Muslim Indo-Caribbean Identity: Muslim Indentured Resistance to Colonization and Colonial Policies
Updated: Jul 30
By: Karimah Rahman
Indentured labourers were displaced (1) from Hindostan (2) (present-day South Asia/ India) to the Caribbean since 1838 under the system of indentureship during European (3) colonization (4) after the abolishment of slavery in 1833 as a labour replacement on the plantations. Indentured labourers experienced horrific working, living conditions and trauma during indentureship. This intergenerational trauma can still be felt today due to ongoing legacies of colonial violence (5) that continues to influence understandings of identity. What the descendants of indentured labourers experience today needs to be unpacked on an ongoing basis as Indentureship's Intersectional Intergenerational Trauma. This piece is based on the spoken word(6) in my article entitled, The Trauma of Indentureship, Colonization and Resistance: Muslim Indentured Labourers in Trinidad and Guyana. This piece will explore selected stanzas of that spoken word which referenced Muslim indentured labourers resistance to British colonization and colonial policies in both Trinidad and Guyana.
Indentured labourers endured Labour Laws, which were colonial policies designed to curtail the agency of indentured labourers by “denying them access to the Immigration Office to air their grievances”. These greivences include but are not limited to violent “managers, wage rate disputes (arbitrary deduction of wages), disagreements over tasks or sexual” violence and rape against womxn. Labour Laws and Vagrancy Laws allowed the institution of indentureship to control a formally administered life for indentured labourers, it cut off their contact “with wider society for a long period of time” and it administered “heavy penalty sanctions” in order to “reduce indentured labourers to a state of helplessness and dependence”, where white colonizers had full control.
This stanza (see here for full spoken word) explores the legacy of Muslims resisting colonialism, which was brought from Hindostan (such as with Mazar Khan) to the Caribbean. Muslim indentured labourers then continued this legacy of resisting colonialism by resisting colonial policies (Labour Laws), such as the case with Jumun and Pultun, Salema (7) as well as the Muslim riot leaders during the the Rose Hall Riots.
This stanza (8) unpacks how Muslim indentured labourers resisted the colonial policy of the Indian Festivals Ordinance of 1882, which prohibited the celebration of Hosay with the procession of taziyas with tassa in the public roads. This resistance to colonialism by Muslim indentured labourers was met with solidarity from Black Caribbeans and Hindu as well as Christian indentured labourers. These acts of resistance against colonialism in Guyana and Trinidad were met with bloody violence from the colonizers with 100 rounds shot with 41 injured and 15 murdered in the Rose Hall Massacre and 20 rounds shot leaving over 120 injured and 22 murdered in the Hosay Massacre.
Along with Labour Laws, Vagrancy Laws were colonial policies designed to control and restrict the movement of indentured labourers between estates (even when they were not working) to the point that they were required to “get a pass signed by the manager of the estate to leave”, they were apprehended if without a pass and essentially their movement was policed. This stanza unpacks the extent Muslim indentured labourers went to resist colonialism and these Vagrancy Law colonial policies in order to prevent proselytization and the erasure of their religion as well as culture.
Muslim indentured labourers would resist the Vagrancy Law colonial policies by:
Meeting outside of working hours since they were hyper surveyed by “their colonial ‘masters’, and they couldn’t go about as pleased. So they waited ‘til midnight, when the lights at their bosses was off, and they travelled by foot from one district to the other so they could find other Muslims and get them together in one location (or house) in order to teach makhtab (islamic school) and Islam…. Though their pay was 25 cents per day in about 1900, in the estates, they built their mosques with their own hands and without assistance from” anyone but themselves.
Since Muslims comprised a minority at 14% or 16%, (80,000) of indentured labourers displaced to the Caribbean, there were few Muslims scattered across each estate. Therefore restricting the movement of indentured labourers on estates restricted the ability of Muslims to communicate with each other across different estates or to gather and forge a deeper sense of permanent community. Muslim indentured labourers resisted colonization and proselytization in these Vagrancy Law colonial policies in order to create a sense of community. This was done by initially praying jummah under a mango tree, saving money to construct a masjid with no help from anyone else, keeping roza (fasting) while working on the estates in the fields, praying taraweeh all night after working in the fields keeping roza, learning the sunnah and teaching Qur’an in makhtabs. If Muslim indentured labourers were caught travelling across estates, violating the Vagrancy Laws, they would be facing threats of death, jail and lashes. These various acts of resistance to colonization, have influenced and impacted the formation of Muslim Indo-Caribbean identity (9) over generations. Its legacy can be seen in but not limited to masjids peppered across the Caribbean, the perpetuation of Qur’an Sharifs/ Moulood functions and the continued singing of qaseedas/ qasidas in Urdu in the Caribbean. These legacies then continued wherever Muslim Indo-Caribbeans migrated to (ex: Canada, the USA, Europe etc.), such as how Muslim Indo-Caribbeans also establishing masjids in Canada (such as the Taric Masjid in Toronto), they continue to hold Qur’an Sharifs/ Moulood functions and continue to sing qaseedas/ qasidas in Urdu.
