By Rachael Ali, Head Writer for Foreign Affairs
Art by Rhea Da Costa, Resident Artist
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Trinidad and Tobago is a dual-island Caribbean nation located just seven miles off the coast of Venezuela. The mainland of Trinidad is just 1,850 square miles—roughly the size of Delaware—and the two islands have a combined population of 1,368,000 people who come from a variety of backgrounds. The two main ethnic groups are from African and Indian descent. Afro-Trinidadians and Indo-Trinidadians, as the groups are called, make up 34% and 35% of the population respectively—the latter being my heritage. But how did these two ethnic groups end up in Trinidad & Tobago? What created such a deep divide between them? And how has that influenced Trinidadian politics today?
Christopher Columbus arrived on the shores of Trinidad on his third voyage to the Western hemisphere, and the Spaniards controlled the island from 1498 to 1797, at which point the British took over. Like many other Caribbean islands, Trinidad’s primary agricultural crop is sugarcane. Throughout Spanish and British colonial rule, African slavery was used to cultivate sugarcane until 1838, when England abolished the practice in all of its colonies (Julien 2006). This ruling ended 300 years of cruel and inhumane treatment of enslaved people: familial separation, degradation, torture, and extreme exhaustion from working sixteen to eighteen hours a day (Moore 1995). However, there was still a high global demand for sugar, so the British turned their attention towards India. Thus, the system of Indian indentured servitude began. This influx in immigration from India made Trinidad & Tobago’s racial demographics distinct from other Caribbean islands today.
Indians first arrived in Trinidad & Tobago in 1845 (Khan 2007), and the practice of indentured servitude continued until 1917 (Moore 1995). During this 72-year period, roughly 400,000 Indians voyaged to and set up permanent residence in Caribbean nations (Roopnarine 2011). About a third of these Indians were sent to Trinidad (Khan 2007). However, many Indians claimed that they had agreed to voyage to the islands “under false pretense” (Khan 2007), unaware of the harsh conditions that they would endure while working on plantations.
African slaves and Indian indentured servants faced similar challenges. For example, strict laws enacted by the white planter class dictated that indentured laborers were unable to travel over two miles past the plantation where they lived and worked (Roopnarine 2011). In fact, the population of Indian indentured laborers had a higher death rate compared to all other ethnic groups in the country (Roopnarine 2011).
To reiterate, Africans and Indians arrived in Trinidad & Tobago under colonial rule at the beck and call of the white planter class. Why, then, is there so much racial division in Trinidadian politics today? The answer to this question has religious, societal, and colonial implications.
Firstly, Africans and Indians differed in their religious and spiritual beliefs. The majority of Indians brought their Hindu and Muslim faiths to Trinidad, while many Africans maintained the spiritual traditions stemming from their motherland, such as voodoo and obeah (Wright Muir 2020). When Indians arrived to Trinidad, the majority of Afro-Trinidadians had converted to Christianity, while a minority continues to practice voodoo and obeah to this day. However, Indians largely resisted Christianity until the arrival of Reverend John Morton and his Presbyterian missionaries in 1868; and, even then, they remained apprehensive of Westernization (Moore 1995). This is one of the reasons why Indians were faced with xenophobia upon their arrival, as they were foreign and considered to be “exotic” in this pre-formed, Afro-European society (Khan 2007).
Indian societal and cultural norms were another factor that created a rift between Afro and Indo-Trinidadians. Indians came to Trinidad with the caste system mentality, which forbade them from mingling outside of their class and race. Additionally, as Indians were reluctant to conform, they tended to stay in the rural areas and keep to themselves (Roopnarine 2011). Many Indo-Trinidadians opposed race-mixing because it was viewed as “a drain from the size of the Indian community” (Stoddard and Cornwell 1999), rather than a contribution to a larger culture.
