Cutlass Magazine Founder Vinay Harrichan Explores the Legacies of Indentureship
The Repair Campaign had a conversation with Vinay Harrichan, Founder and Curator of The Cutlass Magazine about the ongoing legacies of Indian indentureship in the Caribbean.
January 17, 2024
Tell us about yourself and the inspiration behind The Cutlass Magazine.
I’m Vinay Harrichan, the founder and curator of the Cutlass Magazine, which is an online platform and podcast dedicated to the Indo-Caribbean community and descendants of Indian indentureship in the Caribbean, as well as in places like Fiji, Mauritius, and South Africa.
The reason I started The Cutlass Magazine in September 2020, was because of this pandemic-born desire to see more of a hub for the Indo-Caribbean community online. I felt like there was a lack of content representing Indo-Caribbean communities so I figured I would try to inject myself into that space and see if people were even interested to learn more.
I’m an engineer by profession – I’m not a journalist – but when I started the Cutlass Magazine, it came on the tail end of three or four years of independent research that I had started purely as a hobby because I wanted to learn more about my background and my culture and my history. I figured what’s the point of keeping it all to myself? I might as well share it with other people.
So now three and a half years later, the platform is still there and there are plans to make it bigger and better and get more people involved.
From your research and personal experience, what are some of the ways the legacies of Indian indentureship continue to affect Indo-Caribbean communities today?
I’ve actually been studying a lot about how we internalise bodily trauma throughout generations and how much of it is physiologically based. When I have conversations with Indo-Caribbean people, one of the most unfortunate things that we bond over is the fact that almost all of our families can have discussions about the crippling effects of diabetes or high blood pressure. We all have a family member who has some kind of kidney failure issue or is on dialysis.
It’s very unfortunate to see how much we as a group of people continue to be crippled by health issues which are linked to our history of indentureship.
We can also see the high rates of alcoholism in the community.
The planters ensured that on every estate there was a rum shop, and people were not making enough money to purchase a lot of quality goods, so these young people ended up buying rum to get through the trauma of what was happening to them. You can see those effects still trickling down to the community now.
Those are some of the physical ramifications of indenture that I continue to see, but there’s also the mental health aspect of it – the depression and the very alarming rates of suicide. If you look at the
countries where Indian people form the largest population in the Caribbean – Suriname, Trinidad, Guyana – in all three of those countries, I believe the statistics say that Indian people have the highest rate of suicide. Suicide is something that happens in almost every family that I know, my own family included.
There’s something in Trinidad that they refer to as “Indian Tonic,” which came about as a joking way of referring to the high percentage of Indian men who commit suicide using a fertiliser called Gramoxone. That’s a direct ramification of what happens when people who work in agriculture have so little access to resources and support, while being in a community where there’s not a lot of very open discussions about mental health.
I also see the ramifications of indenture in the gender-based violence that continues to be a huge problem, with men abusing and killing their wives. It’s something that continues to happen even in the diaspora, where there are large populations in New York, Toronto and Miami.
During indenture, there was a disproportionate ratio of men to women who were recruited. And while this did give women more of an option in terms of the partners that they would have and the ability to remarry, an unintended consequence was that men began competing for women and becoming very possessive of women, seeing them as property to be kept.
Because divorce in the Indo-Caribbean community is a very taboo thing, whenever there’s an issue in the household you see a lot of men resorting to domestic violence and even killing their wives. And almost always once they do that, then they kill themselves. That’s something that you see in the Trinidadian and Guyanese newspapers all the time that we’ve almost become desensitised to.
Even in my own family growing up, you would hear about someone getting beaten by their husband or by their partner, but it was brushed under the rug the same way that suicide was.
We also see the legacies of indentureship in some of these stereotypes that we often encounter. One joke that you often hear is that Indo-Caribbean people always fight for land, money, and jewellery. And I think that comes from a scarcity complex, where land, which is limited, is equal to power, money and social mobility. And you still see that dividing families today. It’s a stereotype but it’s a stereotype for a reason because it is a very large issue that affects almost every family, at least that I know.
So I see this sort of generational trauma trickling into all these aspects of Indo-Caribbean life today. And the very unfortunate thing is that it’s not a small portion of the community. I feel like we’re all impacted by domestic violence, suicide in families, alcoholism, negative stereotypes, and the negative consequences of bad diets and overconsumption of sugar and alcohol.
Do you think that acknowledgement is a necessary step towards repairing the legacies of the past?
