Sunday, June 19, 2016

Sam Vijay, France.

When we think of countries where Tamil is spoken outside of Tamil Nadu, we think of Sri Lanka, Singapore and Malaysia. Not many would say that Tamil had been spoken for over 150 years as far away from mother-land of Tamil Nadu. It was in this pursuit Thani Nayagam Adigalar researched and shown how Tamil people lived in every nook and corner of the world with dignity as per the words of Kaviyarasu Kannadasan.

கடல் கடந்தான் எங்கள் தமிழன் - அங்கும்
கற்பூர தீபம் கண்டான் இறைவன்
உடலுக்குப் பொருள் தேடி
உள்ளத்தில் இறை நாடி
தமிழுக்கும் பணி செய்து
தன்மானத்துடன் வாழ..

He crossed the sea, our Tamil men. There also (he)
Saw the God in camphor light,
For his body, he looked for wealth,
In his soul, he searched for God
To Tamil (language) also, he served
So as to live with pride.

During his studies in Annamalai University (1942-47), Thani Nayagam Adigal came across in Louis Dupuis's book “Grammaire française tamoule”, published in 1863, a statement that there had been a demand for a Tamil grammar books in French language from such distant places as Martinique and Réunion. He wondered why and found no credible answer for long time.

It was only about twenty years later since reading this statement, Thani Nayagam Adigal made inquiries concerning the presence of Tamil descendants in these places. He obtained no precise information until he was able to visit Martinique Island in the Caribbean Sea near Venezuela in 1967.
During his several months of stay there, he conducted an extensive research on various aspects of the lives of over 15 000 remaining Tamils in Martinique Island. They were the descendants of 3rd or 4th generation of those who have arrived on the shores of Martinique Island in the mid Nineteenth Century. They were completely cut off from their motherland. They have lost their Tamil language but not the culture and religion.

Adigal’s discovery was so important that the Tamil world was unaware of. He presented his findings in his Opening Address of the Second World Tamil conference held in Madras in 1968, thereby announcing the world, the presence of Tamil culture in the remote islands of the Caribbean Sea. Combined by his studious research and his interaction with the Martinique Tamils during his visit, Adigal was able to publish a 50-page-report entitled “Tamil emigration into Martinique”. In this research paper he depicts the reasons for the emigration of Tamils to such far off places, their perilous sea-journey, their difficult integration in this remote volcanic island and the legacy they left behind. Forty five years after his visit, no serious field research has been conducted to study as to what had happened to these Tamils.

As a continuation of Adigal's research, the author of this paper (Sam Vijay) made a modest attempt to do a follow-up field research. He visited several times Martinique and Guadeloupe and documented the situation of Tamils. Though the author visited the same places that Adigal had visited, unfortunately, all those people that Adigal had interviewed are dead. However the author was able to meet some of their descendants and was able to collect information on Adigal's visit there and their situation since then. And the research continues. Preliminary findings are presented in the form of Power Point Presentations at The 9th International Conference-Seminar on Tamil Studies in Malaysia by the author of this paper.

 When we hear the words "West Indies” in the media, what comes to our mind is English speaking Cricket players from former British colonies in the Caribbean islands like Bahamas, Jamaica, Trinidad, etc. Many of us ignore that there are French speaking islands like Martinique and Guadeloupe which were former colonies of France and now integral part of France as overseas territories. Many of us do not know that there are over 100000 people of Tamil origin live here and in the Main land South America(Guyana) for over 150 years from Tamil Nadu. They mainly came from a small territory of Pondicherry and Karaikal regions which were the French possessions in India and from the surrounding Tamil speaking areas under a Franco-British agreement.

The slave trade from Africa was abolished in 1848 in the French West Indies. The former slaves of African origin who were working in the plantations have refused to work in a slavery situation and they moved to the urban areas in search of new jobs. This process resulted in the scarcity of labourers in the sugarcane plantations which had repercussions in the economical conditions in the islands. The plantation owners demanded new labour force to compensate the loss of African slaves. In view of the know-how of sugarcane cultivation and harsh economic conditions of that time (mid nineteenth century) in Southern India, it was easy to the French colonial agents to recruit Tamils giving them exaggerated hopes.

