Comins had lived in India, spoke Hindustani, and was not afraid to show up at plantations unannounced, and demanded to see the wage records or lectured managers on perceived contraventions. His report was published in 1893 along with several pages of a personal diary.
His notes on immigrants from the East Indies to St. Lucia offered dramatic snap-shots of East Indian life in St. Lucia. By and large, Comins considered the free and indentured Indians to be fairly content with their lot, living amicably with employers and Creole co-workers. However, he did report several breaches of contract.
Did you know by 1891, of the 2,523 Indians in St. Lucia, there were 1,849 Hindus, 475 Christians and 199 Muslims? Muslims preferred to gather together, but their request was not always granted. Comins came across one Musulman and his wife at Retraite Estate in Vieux Fort who said he asked to be allotted the same estate as other Musulmans, but his request was denied.
Did you know local knowledge of Indian religion was minimal? At one point even the Protector of Immigrants, Robert Porter Cropper, told D.W.D. Comins that a marriage was formalized between two immigrants.
A Brahman priest named Nazir Ali brought a Koran and read some passages to the couple, the man was a Muhammadan and the woman was of Hindu caste. Regardless of his good intentions, Comins knew that Cropper neither understood the caste system, nor visualized Hinduism and Islam as distinct religions.
None of the administrative staff in the Immigration Office or on the plantation spoke or understood Hindustani, and the interpreters in the hospital were old-time Indians who learnt some Kwéyòl.
Did you know on the estates, pork and beef were banned from the rations and was substituted with salt fish? However, in facilities designed for the public, such religious sensitivity was absent. In the Castries hospital all soup was made with beef and pork and some Indians thought it was a deliberate conspiracy.
“A group of coolies mentioned that they tried to convert them to Christians because they made them eat pork and beef at the hospital, a custom which to them is one of the most important evidence of Christianity.”
By the same token, in 1897, Colonial Surgeon Charles Dennehy observed a contrary trend: “In an effort to save money, the coolies run themselves down by underfeeding. When they came to the hospital they put on 10 – 12 lbs in as many days. Then they go out to work, work out the fat and came in again to recruit.”
Nevertheless, caste sensitivities stood no chance in the face of indentureship.
Did you know between 1890 and 1900, Rev. John Morton established schools for the East Indian children in Mabouya, Mon Repos, Canelles, Roseau and Forestiѐrre?
Source: A History of St. Lucia by Harmsen, Ellis & Devaux – 2012
This feature runs every Tuesday and Thursday. It is compiled by daughter of the soil Anselma Aimable, a former agricultural officer and former correspondent for Caribbean Net News, who has a deep interest in local culture and history. Send ideas and tips to [email protected]