The Regulation of Religion and the Making of Hinduism in Colonial Trinidad

The Regulation of Religion and the Making of Hinduism in Colonial Trinidad

The Regulation of Religion and the Making of Hinduism in Colonial Trinidad

The Regulation of Religion and the Making of Hinduism in Colonial Trinidad


How can religious freedom be granted to people who do not have a religion? While Indian indentured workers in colonial Trinidad practiced cherished rituals, "Hinduism" was not a widespread category in India at the time. On this Caribbean island, people of South Asian descent and African descent came together--under the watchful eyes of the British rulers--to walk on hot coals for fierce goddesses, summon spirits of the dead, or honor Muslim martyrs, practices that challenged colonial norms for religion and race. Drawing deeply on colonial archives, Alexander Rocklin examines the role of the category of religion in the regulation of the lives of Indian laborers struggling for autonomy.

Gradually, Indians learned to narrate the origins, similarities, and differences among their fellows' cosmological views, and to define Hindus, Muslims, and Christians as distinct groups. Their goal in doing this work of subaltern comparative religion, as Rocklin puts it, was to avoid criminalization and to have their rituals authorized as legitimate religion--they wanted nothing less than to gain access to the British promise of religious freedom. With the indenture system's end, the culmination of this politics of recognition was the gradual transformation of Hindus' rituals and the reorganization of their lives--they fabricated a "world religion" called Hinduism.


He seems to infer thence—so many ceremonies, so many rights—
to their free observance. But this rule—a rule of liberal governments
only, has its limits.

—“The Coolie ‘Hosay’ Fete,” Trinidad Chronicle, March 27, 1871

Religion before Hinduism

The telegraph wires were blocking the route of the procession of tombs. in 1871 the newspaper the Trinidad Chronicle published a petition submitted by a group calling itself “A Conbination” [sic]. the petitioners identified themselves as “coolies,” Indian indentured laborers. They were writing to request the temporary removal of telegraph wires strung across the public roads leading into the city of San Fernando, in the south of Trinidad. the wires blocked the passage of their tadjahs, large bamboo and paper models of the tombs of Imams Husayn and Hasan, grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad, that were taken on procession during Hosay (or Muharram), the commemoration of the lives, struggles, and deaths of the Imams. a Conbination wrote:

We Coolies have conbined [sic] of preinforming you that, as our fete
day is rapidly advancing, we shall indeed be exceedingly joyous of
beholding everything clear before us for the same purpose. Example,
as there are varieties of Nations as well as Sexes: There are also a
great diversification in their rites and ceremonies. For instance, take
the first for granted: the English takes a great delight in attending to
his Church, for he believes it pleaseth God: in like manner the Pagan,
by paying his homage to his God Hosá, he also believes it pleaseth
the same God. Hence we deem it necessary to strive all efforts of
avoiding all obstacles which withstands or deters us from
perpetrating that homage which is attribute [sic] to God.

These Indian laborers were engaging in a complex set of comparisons and translations between “rites” and “ceremonies” “English” and “Pagan” in . . .

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