The earliest evidence of the influx of East Indians in Belize seems to be when the British Parliament arranged for the transportation in 1858 of one thousand Indian mutineers with their wives and families, after the suppression of the Indian Mutiny in India. Actually, the first group of East Indians had arrived in the West Indies in 1838 as indentured servants, to fill a gap in the labor force created when the freed slaves left the plantations after the abolition of slavery. Indentured workers were encouraged to come to the Caribbean to work, under a signed contract, for about five years; after which time they were free to return to India, or remain in the Caribbean as laborers on their own terms.
Statistics show that between 1844 and 1917, over 41,000 East Indians were indentured to work in British colonies in the Caribbean. The East Indians that came to Belize again in the 1880s were from Jamaica, and were brought mainly to work on the sugar estates established by rich Americans who had settled in the Toledo District after fleeing the Civil War in the United States. Some East Indians, who had previously been employed in Guatemala planting coffee, also settled in Toledo at that time. Interestingly enough, by the turn of the Twentieth Century, some East Indians had also settled in Calcutta and San Antonio in the Corozal District in northern Belize. They lived on their own farms cultivating a variety of fruits and vegetables for sale.
As laborers, it was proven over and over again in the Caribbean and Belize that, for light field work in the Tropics, the East Indian is an invaluable worker. Today, they live mostly in secluded communities in the Toledo District in places like Forest Home and Mafredi; in the Corozal District with place-names like San Antonio, Carolina, and Calcutta; and in Belize City they are more diversified, although areas like Queen Charlotte Town still exist today.
Within the past two decades, there have been recent Hindu immigrants to Belize, engaged mostly in the merchandising sector. Many of the young East Indians working in their stores today were brought as indentured workers; and instead of returning to India, they have set up their own places of business from the savings on their wages.
The East Indians in the Toledo District were good at planting and growing sugar cane and rice, and today are still cultivating rice for marketing. Their food is unique, aromatic, and traditional, employing the use of flavorings like tacari which is made from yellow ginger or curry powder. Cohune cabbage and dahl roti are used as festival foods.
Some of the recent female immigrants wear traditional Indian clothes, but generally their customs and dress have become westernized. The Indian language is all but unknown to the descendants of the early immigrants. Their own native dance, the “who-se-mi-se” is only performed on special occasions.
Long ago accepted by the rest of the population, the East Indians presently make up about three percent of Belize’s population, and have almost completely intermixed in terms of marriage and culture.
This article can be found on the National Library Service of Belize site.