Caribbean Islands are often seen as a place of leisure where tourists hop across to enjoy the warm climate and lay by the water bodies to enjoy their vacations. The people in the Caribbean are mostly in the party mode, open-hearted, and frank in conversation. There’s no mystery that a majority of the population living on these islands has come from India and made it the effervescent and bubbly region that it is today.
Akin to other foreign nations with a sizeable Hindu populace, the Caribbean islands were introduced to Indians and the Hindu faith by the colonists. After slavery was abolished in the 19th century, European-owned sugar plantations of the West Indies desperately needed new workers.
They wanted cheap and skilled labourers fast. The Indian labourers were well-acclimatized to the warm conditions of the Caribbean, and thus became the outright choice for the system of indentured labour.
Indians labourers set sail from Calcutta port:
On May 5, 1838, a British ship named the Whitby reached Guyana with 249 human cargo, who all set sail from Calcutta, three months prior. This was the first contingent of Indians, mostly from the state of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to land in the islands.
Over the next 80 years, more than 500,000 Indians would make the trip to the Caribbean as indentured servants, primarily to places such as Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname and Trinidad amongst others.
The majority of them stayed back:
Despite the cruel practice of shipping labourers thousands of miles away from their homelands, the majority of them preferred to stay put in the respective Caribbean countries, primarily because of the presence of a casteless society and that they had the opportunity to clean the slate and start from scratch.
The arrival of Indians brought a completely new culture where religion, language and social customs marked their unique identity. From the inception, they were considered different from the cultural groups already associated with western orientation.
Hindus quickly adapted and took the support of their faith to sustain:
Since Hindus were over 90% of the migrated Indians in the islands, Hinduism flourished and so did the sacred Vedic literature. Ramayana and Mahabharata became an integral part in the upbringing on Hindu nationals in the countries.
The reading of these sacred texts and singing of bhajans and kirtans to Hindu devas and devis such as Rama, Krishna, Shiva, Laxmi, Saraswati and Durga, bring the community together even today. Private pujas and public yagnas basically narrate the Bhagavat katha, creating a feeling of community; Deepavali and Holi are national holidays in several island nations.
Discrimination faced by Hindus:
However, Hindus, despite their laid-back and hardworking nature, were opposed by few. They were especially ill-treated by local Christian communities, which saw them as primitives and idolaters – as do most Abrahamic faiths. Even today, the Hindus in the islands have to withstand the hostility of Christian communities that are far more dominant locally.
Moreover, they also faced stiff hostility from the Afro-Caribbean communities, which resented them for ending the negotiation advantage they had historically enjoyed with the plantation owners.
According to a recent survey, Hindus constitute 16.6% of the national population of 1.4 million people of Trinidad and Tobago. The Edinburgh Hindu Temple in Chaguanas and the Shiva Kailash Temple of Caparo are some of the most popular Hindu temples famous amongst the Indian locals and tourists alike.
As for Guyana, Hinduism is the religion of almost 25% of Guyana’s population, making it the country with the highest percentage of Hindus in the western hemisphere. However, it is a stark reduction from the 35% Hindu populace in 1991.
Similarly, Jamaica was once home to 25,000 Hindus until the mid-20th century. However, most of them were converted to Christianity by the missionaries actively working in the region. In the last few decades, the population of Hindus in Jamaica decreased steeply.
In the 1970s, only 5,000 identified themselves as Hindus and as of 2018, some 1800 are left on the island. In 2017, Nathan Pandit who was believed to be the only Hindu priest in Jamaica, was murdered under mysterious circumstances.
While Hindus are comparatively dwindling in Jamaica, Hinduism is the second-most practiced religion in Suriname composing 22.3% of the population.
The Indians brought their eating habits and spices to the Caribbean countries as well. Consequently, the local cuisine by the African slaves was altered even further. Some signature Indian dishes like roti, aloo pies, chokas and pholourie form the staple diet of locals.
As a cricket-loving nation, one can easily identify the Indian origin players playing for the island countries. Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Ravi Rampaul and Denesh Ramdin are a few of the popular West Indian cricketers who come from all parts of the island and have a strong Indian connection.
Faced with the elimination of their identities and ways of life, the gritty Caribbean Hindu population has became more devout in their practice over the years. One can identify a Hindu family easily by looking at their houses which have flags hoisted atop their terraces – signifying their devotion towards Hindu gods. It is also a generous reminder that Hinduism arrived here 150 years ago, survived and thrived, and it is not going away anytime soon.