Persistence and Change: Marriage and Family Among the Overseas Indians in the Caribbean

 

Kiran Jha

Assistant Professor, Department of Social Work, CSJM University, Kanpur 208024

*Corresponding Author Email: kiranlambjha@gmail.com

 

ABSTRACT:

Indians came to the Caribbean under the system of indenture to augment the labour shortage in the plantations around the middle of the nineteenth century. Rather than returning after the contractual period, many Indians stayed on, accepting the Caribbean as their new found home. Thus began a symbiotic relationship of the Indian culture with the Caribbean society in the new habitat. This paper outlines the lives of the overseas Indians with reference to aspects of marriage, including the selection of spouses, different kinds of marriage and its dissolution. The paper also discusses the institution of family and its internal mechanisms in terms of patterns of authority, inheritance, conflicts, the position of women and the system of kinship. The overseas Indians moved from tradition to modernity, and from custom to legality. There was also resistance to change and deviations as some values struggled to be reinforced, while others were discarded. On the whole, kinship relations remained of vital importance for the sake of mutual cooperation and social intercourse in a foreign land. Interpersonal relations helped to regulate and standardize behaviour. In providing these accounts, this paper seeks to portray the persistence and change of traditional Indian social intuitions and customs among the overseas community in the Caribbean.

 

KEYWORDS: Family, Marriage, Indenture, Overseas Indians, Caribbean.

 

 

 

INTRODUCTION:

The Caribbean is a heterogeneous group of islands inhabited by ethnically diverse people as it was a colony of various European countries such as Britain, France, Netherlands and Spain. After the abolition of slavery in the British territories between 1834-1838, indentured labourers from India were brought into the Caribbean to augment the labour shortage in the plantations. British Guyana received its first Indian indentured labourers in 1838, Trinidad in 1845 and Surinam in 1873 (Van der Veer and Vertovec 1991: 149).

 

Under the system of indenture the Indians were contracted to work in the sugar plantations for a period of five years after which they could either opt for staying on for an additional five years or get a free return passage to India. The colonial government induced them to stay on in the Caribbean by granting them parcels of land in lieu of return passage to India (Parija 2021, Roopnarine 2006). Many Indians took up this offer and accepted the Caribbean as their new found home.

 

The Indian labourers were recruited mainly from the eastern districts of United Province and the western districts of Bihar, some also from the Bombay and Madras Presidencies and from Andhra Pradesh and Central Provinces (D’Souza 2001, Jayawardena 1980). The main push factors for them to migrate were the catastrophic famines, the dislocation of the village life caused by the wars that fragmented the Mughal empire followed by British conquest and administrative reorganisation. The Indian labourers were invariably young, male and unmarried (D’Souza 2001, Gillion 1962, Jayawardena 1971, Ram 2020).

 

Membership in three of the great world beliefs, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, had subdivided the overseas Indians in their host societies. However, a majority were Hindus. Hence, Hinduism was the dominant religion among the overseas Indians in the Caribbean. Despite the effort of the Christian missions to convert the Hindus they made little headway among the Indians in Guyana (Jayawardena 1966: 227). It cannot be denied that conversion to Christianity provided the Indians with greater possibilities of social mobility and material gains.  However, it is interesting to note that the converts of earlier generations not only maintained ties with their original families, but also retained many of the customs, taboos, attitudes and values of the Hindu community (Klass 1961: 140-44).

 

This paper is divided into two main sections. The first section discusses aspects and significance of the marriage ceremony, the selection of spouses, kinds of marriage and relationships, and the instability and dissolution of marriage. The second section discusses the institution of family by focusing on households and its composition, patterns of deference and authority, division of property and inheritance, the position of women, intra-familial conflicts and patterns of kinship.

 

Nature and Structure of Marriage:

Marriages are generally considered important events in the life of an Indian. In the life cycle of a Hindu, marriage is part of one of the four ashrams, the natural periods in the life of man (Kapadia 1955, Sourav 2012). It is therefore a necessary phase, a social and religious duty for everyone.

