In the upcoming weeks, I will examine some not-too-explored themes, in what I term the Indo-phone zone of Guyana, in an attempt to foster a better understanding of an ethnic group that is not well understood. I begin this week with the exploration of some dynamics that transpired on the Indian sea voyage to the Caribbean.
The Indian sea voyage was the most mysterious and most dangerous aspect of the Guyanese Indian indentured experience. It was mysterious mainly because it happened on the high seas, away from public view; as well, only a handful of Indian passengers wrote about their sea voyage experience. We are left to ponder. It was dangerous mainly because it was a voyage that had to cross the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, but more so the southern tip of Africa. The waves around the southern tip of Africa were notoriously high and rough, rocking the ships like a baby in a hammock without that gentle feeling. When this was about to happen, a few Indians, some with previous experience, would shout Pagla Samoondar (the mad sea), informing the entire shipload of about 400 Indians that the mad sea is about to act up, and so that they would duck to the floor or run for cover from one end of the ship to the other. In some ways, it seemed like they were trapped in a floating war zone, and had no choice but to wait it out. Unfortunately, we know very little of how traumatized these individuals were after their sea voyage experience.
What we do know more about is that, in the midst of this Pagla Samoondar experience, there was the presence of disease, death, rape, anxiety, fear, and feelings of separation from Darti Mata (home); then almost unbeknown to some, the appearance of new ones onto a new world — the most appreciative aspect of the journey. I do not know if these new ones were giving any make-shift birth ceremony, as in India. However, Hindu babies born anywhere during the sea voyage were named Samoondar for male and Samoondari for female; which of course means born at sea. The name Samoondar has changed so much over the years to look differently, like Samsundar or Shamsundar; but, fundamentally, the name means your ancestors were born at sea, not in India or British Guiana. You have a unique historical sea/Samsoodar citizenship.
I am not sure how many babies were born on the sea voyage. The records show that on most ships of about 350-400 Indian passengers, there were about 15 infants; half of the infants might have been born on the ships. An estimated 75-100 infants might have been born and survived the sea voyage from 1838 to 1917, and some of these infants grew up and started a new family in British Guiana, or went back to India with their parents. I thought this information might be useful to contemporary Indians who wish to trace their roots and routes.
The mad sea produced another interesting dynamic. You are probably familiar with the nineteenth century Indian social caste structure wherein individuals were born to specific stations of life with limited opportunities for upward social mobility. On board the ship were high, middle and low castes, which was really an uncommon situation, since members of different castes did not mix and mingle. Limited space on board the ship did not allow for the social liberty of separation. As expected, one day a huge quarrel broke out among the castes about maintaining separate caste rules with regard to what, where and when to have meals. The high caste did not want to eat with, or share food with, the low caste; and then, in the midst of this quarrel, a huge wave hit the ship and all the food was mixed up. It then became a choice of sharing or starving. The different castes decided to share food, space, feelings and so forth, which led to the formation of Jahaja Bhai and Jahaja Bahin (ship brothers and sisters) across caste and religion, something they would take with them to the plantations of British Guiana.
I am baffled as to why the Indian Chapatti, a popular Roti staple in India, did not make it across the Kala Pani. There are, of course, Clap-Hand Roti in Guyana and Suriname, and Buss-Up-Shut Roti in Trinidad, but they bear no resemblance to Roti in India. In my many lengthy conversations with scholar Dr. Brinsley Samaroo, I gathered that the Indian sea voyage might have contributed to this rupture. What happened was that Indian cooks on board the ships found a short cut to their daily work routine. Instead of making over 600 chapattis every day, they decided to have a large cooking tawa, a round and flat cooking utensil, to make lesser larger Roties, which eventually led to a new tradition of making Roti in the Caribbean. The Indians preferred the new tradition because it was less time consuming for them. The outcome was that, like caste, fire-walking, hook-swinging customs, the making of Chapatti never survived the sea voyage crossing.
Conversely, the Shraddha (dead work), a ceremony performed 13 days after a Hindu person has died, did not occur on the voyage. There might have been some Sannyasis who preferred no Shraddha ceremony upon death. Generally speaking, the deceased were wrapped in cloth and thrown overboard. Interestingly, however, the Shraddha ceremony has survived in the Indo-phone Caribbean. ([email protected]).