Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : May 30th 2013 Contents MALAY MISHRA
High Commissioner of India
I am delighted to contribute
this message of greetings to the
T&T Guardian on the occasion
of Indian Arrival Day 2013.
Indian Arrival Day means many
things to many people. For me,
as well as our many brothers and
sisters of Trinidad, Nelson Island,
for example, stands as a living
testimony which endured 50 years
of nostalgia when our forefathers
had landed on these shores and
were carted away for quarantine
to this island from 1866-67 to
1917, before they moved on to
their respective plantations. The
rest, as we all know, is history.
History has not come easy. A
lot of sweat, sacrifice and valour
have mingled in the pages of his-
tory which is today worth its value
in gold. Gold, because they have
produced gold out of the planta-
tions for the owners with their
bare backs, feet firmly planted on
the ground and heads held high,
proud of their native culture and
heritage which they came along
Gold also, because of the black
gold discovered on and offshore
on this island, envy of many a
country in the region, because of
its dynamism and diversity and
for playing a unique role as the
hub for various connectivities.
The spirit of these proud and
resilient people pervades the space
around us, the space we live and
breathe and to which subsequent
generations have contributed
Indian Arrival Day brought
India directly in touch with a land
far, far away, literally and figura-
tively, on the Fatel Razack, car-
rying 225 passengers on board,
when it landed on the shores of
Trinidad. Thus began a glorious
journey in the annals of time. We
take this time to bow down in
reverence and affection to those
souls who came in shiploads year
after year and made Trinidad their
While we commemorate this
day, I convey to all readers of this
paper a thought to reflect upon.
As we keep 1845 in our hearts
and souls, we take note of an India
which has come a long way since,
and an India waiting to be dis-
covered, more and more.
Thursday, May 30, 2013 www.guardian.co.tt Guardian
No one knows when Poonith
Phekhoo heard the news of "cha-
laying chini"---the greener pastures
of the West Indies. Migration was
the logical choice for oppressed
Indians, but escaping from his vil-
lage of Rownia in the state of Bihar
would not be easy.
He had heard rumours from the
zamindars, the cruel, exploitive
landowners that men who had gone
to Kolkata (Calcutta) with the notion
of leaving India had been hung
upside down until all the oil drained
out of their heads.
Still, Poonith took the train from
Gaya to Kolkata to join a friend work-
ing with "coolies"---known for their
strength and heavy labour. Poonith
began working for a grain merchant.
There, in Kolkata he came in contact
with a recruiter of East Indian
migrants for the Caribbean.
He bought a ticket for passage on
the Brenda in 1885 and travelled to
the emigration depot in Kolkata
where he stayed in the holding depot
in Garden Reach, a place that was
supposed to protect emigrants from
enraged zamindars (land owners).
The holding depot turned out to be
a place designed to keep emigrants
from changing their minds. There
was no backing out now.
This is the story that Harold
Phekhoo tells of his paternal grand-
father in his posthumously published
book A Bong Coolie---Poonith.
Phekhoo devoted the last years of
his life to writing the story of his
indentured grandfather, and he made
his family promise that his book,
filled with a lifetime of personal
interviews and research, would be
printed if he was no longer alive. His
wife, Leila Jailal fulfilled that promise
and had A Bong Coolie---Poonith,
printed in January 2012, about one
year after her husband s death.
Although he had begun research
for his book from the age of 12,
Phekhoo, who had his own meat
business in central Trinidad didn t
settle to write his grandfather s story
until he became gravely ill. In the
acknowledgements, Phekhoo says
he was grateful for the "gift" of kid-
ney failure "since this curtailed my
speed and cramped my style. It
brought me to a state of reality.
Instead of feeling sorry for myself,
my quietest moments were con-
structively employed in resurrecting
that childhood dream of mine which
was to uncover my geneology and
most importantly the historical
growth and development of Lavantee
(sic) or Bonne Aventure where I was
Using interviews with village eld-
ers, estate and ship registers and
newspaper reports, library archives,
maps and photographs Phekhoo
pieced together the story of his
grandfather s journey to Trinidad.
Phekhoo traces the East Indian
struggle from India to Trinidad. "The
zamindars and British were not the
only source of problems in India.
Insect invasions, rats and locusts
destroyed crops over night, " he
writes of life left behind in India.
Phekhoo presents details of the
voyage, the issues with caste, chil-
dren s games on board the ship, the
terror of sailing around Africa with
its gale force winds.
Once the passengers arrived, Cap-
tain Nickels brought the ship to the
Port-of-Spain wharves (west of the
present lighthouse) where passengers
were ferried to Nelson Island to be
quarantined. After quarantine, they
settled into barrack life with three
workers to a room, wake-up calls at
4.30 am and another hard life
defined by promiscuity, cutlass
attacks, hard labour and disease.
Poor diet, scorpion stings, snake
bites, and medical problems such as
hook worm, tuberculosis and other
diseases prevented a healthy, happy
life.Poonith tells readers that his
grandfather was 27 when he arrived
at Bonne Aventure Estate, and he
had an indentureship of ten years.
He spent 48 years on the estate later
working as a labourer, horseman,
caretaker, horse trainer, groom, buggy
man and harness repairer. He saw
the estate branch out from sugar
cane to cocoa, coffee, coconuts, teak,
mahogany and cedar.
The Presbyterian school added a
new interesting conflict to the estate
where residents had to decipher the
purpose of a westernised education
and the conflicts that caused among
people clinging to their Indian ways.
A Bong Coolie, is Harold Phekoo s
attempt to document the life of his
grandfather. His wife says, "He want-
ed people to know about the village.
He thought it was important for
people to know the actual journey
of indentured servants."
This is not a polished history book
with citations and a bibliography,
but there is no denying that there
is fascinating and important infor-
mation about indentureship and the
social fabric of the sugar estates.
What makes this such an interesting
book as well is that it documents
the entire journey from India to a
new life in the West Indies.
It is a remarkable undertaking for
a person who was as sick as Phekoo
was when he put this book together.
At the end of his life, Harold Phekoo,
who lived in Phoenix Park, California,
had kidney dialysis four times a
week. He became gravely ill the day
he delivered his book to the printers
and died just two weeks before he
A Bong Coolie---Poonith can be
purchased at the Chinmaya
Mission of Trinidad and Tobago
in Couva, contact them on 679-
3652 or from Leila Jailal at 679-
Journey of a proud 'bong coolie' Spirit of a resilient
Indian High Commissioner Malay
We take this time to bow
down in reverence and
affection to those souls
who came in shiploads year
after year and made
Trinidad their home
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