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Of cane and mist Commemorating 169 years of arrival

Angelo Bissessarsingh wrote this last year, the 169th Anniversary of Arrival
Of cane and mist Commemorating 169 years of arrival

In this 1940s shot, a young boy strips a piece of cane with his teeth.

In this 1940s shot, a young boy strips a piece of cane with his teeth.


Published: Sunday, May 25, 2014

In this 1940s shot, a young boy strips a piece of cane with his teeth.

In 2009 I was invited to be part of a project by my friend David Maharaj which was facilitated by the University of T&T and spearheaded by novelist Lawrence Scott. It was a unique primary-research undertaking which manifested itself in a book—Golconda, Our Voices, Our Lives—that allowed the people of a small sugar-cane belt village to tell of their experiences which were recorded with very little editing. Though my role in the project as consulting historian was somewhat detached, I became indelibly aware that the sugarcane belt was not just an economic driver (later a drain on the treasury, thanks to decades of mismanagement), but a way of life.
The experience of working on the Golconda project has inspired today’s column, which is not the fact-heavy fare I usually write, because I find it necessary, on the 169th anniversary of Indian arrival, to fully appreciate the actual daily life of the cane worker within living memory, and even more so because my grandfather Roopchand Mahabir was a cane farmer for many years.

Much can be written about the squalid conditions of the barracks wherein indentureds were confined upon arrival, but even today, there are people to whom the barrack-room is still home. The sugarcane fields are now a fading memory since the industry was scrapped in 2007, but several generations can remember the dank chill of the mists that gathered in the canes in the wee hours of the morning, a vapour that penetrated the very bones of the labourers as they rose from string beds or floursacks on the floor. Watering the cane with their sweat Man and woman alike, as well as children, would water the cane with their sweat for generations. To the women of the family would fall the task of coaxing a fire in the earthen chulha so that a cup of weak tea and a roti could be prepared and filled with an aloo talkaree to take to the fields.
Fired to rid them of the trash, the canes were felled before sunup because in the full heat of the dry crop season, labour was very difficult indeed. There is a peculiar smell to burnt canes that already a generation born will never know. In the dark morning, pitch-oil flambeaux would give a bare light by which men and women alike felled canes by the thousands. Then came the midday labour of stacking them on donkey carts (later tractors) for them to be taken to the scale, in the eager anticipation of meeting the requisite tonnage which meant precious hard cash in their pockets. Days of relentless toil to earn so little is a burdensome existence that many today cannot countenance. Much of the pay was spent every fortnight in the rumshop; if the labourer was not careful, he would leave nothing for the meagre shopping list of the housewife.
Children of the cane

Life during crop time was characterised by lengthy days, punctuated at noon for a meal of rice or roti and talkaree under the blazing sun amid cut canes. And yet this was the necessary sacrifice for the children of the cane to escape the bondage into which their ancestors had tied themselves since 1845. Children of the cane grew up with hard, scratched palms from the endless chores of gathering firewood, tending livestock, or for the hapless many, work in the “grass gangs,” uprooting the tough weeds that sprang up among the rationing canes in the rainy season. Those whose parents could afford the uniforms and books usually went to the Canadian Mission (Presbyterian) school, of which there was one in almost every sugarcane belt village by the early 1900s. Although illiterate, the parents were aware that within these humble schools lay the escape from the cane.
Indomitable spirit
Not all was sorrow and pain. Community life and the credo of “jahaji bhai” bonded families together and the vibrant expressions of identity—Ramleela, Hosay and Phagwa—were evidence of the indomitable spirit of optimism. Though many would argue otherwise (for their own selfish intentions) that the unity between Afro- and Indo-Trinidadian is but an idealistic chimera, it existed in the cane, where suffering was not a respecter of colour unless one was white. In the Golconda project, we researchers were often reminded of this by Mrs Sandiford (now deceased) a proud Afro-Trinidadian woman and devout Anglican who spoke Bhojpuri and nursed the children of her Indian sisters along with her own. I dive back deeper in time to indicate that dozens of Afro-Trinidadians were present among the wounded and dying in the Hosay Massacre of 1884 and bore the brunt of the law when later they were charged for their role in support of their oriental fellows. Sober reflection and a contemplation of what was—and how it influenced what is, and what will be—must be the mantra of arrival.
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