Since 1854, thousands of Tamils have been taken to far-off islands like Martinique and Guadeloupe as indentured labourers under 5year contract renewable up to ten years. Three to four months journey from the ports of Pondicherry and Karaikal to the islands of Martinique via Mauritius, Reunion, Madagascar and South Africa, was long and perilous. During these voyages of no-return, many fell sick and thousands of them died. The terminally sick were thrown into the sea and some revolting people were simply dropped off in inhabited islands en route. Many ships were drowned by natural calamities or attacked by pirates and enemy ships. When they arrived on the shores of their destination, they found themselves in an unfamiliar and hostile environment.

On May 6, 1854 a ship named Aurélie carrying 317Tamils from Pondicherry landed on the shores of Saint-Pierre, Martinique. The same ship arrived in Guadeloupe on a second voyage from India on December 24, 1854 carrying 344 labourers. Between 1854 and 1883, Guadeloupe and Martinique received 42.326 and 25,509 indentured labourers (coolies) respectively from Southern India mostly Tamils and a few thousand from Northeast India (Calcutta and Bihar). On arrival, after a medical check-up, they were dispatched to different plantations throughout the island.

Life was not easy in the plantations. They had to work long hours. They had to endure maximum cruel punishments for minimum mistakes. They were not allowed to practice their religion. Communication was a burden due to incomprehensible language spoken there. They had to forego speaking Tamil at the expense of learning the Creole language, a mixture of French and African dialects. Those Africans who were recently liberated came back to plantations in search of work as they could not find jobs in the urban areas, only to find that their jobs have been taken by the Tamils from India. The plantation owners were not in a mood to take them back as they found Tamil workers were more docile and hard-working which lead to the hating of Indians by the Africans.

Thani Nayagam Adigal narrates many anecdotes he heard there of how Tamils escaped the discrimination by the people of African origin by voluntarily marrying Africans and thereby creating a mixed race. There were instances where Tamils shaved of their head to mask their Indian appearance. Tamil girls and women were exposed to jealousy by the white as well as African women due to their long strait hair and Tanned skin, the indicators of beauty. Tamil girls stayed at home instead of going to school for fear of being harassed by the boys. The African called the Tamils pejoratively as "Indian coolies" and baseless curses like "mangeurs de chiens"(dog-eaters).

The Tamils of Martinique, notes Thani Nayagam Adigal, lost their language and their cultural traits in due course. Their Tamil origins recognizable only with their last names like Ramasamy, Mutusamy Vaithiyalingam, Venkatesan, etc. They were written to suit the French language often in an unrecognizable manner. Jayaraman is written as Djéaramane and Muthusamy as Moutousamie etc. Adigal faced difficulty to figure out the total population of Tamil origin in the island as it was illegal in France after the Second World War to keep lists of names of people on basis of race, religion and the origin. He had to consult the telephone directory to collect the names which sounded like Tamil names. One other important source of information was the baptismal records of Churches. As they were forbidden to practice their Tamil religion, they were indirectly forced to follow the Christianity by admitting only baptized children in the Schools. Naturally the second generation of Tamils were forced to embrace Christianity until they were allowed to build temples to practice their faith. Thani Nayagam Adigal being a Catholic priest, very often he stayed in the missionary homes. It was not difficult for him to collect information from churches, congregations and schools mostly run by missionaries.

While the first and second generation of Tamils could preserve their language and culture, Adigal notes the third and the fourth generation that he could meet, interact with and interview, only 17 people were able to communicate effectively in Tamil and chant religious and therukoothu songs. Adigal gives a detailed account of the people he had interviewed and recorded. Unfortunately his recorded tapes are not found till date. They were mostly above the age of 60 or 70 (in 1967, the year of his visit) One of them, Albert Marimoutou, spoke Tamil extremely well, and recordings of his speech were made. 

The others that Adigal interviewed spoke at variable levels of Tamil: they were Luciens VELAYE, Louise MAGATHA, Fernand PONNEN, his son Henri PONNEN, Antoine THANGAMEN, Vincent SAIPU, SANGAMALON, Lucien NAYARADOU, SUBARAYAN.
Thaninayagam Adigal gives a very detailed account of his interviews of them. One such example is given here: Fernand Ponnen, is son of Albert Ponnen and Pauline Karupin. His parents were born in Martinique. He was able to recite some verses from Rama natakam. He had an old printed book of Hari Chandra natakam. His son Henri Ponnen who was 34 when Adigal met was practicing celibacy because he wanted be a pousari. Later he was married and had children and eventually succeeded as pousari as well.