 

Selection of Spouse:

An important issue in marriage is the manner of selection of a spouse. This is done through the institution of caste endogamy, which is an essential feature of the caste system in India (Ghurye 1969). However, in Trinidad, among the Indian, marriage partners were selected on the basis of class, status and religion (Nevadomsky 1983:197). Caste considerations were not important. Though Klass (1961:122) remarks that preference for town and village exogamy were shown, Nevadomsky (1983:197) who carried out research in Trinidad reports that more than 50 per cent of the marriages were endogamous. While Indian marriages before 1940 were said to have been arranged, in the later decades, marriages were contracted on the basis of personal choice. By and large, Indians adhered to the rules of local exogamy while contracting marriage, but because of the factor of personal choice, local endogamy was quite common.

In the Guyanese Indian society, caste was a factor in the choice of a marital partner only in Brahmin families (Bhattacharjee 2012, Shrivastava 2012). But Smith and Jayawardena (1958: 179) report of instances where even Brahmins married off their daughters to wealthy or professional so-called low castes. Thus, education and occupation of a prospective husband were probably the most important attributes. Schwartz (1967: 130) opines that “the greater the involvement in the wider cash economy, the less the reliance upon subsistence activities and the higher the frequency of exogamous marriages among the different economic groups among rural East Indians in Trinidad.”

 

There were no preferential marriages between kin, and marriages between close kin were regarded with disfavour. Racial and religious endogamy was practiced. Racial endogamy was common as both Indians and the local population viewed each other with suspicion and contempt. Indians considered the locals to have a degree of pollution similar to that of the so-called low castes, so accepting them as conjugal partners was undesirable. For their part, the locals also took a dim view of Indians as potential spouses as they considered them to be inferior, miserly and aloof (Birth 1997, Sharma 2017).

 

Speckmann’s (1965: 65) extensive field work in Surinam, reveals that caste endogamy no longer existed among the Indians there. Marriage to a partner who was a consanguineal or affinal relative was forbidden. In addition to the real family, fictitious family relationships could also be regarded as an impediment to marriage. Marriage partners of the same nationality and religious denomination were preferred. In the Surinamese Indian society, the authority of the parents in the process of selection of their child’s spouse was indisputable. However, children were allowed to offer their opinion. In Paramaribo, since relations between sexes were free, young people decided on their own marriage partners.

 

The age of marriage, once quite low, had risen gradually among the Indian population of Trinidad. The legal age of marriage was 18 for males and 14 for females. Niehoff (1959:181) found that well over a third of the women were married before the age of 14. Nevadomsky’s study (1983) shows that the age of marriage had further risen in the 1970s, being around 18 for women and 21 for men. The age of marriage among Indians in Guyana was roughly 16-20 years for females and 20-25 for males (Smith and Jayawardena 1959: 355). Speckmann’s survey (1965: 76) in Surinam reveals that the age of marriage for Indian girls was around 15, while the boys usually married between the ages of 18 and 20. The age of marriage was higher in towns.

 

Forms of Union:

An important factor regarding Indian marriages was that they were not legally recognized until much later. In Trinidad, the Muslim marriage was legalized in 1939 and the Hindu Marriage Ordinance was passed in 1946. In Guyana, Hindu and Muslim marriages were placed under the same footing as Christian marriages in 1957 with an amendment to the Marriage Ordinance. The Asiatic Marriage Decree came into effect in 1941 in Surinam, legalizing the Hindu and Muslim marriages. Klass (1961: 108-17) classifies marital unions of Indians in Trinidad into five different kinds: (a) Virilocal Exogamous: Where the girl and the boy were from different villages and after marriage resided in the home of the boy’s father. (b) Uxorilocal Exogamous: The boy after marriage settled in the girl’s home. (c) Approved Endogamous Union: When a boy and girl of the local village fell in love and acquired parental approval for the wedding. (d) Keeper Union: This was a union in which the wife had been married before. Any woman living with a man who was not her first husband was called a “keeper”, whether or not she was legally married. (e) Elopement: An elopement was any union without the approval of parents.

