Nelson Island’s recorded history goes back to T&T’s First Peoples, over 500 years ago.
However, its past with Indian indentureship attracted attention and prompted the Indian High Commission HE Arun Kumar Sahu and Ministry of Planning and Development officials to visit the heritage site.
“As Indian High Commissioner, I always wanted to come to Nelson Island to get a feel of the people who have roots in India and their journey,” Sahu, India’s most recent High Commissioner to T&T, said. He has been in Trinidad for 16 months.
Also attending the tour last Friday, curated by the National Trust of T&T, was acting Minister of Planning and Development Allyson West. Planning and Development Minister Camille Robinson-Regis is recovering at home following recent gallbladder surgery.
Both the High Commissioner and the acting Minister arrived with their entourages during the afternoon sun’s peak, under the security of the T&T Coast Guard.
In strict adherence to the COVID-19 regulations, the National Trust split the tour into two groups, ensuring social distancing.
Nelson Island’s architecture, or what remains of it, was on proud display. Attendees were able to walk where cannons once stood in the late 1700s, through the concrete buildings constructed by the Government-owned African slaves in the 1800s, and even enter the detainee cells during the Black Power Movement in the 1970s.
The tour’s crème de la crème was the Marion Hospital’s remnants, as well as the East Indian Indentureship Exhibition.
The High Commissioner walked up the stairway, into the ruins of what once was the Marion Hospital entrance – a convalescence site for immigrants arriving from their long, trans-Atlantic journey.
Sahu explained, “Last year was the 175th anniversary of Indian arrival to this island, and I just wanted to see personally, in my own eyes, what could have been the situation and what kind of hardships they have faced.”
According to the Trust, the mortality rate on board the ships was high, but overall mortality on voyages fluctuated due to bronchitis, diarrhoea, measles, mumps, and dysentery.
Based on records, 114,000 East Indian immigrants were processed on Nelson Island between 1845 and 1921.
The walkthrough exhibition is located in the oldest standing roofed building in Trinidad, which also housed women and children who arrived on the island over a century ago.
The High Commissioner and West were able to peruse the posters and images taken over Nelson Island’s decades.
The room was illuminated by LEDs and cooled by energy-efficient AC units, a testament to the island’s commitment to sustainable development, deriving 100 per cent of its power from solar panels.
At the end of the tour, Sahu confessed that it was an emotional journey.
He said, “I have always told that all those who left India at some point of time, they have brought India to wherever they went and built their own culture. All those who came to India became part of us.”
Nelson Island was also used as an assembly facility and repatriation point until 1936 for the ex-indentured returning to India.
Sahu also explained that what links T&T to India and several other countries is a particular, shared circumstance, “What binds people together is sufferings. You know, we are good friends because we have suffered similar experiences.”
West was hopeful the trust’s efforts would attract locals and foreigners alike when remarking about her experience of the tour.
“I have always been a student of history. It was really interesting to hear the stories and to see the buildings are bring preserved,” she said.
“The efforts that the National Trust is making to ensure we are as eco-friendly as possible and the fact that the island has been used over the years, for different things and impacted different groups of people. I’m hoping that we can get more Trinidad and Tobago citizens here as well as foreigners who can enjoy what has been created here,” she said.
When asked if the Indian High Commission would be willing to partner with the National Trust, Sahu quickly responded: “We are actually open to any kind of possibility, whatever is possible to do, and for this island, if the Government of Trinidad and Tobago has something in mind, I am ready as High Commissioner to push it forward.”
West elaborated further, “The National Trust has already started discussions with the Ministry and the Indian High Commission to see what we can do in various areas. They are also looking at working with them with respect to the Magnificent Seven and other historic buildings around the (Queen’s Park) Savannah. So, the partnership, it is safe to say, has started, and we hope to build on that.”
Nelson Island’s deep history still has several untold stories. With this new partnership and the National Trust’s continuing efforts, the story of T&T’s Indian heritage may be heard for generations to come.