The author of this paper had, during his visit in 2013, met one of his sons, Patrice Ponnen who shared the family photos of his father and grandparents whom Thani Nayagam Adigal had met and interviewed. He remembered, as a child, an Indian catholic father came to their house to meet his father. We went through the 50 page research paper that Adigal published on «Tamil emigration into Martinique”. It was with emotion he went through the book. He was not aware of any postal correspondences between his parents and Adigal. He did say that most of the papers and books were in the possession of his brother in Paris. They are yet to be traced and documented.

Today Tamil language has become extinct here in the West Indies. Only a few who are over 80 years old utter a few words and sentences and that too related to their ancestral religious ceremonies. One of them is Marcel Julina Moutousamy. He is considered as the last Tamil speaking person of Martinique. If some efforts had been taken either by the French government or by Tamil Nadu government, Tamil would have survived in this Island. When the author spoke to Mr Marcel Julina, he expressed his last two wishes: to visit the country of his forefathers and to be able to transmit the language and culture of his Tamil ancestors to the younger generation of Martinique. 

Even though they have lost their culture and the hope of returning home, the Tamil migrants worked hard being loyal to their masters and thereby obtaining some favours. They were allowed to possess pieces of land to build their houses and to cultivate a garden where they would grow the food that they were familiar with like vegetables common in Tamil Nadu such as pavakkai, pirkkankai, murungaikai etc. These vegetables entered into the gastronomical traditions of West Indies carrying the same Tamil names. The traditional spicy sauce preparation Colombo (கொழம்பு) had become the national food of Martinique, an influence of Tamils. Vadai, paniyaram and vundai are common Tamil snacks that the Martinique people of all races enjoy. 

Thani Nayagam Adigal observed that the custom of celebrating Pongal had eventually vanished in these islands. However, it was celebrated by the first two generations. In fact this festival was so important for the first generation of Tamils who migrated here, the French government enacted labour laws in favour of giving four days of paid holidays to all the Tamils in the island in order for them to celebrate Pongal and that this clause should be mentioned in all the work-contracts.

Adigal refers to an article that was written by a plantation owner and published in the local journal "Marinique Monitor «in 1855 where a detailed description was given on how Pongal was celebrated in Marinique by the newly arrived Tamil people. Adigal also mentions that Pongal was not celebrated after two generations. As of today, the pongal was not celebrated for more than a century there. The author of this paper, since his visit to the Martinique Island, made a series of efforts so that the Pongal is celebrated once again. After discussing with various associations and groups, arrangements are underway to celebrate Pongal in Martinique after an interval of almost one century. Martinique will witness the overflowing of Pongal on 18th January this year at the Mariamman temple in Trinity, Martinique.

The Tamil people of Martinique and their loyalty to their masters have resulted in fair compensation for them. When the plantation owners left their plantations either they donated their land or sold them at very low prices to the Tamil people. Some of them who were able to save money prudently bought these lands. The Author met several Tamils owning plantations of fertile land where they cultivated Banana and sugarcane.

The Tamils who were supressed for so many years started enjoying some prosperity for the past 20 years owning small and medium-size companies in the field of transports, construction and related industries. They have grown up in the social ladder to be the employers where they employ people of African origin and other immigrants. All the sacrifices made by their forefathers bore the fruit by way of receiving higher education for their children and grandchildren offered by the French Republic, and thereby obtaining higher positions as professors, doctors and engineers. Some of them have entered into National politics and have served as members of French Parliament and Ministers. Current Governor (President) of Martinique is also of Tamil Origin. 

Their affiliation to India, which receives reverence by all walks of life, gives them also an enviable social status. In the recent years one can notice a few people of West Indies started visiting and discovering the homeland of their forefathers. Eventually they will be interested in visiting Countries like Malaysia and Singapore to discover other Tamil Diaspora.
                                                          The Author =  SamVijay (France)
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