Frontiers

Two Minds, One Heart

Undergraduate Kaneesha Parsard delves into the storied history of indentured Indian labor in the Caribbean.
April 2011

Kaneesha Parsard was intrigued by her diverse cultural background from a young age. The daughter of Jamaican parents, Parsard's paternal grandfather is Indian, a lineage that is steeped in rich historical context.

"Growing up I never thought much about it, except for the fact that in addition to curry chicken, I also had an affinity for jerk chicken," Parsard laughs. "As I developed my coursework at Penn and took African and Asian Diaspora classes, I became interested in continuing to explore the legacy of African slavery and Indian indenture in the Caribbean, and what it meant to occupy both of these boundaries."

An English and Africana Studies major and undergraduate member of the Penn Humanities Forum, Parsard first learned of the Forum through peers in her Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program. Having recently found relatives on Facebook she had never met, all bearing her surname, she applied her experience to the Virtuality-themed 2011 Forum in hopes of negotiating her own virtual identity. Additionally, she is interested in the ways in which Caribbean populations imagine homeland(s).

"The black-white racial dynamic was interrupted by the entrance of the Indian indentured population. Free black laborers saw the indentures as beneath them, because they didn't have their freedom, but at the same time the indentured Indians often looked down on the blacks because they had once been enslaved."
– Kaneesha Parsard

Parsard's research is most concerned with Trinidad and Tobago, a southern Caribbean state where the Indian population is near equal to the African population. Slavery in the Caribbean ended in the 1840s, the result of long-standing pressure leftover from the Haitian Revolution in the late 18th century. The emancipation of the slaves opened a hole in the labor force, which led to the influx of Indian workers.

"The black-white racial dynamic was interrupted by the entrance of the Indian indentured population. Free black laborers saw the indentures as beneath them, because they didn't have their freedom, but at the same time the indentured Indians often looked down on the blacks because they had once been enslaved. There was violence at times, and feelings of superiority among the different groups left a long-lasting legacy of tension."

The initial waves of Indian immigrants were almost all men. Over time they began pairing themselves with African women. As a result, many Indian men who had expected to leave the Caribbean once their indenture ended became rooted there by new partners and, sometimes, mixed-race children.

The mixed-race children of these unions are historically referred to as dougla, a term that evolved from a Hindi term that refers to inter-caste marriage. In Trinidad and Tobago there is an ongoing debate about douglarization: Africans in the region are largely seen as "growers" of culture, Parsard explains, while Indians are seen as falling victim to deculturization.

"There's a fear that the mixing of peoples will somehow diminish the unique cultures. But now that Trinidad and Tobago has a female Indian Prime Minister, there's a sense, especially in that region, that the dougla identity is emerging as a point of national pride [as representative of a hybrid national identity]. At the same time, this erases the actual experiences of douglas as mixed-race people."

As the mixed-race children's generation found a foothold in the culture, so did examples of this hybridity begin to emerge in various forms, including food, holiday celebrations and pop culture. Parsard, who visited Jamaica often while growing up, just recently had the chance to visit Trinidad and Tobago for the first time to research examples of hybrid culture. There she studied poems, short stories and novels in hopes of better articulating the positioning of mixed-raced individuals.

"I've been focusing on Minty Alley by Trinidadian writer C. L. R. James, a groundbreaking novel set in a barrack-yard—an area similar to a tenement—that focuses on a household of diverse renters and their social and romantic relationships. Examples of dougla-inspired art also abounds in Trinidad and Tobago—a popular calypsonian, aptly named The Mighty dougla, has a song called 'Split Me in Two' that is really is a perfect example of the political bifurcation that douglas feel."

Parsard plans to continue her research in graduate school, eventually expanding the scope of her research to other regions in the Caribbean and the Americas. She hopes to return to the Caribbean for Emancipation Day, a celebration she says is an exciting melting pot of culture and mixed-race families.