Communitarian Indentities and the Private Sphere: A Gender Dialogue Amongst Indo-Trinidadians (1845–1917)



The travel of a critical mass of women workers during the seventy or so years of indentured migration under imperial charters from India to the Caribbean has had important implications for the ways in which questions regarding the much contested terrains of ‘home’, ‘identity’, ‘space’1 and associated cultural formations have taken shape in the diasporic homelands.2 Here an attempt is made to reconstruct the gendered dynamics of one such relocation in Trinidad in the period between 1845 and 1917 through the reading of official and non-official sources such as memoirs, newspapers, one female authored autobiography and oral interviews with Indian men and women.


Indenture Worker Indian Woman Indian Parent Sugar Estate Plantation Society 
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  1. 1.
    The term ‘identity’ is used not in any monolithic, fixed sense, but in the ways by which it transforms and is transformed and constructed by historical location and context. Similarly ‘space’ is also not used in the literal sense as place, but as the means and politics of reinventing a location, home and belonging. Space then is socially constructed, adaptive, hybrid and responsive to historical context. For a critique of traditional anthropological concerns and definitions of space and place, community, identity and ‘culture’, see Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, ‘Beyond “Culture”: Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference’, Cultural Anthropology, 7:1 (February 1992) pp. 6–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Walton Look Lai, Indentured Labor, Caribbean Sugar — Chinese and Indian Migrants to the British West Indies, 1838–1918 (Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) p. 276.Google Scholar
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    For an interesting treatment of the role of Hindu ritual in the Surinamese Indian community see Peter van der Veer, ‘Authenticity and Authority in Surinamese Hindu Ritual’, in David Dabydeen and Brinsley Samaroo (eds), Across the Dark Waters — Ethnicity and Indian Identity in the Caribbean (London: Macmillan Education, 1996) pp. 131–46.Google Scholar
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    For a detailed study of race relations in Trinidad in the nineteenth century see Bridget Brereton, Race Relations in Colonial Trinidad (1870–1900) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Sidney W. Mintz, ‘Labor and Ethnicity: The Caribbean Conjuncture’, in Richard Tardanico (ed.), Crises in the Caribbean Basin (Political Economy of the World System Annuals, No. 9) (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1987) p. 55.Google Scholar
  6. 12.
    For a study of community and gender politics in the Indo-Trinidadian community in the post-indenture period see Patricia Mohammed, ‘A Social History of Post-Indenture Migrant Indians in Trinidad — a Gender Perspective 1917–1947’ (PhD thesis, Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, Netherlands, 1994). Also see her following articles: ‘Gender as a Primary Signifier in the Construction of Community and State among Indians in Trinidad’, Caribbean Quarterly, 40:3 and 4 (Sept.-Dec. 1994) pp. 32–43; ‘Structures of Experience: Gender, Ethnicity and Class in the Lives of Two East Indian Women’, in Kevin Yelvington (ed.), Trinidad Ethnicity (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993) pp. 208–34; ‘Writing Gender into History: The Negotiation of Gender Relations Among Indian Men and Women in Post-indenture Trinidad Society, 1917–1947’, in Verene Shepherd, Bridget Brereton and Barbara Bailey (eds), Engendering History — Caribbean Women in Historical Perspective (Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 1995) pp. 20–47.Google Scholar
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    Noor Kumar Mahabir, The Still Cry — Personal Accounts of East Indians in Trinidad and Tobago During Indentureship (18451917) (Tacarigua, Trinidad: Calaloux Publications, 1985) p. 79. This interview of Maharani by Mahabir was recorded in creole English peculiar to the dialect of the Indian indentured labourers who came from India. It is a mix of creole (i.e. African) English and interspersed with words from Indian languages like Bhojpuri and Hindi. The same incident is recorded by Patricia Mohammed in her interview with Maharani and her daughter Mrs Mahadaye Ramsewak. University of West Indies Oral History Project (St Augustine, Trinidad) Tape OP-62, no. 33. (henceforth UWI/OPREP)Google Scholar
  8. 17.
    For non-gender-specific statistics on the number of Indian indentured immigrants known to have returned to India see Walton Look Lai, Indentured Labor, Caribbean Sugar — Chinese and Indian Migrants to the British West Indies, 1838– 1918 (Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) p. 279.Google Scholar
  9. 18.
    Sarah E. Morton (ed.), John Morton of Trinidad: Pioneer Missionary of the Presbyterian Church in Canada to the East Indians in the British West Indies. Journals, Letters and Papers (henceforth John Morton Memoirs) (Toronto: Westminster Co., 1916) p. 236.Google Scholar
  10. 21.
    The social or imagined construction of ‘India’ is what Rushdie has aptly termed ‘Indias of the mind’. See Salman Rushdie’s essay, ‘Imaginary Home- lands’, in Imaginary Homelands — Essays and Criticism 1989–1991 (London: Granta Books in association with Penguin Books, 1991) pp. 9–21.Google Scholar
  11. 23.
    Anna Mahase Sr, My Mother’s Daughter — The Autobiography of Anna Mahase Snr. 1899–1978 (Union Village, Trinidad: Royards, 1992) pp. 11–13.Google Scholar
  12. 32.
    By the 1930s for instance there was a mushrooming of Indian organizations championing the cause of different religious groups and political interests. Some of these were the Indian National Congress, the Tackveeyatul Islamic Association, the East Indian National Association, the Canadian Presbytery (later Canadian Mission to the East Indians), the Sanatana Dharma Association, the Anjuman Summat-Ul-Jammat Association, the East Indian Friendly Society, the East Indian Welfare Association, and the East Indian Educational Association. See J.D. Tyson, Report on the Condition of Indians in Jamaica, British Guiana and Trinidad (Simla: Government of India Press, 1939) pp. 26–7.Google Scholar
  13. 35.
    Concerns with the post-colonial immigrant subject in the age of transglobal capitalism and labour have animated discussions particularly in anthropology and cultural studies. The critique of culture as a homogenous and closed category and the methods of social analysis of how cultures produce themselves in the post-colonial situation have generated some useful categories of understanding the shifting and protean nature of any immigrant society. Although the subject of ‘borders’ and ‘border crossings’ is a vast and evergrowing field of scholarship, I have found some of its methods useful in understanding my area of research. I have borrowed eclectically from Renato Rosaldo’s chapter ‘Border Crossings’ in Culture and Truth — The Remaking of Social Analysis (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1989) pp. 196–217; also from Ruth Behar’s chapter ‘Translated Woman’ in Translated Woman — Crossing the Border with Esperanza’s Story (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1993) pp. 275–302.Google Scholar
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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2001

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