By Dr. Kumar Mahabir
On May 30th 1845, the Fath Al Razak docked in the Port of Spain harbour in Trinidad and Tobago with 225 adult passengers on board. The passengers were immigrants from India who had come to the British colony to work in the sugarcane plantations after the abolition of African slavery. They had spent 103 days on sea during the arduous and dangerous journey that spanned 14,000 miles (36,000 km). The immigrants were contracted for five to ten years to work in the sugarcane estates in a system that ended in 1917.
A total of 147,596 Indians came to Trinidad over a 70-year period. Although they were promised a free return passage back home, at least 75 percent of them stayed and settled in the New World colony. In many ways, they brought India to the Caribbean. They continued with their traditions of Hinduism and Islam, and eventually transformed Trinidad into a colourful cosmopolitan society with their introduction of new styles of dress, music, songs, dance, language, cuisine and customs.
Descendants of these Indian immigrants, who now comprise about half of the multi-ethnic society of the island (1.3 million), commemorate the arrival of their ancestors to these shores annually. The commemoration takes the form of prayers, speeches, songs, music, dances and plays in communal as well as public spaces. The spirit of the day is invoked at various beaches with the reenactment of the landing of the first boat-load of pioneers who gave birth to the Indian community in Trinidad. The historic day has been proclaimed a national holiday since 1994.
In most celebrations, replicas of the ship Fath Al Razak are constructed which holds the same sentimental value as the Mayflower has for Americans. At libraries, books and other reading materials are put on display. Schools engage children in art and research competitions, and in the re-construction of their respective family trees. Citizens are encouraged to collect and display old photographs and artifacts relevant to the history of Indians in the Caribbean. For the second year, the Indian Caribbean Museum at Waterloo will open its doors to the public with selected exhibits for the occasion. Its large collection includes old and antique items such as old musical instruments, agricultural objects, cooking utensils, pieces of clothing, old photographs and rare books. The Museum also houses an art gallery and a reference library
Community, national, regional and world heroes like V.S. Naipaul and Errol Sitahal. are honored. Sitahal is an actor who starred in the Hollywood films Tommy Boy (1995), A Little Princess (1995) and Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle (2004). Naipaul is a writer won almost every major literary award in English in the world and is the only Trinidadian to win the distinguished Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001. Like Emancipation Day, which is also a public holiday every August 1st, participants re-commit themselves to traditional values and celebrate their respective cultural contributions to the multi-ethnic society.
The entire month of May has been deemed as Indian Heritage Month, but May 30th holds a special historical significance. On that day, participants gather to honour their ancestors who had crossed three oceans to travel halfway around the world to reach the Caribbean. They gather to pray for their souls and to seek guidance and blessings for the future. Scholars, teachers and elders share their knowledge of the past and increase public awareness on this important aspect of the nation’s history and heritage.
Speakers and writers emphasize the common experience of Indians and Africans under colonial rule, and the links between indentureship and slavery. It is a day of remembrance as well as reflection, and a time for celebration of unity in diversity. Both Indian Arrival Day and Emancipation Day demonstrate the historical similarities rather than the differences of descendants of Indians and Africans in Trinidad and Tobago.