For over 100 years, Barbados has been home to immigrants from East India, specifically Bengal, Gujarat and Hyderabad Sindh. Over the years, they have played a significant role in shaping Barbadian culture and contributed to the advancement of the Barbados economy. They still maintain this role in society today. This paper seeks to explore the history of the East Indians in Barbados and their impact on Barbadian Culture.
Unlike our African ancestors the Indians residing in Barbados today were not brought here through means of slavery or indentured labour, they came of their free will.
In the early 1900s, India (then a colony of England) was in a very bad state for the underprivileged living there. Being poor and without land, acquiring wealth and status was difficult. Many poor Indians lived in small villages owned by landlords while having to “work like slaves for about 50 cents per week” (Nakhuda 2013:11). At this time, diseases such as cholera, smallpox and leprosy were popular among the impoverished. Seeking a better life, Indians left an early 20th Century India and travelled to Mauritius, Fiji, South Africa and other countries.
However, The West Indies saw its first movement of the East Indians, prior to this 20th century migration. After slavery was abolished across the British Colonies in the Caribbean around 1838, a call for indentured labourers was made, particularly in Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, St. Lucia, St Vincent, Jamaica and Grenada. The British brought East Indians to these islands to work the plantations since the then freed slaves no longer wanted to be a part of the plantation system. None of these East Indian labourers were brought to Barbados.
Barbados, one of the British Colonies was commonly known as ‘Little England’ because of the many political and social similarities it shared with its ‘mother country’ England, some of which are still evident today. Like all countries in the Caribbean it was subjected to the slave trade and the plantation system with blacks being dominated by whites. After slavery, the English settlement in Barbados of course influenced an English parliamentary structure, with the plantation owners and other wealthy whites being the major controllers of all social and political systems. They held any positions of prestige, all the major positions in the public services and controlled the judicial systems at that the time.
The British brought ‘poor whites’ as indentured labourers to Barbados and unlike in the neighbouring islands, many slaves continued working the plantation. Therefore, there was no need for the East Indians on our shores. As an island with a sugar based economy and one of the first to export its products, the plantation and its workers were in high demand. However, Barbados was considered to be over-populated thus access to workers was plentiful. The white overseers took advantage of this and mistreated their workers while paying them very little per week knowing that if a worker chose to leave another one could be easily hired. This continued until the 1937 riots when in July of 1937 a labour activist by the name of Clement Payne was deported by the colonial authorities because he had begun holding mass meetings among workers preaching about labour rights and a movement for change. The whites saw this threat and sought to eliminate it. They deported him on the grounds that he falsified his immigration form upon entering Barbados. This then fueled an uproar among the black community ultimately resulted in notable change to the Barbados labour laws.
However, according to Sabir Nakhuda, the first East Indian to reside in Barbados was a man called Bashart Ali Dewan. His research shows that Bashart left India around 1910 heading for Trinidad after news of his father in law’s settlement there. He stayed in Trinidad for a while. There he learnt the itinerant trading business from the many Bengalis engaging in such at that time. Itinerant trading is the business of a door-to-door salesman trading on a credit basis. However, hearing of a niche market in Barbados he decided to go there for better financial profits. Hence Barbadian shores received their first East Indian merchant.
Upon his arrival, Dewan resided around various areas in Bridgetown settling in Suttle Street and later Milk Market. He started his trade by purchasing products from the merchants in Bridgetown, and then traveled to the countryside to sell them. He eventually opened a store on Swan Street selling shoes, haberdashery and raw materials for ladies and gents. Bashart hired a “caller” to advertise for him, it is said that his voice could be heard from one end of Swan Street to the next.
By the laws of Islam, a man is permitted up to four wives, not being able to afford to send for his wife in India he married his second wife by 1920, but within four years she left. Bashart then married his third wife, Pauline Taylor, and had two daughters. However, Dewan fled Barbados and returned to India during the 1937 riots, sources said he was heavily in debt.
Bashart Ali Dewan was the first East Indian merchant from Bengal on our shores and the pioneer of an aspect of Barbadian culture that is still a norm today. Stories of his venture ignited a trail of merchants to follow. Mentionable names are Mohammed Abdul Rohul Amin, Sheikh Nasrul Huque, Atar Ali, Arshad Ali and Babujan Dewan. They all engaged in itinerant trade and built a close-knit network that served to support other Indians that later immigrated to the island.
These merchants lived under one roof, sharing rooms and meals to save money for business use, and to send back to their families in India. Those already living in Barbados took the newcomers under their wings giving them a place to stay and teaching them the ins and outs of the trade.