King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
‘The paradise of the world’: conflict and society in the Caribbean

Indian immigration

Population table of Trinidad for 1826Population table of Trinidad for 1826, from: Trinidad. Office of Commissary of Population. [Trinidad: statistical tables, 1797-1829]. [Trinidad]: [sn], [1829] [FCDO Historical Collection HA867 TRI]Unlike Jamaica, which lacked the capital to invest in immigration schemes, the colonies of Trinidad and British Guiana were profoundly altered in the decades after emancipation by the large scale use of indentured labourers from India.

The British government was initially unwilling to permit any scheme that smacked of forced labour, but after pressure from the sugar planters, who complained of an acute labour shortage, the embargo on Indian immigration was lifted in 1845.

Population tables for the island of TrinidadHenry James Clark. Our population. [Port of Spain, Trinidad]: [Government Printer], [1890] [FCDO Historical Collection HA867 CLA]Indentured labourers (known as ‘coolies’, a word derived from an Urdu term for a day-labourer and used to denote indentured labourers from Asia) were initially bound for a period of five years, during which time they received board, lodging and medical attention. When their term of engagement expired they could return to India, but many stayed on.

In the early yearsof the scheme indentured labourers suffered much hardship. Mortality rates,both during the voyage and after their arrival in the Caribbean, were high, with food and medical care frequently inadequate.

Portrait of an Indian immigrant holding an umbrellaPortrait of an Indian immigrant, from: JH Collens. A guide to Trinidad. London: Elliott Stock, 1888 [FCDO Collection F2121 COL]By 1883, however, people of Indian descent constituted a quarter of the population of British Guiana and a third of the population of Trinidad and a growing Indian middle class had emerged. The immigrants were industrious workers and in British Guiana and Trinidad the sugar industry boomed in the second half of the nineteenth century.

On display are three publications illustrating the rise in the Indian population of Trinidad. The population table for 1826 shows that even before emancipation Indian workers were present in Trinidad.

By 1889, as Henry Clark’s study shows, there were over 67,000 people of Indian descent on th eisland.

Collens’ Guide to Trinidad, aimed at the growing number of tourists visiting Trinidad, includes accounts of Hinduism and Islam and details of the habits and dress of the Indian immigrants. The Indians were largely responsible for the introduction of rice to the Caribbean, both as a cash crop and as a feature of the local diet.

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