At the same time it is important to acknowledge that Muslim Indo-Caribbean identity is not limited to Muslim overt religious expressions, instead Muslim Indo-Caribbean identity is within a wide gamut (10) that just happens to include these expressions among others. Muslim Indo-Caribbeans are "not a monolithic or homogeneous group or community” but “comprised of various cultures, ethnicities, nationalities, languages, gender identities, sexual identities, abilities, socio-economic statues etc”. Muslim Indo-Caribbean identity is formed over generations and expressed differently by each individual based on their “multiple intersectional identities, truths, positionalities and lived experiences”. Due to length constraints this article only explored how resistance to colonization and the colonial policies of Labour Laws, Vagrancy Laws and the Indian Festivals Ordinance of 1882 shaped Muslim Indo-Caribbean identity, especially those who express Muslim Indo-Caribbean identity in more overt religious expressions. With so few documentations on the resistance of Muslim indentured labourers to colonization it is imperative to record this history and its influence on Muslim Indo-Caribbean identitiy. These Muslim Indo-Caribbean identities (and voices) are regularly marginalized, erased, silenced and invizibilized in Indo-Caribbean, Indentured Diasporic, Indian, South Asian, Caribbean, West Indian and Muslim spaces (11), including spaces where they migrated to a second time, like Canadian spaces. This marginalization then affects global as well as local policies (12). It is imperative to understand this history of Muslim Indo-Caribbean marginalization in policy in order to develop greater equity and inclusion of Muslim Indo-Caribbeans during contemporary or future policy-making processes.
(1) This displacement from Hindostan carries ranges of unfree displacement (some were stolen and deceived) or unfreedom and varying levels of agency.
(2) Hindostan can be defined as the “territory colonized by the British Raj (pre-partition British colonized India) that lies in present-day South Asia (India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives (and at times Myanmar)”.
(3) British, French, Duth as well as Danish colonization
(4) Indentured labourers were displaced from Hindostan to the Caribbean under British colonization (to Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana (British Guiana), Jamaica, Belize (British Honduras), Saint Lucia, Grenada, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and the British Virgin Islands etc.), under French colonization (to French Guiana, Guadeloupe and Martinique etc.), under Dutch colonization (to Suriname etc.) and Danish colonization (St. Croix). The Caribbean became a location with a large Indo-Caribbean population descending from predominantly these indentured labourers.
(5) These ongoing colonial legacies of violence stemming from indentureship include but are not limited to how it has shaped mental health (and how mental health is perceived), high rates of suicide and gender-based violence, with so many men killing women they were in relationships with and/or their children followed by suicide (such as the murder of Riya Rajkumar by her Indo-Guyanese father in Ontario). The trauma of indentureship is carried in our cells and passed down in our genes with each generation as the descendants of indentured labourers.
(6) The spoken word featured in this article, entitled The Trauma of South Asian Indentureship During the Colonization of Trinidad and Guyana, was originally published in 2019 in the book Woke & Loud a Faith-Based Medley of Muslim Poetry & Spoken Word, by Inked Resistance Publishing on pages 143 to 148. The article served as an updated, annotated version of my spoken word published in the book to provide context to its stanzas.
(7) Salamea referenced in the Spoken Word is mentioned in Aliyah Khan’s article: https://www.academia.edu/38023177/Protest_and_Punishment_Indo_Guyanese_Women_and_Organized_Labour
Adhan: The adhan (adhaan, azan, azaan, or athan) is the Islamic call to prayer, recited by the muezzin at prescribed times of the day. The root of the word is ʾadhina meaning “to listen, to hear, be informed about”
Namaz: word used among South Asian Muslims for the Islamic prayer known as Salah/Salat in Arabic, it literally means ‘prostration’ and is used to mean ‘prayer’.
Jummah: Prayers done by Muslims on Friday
Sujud: A prostrating position of prayer done by Muslims
Masjid: Mosque, place of worship for Muslims
Dua: literally meaning invocation, it is an act of supplication. The term is derived from an Arabic word meaning to ‘call out’ or to ‘summon’, and Muslims regard this as a profound act of worship. This is when Muslims connect with God and ask him for forgiveness and favors.
