Personal letters between relatives in India & Trinidad during indentureship

Personal letters between relatives in India & Trinidad during indentureship

The theme of this year’s edition of an Indian Arrival Day magazine is “Personal letters between relatives in Trinidad and India during indentureship (1845-1920). The magazine was produced by the Indo-Caribbean Cultural Centre.

For the first time in history, original, private correspondences are being shared with the general public. Few of these letters exist today. This sample consist of 18 letters: 9 from Trinidad and 9 from India. These letters have been sourced from the National Archives in Trinidad where they are housed, preserved and catalogued. 

The letters were written from 1910 to 1922, just after the semi-slave system ended in 1920. The letters were not written by the workers themselves, but on their behalf by Government officials such as the Protector of Immigrants in Trinidad, the Government Emigration Agent in Calcutta, and one by the Deputy Inspector General of the Military Police in Burma. Perhaps the bonded labourers themselves could not write in English, or allowed to write their relatives personally, or possibly post correspondences overseas without the assistance and approval of colonial government officials.

Some of the letter writers in Trinidad were T. Boodram Singh of Diego Martin, Ashaq Hussain and Ram Singh of Picton Estate, Paluvhiamliah of Waterloo Estate, and Bhawanie Dial of Sangre Grande. The letter writers from India were Narain Singh, Abdullah Allahdin, the mother of Mohamed Ismail Khan, the relative of Lakhiya, the brothers of Pruth Ramasara (alias Ram Singh) - all of them sending their correspondences through the overseas colonial office at Garden Reach in Calcutta. Other letter writers were the parent of Kewal who lived in Narela, Thana [police station] Alipur in Delhi, and Kalicharan Singh of Rangoon in Burma.

The subject of the letters from Trinidad included the welfare and health of immigrants, requests (for money) to return to India, and inquires for a postal address in India. One letter indicated that Rajaram, formerly indentured at St Valentine Estate, was now free at Kernahan’s Estate in Plum Road.  

The subject of the letters from India included a request for information on a brother, money, property, possessions of a deceased, return of a son, the whereabouts of a relative, a desire to go to Trinidad, cost to travel from India to Trinidad and the return of a brother.

These letters represent an historic link and solemn reminder of a wretched past. They serve as witness to one of the British Empire’s darkest moments.

These documents OF ordinary people in bondage, in sugar cane and cocoa plantations in Trinidad, are rare and priceless. They provide a glimpse of the lives of people who fought against odds and expressed themselves in writing. Like the slave letters at the Yale University Library in the USA, these manuscripts leave us with more questions than answers.

Did these letters truly reflect what these Indian folks wanted to say? Or were the contents of the letter mediated by the white, British colonial writers? Were there (more) issues that these folks wanted to tell their relatives abroad but were constrained to do so? Would these folks really reveal certain issues to the colonial official? Were the letters dictated in Hindi or English? Would the recipient of the letter have to find a translator to explain the contents that were written in English?

There were letters written by these folks themselves and sent directly to their relatives abroad.  The contents of these correspondences would not have had to pass through the hands of colonial immigration officials. It is difficult, almost impossible to find these rare documents.

V.S. Naipaul, the Indian Trinidadian Nobel Prize winner, made reference of the private letters exchanged between India and Trinidad. In his book An Area of Darkness (1964), he mentioned that his grandfather had returned to India in 1926. “On the train from Calcutta he fell ill, and he wrote to his family: ‘The sun is setting’” (page 278). That was all. Only one short sentence lingered. Naipaul himself never saw the actual letter.

These private letters form part of what is known as Subaltern Studies i.e. people’s history or “history from below” by folks in the lower class of society. The term “subaltern” is derived mainly from the work of the Italian Marxist philosopher and politician Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937). It is a type of narrative that attempts to reconstruct history from the perspective of common people, the non-elites, the non-leaders, the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the poor, the voice-less, the invisible, and marginal groups in society. The theory was later developed by writers such as Lucien Febvre, Albert Mathiez and E. P. Thompson.

Subaltern theory focuses on the views and voices of forgotten people. It is a revisionist approach to writing history in direct opposition to the method of focusing on great figures, referred to as the Great Man theory.