“Symbolic Ethnic Conflict”: Ethnicity and Trinbagonian Identity

“Symbolic Ethnic Conflict”: Ethnicity and Trinbagonian Identity

Tricia Ferdinand
Indiana University

Ethnicity is a key site of symbolic conflict in Trinidad and Tobago because of its role in the hegemonic practices promulgated by the nation’s former colonizers. However, there are a few cultural symbols including types of music and other artistic forms that can be seen as forms of mediation, in as much as they (consciously or otherwise) promote a nationalistic Trinbagonian identity. By briefly outlining the historical tenets that resulted in Trinidad and Tobago’s particular ethnic and social stratification and foregrounding the arenas in which ethnic cultural intermixing exists, this paper aims to garner an understanding of the role artistic creation can play in mediation.

One of the most visibly salient memories from my childhood in Trinidad and Tobago stems from attending a Diwali festival in the yard down at the very end of the street from my grandmother’s house. I had never had a reason before to enter this private place, which was both the site of the Ramlals’ private home, and a local hardware store. But Diwali, the festival of lights, was a time of celebration and everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity or religious belief, was welcome. It seemed like there were hundreds of small clay lamps strategically placed in high and low places around the yard, flickering as people walked by, and from the wake of those who stopped to admire them. Young children like myself hung over the lamps, mesmerized by the small fires, inhaling and exhaling and passing our hands over the flames.  This was, to me, the epitome of Trinidad and Tobago. Black and Indo-Trinbagonian alike strolling through the yard, observing (some participating in) the traditions of the holiday and partaking in large amounts of delicious food. I have other memories of “Indian movies” on Sundays and various Indo-Trinbagonian musical groups performing folk songs on television with instruments I had never seen or heard before.  I now know that ethnic and racial interaction in Trinidad and Tobago is ostensibly more complex than continual exposure to various forms of artistic creation, to what is often referred to as ”culture”, for lack of a better term. However, I also know that those were the sorts of experiences that shaped my perception of Trinbagonian identity.

The population of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is a reflection of its tumultuous history of years of colonization, conquest and immigration.  This Caribbean nation is comprised of two major ethnic groups, Afro-Trinbagonians and Indo-Trinbagonians, who account for approximately 78% of the population; the remaining 22% are largely comprised of European, Chinese, Syrian, Lebanese and mixed race inhabitants. As a given, the racial and ethnic climate of Trinidad and Tobago, while not without its moments of tension and controversy, is relatively tame compared to the sorts of tensions felt in Guyana or the sorts of wars and social, political and physical disagreements that can often manifest among inter-ethnic communities. Nonetheless, Afro-Trinbagonians and Indo-Trinbagonians have a long and somewhat complicated history of cultural interaction. As many scholars studying ethnic relations in Trinidad and Tobago have noted, while there has been a decided lack of overtly violent interactions between the two major ethnic groups, ethnic conflict does exist at the symbolic level. To refer to the ethnic conflict in Trinidad and Tobago as symbolic is not to denigrate it in any way, or to downplay the role it plays in the cultural climate of the Caribbean republic. Rather, it is an attempt to foreground the extent to which symbols and symbolism play a major role in nation-building and the process of self-identification, particularly in a post-colonial context. In Trinidad and Tobago ethnicity, because of its role in the hegemonic practices promulgated by the nation’s former colonizers, is a key site of symbolic conflict.

Shared cultural symbols, however, have a way of mediating perceived cultural difference, providing a reference point from which both groups can interrelate. In fact, while the influence of their ancestors still maintains some significance, many of the practices and cultural symbols of Indo-Trinbagonians and Afro-Trinbagonians have been altered and amended in direct correlation to their Caribbean environment. In other words, while their respective cultural symbols maintain vestiges of their own singular ethnic and cultural pasts, they have also come to represent what I would describe as an overarching Trinbagonian identity.


Like many other islands in the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago languished under the colonial reign of various European nations. In 1797, the British wrested Trinidad from the Spanish, and by that time the population had grown to 17,718 people, including whites, Amerindians (who now accounted for only 6 percent of the population), African slaves and free non-whites, which included people of mixed race, Caribbean-born people of African descent (henceforth referred to as Afro-Creoles or Creoles), and Africans. After slavery ended in Trinidad and Tobago in 1834, the demographic also began to include free, escaped African American soldiers and Africans who were freed from captured slave ships. Plantations, which had been the major form of economic stability in Trinidad and Tobago up until emancipation, began to suffer severely as freed slaves and even Afro-Creole immigrants from surrounding islands left plantation work to pursue professions elsewhere (Premdas 28).

Because sources of labor were scarce after emancipation, the British planters struggled to find a stable influx of people who were willing and able to work. They encouraged both Portuguese and Chinese immigrants to come to Trinidad and Tobago to work as indentured laborers, but the most influential group of immigrants to affect the demographic population, both in Trinidad and Tobago and elsewhere in the Caribbean, was the East Indians. They were recruited as indentured laborers in Trinidad beginning in 1845, and continued to arrive in large numbers over the next 70 years until 1917. Their numbers grew quickly, and though many initially intended to stay only temporarily, they soon became permanent settlers. Some were granted land grants for Crown land in lieu of a means to return to India, and others bought private property. By 1911 they represented 33 percent of Trinbagonian population, including both locally born and immigrant Indians.

