Port-of-Spain: As Trinidad and Tobago prepares for the 168th anniversary of the arrival of the first group of 231 Indians to the West Indies, the toast of the celebrations is the first ship of migrants — the Fath-Al-Razak.
The Fath-Al-Razak is viewed as the emblem of the Indian diaspora, originally sourced from what today are the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.
In all promotions of the anniversary celebrations, the Fath-Al-Razak emblem is flaunted.
But there were many other ships — the Sutlej, Rhine, Herdford, Avon, Ganges, Mutlah, Jammuna, Hughly and Dewa — and they brought a total of 147,592 people to this land between 1845 and 1917.
The indentured labourers were employed in many Trinidad estates such as Brechin Castle, San Juan, Esperanza, Maraval, San Juan, El Salvador, La Repoublica, Santa Maria, San Antonia, El Dorado, La Vega and Tortuga.
Several relics of the Indian settlements still surface in these areas.
In 1995, the Indian Arrival Day was declared a public holiday, marking the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first set of East Indians May 30, 1845.
A number of social, cultural and religious activities have been planned to mark this occasion.
In a historical first, the ministry of national diversity and social integration has organised a re-enactment ceremony at Nelson Island, just off the coast of Trinidad.
Here, the Indians were quarantined and later despatched to the estates to work.
Brinsley Samaroo, former head of the history department at the University of the West Indies at St. Augustine, Trinidad, a noted historian on the Indian diaspora, has listed many aspects of the first shipment.
He cited Reid Irving and Company, owners of the sugar estates in Trinidad, who warned their local agents of the possible state of health of the immigrants.
“Such is their miserable condition in their own country that they have been found to be of very little use for the first six months in Mauritius,” the company noted.
“But perhaps the good living on the longer voyage may make them arrive in a more efficient state in Trinidad.”
Samaroo said the living and working conditions were so harsh that these had prepared the first lot of indentured workers and thousands more later to brave enough to survive and cross the “Kala Pani” of the Andamans.
“Some had had previous service in Mauritius, which they had reached (from India) after four to five weeks. Even these had no idea that the voyage to the Caribbean would be more than thrice the distance.”
Recently, Trinidad and Tobago Foreign Minister Winston Dookeran said the Indian diaspora here must not simply be a pressure group, it must now play its part in shaping the national citizenry with all sectors of the population.
“It must move beyond the national boundaries and demonstrate its capacity as a national force in the entire Caribbean, Central America and South America.”