Asif Ahmad | Out of one spice mix – many curries
In May, 175 years ago, Jamaica changed forever. The ship Blundell Hunter completed its voyage from Kolkata, India. On board were 227 adults and 33 children. All of them came from what was then British India. It is perhaps fitting that this 175th anniversary is marked at a time when my counterpart in London, Seth Ramocan, the Jamaican high commissioner, and I can both claim Indian subcontinental heritage.
In our world today, the practice of transporting indentured workers, children, and even people tricked on board would be called human trafficking. Some were lured by the prospect of escaping abject poverty at home. Others believed that the terms of the contract they had signed would be respected.
There were those, especially women and girls, who were not even told that in leaving their home they were committing to a journey of no return. Up to 1917, some 36,000 people had come to Jamaica, and less than half went home once they had worked their way out of their contracts on plantations. Many chose to stay because they had written letters depicting a fictitious life of prosperity, hiding the reality of misery.
Over time, the culture, religion, and lives of the Indian migrants fused into the melting pot of Jamaica that already had Taino, African, and European ingredients and a concurrent Chinese influence. Jamaica’s curry goat and chicken, known as goat or chicken curry by Britons and as neither by Indians, is a tasty and tangible example of the fusion. Forgive the snooty diversion, but the reason why Indians don’t use the term curry in their own language is because every dish has its own special name and unique combination of spices.
In Jamaica, it is out of one spice mix: many curries.
With the waves of Indians came the change in the flora and fauna of Jamaica. Bombay, No 11, Hairy, Julie, they all hail from India.
Some special herbs found their way here too: ganja …
Although banned by the plantation owners, religious practices of Hindus and Muslims lived in hearts and minds and were kept alive in the family life of each generation. Some customs have been adopted as part of Christian community practices in Jamaica. Look at a photo of a Hindu sadhu and then a Rastaman.
The connection is clear. Leonard Howell, one of the founders of Rastafarianism changed his name to Gangun Guru Maragh. Admire again the crowning glory of Lisa Hanna and Toni Ann-Singh, world-beating mixture of Jamaican and Indian parentage.
The mongooses in Jamaica take a look at me and think, “Hey bro! They got you, too! Wait until they set your tail on fire!”
In more recent times, there were different reasons for Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis coming to Jamaica. Others were island hoppers from as far away as Hong Kong and Singapore and from the Caribbean itself. Fear drove many in the 1940s as British colonisation ended in India.
Traders from an earlier wave of settlers in East Africa uprooted themselves once again and headed for the West Indies. With banking, insurance, accountancy came Indian professionals who found it hard to leave the Rock after their assignments ended. Doctors, pharmacists, and dentists used their own network to make their mark on Jamaica. It would not take long for DNA tests to prove that many prominent people in business and public life had Indian heritage.
When a nation like Jamaica takes the time to look at its history from different perspectives and embraces its inherent diversity, its people have a truer sense of who they are. Out of many, one people is a powerful statement of Jamaica’s identity. That allows exploration of stories that we hear from our elders. We can pore over old documents and letters.
Grainy photographs depict how families tried to look their best, perhaps knowing that we would be impressed decades later. On special days of celebrations, it is a source of reassurance to see young dancers in full Bollywood regalia go through very traditional moves.
To hear an all-black Jamaican dhol group drum out bhangra rhythms as though it were their very own African beat is a powerful expression of the common language of music. Perhaps only in Jamaica could entire communities and the law-enforcement officers chase after a prize goat along Camp Road in Kingston. Clearly, the goat was not as enthusiastic as the congregation of the mosque about Eid day.
Had the coronavirus not entered into our lives, there was a plan to make a big thing about the 175th anniversary this month.
My friend Nari Williams-Singh and his father came over to talk about different ways to bring out the story of Indians in Jamaica. Akshai Mansingh showed me original papers his parents had curated in support of the book Home Away From Home, which I draw upon often to connect what is evident in Jamaica today to the past.
We will find the right time in 2020 to celebrate with vibrant colours, music, spicy food, and the fellowship of communities that bind together as Jamaica.
- Asif Ahmad CMG, is British High Commissioner to Jamaica. Feedback firstname.lastname@example.org.