The first East Indian immigrants, mostly single men, traveled to Trinidad to escape the extreme poverty and limited economic opportunities in India at the time. Still, the conditions to which they arrived were often less than satisfactory. They were bound to an employer for a long period, ranging from five to ten years at a time. In addition, though they were promised places to live, many East Indians lived in squalid locations, including the abandoned quarters of former slaves. Socially, East Indians fared little better in Trinidad and Tobago. As a result of their relocation, it was difficult for East Indians to establish families and personal lives. They were forced to intermingle amongst themselves, despite differences in caste and station in life. To add insult to injury, many of the Afro-Creoles were disdainful of the East Indians. According to Ralph Premdas, “Indians, in replacing Afro-Creoles as the new plantation labour supply, suffered a degree of contempt from the ex-slaves for voluntarily enrolling themselves in the dehumanizing toil and drudgery of plantation life” (32).During the early years of indentureship, the East Indian population, perhaps sensing the animosity toward them, as well as their affinity for agricultural work, led to outcrops of ”ethnically homogenous Indian” villages.

Within these villages, despite the various changes made to them as a result of migration, many traditional Indian cultural beliefs and traditions remained mostly intact. Among the things Indians brought with them, religion (both Hinduism and Islam) became an important means of self-identification.  The social and cultural history of Afro-Creoles in Trinidad and Tobago, on the other hand, was so wrapped up in imperialism that many of their traditions and cultural beliefs from various countries in Africa were seen as vestiges of primitivism and were to be disdained, even by (perhaps especially by) Afro-Creoles themselves. They had to transition, under duress, from African customs to a predominantly European way of life, and as a result imbibed and adhered to colonial stereotypes of themselves and of other races and ethnicities. The hegemonic influence of their colonizers was so strong during slavery that even after emancipation Afro-Creoles maintained the racial and ethnic social hierarchy, with those closest to ”white”, including a color spectrum ranging from browns and light browns indicative of people of mixed race, at the very top. The Afro-Creoles consequently, in addition to viewing them as economic competition, maintained that the customs and beliefs of the East Indians were strange and somewhat primitive. Despite the fact that open conflict never quite occurred between East Indians and Afro-Creoles, they maintained a certain amount of separation from each other, and this separation filtered into various aspects of everyday life.


Premdas asserts that “Symbols serve as the lexicon of meaning for the human creature; at birth, the child begins life in a closed cultural cocoon inducted as part of a symbolic net into which it is socialized and imprinted with a map of meanings for survival” (82). Of course ethnic and racial identity are often reinforced through the use of certain symbols. However, notions of race and ethnicity in Trinidad and Tobago often have vague definitions at best. Aisha Khan’s essay “What is ‘a Spanish’?: Ambiguity and ‘mixed’ ethnicity in Trinidad” points to the abstruse and decidedly arbitrary manner of racial and ethnic categorization in Trinidad and Tobago, particularly as it relates to those of mixed ancestry. She notes that their ambiguous nature is a matter of perception:

This is not to say they are ambiguous in the sense that persons have trouble comprehending or applying particular ethnic categories in any given social situation. They are ambiguous in that they are ‘capable of being understood in two or more possible senses’ (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 1975), in that these categories are frequently equivocal: contingent upon individual perception (though obviously not entirely) and upon varying and not always predictable emphases of combinations of attributes (180).

The meanings of race and ethnicity in Trinidad and Tobago are often pliable and play out in some significant ways in terms of social identification and social stratification. Khan notes, for instance, that the notion of a mixed person can stand “as an overarching rubric for glossing ethnic or racial combinations, and to analyse the importance of ambiguity for defining, sustaining or resisting hierarchy in systems of social stratification” (181-182). However, the salience and meaning of a symbol, like ethnicity, is often highly subjective. In other words, no symbol is naturally or organically derived because, as Premdas notes, the acceptance of a symbol’s cultural importance is learned and can therefore, hypothetically, be unlearned, or at the very least, adjusted.



While they occupied largely different geographical areas in the early days of East Indian immigration and settlement, both Afro-Creoles and Indo-Trinbagonians have diversified their places of residence. It is true that the south and rural areas of Trinidad still have a higher concentration of Indo-Trinbagonians, but there are also numerous locales where both ethnic groups live side by side. According to Oxaal, “St. James…is an interesting quarter of the city because…the Negroes and East Indians in St. James live cheek-by-jowl in almost complete ‘inter-racial harmony’…Some evidence for this accommodation occurs during the annual Moslem Hosein festival when Negroes often serve as drummers and Negro children will be found taking part in the festivities” (21).

