St Vincent and the Grenadines celebrates its Indian heritage

St Vincent and the Grenadines, a string of small islands in the Caribbean, celebrated its Indian heritage on a grand scale Friday. A commemorative function and an international conference on the Indian diaspora were held on what is officially recognised as Indian Arrival Day, according to the organisers.

The first group of Indians reached St Vincent in June 1861. The Indian Heritage Foundation of St Vincent and the Grenadines re-enacted the landing of Indians at Indian Bay. This was followed by a procession through the streets of Kingstown culminating at Heritage Square where an Indian mela was organised.

The Indian Arrival Day functions were organised by the Indian Heritage Foundation with support from the St Vincent ministry of tourism and culture and the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO). The celebrations began at an opening ceremony in the presence of St Vincent Prime Minister Ralph E. Gonsalves at the Peace Memorial Hall.

According to the organisers, while there have been international Indian diaspora conferences held in other countries of the Caribbean such as Trinidad and Tobago, this is the first such in St Vincent. The three-day conference will end on June 3.

The Indian migration to Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname is well documented but there is a lack of knowledge about Indians who were brought to the smaller island territories in the Caribbean.

St Vincent and the Grenadines is among a number of small Caribbean island nations where Indian workers were brought to work on sugarcane plantations during the years when sugar ruled the global economy. Jamaica, Barbados, Martinique, St Kitts and Nevis, Grenada, Belize and St Lucia also have small Indian communities.

Unlike the larger territories where Indian workers retained their cultural traits due to their substantial numbers, in St Vincent the churches were very active in baptising Indian children. The distance from India and the small size of the Indian community meant a slow loosening of links with India and a gradual assimilation in St Vincent society.

“In recent years there has been a revival of interest amongst the people of Indian descent in their Indian heritage. The SVG Heritage Foundation was established five years ago to promote cultural and social links with India. The new interest led to June 1 being officially declared as Indian Arrival Day and October 7 as Indian Heritage Day,” said an e-mail from the Indian Heritage Foundation.

St Vincent and the Grenadines consists of St Vincent, the main island and the Grenadines, a string of 32 low lying tiny islands. St Vincent’s rich volcanic soil was considered good for growing sugarcane in the late 19th century but a devastating hurricane followed by a volcanic eruption two years later destroyed the big sugar estates.

The Indian population in St Vincent was about 500 when the Indians moved off the sugar estates in the early years of the 20th century and settled in Indian villages on other parts of the island. Several decades later, the Indian community had grown to about 5,000 in a population of a little over 100,000. However, the lack of employment opportunities has led to a high rate of emigration from St Vincent to Britain and Canada.

The conference brings together academics, scholars, students, teachers and organisations and people with an interest in the Indian diaspora in the Caribbean. The organisers hope to bring together and gather the different bits of information from diverse people to add to the limited store of public knowledge about Indians in St Vincent.

There are issues of conversion, discrimination, politics, family histories, migration and literature that will be discussed. Aside from formal papers to be presented at the conference by scholars and academics, the conference will seek to gather oral histories and local songs for a more comprehensive understanding of the Indian heritage.

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