known to have fathered many children with the Indian women of his congregations. Some of these children are still alive today, with one family in particular having three of the seven children being fathered by Morton, who rewarded the tolerant Indian 'father' with a high postion . St. Clement's Anglican Church Cemetery and Paradise Cemetery in San Fernando are an invalauble record of the Scottish presence in the island as there are many graves for those who expired early. Indeed, there were many kind and charitable overseers whose goodness was remembered long after their demise. One in particluar was so fondly remembered by the Indians, that his grave near Debe was (and still is) a site of pilgrimage, being known as Dumfries Baba tomb. People go there to do obeah and to ask the spirit of Dumfries Baba for help. Sometimes, overseers ran afoul of their Indians if they dared be to brutal, as was the case of 1881 on Cedar Hill Estate near Princes Town where the Indians rioted, burned canes, and nearly killed the overseer.

 

Cremation at Mosquito Creek circa 1958

Even though Hinduism requires the cremation of the dead, there was no such thing for Indo-Trinidadians until cremations were legalized in 1953. Hitherto, each estate provided a patch of wasteland where the bodies were hastily interred. On older estates such as Canaan near San Fernando, these Indian cemeteries were those used by slaves pre 1834. In 1892 there is the record of a clandestine cremation being undertaken on the banks of the Caroni by some indentured labourers for a colleague who died, an act of devotion for which they were duly arrested and jailed. Mosquito Creek, at the mouth of the Godineau River, along the South Trunk Road in La Romaine, was one of the first cremation sites to be legalized. Intially, the site was not up on the hill where it is now located. When this foto was taken (for those familiar with the area) it was on the eastern bank of the river. A small promontory jutted out into the sea. Today all that remains of it is a pile of rocks which are only visible at low tide, the rest having been eroded. Aside from erosion, one of the reasons the site was moved across the river and up to the hill in the 1960s, was that sometimes, during a cremation, the tide would come in, and mourners would have to beat a hasty retreat. Sometimes the body would not have been entirely consumed. Several persons who remember the area tell me of times when charred flesh and fat would be seen floating on the water. One chap even told me about the time he saw a skeleton among glowing embers, which had been left to the tide. Today, the cremations are regulated by a public health officer who ensures all remains are reduced to ash before being thrown into the sea. Nevertheless, I was once fishing near the cliff (which is white with human ash, and I saw a jawbone lying on the shore....I now fish elsewhere. The cremation in this foto is a bit different from those of today, where the corpse is placed inside a framework of wood, instead of on top the pyre. One of the morbid incidents that would have occured in a cremation of this sort, would be that if the tendons were not cut while the body was being prepared for the funeral (a distinct possibility since even in this era, most Hindus preferred to bathe and dress their dead at home rather than have them sent to a funeral home) , the drying out of bodily fluids would cause the tendons to contract, causing the body to sit up suddenly in the fire without warning....which naturally would have scared the hell outta everybody.....if you stand close enough to a pyre, you can hear a loud POP which is when the cranium explodes.

 

