On 30 October 1884, two police firings in San Fernando, Trinidad, wounded over one hundred Indians and took the lives of perhaps as many as 20 people. As the 125th anniversary of the infamous ‘Muharram Massacre’ is upon us, it is perhaps well to consider the circumstances that led to the killings and what they might suggest about racial and working-class politics down to the present day.
The circumstances under which Indians began to arrive in Trinidad in 1845 are now widely known. The price of black labor had risen after the emancipation of slaves in 1838, and indentured labor from India, a British colony, was viewed by plantation owners and government officials in Trinidad (and the Caribbean) as the most expeditious way of undermining free black labor and keeping the sugar plantations running at a profit. As the Port of Spain Gazette noted with optimism in its issue of 30 May 1845, “when the labourers (Negroes) are informed that there are countless thousands of these people inured to tropical labour, and the heat of a tropical climate, starving in their own country, and most willing to immigrate to this, it may be the means of opening their eyes a little to the necessity of working more steadily and giving greater satisfaction to their employers.”
The story of the Indo-Trinidadian and Afro-Trinidadian divide is, happily, not the subject of my present ruminations. As a number of scholars have argued, Muharram [or Hosay, from Hussein or Husayn, as it came to be known in the British Caribbean] was well established in Trinidad from the outset of Indian indentured immigration as a religious and cultural festival that bridged what might otherwise have been marked differences within the growing Indian community. Though Muharram is a re-enactment of the events that led to the death of Hassan and Hussein, the Prophet Muhammed’s grandsons, during the struggles over the succession to the Prophet, Hindu participation in the Muharram rites has been widely documented. If in India Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Oudh, had no compunction in having the raslila, the eternal play of Krishna, performed at his court, it should not be surprising that Hindus should have thought nothing of their involvement in the Muharram rites.
In Trinidad, however, matters had gone much further, as black people were also reasonably well invested in Muharram celebrations. Kelvin Singh, author of Bloodstained Tombs: The Muharram Massacre 1884 (1988), argues that “Negro involvement in the celebrations” has been well documented from the 1850s onwards. To some European observers, black people were inclined to gravitate towards a ‘fete’, whenever and wherever it might be held; others took the view that the ancestral drumming of Negroes drew them to the tassa drumming that is so characteristic a feature of the Muharram celebrations.
In 1884, the colonial government took the decision to ban Muharram processions from the principal urban areas. Kelvin Singh is among those scholars who has argued that the ban had little to do with Muharram celebrations themselves, and was rather impelled by other considerations, for instance by concern over industrial unrest. Such unrest had been prominent in the previous year, and the falling price of sugar had heightened the misery of workers. Displays of solidarity among workers were never welcome. One cannot doubt, however, that colonial authorities also feared that the Negro, typecast as a lazy and undisciplined person, might come to exercise a nefarious influence over the “effeminate Hindu” and “fanatic Muslim”; moreover, in standing together in a common cause, Hindus and Muslims threatened to overturn another article of faith ever present in colonial thought, namely the idea that adherents of these two religions were bound together in a struggle to death that only a transcendent and rational force such as represented by the Englishman could avert, diverting that volatile energy into less hostile channels.
Sookhooo and 31 others petitioned the governor when the ban was put into effect. The Government response, in part, was to argue that non-Indians had no place in an Indian festival; and that Hindus, similarly, could claim no entitlements with respect to a Muslim religious rite. At Cipero Street, Mr. Child, the Magistrate, read the Riot Act in English to a large crowd comprised largely of illiterate people. Even Major Bowles, who headed a contingent of soldiers, could not hear the Act being read out; but the volleys unleashed at the orders of Mr. Child mowed down many of the men gathered in defiance of the ban. At the Mon Repos junction, the ‘Riot Act’ was again ‘read out’, whatever that might mean, and amidst the chanting and the tassa drumming the firing commenced and took its deadly toll. The British could congratulate themselves that ‘law and order’ had been restored: as the Port of Spain Gazette cheerfully editorialized about the firings on 8 November 1884, “this lesson may have a salutary effect not only on coolies but also on the heterogeneous collections of loafers, prostitutes, roughs, rogues and vagabonds which infest our two towns.”
As the Muharram massacre of 1884 in Trinidad suggests, the idea that such supposedly disparate groups as Hindus, Muslims, and Negroes could find common cause was nothing less than anathema to the state. The Muharram celebrations never recovered ground as the preeminent festival rite of Trinidad, and diminished in importance over the years; nevertheless, the sheer survival of Hosay suggests that, notwithstanding the state’s quest to deploy the discourse of ‘law and order’, the voice of workers can never be entirely suppressed.