The Itinerant East Indian Trader Part II by Romar Parris

Published Friday, 12 February 2016
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Then as business grew for each merchant he moved out, married and began his own family. The merchants collected money from customers on a weekly basis with a handbook noting the customer’s name, address and how much they owed. They traded 5-6 days a week allocating each day to a different parish. At the time, the major challenge the traders faced was the language barrier. Their native tongue, Bengali, is very different from the Bajan dialect and Barbadian English spoken by the Barbadians but with their determination and some assistance from the “kind, gentle, helpful Barbadians” (Sabir Nakhuda, November 18th, 2015, Personal interview) they adjusted well enough to do business.

 

The West Bengali Indians were Muslim and they brought and maintained their faith in Barbados. They practiced it to the best of their knowledge, gathering on Fridays to pray and feast on favourite Bengali dishes such as rice, fish and “a kind of mashed potatoes with pepper and oil called Aloo Chanda” (Nakhuda 2013: 30). They would not have eaten or drank anything that was forbidden by Islam - such as pork or alcohol. Also they killed and prepared chicken by Islamic rights.  

 

Gujarali Muslim     

 

Following the Bengalis, the next set of Indians on Barbadian soil came from the providence of Gujarat. They also did not leave India with the intention to come to Barbados, but after no real success was found in Brazil and British Guiana they travelled here. They came with coal and coconuts following a rumour that there was a market for such; the coal was needed for cooking. While in Barbados they met their fellow countrymen from West Bengal and heard of their success through itinerant trade and decided to stay and learn the trade. The Gujarati had more knowledge of the Muslim faith; so they taught the Bengali Indians more of the faith and worshiped with them. Like the Bengalis, the Gujarati Indians sent word back home, and family and friends migrated to Barbados to join the trade. 

 

As more and more east Indians came to Barbados, their service grew increasingly popular, especially among the society’s working class. These merchants were the first to give them access to a credit system, allowing them the opportunity to purchase necessities and other items they could not ordinarily afford to buy from the ‘Broad Street Merchant’.

 

They came to be known as ‘coolie men’- a contemptuous term used by the British across its colonies to describe unskilled labourers from India. However, in Barbados, this term was used because of the association of seeing the merchants walking with their suitcases, had to the Indian baggage carriers known as coolies. The word was used “synonymously with the word salesmen and not derogatively as it was in India” (Nakhuda 2013: 42). They would travel by bus as far as St Lucy and walk around with a suitcase filled with their items.

 

Suitcase

As relationships developed between the traders and their customers they began indicating what things they wanted the merchant to get for them. Items most often included “ a cutlass to cut cane, a hat, 2 ½ yards of khaki material to make pants, khaki shirt, school shoes and uniform for the children at school time, on the occasional outing such as a wedding or funeral suitable clothing” (Sabir Nakhuda, November 18th, 2015, Personal interview).

 

The Gujarati Indians made a valuable contribution to the Bengali way of trade. They introduced the card system that replaced the aforementioned handbook. This system is still used today, to keep accurate record of payments.

 

As the years rolled by, the East Indians and their trade left an indelible mark on Barbadian culture and facilitated a boost to the economy. As their trade grew and business thrived, the mode of transportation evolved. Merchants went from walking and catching the bus, to riding a bicycle or motorbike then to a small car eventually to station wagons that allowed for a lot more room for stock and finally, to the vans of today. Additionally, the range of products available began to vary widely with the changing times. Almost any item big or small could be had from the door-to-door salesman and the Barbadian working class took full advantage of this. Particularly useful, was the ability to purchase cement and other costly materials to remodel the house under the same weekly repayment contract. It was an opportunity previously unavailable to them and many families utilised this to upgrade their homes from wood to wall structures. The average Barbadian could now afford to provide for their families in a manner they could not do before.

 

Today the Indian community in Barbados has emerged vastly with a notable presence in our society, from stores such as S.Y. Adam and Son and Thani’s Shoe Shop, to the various mosques where they worship and the Al Falah School in Bridgetown where they educate their youth.  Most still engage in trade whether it be door to door sales or a store but some have taken a different path, becoming doctors, lawyers etc.

 

The arrival of one East Indian immigrant to Barbados surely sparked a part of Barbadian culture, which helped to develop its economy, and continues to today. Their vans can still be seen travelling through neighbourhoods and their bells heard at noon summoning those of the Muslim faith to assemble for prayer. There has even been a noticeable increase in the local Muslim community and it is now not as uncommon as it was to see coloured faces in hijabs and kufis. Nakhuda estimates that such will continue comfortably for many more years to come.

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