Indian Vagrant in POS circa 1903

People erroneously assume that upon expiration of their 5 year indentureship contracts, coolie labour from India (1845-1917) was automatically handed five acres of land in lieu of a return passage to India as an incentive to stay in the colony. This is not true. The incentive only existed from 1860 and applied only to those who served a full term of the contract. The Indian who saved from his pittance and bought out his contract received nothing. He and those before 1860, were left to survive on what little they had saved from their wages ($2.50/month for an adult male, $1.75/month for a female, $0.75 for children up to 12). . Neither did the incentive consist of land. It was simply five pounds in cash with which the majority purchased crown lands, which after 1870 were available for one pound per acre. Naturally, there were those who for reasons of profligacy or ill-luck ended up as vagrants on the streets of POS. In 1904, it was estimated that as many 140 Indian vagrants slept in POS, most near Columbus Square. From 1849, an official known as the Protector of the Immigrants was appointed to oversee the general welfare of the immigrants, ensuring that they were treated fairly. Often enough, these bureaucrats were corrupt slackers, who took massive bribes from estate owners to not 'rock the boat'. The only one who seems to have been a man of energy and conscience, was Major P.W.D Comins (1895-1910) , an honest soldier and owner of Glenside Estate in Tunapuna. Major Comins travelled extensively across the estates, inspecting barracks, and the dreadful living conditions of the Indians on the plantations. His scathing report published in 1902, and revised in 1908 is an indictment on a labour system that was little better than slavery. He was particularly aggrieved over what he saw at Woodford Lodge Estate where Indians were worked longer than stipulated hours, kept on the estate by armed guards, left untreated at a filthy estate hospital. and fed on scanty provisions . The last Protector of the Immigrants was Arnauld De Boissiere in 1927...a playboy and dandy who only held the office for the 400 pounds a year it paid. POS Indian vagrants were a lost people....they could not return to India, and even if they could, they would not have been better off. In Trinidad, they were alien, many spoke little or no English, and were considered less than human, both by the middle and upper class of society, the barrackyard dwellers, and the colonial authorities. Most Indian vagrants survived as porters at sixpence a load. The main employers were marchandes (female vendors of edibles), and laundresses who would engage porters to carry the bundles of soiled clothing collected from the better homes in Woodbrook and St. Clair , returning the freshly ironed and starched pieces , neatly folded on a wooden tray, carried by an itinerant porter. Some fortunate displaced Indians found accomodation at the Ariapita Asylum (known as the Poor House) until that facility was closed in the 1940s. Largely, most begged charity on the streets until death claimed them, their bodies being consigned to the earth of the Pauper's cemetery in St. James, opened in 1900.

 

Indian Porter in POS circa 1903

People erroneously assume that upon expiration of their 5 year indentureship contracts, coolie labour from India (1845-1917) was automatically handed five acres of land in lieu of a return passage to India as an incentive to stay in the colony. This is not true. The incentive only existed from 1860 and applied only to those who served a full term of the contract. The Indian who saved from his pittance and bought out his contract received nothing. He and those before 1860, were left to survive on what little they had saved from their wages ($2.50/month for an adult male, $1.75/month for a female, $0.75 for children up to 12). . Neither did the incentive consist of land. It was simply five pounds in cash with which the majority purchased crown lands, which after 1870 were available for one pound per acre. Naturally, there were those who for reasons of profligacy or ill-luck ended up as vagrants on the streets of POS. In 1904, it was estimated that as many 140 Indian vagrants slept in POS, most near Columbus Square. From 1849, an official known as the Protector of the Immigrants was appointed to oversee the general welfare of the immigrants, ensuring that they were treated fairly. Often enough, these bureaucrats were corrupt slackers , who took massive bribes from estate owners to not 'rock the boat'. The only one who seems to have been a man of energy and conscience, was Major P.W.D Comins (1895-1910), an honest soldier and owner of Glenside Estate in Tunapuna. Major Comins travelled extensively across the estates, inspecting barracks, and the dreadful living conditions of the Indians on the plantations. His scathing report published in 1902, and revised in 1908 is an indictment on a labour system that was little better than slavery. He was particularly aggrieved over what he saw at Woodford Lodge Estate where Indians were worked longer than stipulated hours, kept on the estate by armed guards, left untreated at a filthy estate hospital and fed on scanty provisions. The last Protector of the Immigrants was Arnauld De Boissiere in 1927...a playboy and dandy who only held the office for the 400 pounds a year it paid. POS Indian vagrants were a lost people...they could not return to India, and even if they could, they would not have been better off. In Trinidad, they were alien; many spoke little or no English, and were considered less than human, both by the middle and upper class of society, the barrackyard dwellers, and the colonial authorities. Most Indian vagrants survived as porters at sixpence a load. The main employers were marchandes (female vendors of edibles), and laundresses who would engage porters to carry the bundles of soiled clothing collected from the better homes in Woodbrook and St. Clair , returning the freshly ironed and starched pieces , neatly folded on a wooden tray, carried by an itinerant porter. Some fortunate displaced Indians found accomodation at the Ariapita Asylum (known as the Poor House) until that facility was closed in the 1940s. Largely, most begged charity on the streets until death claimed them, their bodies being consigned to the earth of the Pauper's cemetery in St. James, opened in 1900.