There’s definitely a culture of secrecy and not wanting to talk about the past. There’s this phrase I hear often, which is again a direct correlation to the history of indentureship and agriculture that says, “we don’t want to go back to the cane fields.” It’s this attitude of moving forward, not looking back, not wanting to talk about the trauma of the past and all the things that have happened.
And that means hiding the incidence of suicide in family, hiding the incidence of domestic violence, trying not to talk about indentureship and how people struggled and just wanting to move forward.
I even see it, in attitudes towards our ancestral language of Bhojpuri.
I’m an advocate for relearning Bhojpuri and relearning a lot of our folk customs. One of the things I encounter with the language in particular is people saying, “why do you want to learn a broken, poor people, lower class type of language? English is the language of social mobility and the educated people.”
That’s something that was fed into the community for many decades. “Why would you want to continue preserving your language?”
You want your kids to go to school, and that means a sacrifice of certain cultural customs and traditions, even to the point where the language started being referred to as broken Hindi, even though it’s not broken Hindi, it’s completely its own very rich, much older dialect. And still, even when I talk to people of all ages, whether they’re 20 years old, or I interview other people in their 80s, 90s, they still have this desire to move forward and not talk about the past.
And the unfortunate thing with our community is that the generation of people in their 80s and 90s, are slowly being lost and will be gone in the next two decades. So the generation of people who can still remember what it’s like to work in the cane field and deal with the overseers, who can still remember the language and recall those days of struggle, will soon be gone. And unfortunately, so much of the history has not been properly recorded. So whenever we lose that elder generation, it will lead to a huge loss of history.
So I think the first step is to acknowledge the past, not be ashamed of it. In fact, the more that we acknowledge the history, the more we can be proud of how far we’ve come and how much we’ve achieved. The second step is to document our history, our customs, and our conversations with the elder generation, to continue to filter that knowledge to the younger people in the Caribbean and the diaspora as well.
What are your thoughts on reparatory justice in the Caribbean?
In general I believe in the concept of reparations and I definitely believe that Indo-Caribbean people should be a part of those conversations for reparatory justice.
I think sometimes in the community, we encounter pushback where people would say, “oh, well, I’m not oppressed now. Maybe my grandparents or my great-grandparents, but I have gone to school. I’ve become educated. I have a good job.”
But the fact of the matter is that all of these generations later, the colonisers and the descendants of the colonisers still continue to benefit from all the various ways that they oppressed our communities. So why then should we not, as the descendants of the people who were oppressed, be able to get reparations?
Even when I talk about education, the fact that indentureship is just a bullet point in the history curriculum in Trinidad, Guyana, Suriname and the Caribbean at large means we’re not even really learning the full extent of our history and the brutality of it. And as the younger generations start to come up, who are not as fortunate as the rest of us who’ve had ties to an elder who can teach us, they’re not going to have anywhere to turn if the education isn’t there for them.
So I believe better education is needed as a part of reparatory justice.
We also need an understanding of the fact that there were a lot of institutional rules against Hindus and Muslims, especially in places like Trinidad, for example, where there was a population of Indian people coming into a predominantly Christian country.
That meant for many Hindu people, that if you passed away, your land could not be passed on to your children because your marriage wasn’t recognised by the government, so technically your children were illegitimate children. Therefore the land could be re-seized and given to somebody else.
If you speak to a certain generation of people in the Indo-Caribbean community, usually those born in the 40s, a lot of times they didn’t even have a father listed on their birth certificate because they weren’t considered to be children of a legalised union.
So there’s all those little things that I think people are not aware of, of how we’ve been negatively impacted by the trauma of indenture, even though we’re not indentured labourers anymore.
The current president of Guyana, Irfaan Ali, has also started talking about reparations and involving not just the Indo-Caribbean, and Afro-Caribbean community, but also Indigenous people. I think he’s leading a new wave of Indo-Caribbean people who are talking about reparatory justice.
What is your hope for the future?
Because a lot of my research focuses on talking to the elders in the communities, I mainly interview people between the ages of 80 to sometimes 105. My hope is that their stories and the culture and traditions that they have passed down orally are preserved properly so that we never forget about where we came from.
I also hope that this younger generation can undo a lot of the internalised prejudice that the generation of my parents, my uncles, my aunties and my grandparents have towards themselves and their history, religion and culture. I hope it can be an ongoing dialogue, not just for Indo-Caribbean people in the West Indies, but the diaspora, because the diaspora is so large that we can’t just have these conversations in silo.
There’s so much to be proud of, and I think the more we know about where we come from, the more we can tackle the things that plague our community while continuing to carve out a better future for everyone.