Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : May 15th 2013 Contents A12
Guardian www.guardian.co.tt Wednesday, May 15, 2013
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THE BRIDAL AND CURTAIN SHOPPE
28 Frederick Street,
Emancipation in 1834 and the
understandable reluctance of former
slaves to return to a new form of
bondage on the sugar plantations of
Trinidad, left a massive labour void
which subsequent immigration from
Madeira and West Africa failed to plug.
As early as 1813, the powerful William
Hardin Burnley, of Orange Grove, sug-
gested that labour from India might
prove suitable to the needs of the sugar
barons but it was not until 1845 that,
driven by the impending collapse of
the economy, the first shipload of
indentured immigrants from India was
brought in and stepped from the ship
Fatel Razack onto the colony s soil,
rooting a resilient people forever in the
potpourri of Trinidad society.
The xenophobic Englishman CW
Day gave in 1847 what is perhaps the
earliest description of the newcomers:
"The most curious members of this
mixed population, are, perhaps, the hill
coolies from Madras and Calcutta. They
walk about the streets, accompanied
by their women and wretched little
progeny, who look more like attenuated
monkeys than children.
"While I was at Trinidad, the ship,
Duke of Bedford, arrived from Calcutta
with 300 coolies, the greater part of
the men being naked, save for the indis-
pensable dhooty round their loins. At
first sight they seemed to be slight and
effeminate in figure but a closer exam-
ination showed them to be well knit.
The women had their faces uncovered."
After interruptions in the immigration
system after 1845, it was reorganised
and up and running by 1866 when the
decision was taken to hastily erect some
wooden buildings on Nelson Island
which would serve as a processing depot
for the newcomers, who suffered ter-
ribly from the rigours of sea travel.
Nelson Island, a limestone islet in
the group known as the Five Islands
off Port-of-Spain harbour, became to
Trinidad what Ellis Island was to New
York City, a gateway to a new life for
an alien people.
Bedsores, dysentery and other dis-
eases symptomatic of confinement, not
to mention the claustrophobia of being
cooped up aboard, were common.
Those who were very ill and needed
intensive medical attention were sent
to nearby Lenagan Island.
The immigrants were allowed a little
over a week on the island to convalesce
from the ordeals of the ship before
being registered and packed off to their
contracts of five years on sugar estates,
which usually received larger numbers
up to 50 people, with a smaller con-
signment to cocoa plantations.
Whilst in situ, they were fed on mut-
ton, rice, potatoes and discs of unleav-
ened bread, called chapattis, which
were like a small, thin sada roti.
The accommodation at Nelson Island
was expanded towards the end of the
1870s to cope with larger numbers of
On the island and in the holds of the
immigrant ships, an indelible bond was
formed that transcended considerations
of caste and creed and was known
as jahaji, the brotherhood of the boat.
It was a kinship of a strange people
brought by fate to a distant place,
many never to return to their home-
lands in the Indian sub-continent.
From Nelson Island, too, a single
ship left annually to carry immigrants
back after their contracts had expired
but these numbers were always far
smaller than that of those who
remained to carve a future in
Nelson Island was later a prison
for insurgents but is most firmly asso-
ciated with the indentureship era,
which ended in 1917.
Nelson Island---indentureship's gateway
Nelson Island circa 1910,
when it was still being
used as a quarantine
depot for indentured
Newly-arrived indentured immigrants assemble outside the main
dormitory on Nelson Island for a group photo in 1880.
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