 

Anise Pillai nee Matrizan (1885-1968) (photo dated circa 1900)

Of the hundreds of period photos of Indian girls, this is the only one to which an identity has been ascribed. Anise was born in Martinique in 1885. A large number of Tamils from Madras came to work on the sugar estates of the Island. In typical Madrassi fashion, they integrated speedily into the French society, adopting the language, customs and dress. Anise's mother, Valiama, married into a French Creole family named Matrizan. This was not an acceptable social condition and the family made arrangements with the rich and influential De Boissiere family in Trinidad to take in Valiama, Anise, Alice (Valiama's sister) and Peroumal (Valiama's mother) in 1888. The family settled in what is now Boissiere Village No. 1 as tenants of Madame Poleska De Boissiere, the awesome grande dame who took over the running of the Champs Elysees estate (the Trinidad Country Club is the old estate house) in 1870 after the death of her benign husband, Dr. John Valleton De Boissiere. Valiama made a decent living by keeping milch cows (grazed in the Queen's Park Savannah), catering for parties (she had skill in French culinary arts), and as a masseuse, being versed in therapeutic treatment. Anise, while inheriting her mother's skill for French cooking, did not become a masseuse, but made money on the side as a model for photographers. From the late 19th century up to WWII, more than 3,000 images of Indo-Trinidadians were produced, since they were considered mysterious and exotic. Anise was unlike the other Madrassis in Maraval, since she had delicate features and light skin because of her mixed heritage. This shot was taken when she was about 18 years old, showing her bedecked as a rich Indian wife , with the heavy silver yoke, gold nakphul (nose ring) and silver bracelets. Another tenant of Madame De Boissiere was Shiva Subromaniam Pillai, a sort of drainage expert who was retained of Champs Elysees at the fantastic rate of $1 per day to dig drains for the cocoa trees. He had come to Trinidad in 1873, and his son, Tamby wished to make Anise his wife. Negotiations were settled and a barber sent out to deliver invitations. Some elders may remember how this was done. The barber would carry a brass tray on which there was a piece of camphor, saffron rice and flowers. Upon being received, he would speak a poetic invitation, light the camphor, and give the guest a flower and some rice, for which the guest had then to pay sixpence. Anise and Tamby had eight children and lived in Boissiere No. 1. Tamby drank himself into an early grave around 1921, but Anise and her mother managed to raise all the children. Sylvan, a son, became a successful businessman and later built a holding company worth many millions. Anise died in 1968, her mother in 1954. It is ironic that the crown jewel of the Pillai empire, Royal Palm Plaza , sits atop the site of the magnificent Bagshot House which Madame De Boissiere's son had built in the 1880s. It is meet that the De Boissiere's are now a memory while their former tenants flourish.

 

Weighing Cane 1912

This is a timeless scene which played itself out countless times in the canefields of Central and South Trinidad well into the 1950s. When contracted Indians were sent to estates, they were paid according to task work. In croptime, the driver (usually an Indian bully or Sirdar who could force work from his peers) would come out to the fields and assign a portion of canes to be harvested for the day , for which a fixed rate would be paid (in 1910, it was about 20 cents per task) . The Driver was beneath the white overseer and was the tangible link between the owner/manager and the labour. In the rainy season, the Driver would carry a long bamboo rod with which he measured out swathes of cane which had to be weeded or manured. Sometimes, like in this photo, tasks were paid for according to the weight of canes cut. It was not a popular system with the coolies, since the Drivers were usually thugs and thieves, appointed by the managers since they had the ability to form mafias on the estates to keep the labourers in line. Drivers would rape women, and receive bribes of eggs, fowls, rum and money. During croptime on those estates which paid for task work according to weight (Eg. Forres Park, Bronte, Woodford Lodge) a portable scale would be placed in the field to be harvested (as seen here) and labourers would bring canes to place on it by turns (also shown). The weight would be graded by the ton and noted next to the labourer's name. The cut canes would be loaded onto mule carts and taken to the estate railhead (most of the larger conglomerate-owned estates had railways like Usine Ste. Madeline, Woodford Lodge, Forres Park, Orange Grove and Reform) . At the railhead, the canes would be loaded onto rail carts for transport to the refinery. The Drivers were most often corrupt, and would steal from labourers, in that they would assign the tons cut by one to another whom they favoured (most often because they were sleeping with the lucky man's wife). On Saturday, when labourers lined up at the pay office for their wages, some persons would be in shock and some jubliant when they learned about what their sweat during the week had earned. In times when the price of sugar was high on the world market, bonuses were awarded for high productivity. This system of weighing in the field ended in the 1940s and 1950s when diesel powered Jones cranes, outfitted with built-in scales were imported by the major factories so that the canes could be weighed AND loaded at the railheads, thus eliminating the corrupt drivers.

 

Cutting the grass in the Queen's Park Savannah 1904

The POS of yesteryear was a town where one could stroll northwards for a few minutes and leave behind the traffic of horse and buggy and encounter a very rural existence. Many people in suburbs like Belmont and Woodbrook kept cattle to ensure a domestic milk supply. In Maraval, Tamil Madrassi Indians who had settled in what is now Boissiere Village, kept large herds and supplied fresh bottled milk to the urban residents of POS. Even the colonial administration was in on the act, maintaining a large stock farm on St. Clair lands from the late 1870s. When St. Clair began to be broken into lots as prime residential property around 1915, the stock farm was removed to Mt. Hope where it is now known as the UWI Field Station, an experimental farm. The Queen's Park Savannah, that great playground purchased in 1817 by Sir Ralph Woodford, never needed grooming since dozens of cattle from the government stock farm and the Indians of Boissiere Village were grazed on the turf. In an 1850s painting done by the great artist Michel Jean Cazabon (1813-88) cattle are seen placidly grazing in the savannah. Opposite Whitehall in Queen's Park West, there used to be a well and drinking trough for the livestock. Indian herders and milk sellers from Coolie Town (St. James) also grazed their livestock here. From the 1890s, the government charged a fee of $1 per person per month for grazing rights in the savannah. Cattle were a problem for the Savannah Tram (1895-1950) as they sometimes wandered onto the track in front of the speeding tramcar.....the conductor frantically clanging his bell. During WWII supplies of imported staples (rice, flour, salt meat etc.) dwindled because the ships bringing them were often torpedoed by German U-boats. In order to counteract a serious food security crisis, the government embarked on a "Grow More Food" campaign and offered free lots in the savannah for all those who would undertake to establish 'war gardens'. It is not known if anyone took up the offer. One of the more disconcerting experiences of the QPS of yesteryear was being chased by a maddened bull. This was the sad lot of many a courting couple who had to cut their amours short and scamper in the wake of a charging 1,200 lb. bull. By the 1950s, cattle on the savannah were a thing of the past NB: THIS SAME LAWNMOWER IS STILL IN EXISTENCE AND IS RUSTING UNDER A TREE AT THE UWI FIELD STATION IN MOUNT HOPE WHICH WAS FORMERLY THE GOVERNMENT STOCK FARM IN VALSAYN.

 

Baba and Jhata 1910

This photo shows a Hindu pundit grinding rice into a coarse flour. The mill is an ancient piece of the heritage of the Indian Diaspora since its design has remained unchanged for over 5,000 years. The jhata is made of two round pieces of rough granite. They are pierced with a piece of wood which acts as a pivot. The upper wheel is also equipped with a wooden crank handle which turns independently. Grain (mostly rice, but corn was also ground) is placed between the two stones and the upper portion is turned, grinding the grain into meal. This is one of the most primitive forms of milling and dates back to very early eras of human history. The jhata was one of the many implements brought to Trinidad by East Indian indentured immigrants who were imported as cheap labour for the sugar industry between 1845 and 1917. Jhatas were fairly difficult to make and were passed down like heirlooms from generation to generation. Some of the few which still exist in Trinidad are well over 200 years old, being relics of family lines in India. This particular one still exists. I saw it in a family home in Scotts Road in Penal about 4 years ago. I recognized it instantly from the chip in the lower portion, although the current owners are not the original family who would have brought it to Trinidad.

 

Mechanical Cane Harvesting 1965

Mechanization of the propagation and harvesting phases of the suagr manufacturing process in Trinidad was slow to develop technologically. Even so, as early as 1888, Spring estate in Couva was employing a steam traction engine in tilling the fields. Aside from requiring a great deal of specialized maintainance, labour costs on the plantations were exceedingly low (approx. 5 cents/man hour) so that for the price of a steam traction engine, one could employ the equivalent of 120 indentured coolies for a period of 5-10 years. Thus, it was not until the 1950s, that tractors began to replace mules and cattle as motive power for sugar haulage, and mechanical harvesting was experimented with by Woodford Lodge and Caroni Ltd. In the early 1960s, Caroni imported some mechanical harvesters. These (like the one shown here) were large stand-alone machines which clipped off the sugarcane stalk, stripped the leaves and dumped it into a hopper drawn by another tractor. Since the harvesters did not have a transmission or driver controls, they had to be hitched to a wheel or crawler tractor, like the 1950s Massey Ferguson TE20 on the left of the foto. The mechanical harvesters were a flop since they soon became troublesome from a lack or routine servicing. They were also allegedly sabotaged by employees who viewed mechanization as a threat to their security. Although they worked well in the large, flat canefields, the harvesters were basically scrap metal by the end of the 1960s. This foto shows one working near Woodford Lodge. The tractor on the right is a 1946 Internationall Farmall. Canes are being dumped into the hopper by the feeder chute from the harvester. The International is sporting a tandem axle layout with four rear tires to give it more traction for drawing the loaded hopper in muddy fields. In 1995 Caroni again invested in three new state-of-the-art Massey Ferguson combine harvesters which foundered for similar reasons as their predecessors.

 

Ma Mayute's Mansion, Siparia , 1890- WATERCOLOUR ON PAPER 24x18" BY RUDOLPH BISSESSARSINGH (2004) Mary Bartlett (Ma Mayute) was born circa 1850.

She was a woman of Afro-Venezuelan descent who had emigrated to Siparia in her teens, marrying a local chap of mulatto blood. She became the de-facto manager of the Catholic church in the village, which was built on the site of the old Capuchin mission founded in 1758. Since at least 1808, the chapel (a rude structure of mud and thatch) had been home to a small wooden statue known far and wide as La Divina Pastora, the Divine Shepherdess. In those early days, the annual feast of La Divina was attended by local Catholics, and Waro (Guarahoon) Indians from the Orinoco Delta. After around 1870, East Indian indentured immigrants began to make up the largest percentage of devotees. They saw in the dark wooden image, a kindred deity which they called Siparee Mai. Before the feast day, thousands of devotees would flock to the little village of less than 150 persons, and pitch camp on the savannah where the present public cemetery is sited. Naturally, the worshippers made offerings of gold jewelry and money which Ma Mayute managed for the church. The offerings were enough for an elaborate, twin-spired presbytery to be erected opposite the church in 1872 and even the chapel itself was neatly rebuilt of wood in 1890. Ma Mayute also prospered. In 1885 she built the largest, most elegant residence in Siparia, to the south of the church. It was two stories high, with a spacious dwelling space on the upper floor. The lower story was divided into four apartments which were let during the week of Siparia Fete, to visitors. For a number of years, the most regular tenants of Ma Mayute were itinerant Chinese traders who gambled and smoked opium in the apartments. Many tenants, including one named Kong stayed in Siparia and opened shops, Kong being the most successful. Ma Mayute had no children. Her life was indelibly linked to the church. She was predeceased by her husband in 1920. She herself lived to a great age, dying in 1965 at 115 years of age. After her death, the mansion fell into dereliction, and finally was demolished in 2001. A Jehovah's Witnesses church now stands on the site. Of interest in this saga, is an ancient burial vault which was only seen for the first time in decades when the house was demolished. It apparently predated the construction of the house in 1885, and was composed of large blocks of limestone, with a small entrance door. The house had been built over it. When the site was cleared, the tomb's door was sealed to prevent trespassing. It has been preserved in the yard of the Jehovah's Witness church and may be seen today. This painting depicts Ma Mayute astride a horse (she was an excellent rider) in front of her place as it would have appeared in its heyday.

 

Caroni Estate Saturday Market 1950s

In a time-honoured tradition which played itself out for well over a century, the Saturday pay-yard market was a facet of life on sugar estates across the country . Labour was paid by the task. The majority were East Indian indentured immigrants, with a minority of Afro-Trinidadians. These labourers were cutters, grass gangs (children) and carters. Tasks for the week would be measured out by the overseer with his long bamboo rod and noted. The tasks were for cutting or weeding the cane according to the season, and ranged from 10 cents to 25 cents from 1865-1928. On Saturday, labourers formed a line in the pay-yard to collect their wages. This was a sort of ritual which is vividly described by Sir V.S Naipaul in “A House For Mr. Biswas”: Every Saturday he lined up with the other labourers to collect his pay. The overseer sat at a little table on which his khaki cork hat rested, wasteful of space, but a symbol of wealth. On his left sat the Indian clerk, stern, precise, with small neat hands that wrote small neat figures in black ink and red ink in the tall ledger. As the clerk entered figures and called out names and amounts in his high, precise voice, the overseer selected coins from the columns of silver and the heaps of copper in front of him and with greater deliberation, extracted notes from the blue one dollar stacks, the smaller red two dollar stacks, and the very shallow green five dollar stack. Few labourers earned five dollars a week. The notes were there to pay those who were collecting their wives’ or husbands’ wages as well as their own. Around the overseer’s hat, and seeming to guard it, there were stiff blue paper bags, neatly serrated at the top printed with large figures and standing upright from the weight of coin inside them. “ After being paid, the labourers had money to supply their needs for the next two weeks. Naturally, there was a rumshop near the estate which would consume part of the cash, and also a further claim for debts for staple goods, taken on credit since the last payday. Near the pay-yard, a market would spring up which would be the social equinox for estate life on a weekend. Vendors would erect rude stalls or sometimes be allocated a shed as in this photo from Caroni. A priceless description of the Saturday market is given in the period novel, Tikasingh’s Wedding by Wilfred D. Best. “Tika found the arrangement of the stalls (crudely built trays on legs for easy movement) very orderly. There were sections for ground provisions such as yams, dasheen, eddoes and Irish potatoes; another for vegetables such as bhaji, patchoi, baigan and dasheen bush. There was a section for soft drinks, mostly red kola and cream soda in heavy bottles sealed with a marble which was kept in place by the force of the gas. To open the bottles there was a wooden opener with a rounded portion which fitted into the space between the top of the bottle and the marble. The bottle was opened by a tap on the wooden opener strong enough to dislodge the marble which fell on a ledge on the bottle about 3 inches from the top. If the contents of a soft drink bottle were agitated by shaking, the liquid would squirt into the air through the pressure of the gas, and many were the occasions when a bottle burst , sending bits of razor-like glass in all directions. Sometimes the person opening the bottle and those standing nearby would receive nasty cuts from the missiles, and the only ones who welcomed these breakages were the little boys darting in search of the marble to add to their collection for the next game of marbles. …they paused near a stall where the vendor was selling ready-made khaki trousers and shirts…..the group moved to another stall where two ladies , both Indians, were selling metai and pastries. On one table was kurmah while on the other were sponge cakes topped with pink, yellow and white icing, coconut and jam tarts and heavy loaves. “ Also present in the market would be the itinerant Syrian peddler with his box of piece goods (dress and pants lengths, ribbons, bows and other haberdashery) either conducting cash sales or collecting installments of a few shillings on cloth taken on terms by the labourers, who could not at once afford this luxury. This foto from the 1950s shows the Caroni market, with the chimneys of the Usine in the background, and two small brick buildings which would have been quarters for the overseers.

 

Perseverance Estate Pay Yard, Cedros, circa 1912

East Indian immigrants are in the majority, having been settled in Cedros as early as 1850 on the sugar estates of the district. Here is a timeless scene of indentureship, with the manager (J.O Urich) sitting on the right in his topee (cork hat) and with what looks like a watch chain looped across his shirt. On the left sits a person who appears to be a constable from his pith helmet. On the table is a bag, possibly containing the meagre wages of the labourers which were doled out according to tasks. Perseverance estate was founded as a sugar estate circa 1800 by Charles Rousseau, a Martiniquan immigrant in conjunction with other French cedulants including Gardie, DeMontbrun, Lequin and Bonasse. It originally extended over 800 or so acres, and unlike other estates in the area, included a minimum of swampland and extensive rolling hills as can be seen from this photo. Coconuts, introduced by Francois Agostini of Constance Estate in 1860 gradually replaced sugar, although as late as 1890, Perseverance was still a sugar producer. The factory, seen here, was erected in 1885 and produced crystal sugar, and rum. The estate also boasted a fine jetty with iron piles for the loading of sugar ships. At this juncture, the estate was owned by an Englishman, John Kemp Welch. By 1917 the equipment for the sugar refinery was being sold off as the estate had gone over completely to coconuts. The manager of many years, J.R Urich, incidentally died the following year. Most of the machinery would have cost a fortune when they were installed around 1875-80. The sugar works were converted for the processing of coconut oil and copra. The factory and chimney can still be seen today. The estate is now partially owned by the Bhola family and was unsuccessfully diversified into peanuts and other crops. Lots have now been developed for sale to homeowners. In a time-honoured tradition which played itself out for well over a century, the Saturday pay-yard market was a facet of life on sugar estates across the country. Labour was paid by the task. The majority were East Indian indentured immigrants, with a minority of Afro-Trinidadians. These labourers were cutters, grass gangs (children) and carters. Tasks for the week would be measured out by the overseer with his long bamboo rod and noted. The tasks were for cutting or weeding the cane according to the season, and ranged from 10 cents to 25 cents from 1865-1928. On Saturday, labourers formed a line in the pay-yard to collect their wages. This was a sort of ritual which is vividly described by Sir V.S Naipaul in “A House For Mr. Biswas”: Every Saturday he lined up with the other labourers to collect his pay. The overseer sat at a little table on which his khaki cork hat rested, wasteful of space, but a symbol of wealth. On his left sat the Indian clerk, stern, precise, with small neat hands that wrote small neat figures in black ink and red ink in the tall ledger. As the clerk entered figures and called out names and amounts in his high, precise voice, the overseer selected coins from the columns of silver and the heaps of copper in front of him and with greater deliberation, extracted notes from the blue one dollar stacks, the smaller red two dollar stacks, and the very shallow green five dollar stack. Few labourers earned five dollars a week. The notes were there to pay those who were collecting their wives’ or husbands’ wages as well as their own. Around the overseer’s hat, and seeming to guard it, there were stiff blue paper bags, neatly serrated at the top printed with large figures and standing upright from the weight of coin inside them.