 

In a similar vein, Smith and Jayawardena (1959:355) have defined four basic types of marriage in Guyana: (a) Customary Marriage: A marriage celebrated by means of a public Hindu or Muslim ritual. (b) Legal Marriage: Any marriage which had been legally registered but where no customary Hindu or Muslim rites had been performed. (c) Legal and Customary Marriage: Any marriage which had been registered under the law and for which full public Hindu or Muslim rituals had been performed. (d) Common Law Marriage: Where a couple lived together without the union being legal and without the performance of a public Hindu or Muslim ritual.

 

Speckman (1965:124) distinguishes four types of union specifically among the Indians in Surinam: (a) The Asiatic Marriage concluded before 1941: The marriages were not legal unless interim provisions made in the Asiatic Marriage Decree was acquired. (b) The Asiatic Marriages concluded after 1941: These marriages enjoyed official recognition as a result of the Decree. (c) The Civil Marriage: This was a union solemnized before the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages. (d) Concubinage: This was a union where a man and woman lived together without the benefit of legal marriage.

 

Marriage Ceremony:

From the Hindu point of view, marriage is not only a joining together of two people but also fulfilment of a social and religious duty by the two families concerned. Not only the family members but also the kin group and friends had certain social and religious obligations during a wedding. Speckman (1965:13) points out that the family’s social standing determined the degree to which the neighborhood would help. The entire network of mutual social rights and obligations found symbolic expression in the gift. Smith and Jayawardena (1958:192) observe that “practically every ritual expression of a social relationship is marked by a gift.” The wedding ritual also gave an insight into the position of the various members of the family. The entire ceremony revealed the fact that the bride’s family was in a subordinate position with respect to the family of the groom. At the wedding the bride’s father acted as the host, whose task was to satisfy the visiting party in every way. Another aspect that came into fore during the wedding was the dominant position of men in the Indian community, this was apparent due to the absence of the bridegroom’s female relatives from the wedding party.

 

An Indian wedding is a lengthy, intricate and expensive affair for both sides. The feast a man gave to celebrate the wedding of his child was both the index of his prestige and a validation of it.  Smith and Jayawardena (1959: 364) report that the factors that were important in this respect were the sumptuousness of the feast itself, the number and status of the guests and the geographical range from where they came. The bulk of the expenditure in a wedding was on clothes, food and drink. The observance of the innumerable rituals, the exchange of lavish gifts and the performance of the marriage ceremony symbolized the position of the Indians within the wider social system.

 

Marital Instability:

Jayawardena (1960: 76-100) and Speckmann (1965:168-182) have given an expansive account of the extent of dissolution of marriage in Guyana and Surinam. The research shows that 26.5 per cent of the married males and 25.8 per cent of females had separated in Blairmont (Guyana) and 15.6 per cent of the married males and 14 per cent of married females had dissolved their union in Port Mourant (Guyana). The main causes for marital separation were cruelty, inadequate support of the family, adultery, drunkenness etc. However, Jayawardena (1960: 99-100) is of the view that conflicts that lead to marital instability were closely related to the social system. One major area of conflict lay in the process that integrated the wife into the local kinship group. The second major reason was the discrepancy between the cultural supremacy of the husband in the household and the economic realities where he had to depend on his wife in the management of domestic affairs. In Surinam, Speckmann (1965:168-77) reports that one third of all marriages in the Indian community were dissolved. The main reason for separation was adultery, drunkenness, cruelty, one of the partners neglecting the household, quarreling between relatives sharing the house etc. Sharma’s (1986: 31-37) data on marriage among Indians in Trinidad reveals that 86 percent of the marriages were stable. However, a number of his informants felt that extramarital relationships were increasing which often led to the dissolution of marriage. Although divorce in the strictly legal sense was infrequent because of the expense involved, the incidence of permanent separation was quite high.