Agarbatti: Incense sticks that are lit for fragrance used popularly in South Asia
Attar: Various perfume oils used popularly by Muslims
Qur’an Sharifs/ Mouloods: A gathering where Muslims recite the Qur’an and qaseedas/ qasidas are sung, also known as a Moulood function along with Qur’an Sharifs.
Qaseedas/ Qasidas: Religious songs of praise sung by Muslims – which continues to be popular in South Asia as well as in the diasporas
Roza: fasting during the month of Ramadan
Taraweeh: Extra nightly prayers during Ramadan
(Source: https://www.caribbeanmuslims.com/the-trauma-of-indentureship-colonization-and-resistance/ and https://www.caribbeanmuslims.com/unpacking-indian-arrival-day-as-the-descendant-of-muslim-indentured-labourers)
(9) Muslim Indo-Caribbeans can be defined as those who self-identify as both Muslim and Indo-Caribbean simultaneously. This is usually within the context and positionality of descending from Musalman (Muslim) indentured labourers displaced by colonization from Hindostan to the Caribbean since 1838 or descending from indentured labourers who were not Muslim and more recently chose the path of Islam. Not all those who self-identify as Muslim Indo-Caribbean descended from indentured labourers, but this piece will only focus on the descendants of indentured labourers.
(10) Self-identification with being a Muslim Indo-Caribbean is based within a wide gamut of what each individual believes being Muslim/ Muslim-ness and Indo-Caribbean/ Indo-Caribbean-ness is and what these identities mean to them based on their multiple intersectional truths, identities, positionalities and lived experiences. Self-identification with being Muslim/ Muslim-ness comes within a wide gamut or degree of ‘practicing/ non-practicing’, ‘religiousity/ non-religiousity’, ‘spirituality/ non-spirituality’ (these terms mean different things to each individual) as well as cultural attatchments and everything in between. Self-identification with being Muslim Indo-Caribbean can include having at least one parent (or grandparent) that is Muslim or being of mixed ancestry with at least one ancestor being a Muslim indentured labourer displaced to the Caribbean. Self-identification with being Muslim Indo-Caribbean also includes a wide gamut of relationality to/ or not to the West Indies/ West Indian-ness, Caribbean/ Caribbean-ness, India/ Indian-ness, South Asia/ South Asian-ness and where a home/ homeland (or multiple homes/ homelands) lie. Each person claims/ does not claim, chooses to self-identify/ or not to self-identify differently with these identities based on their intersectional positionality, lived experiences and relationality to these various identities. One can self-identify with multiple identities or homes simultaneously with each identity meaning something different to each person.
(11) Indo-Caribbean (Indentured Diasporic and Indian) spaces, culture or history is overwhelmingly represented as Hindu-centric by default since Hindus are viewed as “authentic/ pure” Indo-Caribbeans (descendants of indentured labourers and Indians). This is due to Anti-Muslim Racism (Hindutva ideology and Hindu Supremacy), where Indo-Caribbeans (descendants of indentured labourerers and Indians) are equated with the Hindu Diaspora and Hinduism, leaving Muslims/ Islam invisibilized and underrepresented as ‘inauthentic/impure’ Indo-Caribbeans (descendants of indentured labourers and Indians). Caribbean (English/ French/ Dutch and Danish colonized regions) and West Indian spaces, culture or history is overwhelmingly represented as well as equated as Christian and Black/ Afro-Caribbean by default, leaving Muslim Indo-Caribbeans invizibilized as not ‘authentic’ Caribbeans or West Indians (or not Caribbean/ West Indian enough due to being both Muslim and Indo-Caribbean). South Asian/ Indian spaces, culture or history is overwhelmingly represented and equated as Mainland South Asian/ Indian (Migrated from South Asia/India after partition/1947 or descended from those who did) by default since Mainland South Asian/ Indian’s are viewed as ‘authentic/pure’ South Asians/Indians, leaving Muslim Indo-Caribbeans invizibilized as ‘inauthentic/impure’ South Asians/Indians. Muslim spaces, culture or history are overwhelmingly represented, equated as Middle Eastern (predominantly Arab) as the default since Arabs are viewed as more ‘authentic’ Muslims due to Arab supremacy where many experience Arabization, leaving Muslim Indo-Caribbeans marginalized. Western (Canadian, American, European etc.) spaces are overwhelmingly represented as well as equated to whiteness by default, due to Colonialism and White Supremacy, leaving Muslim Indo-Caribbeans invizibilized.
(12) Such as the marginalized intersectional positionality of Muslim Indo-Caribbeans in India’s Diaspora Policy and Canadian Policy (such as The South Asian Heritage Act, 2001 that was politically mobilized by the Indo-Caribbean community, yet Indo-Caribbeans are invizibilized in its implementation of South Asian Heritage Month).
*The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors