Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Historiography of Indians in the Caribbean

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Historiography of Indians in the Caribbean

Article excerpt


Between 1838 and 1920, more than 550,000 Indians (South Asians) came to the Caribbean as Indian indentured labourers.1 Of this number, 238,909 immigrants went to British Guiana and 143, 939 went to Trinidad.2 When the system of Indian indenture came to a close by 1920, about 75 per cent of the immigrants had opted to stay in the Caribbean.3 Nearly 175 years later, Indians are an integral, yet often distinct compositional element of the Caribbean landscape. The descendants of these indentured labourers now form an ethnic majority in Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Surinam. Though substantially smaller, the Indian communities in Jamaica, Martinique, Guadeloupe and St Vincent are definitely visible, both demographically and culturally.4 However, in such countries as Grenada, Saint Lucia, St Kitts and Belize, the extremely small numbers, together with variant factors, have seen an almost total absorption of the Indian immigrant communities into their respective societies.5

The bulk of the indentured labour to the Caribbean was drawn from the Uttar Pradesh and Bihar regions of India, with significantly smaller numbers coming from south India and Bengal. This predominance of immigrants from the "Bhojpuri belt"6 inevitably generated Indian cultural, social and religious transfigurations throughout the Caribbean that are firmly and predominantly rooted in the Bhojpuri traditions of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.7 Yet, the vagaries of time, space and circumstance have generated varying and multidimensional transformations visible in almost all facets of Indo-Caribbean social, cultural and religious ideology and practice. These seemingly paradoxical yet concurrent trends of change and continuity have characterized the Indo-Caribbean experience since the earliest days of indenture, when significant levels of adjustment had to be made to life on the plantation. The journey, however, was not always smooth.

Historiography is usually defined as the study of the writing of history, but also used to refer to the range of historians' writings on a particular theme.8 The historiography of the Indian experience in the Caribbean has functioned aptly as both repository and metaphor of the Indo-Caribbean experience. Indo-Caribbean historiography serves as a lens through which the major developments, trends and themes in Ind°Caribbean history can be examined.9 This body of work, emerging from the mid-nineteenth century, is extremely multifaceted and is substantially based on a large body of sources. According to John Tosh, historical sources "encompass every kind of evidence that human beings have left of their past activities - the written word and the spoken word, the shape of the landscape and the material artefact, the fine arts as well as photography and film".10 The main historical sources on the Ind°Caribbean experience include official records and documents, Christian missionary writings, newspapers and journals, both Indian and nonIndian publications, oral history, the oral tradition, and later, a multitude of scholarly works. In addition to various forms, variety in perspective, agenda, time, context and interpretation yields a striking historiography; one that directly mirrors the changing social, political, economic and cultural ethos in the Caribbean; and that speaks of the dynamism that has characterized the Indo-Caribbean experience for almost 175 years. This paper attempts to document and analyse the nature and impact of this extensive body of writing on Indians in the Caribbean, with specific emphasis on Trinidad and Guyana. It aims to explore the various loosely categorized stages and phases in the emergence and development of this historiography. It will also seek to examine, not just the body of work itself, but how transformations in perspective, orientation and form in the historiography were, simultaneously, born of and reflected larger social transformations.

Indo-Caribbean Historiography

At an initial glance, the historiography of the Indians in the Caribbean can be structured around four loosely defined categories, relatively correspondent with the various experiential and developmental phases of the Indo-Caribbean community. …

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