Afro Indo Unity: Can The Ganges Ever Meet The Nile? Part 3
By N Oji Mzilikazi
December 20, 2011
(Originally published in Montreal Community Contact Volume 21, Number 26)
After the destruction of Jerusalem, Jews were dispersed all over the world. For centuries they were expelled from different countries; kicked from pillar to post, murdered, executed, and even forced to embrace Islam and Christianity.
Throughout their centuries of trials and tribulations, the Torah and Talmud were the keepers of their soul. It kept them united. It kept their culture and language alive. It empowered them towards the goal of freedom, cultural and religious preservation, and the desire to return to their homeland.
On the other hand, Africans enslaved and brought to the New World were deliberately stripped of religion, language and culture- things that are psychologically sustaining, and within which are elements intrinsic to positivity of race, self-affirmation and self-respect.
The loss of religion, language and culture resulted in a huge emptiness in the souls of Black folks. As goes the adage, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” The void created by the eradication of identity was replaced with a lot of different things, some of which contributed to the self-defeating behaviours, self-hate and dysfunction that continue to paralyse.
Slavery stripped the African soul bare from its moorings and left a lot of psychological disfigurement in its wake.
The conditions under which East Indians came to the West Indies and worked under were a far cry from that of the African. East Indians weren’t forced to come to the West Indies as Africans were- in chains. East Indians never felt whips on their backs to increase plantation productivity. East Indians never experienced torturous suffering or inhumane and sadistic punishment. That is not to infer they had an easy time under Indentureship.
East Indians came to the West Indies on their own volition. As Indentured labourers, they came bonded and with a contract that stipulated length of service, rights, privileges and a return passage back home.
They came with their soul, religion, culture and language intact. And more importantly, neither did their British masters nor did the Plantocracy have any machinations for their dissembling.
The freedom to maintain religion, culture, and ethnic integrity during Indentureship and after, allowed East Indians- both Hindus and Muslims to remain a collective.
Even if an East Indian strayed and went as far as converting to Christianity, he could easily return to his roots. His language, holy books and gastronomic culture was preserved and available for his extraction or indulgence. Enslavement ensured Africans in the West had no such reference.
When Indentured East Indians came in contact with ex-slaves on the plantation, they didn’t encounter a people that were whole or original. They encountered a people who had lost their language, religion, culture, knowledge of their history, and sense of self. They encountered a people denied education but on whose backs huge fortunes were made. They encountered a people socialised by abuse and violence and afflicted by plantation induced colorism- status and or value according to skin complexion.
Hundreds of years of miscegenation- with the island indigenous/Amerindian population and Europeans, had produced changes and variation to the physiognomy of the African population. And to which they- East Indians and others yet to come would add their DNA and further change.
When the Ganges encountered the Nile in the Caribbean, they came in contact with a people that historical forces- French, Spanish and English colonization had racially and culturally oppressed. In Trini parlance, they encountered a “Nowayrian.” A person who was neither this nor that, a person without discernable roots or belonging to anything, a person shaped by an aggregate of diverse influences.
Yet, out of that hotchpotch, self-determination, self-definition and culture emerged. The ex-slave was able to bring forth and establish as his culture, the synergy of different cultures that had impacted on his soul.
Despite the retention of cultural fragments, his identity wasn’t tied to Africa and people whose language he didn’t speak, and whose culture he didn’t know.
He didn’t see himself as an African with allegiance to Mother Africa. He couldn’t see it. Enslavement made sure that his linkage to Africa was severed, and Africa was a continent to be ashamed of. He was Negro.
Given all that occurred during centuries of the forced relationship, the African ex-slave saw his sweat and blood as contributing to his having a stake in his island home, as well as being part owner of its patrimony. He was proud to be a product of his particular island. He was faithful to it, and boldly represented its spirit. He was Trini to the bone, Bajan to the bone, Guyanese to the bone, Jamaican to the bone- nationalist to his island home.
It took the rise of Pan Africanism and worldwide reverberations of the Black power movement for Caribbean people of African descent to come to terms with, and accept that they were Africans, simultaneously an island to the bone person, as well as a West Indian. And those identities weren’t in conflict with each other.
Inasmuch as the religious and cultural link between East Indians in the Caribbean and India were never frayed, much more broken, East Indians rightfully felt they had nothing in common with African Caribbean people.
Island nationalism as exhibited by people of African descent was not in their books. They had Mother India into whose bosom they were scheduled to return. And so their allegiance was primarily to their ethnic and religious community.
Africans didn’t mind. They were about doing for self, forging an independent existence – building their own empire.
As detailed by Honourable Edmund Fredericks- within seven years after their freedom, the ex-slaves in Guyana purchased six plantations in Berbice and seven in Demerara to the value of $237,667.
Those plantations became villages of which Buxton, Plaisance, and Friendship are well-known. Later on, Buxton and Friendship were joined.
According to David A Granger’s “Victoria and the village movement” (Stabroek News 15/11/09): On November 7, 1839, eighty-three free men and women from five plantations paid $10,284 for Northbrook, a former cotton plantation of about 500 acres.
“Two-thirds of the money was paid right away in coins, delivered in a wheelbarrow, some of them still black with the mud in which they had been buried.”
The thrust for Black economic independence in Guyana (and elsewhere) led to the plantocracy and colonial hierarchy doing everything in their power to stymie growth. Consequently, they engaged in active discrimination against Africans to frustrate their hopes, dreams and ambitions.
For example, while laws were enacted to make it difficult for former ex-slaves to own land, land was offered to East Indians in lieu of their return passage to India.
As per Granger’s article- from 1862 “Special legislation was introduced to levy ‘improvement rates’ and to put up villagers’ property for sale to recover those rates if they remained unpaid.” Granger noted that by 1887, growth of the villages were halted. “The villages came under the control of state-appointed commissioners.”
It is to be expected that anyone forced into perpetual servitude would eventually hate their toil. So though land has always been one of the foundations for empire building, freed Africans moved away from “the source” of their enslavement, especially where there were indentured labourers to work the land.
In Trinidad, Africans overwhelmingly opted for protected living- to work for salary in other fields rather than engage in entrepreneurship- self-employment, being buyers and sellers or shop keepers. That cultural legacy accounted for Afro-Trinidadians not carrying the torch of entrepreneurialism when they go abroad.
Thus we see here in Montreal, and I suspect in the rest of Canada as well, it is much easier to find Blacks hailing from Jamaica, Barbados, Grenada, St. Vincent, and other islands in business before a Black Trini. And to know that Trinidad has always been considered the Mecca of the Caribbean.
The importation of East Indian Indentured labourers to fulfil the labour needs on plantations in Guyana and Trinidad, combined with industriousness and entrepreneurialism facilitated them becoming an economic powerhouse. The attainment of wealth and property, ability and opportunities to obtain same gave East Indians a stake in the society, and converted them into a “to the bone islander” as well.
The passage of time- a century plus residency in the West Indies resulted in certain aspects of East Indian culture being lost, discontinued or abandoned. Even some of their languages were to fall victim. Environmental, cultural and ideological transformation resulted in Mother India ceasing to be their heart and soul. Like Africans before them, history had given them new roots.
In spite of the love and nationalism of both Afro-West Indians and Indo-West Indians to their respective lands, ethnic misleaders persist and insist on dividedness and divisiveness. They refuse to process that racial antagonism and sustaining feelings of race-based dispossession are a recipe for violence and race-based crime. They refuse to process that economic prosperity goes hand in hand with social stability, and together both races aspire, together they achieve and the country enriched.