One last source of racial tension was the colonial government which inhibited racial intermingling, thus preventing cultural integration. For example, from 1845 to 1917, government officials hired many indigenous peoples and Afro-Trinidadians in order to recapture Indian indentured servants who had fled their plantations. White people in positions of power also divided people of color through the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes. One infamous perpetrator of these stereotypes was the previously mentioned Reverand John Morton, the leader of Presbyterian missionaries dedicated to converting Indo-Trinidadians. Morton made it common knowledge in Trinidadian society that Indians were lazy drunkards (Khan 2007), brainwashed by “‘dark idolatry’” and a “‘Mohammedan delusion’” (Moore 1995). Similarly, Morton stated that Afro-Trinidadians were poor, ignorant heathens who beg and steal to survive (Moore 1995). Ultimately, these constant lies and degradation took a psychological toll on the lower classes of African and Indian descent, as these two majority groups began to tear each other down in a desperate attempt to join whites at the top.
So how does all of this history come into play today?
Trinidad & Tobago was emancipated from England in 1962, and the 1960s saw the rise of the People’s National Movement (PNM) which was supported mainly by the Afro-Trinidadian community (Nakhid, Barrow, and Broomes 2016). With the election of Eric Williams (PNM) as Prime Minister in 1966, white officials were ousted from their highly powerful positions in the legislature and the school system. However, a worthy adversary arose to oppose the PNM; the Democratic Labour Party, supported primarily by Indo-Trinidadians, known today as the United National Congress (UNC).
Trinidad & Tobago has been under PNM leadership since 2015 with the election of Dr. Keith Rowley as Prime Minister. Prior to his election, the UNC was in power with Prime Minister Kamla Persaud-Bissessar serving from 2010 to 2015. Bissessar was the first woman to hold this position, and made global history as the first person of Indian origin to be elected prime minister of a country outside of India and South Asia. She was also named Time Magazine’s 13th most influential female leader in 2019. One highlight from her administration is the completion of Couva Hospital in 2015, which is currently being used to treat Covid-19 patients as well as conduct research regarding post-Covid treatments by students at the University of West Indies in Trinidad.
Despite this success, many Trinidadians are upset with the state of Couva Hospital, which was originally intended to be a children’s hospital with facilities for adults. It was supposed to be a fully functioning hospital with a burns care unit and a pharmacy, but it is not being used to its full potential or capacity. This is largely due to the subsequent Rowley administration, which has stated that the government was unable to provide sufficient funding and staff for the institution. However, many Trinidadian citizens and politicians are in disbelief, as “there have been calls to have the hospital functioning and to forget the politics” (Wayow 2016). This hospital could serve Trinidadians of all races and political affiliations and has strong grassroots support, but the Rowley administration’s course of action has caused even further division and animosity.
Despite negative public response over the hospital, Rowley’s administration has coped well with the Covid-19 pandemic, with 51.3% of the total Trinidadian population fully vaccinated.
Despite this success, a large reason behind the delayed opening of the Couva Hospital and why Trinidad’s political parties are racially divided is because the country is ethnically segregated. In other words, there are “black” areas and “Indian” areas, much like how regions in the US are predominantly white and others are mostly populated by people of color or immigrants due to historical practices like redlining. Indo-Trinidadians are typically found in the South of Trinidad while Afro-Trinidadians reside in the North of the island. This has led to certain issues in particular areas being ignored by whichever administration is elected. In December 2022, I stayed with my family in the South of Trinidad for over two weeks, and it was not hard to notice that their roads are littered with dangerous potholes and far too narrow to qualify as two-way streets (but are functioning as such). Indo-Trinidadians, like the cousins who I stayed with, have been imploring the government to fix this faulty infrastructure, but because this issue is in the South, these inquiries have gone ignored by the PNM for eight years.
All in all, present racial tensions in the Trinidadian government can be traced to British colonialism, as the white upper class took advantage of differences between Africans and Indians and used these differences to turn these two groups against each other. These harmful, colonial-era stereotypes have unfortunately persisted to this day and made their way to the top of the Trinidadian government, resulting in the suffering of the entire Trinidadian population, regardless of race.
Rachael Ali is a third-year undergraduate student at BU, currently serving as Happy Medium’s Head Writer for Foreign Affairs. She is originally from the Bronx and is majoring in political science with a double-minor in Spanish and French. Rachael’s goal is to attend law school and become an international lawyer. This past summer, Rachael was an intern political journalist at Happy Medium. Topics that Rachael is passionate about include immigration, reproductive rights, indigenous communities, gun laws, and environmental justice.
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