 

Structure of the Family:

Before we begin our analysis of family, it would be pertinent to distinguish between the terms “household” and “family”. The distinction between the two acquires special relevance as Smith and Jayawardena (1959) have used the terms “household” in their study of the Indian Guyanese family, while the rest of the authors, such as Davids (1964), Klass (1961), Nevadomsky (1983), Niehoff (1959) and Schwartz (1965) have used “family” as their point of reference. A household can be characterized as a group of individuals who share a common house and dine together. These activities may be extended; households may vary in size and stability; households may comprise of individuals without kinship ties and conversely, members of one family may be distributed over two or more households. While a household is a co-residential and an economic unit, the family is a kinship and jural unit. The kinship ties facilitate duties, rights and obligations between the members. Families can be broadly classified into two categories, the “extended” and the “nuclear”. The extended family is composed of immediate family members and it is their rights and obligations which are emphasized upon (Pradhan 2011).

 

Household Composition:

A household, i.e., a group of individuals who live, eat and sleep together in the same dwelling, has an important place in the analysis of a family structure. In the Guyanese society, Smith and Jayawardena (1950:336) show that the composition of households is predominantly nuclear. Of all persons contained in the households, the proportion of nuclear kin of the head were 81.4 per cent in Windsor Forest, 98.4 per cent in Blairmont and 81.3 per cent in Port Mourant. Extended families were more frequently established in the rice growing regions of Windsor Forest and Port Mourant than in the sugar estate regions of Blairmont. On the basis of his report on Boodram, Schwartz (1965:24) maintains that the nuclear family is more commonly found than the extended family system in Trinidad.

 

The overall data in terms of residency suggests the infrequent occurrence of the extended family household and the overwhelming presence of the nuclear family household. Schwartz (1965:25) interprets this as part of structural modification that the Indian family was undergoing as a result of the adaptive and acculturative processes at work in Trinidad. Even in the nuclear families with attached lineal dependents, the head of the nuclear family was the effective head of the entire unit. This was in direct contrast to the traditional joint family, where the eldest male was the patriarch.

 

Deference and Authority:

Among the Indians of Guyana, the head of the family was normally a male. On him lay the responsibility of providing food, clothing and shelter for his dependents. He decided how the household income was to be spent though it was his wife who managed the bulk of domestic expenditure. According to Smith and Jayawardena (1959: 340-343), in Guyana, the authority of the household head was greater in the rice farming areas of Windsor Forest and Port Mourant than in Blairmont. This was so because amongst the Blairmont population there was little in the way of permanent property to be managed or to be passed on. The son’s relationship to his father was never crucial as no property factors were involved and he did not receive any material gains from his father. In the rice growing areas of Guyana, since the father gave his sons a start in life by providing them with land and oxen for farming, his authority was above dissensions. Questions of inheritance had considerable influence on relationships during life and grown up sons remained in their parental household when they anticipated considerable bequests.

 

Klass’s (1961:132) study in Trinidad reveals that ideally the eldest male was the “eldest head” of the Indian family. The power of the head was derived from the fact that he controlled the family purse and property and he had the authority since the time the children were born. Filial disobedience was reprimanded and the threat of the “father’s curse” was taken seriously. It was believed that if a man had been cursed by his father and if the curse was not subsequently retracted, he would never know happiness or success in life. However, if the eldest male was weak, illiterate, impoverished or a drunkard, then the son usually took over the control of the family. Here it would seem that the authority in relationships in the family were determined by economic and social power of the household rather than by traditional customs.

 

Niehoff (1959:183) is also of the opinion that the male head of the family wields considerable authority and manages the financial affairs in Trinidad. Elders were respected by the younger members of the family. In some traditional families, the head was also in charge of the allocation of the earnings of the son. However, a contrasting image of deference and authority pattern is presented by Nevadomsky (1983: 207-18) in his research on Trinidad. He maintains that the traditional values governing the authority of the father had weakened and the undisputed hierarchy of the Indian traditional family had been replaced by ambiguity and rebellion. As a result, contention, disputes and bickering were quite common within the household.

