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Neither did the colourful material from which it was made always come from India, though it did originate there, as Culture Minister, Ms Gail Teixeira, was at pains to explain.
“We used to call it, years ago, the Madras cloth; we always thought it came from Madras, India. In fact, the original fabric that was bought during slavery did come from Madras,” she told visitors attending the opening of the annual indentureship exhibition two Fridays ago at the National Museum.
“When we look at the photographs,” she said, “we recognise that it [the romaul] was a class symbol of the wear on the sugar plantation, so, women of African origin, as slaves, wore this headdress. And there is a reason for it.
“This was a head-piece that was used to protect you from the sun, and the Plantation owners liked them to be colourful, because they wanted to pick you up when you were working in the field.
“If they were of dark fabrics, or fabrics that blended in to the cane sugar, the overseers could not see you clearly, so they wanted reds and yellows; not greens and browns and greys, because you could blend in to the plantation environment.”
Once a year, she said, each slave was issued a specific quota of material which had to last them all year. Even the indentured labourers, who were eventually brought here from India upon the abolition of slavery, were issued similar fabric, but by then it was being manufactured in England and not India anymore.
“So, its being called ‘Madras cloth’ is more from tradition than reality,” she said.
Noting that from the many photographs on slavery, it can be seen that there are a variety of ways of tying the romaul, Minister Teixeira said: “This same fabric you will find in Martinique and Guadeloupe; it is worn as headdresses for fashion there. And they had very little or no linkage with India.”
History has it, however, that indentureship accounted for a total of some 25, 509 Indian nationals being imported into the French Caribbean island of Martinique between 1854 and 1889, and another 42, 326, the equivalent of one third its population, into the sister territory of Guadeloupe, between 1854 and 1885.
According to historian Dhiru Patel: “Most people know of the latter-day migrants and how they are faring in their new countries, but accounts of the earlier pioneers are largely consigned to scholarly tomes and hardly appear in popular circulation.
“Large-scale migration from the Subcontinent,” he said, “began in earnest in the 1830s with the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean. To replace the recently-freed slaves with cheap labour in the sugar and cocoa plantations (as well as coal mines and estates) in other British, French and Dutch colonies, the British government set up the system of ‘indentured labour’ to allow recruitment of workers to go abroad on five to 10-year contracts.
“The tiny Indian Ocean island of Mauritius situated 500 miles east of Madagascar (‘discovered’ by the Portuguese, and taken by the British in 1810 after periods of Dutch and French rule) was the first to receive Indian indentured labourers in 1834.
“Next came British Guiana in 1838, Trinidad, Réunion, Guadeloupe and Martinique in 1845, Jamaica in 1854, Natal, South Africa, in 1860, Dutch Guiana in 1873, Fiji in 1879, East Africa in 1895, and smaller numbers in a number of other outposts.”
They mainly hailed from the overcrowded agricultural districts of India, he said, where crop failure could plunge whole villages to near-starvation. In some instances, he said, “there were clear correlations between years of poor harvests in particular areas and large-scale emigration from there.”
He noted, too, that on a more individual level, there were those who migrated for more personal reasons, such as having displeased village notables, lost a family quarrel, or being wanted by the authorities.
“Because of the mystery surrounding emigration,” Patel said, “local touts (called arkatia or arkati) could easily prey upon vulnerable, illiterate villagers with wonderful accounts of places that required their services. It was only from the licensed recruiters at the boarding depot that the peasants often learnt of the true facts.
“But when they declined to go, they would be asked for road expenses up to the depot, which left the peasants with the choice of returning home penniless or emigrating. It was also often the case that the deception was concealed until arrival in the far-off colony, by which time it was obviously too late.”
Noting that all kinds of individuals were swept into the emigration agent’s net, Patel said that although the latter was supposed to examine the muscles and hands for signs of manual toil, they signed up anyone and everyone in order to fill the ships quickly.
One official report noted, for example, that of the 27 emigrants in one ship interviewed, 14 were non-labourers and included weavers, scribes, shoemakers and beggars, all of them having been duped into going overseas. On another boat, over half were domestic servants, soldiers, policemen, barbers, shopkeepers, hawkers, and even dancing girls and their male attendants.
Recruitment took place mainly in the interior, he said. This was in the days before the British built the incredible network of Indian railways, and so the labourers had to travel hundreds of miles on foot to reach the ports. An average trek from Varanasi or Patna to Calcutta port could take as long as 30 to 40 days.
With the advent of the railway, however, this trip was substantially reduced to less than two days.
According to Minister Teixeira’s account of the origins of the romaul, the garment was to later become a fashion-piece among indentured Indian women who would sometimes adorn them with embroidery or have them starched, fitted to their heads and permanently tied, so they could take them off and put them on at will, as one would a hat.
Later on, she said, the white variety was introduced for use on special occasions like religious work.
With reference to other remnants among the Indian artifacts on display in the exhibition, she said that because those who came here were basically ordinary folks, in that they weren’t rich, what little they had by way of jewellery was largely made of either copper, bronze or silver and comprised their dowry and wedding inheritances.
Later, because Guyana was historically a country rich in gold deposits, the manufacture of Indian jewellery was adapted to suit this mineral.
As late as the 1970s, she said, there was an Indian gentleman living in Campbellville who could still make jewellery the traditional way without the aid of modern tools.