 

Indian Mud Hut circa 1920

Coolies who were indentured in Trinidad post 1860 were offered five pounds in lieu of a return passage to India as an incentive to settle. The myth that they were given five acres was simply that...a myth. Many Indians purchased five or more crown acres at a pound per diem, often in swampy or forested areas. This mud hut with a thatched roof is typical of the domiciles constructed on these homesteads. These buildings had tapia walls , plastered by the process of leepay (cow dung and clay) and were roofed with the leaves of timite palms (carat) they were eco friendly, cheap to construct, cool and renewable. Some examples may still be seen in St. Helena village, Piarco, albeit with galvanized roofs.

 

Musicians 1893

This photo shows a chowtal group of olden days in Trinidad. Music was one of the many social adhesives which bound the immigrants together. Its evolution, chutney, is truly a tribute to integration and hybridization of an exotic culture.

 

Roadside Vendors 1934

Trinidad is well and able to feed itself save for the sad fact that we have shunned the land and now depend on imports for sustenance whereas out forefathers made do with what their own sweat could coax from the soil. This foto shows an impromptu roadside market along the EMR in San Juan. Vendors, mostly Indo and Afro Trinidadian women, would erect rude stalls or simply spread their produce on the ground and wait for trade. This pic shows the rich variety of food that they produced.

 

Cattle grazing in the Queen's Park Savannah near the Peschier Cemetery 1925

The POS of yesteryear was a town where one could stroll northwards for a few minutes and leave behind the traffic of horse and buggy and encounter a very rural existence. Many people in suburbs like Belmont and Woodbrook kept cattle to ensure a domestic milk supply. In Maraval, Tamil Madrassi Indians who had settled in what is now Boissiere Village, kept large herds and supplied fresh bottled milk to the urban residents of POS. Even the colonial administration was in on the act, maintaining a large stock farm on St. Clair lands from the late 1870s. When St. Clair began to be broken into lots as prime residential property, the stock farm was removed to Mt. Hope where it is now known as the UWI Field Station, an experimental farm. The Queen's Park Savannah, that great playground purchased in 1817 by Sir Ralph Woodford, never needed grooming since dozens of cattle from the government stock farm and the Indians of Boissiere Village were grazed on the turf. In a 1850s painting done by the great artist Michel Jean Cazabon (1813-88) cattle are seen placidly grazing in the savannah. Opposite Whitehall in Queen's Park West, there used to be a well and drinking trough for the livestock. Indian herders and milk sellers from Coolie Town (St. James) also grazed their livestock here. From the 1890s, the government charged a fee of $1 per person per month for grazing rights in the savannah. Cattle were a problem for the Savannah Tram (1895-1950) as they sometimes wandered onto the track in front of the speeding tramcar.....the conductor frantically clanging his bell. During WWII supplies of imported staples (rice, flour, salt meat etc.) dwindled because the ships bringing them were often torpedoed by German U-boats. In order to counteract a serious food security crisis, the government embarked on a "Grow More Food" campaign and offered free lots in the savannah for all those who would undertake to establish 'war gardens'. It is not known if anyone took up the offer. One of the more disconcerting experiences of the QPS of yesteryear was being chased by a maddened bull. This was the sad lot of many a courting couple who had to cut their amours short and scamper in the wake of a charging 1,200 lb. bull. By the 1950s, cattle on the savannah were a thing of the past. NOTE: The QPS was originally part of St. Ann's sugar estate owned by the Peschier family. When the estate was acquired in 1817 by Governor Sir Ralph Woodford, the Peschiers retained the ancestral burial ground in the center of the land. The oldest graves therein date back to the 1780s, but the oldest legible plaque is dedicated to the memory of Celeste Rose Peschier, daughter of the Marquise de Beltegens who died in 1817.

 

Bath Time 1930

This is a timeless scene in which two children are being given a bath in an old wooden washtub. The children are light-skinned and fair-haired while the woman appears to be Indo Trinidadian. This is possibly a nanny who has been engaged by a wealthy family to take care of their offspring.

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