willed our skins pale
muffled our laughter
lowered our voices
let out our hems
dekinked our hair
denied our sex in gym tunics and bloomers
harnessed our voices to madrigals
and genteel airs
yoked our minds to declensions in Latin
and the language of Shakespeare
Told us nothing about our selves
There was nothing at all
When the East Indians arrived in Barbados over a century ago, they came by their own free will. “Unlike the East Indians who went to Guyana and Trinidad, Jamaica, Grenada and other parts of the Caribbean as indenture labourers by the British after the end of slavery, those who came to Barbados were not indentured; they came independently. They also came accidentally as they didn’t set out to come to Barbados,” revealed Sabir Nakhuda, author of ‘Bengal to Barbados: A 100-year history of East Indians in Barbados’. Delivering the annual Alfred Pragnell Memorial Talk held recently at the Holetown Methodist Church, he noted that the first East Indian came to Barbados in 1910, his name was Bashart Ali, from West Bengal.
Bashart Ali became the first Muslim Indian to marry an Afro-Barbadian woman. [Following in Ali’s footsteps, most of the Bengali men married Barbadian women, retaining their Islamic faith but being also tolerant and respectful of their wives’ and children’s wishes to continue practising Christianity. In the home, the Muslim husband, in keeping with his religious rules, did not eat pork, among other meats, or consume alcohol; and these foods were not prepared in his home. His wife would eat such at her family’s house. “But we still eat cou-cou and flying fish, and we would still have fish cakes. We blend our cuisine along with the Barbadian cuisine. We probably would use Indian spices when we are doing a particular rice and stew.]
In 1929, the Gujarati from the South West of India arrived in Barbados; while in 1932, the third group of East Indian immigrants came from Hyderabad, Sindh, and were known as the merchant class. “The Gujarati also didn’t set out to come to Barbados. There was an advertisement within the village for people to clear the jungle in Brazil, so three of them set out for Brazil. However, when they reached as far as French Guiana, they were told that there were a lot of Muslims in British Guiana, so they decided to go.
“But they then changed their minds, deciding they wanted to do some business. They were told to get a schooner, get some coconuts, charcoal and go to Barbados as there was a big market for these. They did this, and decided to make Barbados their home.”
Nakhuda went on to point out that the third group of East Indians being merchant class, decided to establish a store in McGregor Street.
He also recalled that the Bengalis and Gujaratis started the itinerant trading process on the island, which continues up to this day. He explained that in those early days, most of the trading was with the poor Barbadians living in the countryside, who found it difficult to get to Bridgetown to shop. “These traders bought merchandise from the merchants in Bridgetown, went door to door in the country with a suitcase on their head, and that’s why the Barbadians started to call them the ‘coolie men’, because that’s what the coolie does in India. “In those days, the working Barbadians could not leave their workplace such as the cane fields, and they also couldn’t afford to buy the basic items they needed because things were tight; they didn’t have enough money to purchase on cash. The East Indian trader gave them what they needed like clothes, shoes; the basic necessities. They used the word ‘trust’ and that word still exists today. They would go every week to collect what the individual could afford,” he stated.
Nakhuda himself was born in Gujarati, India in 1947 and came to Barbados at age ten. He acknowledged that today, there are about 3,000 East Indians in Barbados, also noting that they have maintained contact with India.
“They never forgot the culture, their religion, their way of life.”
Nakhuda further expressed that if it wasn’t for the receptive nature, kindness and service that Barbadians provided, the East Indians would not have been successful. (TL)