 

Property and Inheritance:

In the sugar estate regions of Guyana since most of the Indians were wage labourers, there was little in the way of permanent property. Hence the question of managing and bequeathing property was irrelevant (Smith and Jayawardena). In the rice farming regions of Guyana, the ownership of land, tools, oxen and house was normally vested in the heads of households. They organized and coordinated the farm work and the sons assisted in ploughing and harrowing. When the eldest sons married, their wives joined the other women of the household. The sons not only provided labour for the rice farm but also contributed surplus earnings for their sisters’ marriage. As soon as the head of the household had married off his daughters, he gave his sons some shares of the capital assets that had been accumulated. To begin farming, at times land and oxen were also given to them. It was only after the death of the household head that the entire division of the property took place (Smith and Jayawardena 1959: 346).

 

Niehoff (1959:184) maintains that among the Indian Community in Trinidad, land was normally inherited by the sons, with the oldest being favoured. Male inheritance depended upon the treatment children gave their parents and often a girl was favoured if she had been the primary care giver to her old parents. Wife inherited land from her husband in the absence of brothers. Klass (1961:134-35) disagrees with Niehoff in reporting that while distributing his possessions, a man usually favoured his younger son. He, however, clarifies that there was no conscious rule of ultimogeniture. The tendency to favour the youngest son was probably due more to the fact that he was often the last to marry, thus remaining behind to inherit the farm or house.

 

Position of Women:

During the indenture period (1838-1917), Indian women shared a mixed fate. Undoubtedly their experience was one of multiple oppressions: as a worker in an exploitative indentured system, as an Indian whose culture was viewed with contempt, as a person prone to sexual advances by the white overseers and as a wife of the male immigrant who had to suffer beatings and at times even the loss of her life. Yet, on the estates, because of their scarcity and their position as wage labourers, some of the Indian women managed to achieve a measure of independence (Poynting 1987: 231-232).

 

Indian indentureship in the Caribbean was characterized by a skewed ratio between the sexes. Though at times the ratio increased to 1:2 (one woman to two men), by and large the ratio remained at 1:4 (Reddock 1985: 80-81). The main reason for recruiting fewer women was the planter’s notion of women being unproductive as labourers. They were also seen as financial liability due to their reproductive role.

 

A significant percentage of the women, who were not wives of migrating husbands, were widows. There were others who had fallen out with their families and therefore emigrated in order to escape a life of promiscuity. One of the reasons affecting the status of Indian women in the Caribbean was their low numbers. This empowered them to exercise some control over their sexuality. However, it was this freedom which often made them victims of male jealousy and violence. Murder of unfaithful wives and mistresses was a common affair among the Indian immigrants (Reddock 1985: 82-83).

 

From the 1940s, if one analyses the position of women within the family structure it becomes evident that there is a clear link between the level of an Indian settlement’s participation in the cash economy and the extent to which women’s role had changed. With the rapid expansion in the provision of schooling, attitudes to education for both boys and girls had changed sharply within the Indian community. There was a greater acceptance of the contribution the women could make as a wage earner to the family’s participation in the consumer economy.

 

According to Malik (1971: 28), “the most significant change in the Indian social structure in Trinidad has occurred in the status of women, who enjoy more freedom than their counterparts in India.” The spread of education and the influence of western culture, especially in the urban areas saw a marked improvement in the position of women. However, in the rural areas where the dictates of the traditional family system held strong, women occupied an inferior status. Various scholars (Davids 1964: 392, Dwivedi 2014, Niehoff 1959:183) are of the opinion that the relative position of Indian men and women in Trinidad resembled that in India, though the stricter forms of seclusion and protection of women was not found in Trinidad. Women had more say in their marriages, were mistresses of their own houses and held the family money. However, intermixing of the sexes was not allowed.

 

Smith and Jayawardena (1959:337) do not make any direct reference to the position of women in the Indian community in Guyana. But while discussing the eating arrangements of the Indians they reveal the inferior position of women. The head of the household and other adult males were served before women. While the men ate at the table, women and children ate their food sitting on the floor. It appeared that the comparatively higher status of women, caused by their smaller numbers during the indenture period was gradually undermined as parity in the sex ratio was reached and some of the values of the family structure were reinforced.

