The itinerant trader, affectionately and commonly known as the ‘coolie-man’, has been part and parcel of the economic landscape of Barbados for over 100 years. “Bengal to Barbados – A 100 Year History of East Indians in Barbados” written by Sabir Nakhuda and published in 2013 records the first known East Indian from Bengal to these shores, Bashart Ali Dewan, engaging in this form of business. Research has shown that he came from poor circumstances amongst impoverished villages in the Bengal region of India where farming was the main source of income. It is highly probable that he wasn’t a salesman but chose to engage in this form of business in Barbados. It is likely that he saw his fellow Bengalis in Trinidad doing this type of trade when he stopped there before coming to Barbados around 1910.
India and Barbados were both parts of the British Empire back in the early 1900s when Ali Dewan and those that followed him half-way across the globe in search of better economic fortunes found favorable opportunities on this island.
There existed a similar business model of trading in England at that time called the ‘tick system’. P. J Waller in his book “Town, City, and Nation: England, 1850-1914” writes: “The poor had need of a more informal system – where evening trading was available, where ‘tick’ was negotiable; above all, where convenience, cheapness, and quantity reigned before quality.”
Ali Dewan started up his itinerant trade and went from house to house selling his goods on credit. The several waves of East Indians from Bengal first and then from the Gujarat region of India that followed Ali Dewan were from farming backgrounds but adopted and adapted successfully to become businessmen in the itinerant trade having seen the earlier successes.
Many of them came with little or no money from India but worked hard to build trade. It is reported that these early East Indian migrants would work 10-12 hours a day, six days a week. They would start off by walking from house to house, district to district, with a suitcase in hand or on their heads. My father’s reflections on his early days here in the mid-1950s were being dropped to a point in St. Philip and then walking from village to village to ply his goods. Eventually he, like the other traders, made enough money to buy a bicycle that allowed them to ride instead of walk.
The term ‘coolie-man’, which has survived across generations, was given to these traders perhaps due to their ethnicity or perhaps because of the walking around with suitcases. In India during the British rule Indians carrying suitcases for the British aristocracy were called ‘coolies’. Everywhere else in the world the term is derogatory but here in Barbados, it is not seen as an insult. Rather it is used in a friendly way to describe the itinerant salesman who has become attached to the family.
It should be noted that East Indians of the Islamic faith are primarily the ones who engage in the itinerant trade. East Indians of other faiths in Barbados engage in different types of economic ventures.
This type of trade in those early days was extremely challenging, especially for an outsider coming from a distant place where language, faith and culture were fundamentally different. Not all the East Indians who came to Barbados in those years were successful at the itinerant trade but many did well. It was their resolve to succeed and their ability to form relationships with their customers that accounted for their successes.
To understand the impact that itinerant traders had in Barbados and especially, but not limited to, lower-income Barbadians, one must read the accounts of those who benefited from access to goods on extremely favorable credit terms at a time when buying cash was the only available option for the poor.
Credit to the average Barbadian was unheard of and so many had to struggle on the meager earnings they received and get along as best as they could. In ‘Bengal to Barbados’, Dr. Waldo Walrond Ramsay QC is quoted as saying, “Bajans and Indians became ‘partners in poverty’.” The book further points out: “The itinerant trader occupied a ‘buffer position’ between the white merchant trader and working black Barbadian.”
Former Prime Minister of Barbados, Freundel Stuart, in the Foreword to “Bengal to Barbados” writes: “… for many years, I experienced directly the impact this important group made on the village in which I grew up in the parish of St. Philip… I saw these men alleviate the financial distress of many people who lived in Marchfield, St. Philip. They took care of ‘back to school’ requirements for parents who could not afford to buy school uniforms, by extending generous credit terms to them. At Christmas, the poorest households benefited from credit terms no less generous.”
A doctor once remarked about my late father-in-law that he was the “salesman” who supplied his mother with school uniforms on credit for him to wear to school during his poor upbringing. He later studied and became a brain surgeon in New York and remembered my father-in-law when he was wheeled into the emergency operating theatre. Similar stories are repeated across the length and breadth of Barbados.
But the itinerant trade and the ‘coolie-men’ have not been free from scrutiny. As early as the 1930s, in the aftermath of the 1937 riots, Mr. Archibald Delise Inniss, President of the Chamber of Commerce, accused the itinerant traders of “unfair trading”, calling them “alien traders”. He told the Dean Commission: “In view of our large population, the business of this kind should be done by people of British origin.”
It is interesting that the Dean Commission of Enquiry into the 1937 riots sought to apportion some blame for the riots to the itinerant traders. At a time when research showed there were only around 35 ‘coolie-men’ operating out of a total Barbadian population of 189,350 in August 1937, the Commission made the claim: “One of the chief menaces of fair trading, especially in articles of clothing, is the activity of certain foreign and Indian peddlers, who on foot, on bicycles or in cars, peddle goods from door to door and sell them on the installment system… The weekly collection of money from the laborer must, in our opinion, help to pauperize him or make him dishonest…”
Criticism was again leveled at itinerant traders in the 1960s when the Chamber of Commerce complained about them and Darcy Scott said at a public meeting: “The East Indian community in Barbados makes no social or economic contribution to the island.”
The then Premier of Barbados, the Rt. Hon. Errol Barrow responded to these criticisms in a press conference in 1965. He said: “The Indians who journeyed to the country and sold goods to the people were performing a service in the country which the people appreciated… If this is going on, you cannot say that our people are being robbed… I don’t know of any trader who can force anybody to buy something which he does not want to buy.”
For the ‘coolie-man’, like for any other business person, the main driver is doing an economic enterprise is to generate income. That is the primary motive, but what we also find is that the itinerant trade had several unintended consequences, many of which were positive for the Barbadian society for over 100 years. In speaking our minds on the subject we must acknowledge all of these consequences. The ‘coolie-man’ became much more than a friendly trader in the neighborhood, he became a member of the family, a counselor, and advisor at times. The ‘coolie-man’ in Barbados has many anecdotal stories (positive and negative), has been entered into folklore and immortalized in song and in the cultural landscape of Barbados.
I am the son and grandson of ‘coolie-men’ and I am proud of my roots.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace, Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association, Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI and a Childhood Obesity Prevention Champion. Email: [email protected])