Let's Talk: The Presbyterian Influence on Indo-Caribbeans
Written by: Tiara Chutkhan
For our Indian ancestors, religion played a large role in their lives prior to the indenture period and continued to hold its significance on Caribbean soil.
Majority of indentured Indians were Hindus, but other religious groups practiced Islam and Jainism. The Hindu remnant is still strong today with over one-third of Guyana’s population and nearly a quarter of Trinidad and Suriname’s population practicing Hinduism. According to Operation World, 83% of the Caribbean population are Christians, while 0.81% are Hindu. Of the half a million Indians that migrated to the Caribbean, 84% were Hindu. The amount of our ancestors that converted in the past two centuries are startling.
Within years of reaching the Caribbean, our ancestors began to lose grip on their Indian culture and religion.
The caste system was one of the first things to fall apart as there was no longer a structure people could adhere to. Labourers came from different regions of India, spoke different dialects and of course, came from different castes. The Canadian Presbyterian Church was a large force in the conversion of Indians.
Prior to the 1870s, there was little effort to educate the children of indentured labourers. In Trinidad for example, missionaries focused their efforts in the south where the majority of the population was Indian. People sent their children to schools run by missionaries in hopes it would give them employment opportunities outside of the plantations and raise their status in society.
Reverend John Morton led this mission and seized the opportunity to convert Indians. To encourage this, he established a school within the church and offered lessons for Indians in broken Hindi. The majority of lessons emphasized reading, writing and Bible knowledge. John Morton and his team offered medical and legal assistance to Indians, disguising their intentions with a blanket of kindness and familiar language. Those who did convert were sometimes offered jobs as teachers, catechists or preachers within the congregation; a large improvement from working on a plantation.
By the time he died in 1912, 90 East Indian congregations had been established— 63 established by him.
The Canadian Presbyterian Church established an East Indian mission in Guyana in 1860. Led by Reverend James Cropper, their tactics were very similar; providing education to Indians in exchange for their conversion to the faith. The efforts of John Morton, James Cropper and others ultimately led to a small portion of converts at the time. Still, it’s interesting to see how over the past century, more Indo-Caribbeans have begun practicing Christianity and identifying as Christians.
It’s important to look at the experience of our ancestors when we consider what would prompt them to convert. The work they did was labour intensive, with long hours and many regulations around what they were allowed to do outside of their work. There was little regard for their religious needs by their employers. Their work hours prevented them from performing ritual prayers. Indian Marriages, both Hindu and Muslim, were not legally recognized unless registered with the District Immigration Agent. Children of these unions were often considered illegitimate. Problems with property inheritance were common and governors had to re-grant land to the children of Crown grantees who had failed to register their marriages and died intestate.
Other examples of restrictions of faith included wedding and funeral practices. Hindus weren’t allowed to beat drums at their wedding ceremonies which were traditionally held at night because they disturbed sleepers. Hindus also had to bury their dead since they were not given permission for the traditional cremation ceremonies. Alcohol and ganja consumption was common and it didn’t take long for ordinances and laws to be implemented around the usage.
Even after many islands gained their independence in the mid 1900s, schools continued to offer free education to Hindus who converted as well as free medical care from Hospitals.
Many Hindus worked around these attempts by adopting Christian names and practicing their religion in secret. Syncretism was evident in the growing participation of Hindus in Christian practices such as All Saints’ Day and the visiting of Siparia, a Catholic figure who some Hindus eventually adopted as “Sipari Mai” or “Mother Siparia.”
During the period of indenture, many Indians likely felt that conversion was their only way out of the canefields. When they arrived in the Caribbean they were faced with elimination of their past identity and the ways of life they had always known. Many Caribbean islands were British colonies, so naturally their religious beliefs played a key rule in the rules and regulations they enforced. Missionaries understood the predicament of the Indians and preyed upon it. While this has led to widespread practice of Christianity, we must also be thankful for the devotion our ancestors had to their faith.
The traditions of Hinduism were able to be passed on despite generations of colonialism and coercion. Not all cultures have had this privilege.
Indo-Caribbeans have maintained the power to define themselves regardless of where they’ve migrated to. Our devotion and strength has continued to be a source of inspiration and should never be forgotten.
Balaji, M. (2015, April 15). The Hindus of the Caribbean: An Appreciation. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-hindus-of-the-caribbe_b_6680036
Beyond the Legacy of the Missionaries and East Indians. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://books.google.ca/books?id=Nm3DDwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=christian churches and indians in the caribbean&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiNzc6mqortAhWAGVkFHR8-DE4Q6AEwAXoECAgQAg#v=onepage&q&f=false
Diaspora Christianities. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=R_tmDwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA84&dq=indo caribbeans and christianity&ots=lnq2L5esni&sig=8O0arf_tfuUTrBOUvgPm9vtseII#v=onepage&q=indo caribbeans and christianity&f=false
Persaud, P. K. (2013). HYPHENATED HINDUS: A Study of the Relationship between the Formation of a Indo-Caribbean Hindu Identity and the Development of the W elopment of the West Indian T est Indian Temple in T emple in Trinidad and in the United States. Retrieved from https://surface.syr.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=rel_thesis
THE EXPERIENCE OF INDIAN INDENTURE IN TRINIDAD: LIVING CONDITIONS ON THE ESTATES. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.caribbean-atlas.com/en/themes/waves-of-colonization-and-control-in-the-caribbean/daily-lives-of-caribbean-people-under-colonialism/the-experience-of-indian-indenture-in-trinidad-living-conditions-on-the-estates.html