 

Intra-Familial Conflicts:

Schwartz (1965: 31) in his paper on the Indian family organization categorizes the various intra-familial conflicts. He maintains that these disputes occurred between individuals occupying the following positions: (a) Mother–Son’s wife, (b) Father–Son, (c) Brother’s wife–Brother’s wife, (d) Brother–Brother’s wife, (e) Brother–Brother, and (f) Mother–Son. Some of the above conflicts were a direct result of others rather than a separate form of conflict. Many altercations between mother and son were directly related to squabbles between the mother and son’s wife. Almost all the authors reported about the quarrels between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law. Conflicts between father and son and between brothers arose out of dispute regarding division of property, management of property, inheritance etc. Most of these conflicts within the extended family resulted in their disintegration (Baskaran et al 2015).

 

However, all the authors agree on the fact that a relationship of respect existed between father and son (Jayawardena 1962: 47, Klass 1961: 132, Speckmann 1965: 252). While studying the Indian community in Guyana, Jayawardena comments, “Sons are expected to be deferential to their fathers and avoid expressions of familiarity.” In Surinam, he reports that though the father was still the central figure in the Indian household, his attitude was less autocratic. The father-son relationship was marked by mutual dependence and the social distance between the two had diminished.

 

Role of Kinship:

Kinship relations were of vital importance for the overseas Indians in the Caribbean and governed everyday social interactions. Jayawardena (1962:62-63) emphasises the fact that “adherence to certain kinship institutions is at the heart of being ‘Indian’ and places definite limits on the extent of deviations.” The Indians had no distant relatives, they only had relatives with whom they associated more and those whom they saw only on rare occasions. While discussing the kinship terminology among the Indians in Trinidad and Surinam, both Klass (1961: 94) and Speckmann (1965: 254) are of the view that the Indian kinship terminology had largely survived unchanged.

 

Klass (1961) is also of the view that kinship relations were of great significance in the life of the Indians. The first allegiance belonged to the family, and thereafter to wider network of kin. Each relationship had a term and underlined an appropriate behaviour. Interpersonal relations hence helped to regulate and standardize behaviour.

 

In Surinam and Guyana, the picture was slightly different. In Surinam, changes were recorded in the whole gamut of relationships. Joking relationships and avoidance relationships were not observed strictly, the character of the father-son relationship had undergone considerable change and the relationship between husband and wife had become more direct and personal (Speckmann 1965:249-55).

 

In Guyana, no kinship group wider than the nuclear or three-generation family had any effective or exclusive function (Jayawardena 1962: 21). Kinsmen were expected to help one another and live in harmony, but they were not obliged to do so. The family performed few functions distinct from those of friends and neighbours. Roles assigned to certain classes of kin were easily performed by friends standing in for kin. Kin relations did not have any special significance, except that a special deference was shown to the older generation and a certain restraint observed towards women. Behaviours in this community of kin was governed by the same values of mutual respect and cooperation as between fellow labourers. Thus, Jayawardena (1962: 22) maintains that kinship terms were means of establishing equality of status.

 

CONCLUSION:

The institution of marriage had metamorphosized in the overseas Indian community of the Caribbean but continued to play a significant role in regulating the social discourse. There were several forms of marriage. However, Marriages were largely stable and adhered to the rule of local exogamy. The ritually rich and ostentatious wedding ceremonies seemed to appear as markers of a separate identity in the segmented society of the Caribbean.

 

The family and kin relations remained the bedrock of Indian ethnic identity even though they had undergone tremendous changes over time to adapt to the needs of life in the Caribbean. The ideal extended family structure came under pressure during the period of indenture weakening the line of brothers, and only the bond of father and son survived. As indenture ended, land again became the mark of social power, and once again an extended family organization came into being with the patriarch as its head.

 

On the whole, it can be said that as far as family and marriage was concerned, the traditional Indian customs and traditions underwent a transformation over a period of time, yet the Indian overseas community in the Caribbean was able to project a distinct cultural identity.

 

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Received on 03.06.2021         Modified on 25.06.2021

Accepted on 11.07.2021      ©AandV Publications All right reserved

Res.  J. Humanities and Social Sciences. 2021; 12(3):186-192.

DOI: 10.52711/2321-5828.2021.00033