While the claim about almost complete inter-racial harmony is debatable, many traditional East Indian holidays, both Muslim and Hindu celebrations, have often become part of the Trinbagonian cultural milieu, to the extent that Afro-Creoles are aware of them and sometimes even take part. Diwali for instance, as I mentioned previously, is a Hindu holiday,  albeit one  also celebrated by those who adhere to Jainism and Sikhism, coined as ”the festival of lights”, and observed annually by many members of the Indo-Trinbagonian community. Part of the celebration also involves food, and Afro-Creoles, as well as other members of the Trinbagonian population, have been known to observe the lighting process, and partake in the traditional Indian sweets and snacks. Although the holiday still maintains its religious signification, it also takes on a bit of a secular quality, as the lights can be observed by anyone regardless of religious affiliation. The shared celebration of holidays like these in Trinidad and Tobago do much to dispel the notion of separate, distinct forms of cultural property thought to belong strictly to one ethnicity or another, which results, in a particularly Trinbagonian way of life.


Similarly, there are a number of cultural symbols, like the musical genre of chutney soca, that I believe have come to represent an essentially Trinbagonian cultural symbol, rather than simply an Indo-Trinbagonian or an Afro-Trinbagonian symbol. Carnival is widely celebrated by all classes, races and ethnicities in Trinidad and Tobago. In a very real way, it represents a time of year when the vast majority of Trinbagonians are drawn in, either as participants or spectators, of this large scale celebration. This celebration itself is very much a national symbol of Trinidad and Tobago. Chutney soca, a blend of soca and chutney music, is undoubtedly a syncretic form of cultural expression endemic to Indo-Trinbagonians, and in many ways it is the annual Carnival celebration that influenced its inception. Soca music is primarily recognized as the de facto style of music people dance to in the streets during the annual Carnival festivities and is characterized, among other things, by faster tempos and energetic rhythmic vocalizations. Chutney music, not to be confused with chutney, an oft used condiment in Indian cuisine in Trinidad and Tobago, is defined by Tina Ramnarine as “a contemporary Indian-Caribbean musical genre that displays influences from diverse sources” which emerges “not as an Indian but as a specifically Indian-Caribbean form of expression” (276-277).

Chutney-soca, then, is a musical fusion between “traditional” chutney and soca music. While it may retain the use of some of the traditional instrumentation and Hindi-English lyrics of chutney music, chutney soca also features the use of more modern instrumentation such as the drumset, keyboard and electric bass and guitar. Chutney-soca “is characterized by a blend of Indian folk melodies with Indian film music style and Trinidadian soca and calypso rhythms” (Dudley 98). Much like soca, it is performed in very public arenas and is characterized by lively, up-tempo beats which induces Trinbagonians, Creole and Indian alike, to “wine” and “jump up” which is typical for Carnival time celebrations.

For their part, many Trinbagonians have come to expect to hear chutney-soca during carnival time just as they expect to hear soca music. In 1996, a prominent Trinbagonian newspaper asked school-aged children about the popularity of chutney-soca during carnival that year, and many noted that it was because of the interactions between both ethnic groups. As one boy asserted “it represents a coming together of two cultures” (Ramnarine 283).  What better way to encapsulate the notion of Trinbagonian identity?

Truthfully, there are any number of cultural symbols that could easily be identified as belonging to either of the two major ethnic groups in Trinidad and Tobago, but have instead come to represent an overarching Trinbagonian identity. Curry chicken and rice, for instance, stems from East Indian cooking practices, but the recipe is unlike anything found in India currently. It has been creolized and adjusted by Afro-Trinbagonians and Indo-Trinbagonians alike. These examples are plentiful and would seem to point to a way out of the dichotomous approaches to viewing ethnicity and the ensuing cultural forms and symbols within Trinidad and Tobago. Ultimately, these examples can also serve to minimize much of the symbolic conflict between Afro-Creoles and Indo-Trinbagonians through an understanding and appreciation of the ways in which the unique mix of ethnic cultural forms and symbols combine to create a cohesive Trinbagonian identity.



Brereton, Bridget. 1974. “The Experience of Indentureship: 1845-1917.” Calcutta to Caroni: the East Indians of Trinidad. Ed. John Gaffar La Guerre. New York: Longman Caribbean [distributed in the U.S.A. by Longman Inc.].

Khan, Aisha. 1993. “What is ‘a Spanish’?: Ambiguity and ‘mixed’ ethnicity in Trinidad.” Trinidad Ethnicity. Ed. Kevin A. Yelvington. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Oxaal, Ivar. 1982. Black intellectuals and the dilemmas of race and class in Trinidad. Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman Pub. Co.

Premdas, Ralph. 2007. Trinidad and Tobago: Ethnic Conflict, Inequality, and Public Sector Governance. Basingstoke [England]; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ramnarine, Tina K. 2001. Creating their own space: the development of an Indian-Caribbean musical tradition.Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press.

Yelvington, Kevin A. 1993. “Introduction: Trinidad Ethnicity.” Trinidad Ethnicity. Ed. Kevin A. Yelvington. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Tricia Ferdinand is a PhD candidate in Folklore and minoring in Cultural Studies at Indiana University. She received her MA in English Literature from the University of Delaware. Her primary research interests include the intersection between literature and folklore, issues of nostalgia and nationalism, and folklore and literature of the Anglophone Caribbean.



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