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Indo-Caribbean Collection

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Highlighting Indo-Caribbean Identity

  • Overview
  • For the past several years, Penn Libraries has been broadening efforts to acquire materials related to South Asian diasporas, supported by both increased interest on campus as well as new financial contribution from the Singh Family Fund. This initiative has sparked the growth of a substantive Indo-Caribbean collection that strives to reveal histories, communities, and cultural expressions that have remained underrepresented in most research libraries and understudied in scholarly discourse. Through collection and advocacy, we aim to highlight the distinct Indo-Caribbean culture that flourishes in Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, Suriname, Jamaica, and other Caribbean islands, the legacy of the indenture system that brought more than a half million South Asians to the region to labor on British, French, and Dutch sugarcane plantations.

    Our diasporic materials from the Caribbean represent a variety of publication genres and expressive forms, including commercial publications for popular consumption, scholarly analyses for academic audiences, as well as visual imagery and ephemera. Thematic strengths include indenture, politics, and culture. Working with small booksellers and publishers throughout the Caribbean, we’ve begun acquiring niche items, such as micro-level family histories, annual souvenir magazines celebrating Divali and Indian Arrival Day, and self-published works that provide unique insight into Indo-Caribbean identity.

  • Prominent Topics
  • Histories of indenture feature largely in the collection, including travel accounts from South Asia as well as studies of the subsequent development of distinct cultural forms in new Caribbean homelands. Details about the journey are offered in a number of colonialist journals, diaries, and ship logs, such as Captain Swinton’s Journal of a Voyage with Coolie Emigrants, from Calcutta to TrinidadThe First Crossing: Being the Diary of Theophilus Richmond, Ship’s Surgeon Aboard the Hesperus, 1837-8, and Captain Angel’s log in A Return to the Middle Passage: The Clipper Ship “Sheila”. Accounts of the indentured are also retold in works such as Immigrant #99840 and Canecutter #7074, which provides a 100-year family history that stretches from India to Guyana and subsequently to Canada, or The Still Cry, which recounts oral narratives of five surviving laborers in Trinidad & Tobago. Contemporary scholarly analysis considers the unique developments of Indo-Caribbean histories in a variety of locales: Transients to Settlers: The Experience of Indians in Jamaica, 1845-1950 highlights the distinct cultural identity of East Indians in Jamaica; Survivors of Another Crossing: A History of East Indians in Trinidad, 1880-1946 considers the impact of South Asian immigrants throughout Trinidadian society; and Bengal to Barbados outlines contributions of Indians to Bajan society as viewed through family history. Together, these histories provide a range of perspectives in a variety of Caribbean contexts.   

  • History/Politics Collage
  • Studies of political matters and writings of national leaders also form a notable portion of the collection. Works focused on Trinidad & Tobago tend towards considerations of ethnicity and the electorate, highlighting divisions between East Indian and Afro-Caribbean groups. For example, Deadlock! explores the intersection of ethnicity and electoral competition in the late 1990s; East Indians and Black Power in the Caribbean examines how ethnic divisions impact the political and economic landscapes; and Pathways to Power advocates for East Indians working towards greater national unity. The influence of Hindu nationalism in Trinidadian politics is also considered in biographies such as Simbhoonath Capildeo: Lion of the Legislative Council and Sat Maharaj: Hindu Civil Rights Leader. Policies of resistance and critique characterize much of the Guyanese discourse, as evident in Cheddi Jagan’s various works and speeches and in Guyana, Political and Social Satire, a collection of political cartoons.

    Cultural studies in the collection focus on matters of arts, religion, and gender. Scholarly analyses such as Music of the Indian Diaspora in Trinidad and The Impact of Indian Movies on East Indian Identity in Trinidad examine the influence of artforms on Indo-Caribbean identity, while works like Golden Heritage: The Dance in Trinidad and Tobago and Inward Journey document unique cultural expressions. The syncretic nature of the Indo-Caribbean religious realm is revealed in a number of studies: The Ramleela of Sangre Grande documents an Indo-Caribbean iteration of a North Indian Hindu festival; Temples and Mosques: An Illustrated Study of East Indian Places of Worship in Guyana explores the development of distinct Guyanese religious spaces; and Indian Caribbean Folklore Spirits details the paranormal beings said to roam the region. The influence of women on Indo-Caribbean culture is documented in works like I Rather Dead, which provides a Spivakian analysis of Indo-Caribbean women’s narratives, as well as East Indian Women of Trinidad and Tobago and Why Not a Woman?, both of which feature influential women and their contributions to Trinidadian society.

  • Politics/Culture Collage
  • Special Collections
  • The Kislak Center holds a number of old, rare, and/or ephemeral items related to the Indo-Caribbean, though the collection of Indo-Caribbean postcards is a particular gem. Produced from the late 1800s to 1975, the postcards depict staged vignettes from Indo-Caribbean life and speak to the exoticizing interests of American and European audiences. Produced by a variety of studios for the tourist market, these postcards traveled to a wide range of locales, including the U.S., Iceland, Tunisia, France, Holland, and Germany. Penn students have been utilizing these postcards in classes to understand the histories and ramification of indenture.

  • Postcards
  • Looking Forward
  • In coming years, the Penn Libraries expects to expand our Indo-Caribbean collection in the areas of literature, ephemera, and non-English materials in regional Hindustani dialects as we strive to highlight the diversity of voices that too often remain at the periphery in collection development and academic research. 

Acquisition funds

Singh Family Fund