SS Mutlah

Uttar Pradesh, India, January 1, 1901. The cries of a newborn baby boy rang out from a modest house on that winter’s day.

The baby boy, born to a humble family, will travel with his parents, Boodram and Bissoondayia Sewdass, to T&T in the Caribbean, and in time, will perform an astonishing miraculous feat.

That miracle will be to reclaim land from the sea in central Trinidad at Waterloo. A passion that will take him on a 17-year odyssey, taming the waves of the Caribbean Sea to eventually build his temple in that ocean.

Young Sewdass was born to an India that was invaded, conquered and controlled by the British from 1608 to 1947. It was 339 brutal years of oppression and suppression.

That great crusader Mahatma Gandhi, the hero of India’s independence, had peacefully agitated the British for several decades to utter frustration. They eventually surrendered and left India. Freed from British rule, India declared itself independent in 1947.

However, in 1907 when India was still under British rule, Sewdass was just six years old. His family and thousands of other Indians were encouraged to leave India by the British authority. They promised them a much better life elsewhere in one of their other colonies.

Reports of the day stated that parts of India were experiencing extreme drought and suffering was like a plague. It was easy for the British to take advantage of this situation and it was easy to get people to leave India seeking a better life. Uncertain of their future, but hope and faith in their hearts, Boodram and Bissoondayia responded to the promise of a better existence.

They packed what they could to bring with them on their journey. They bade tearful goodbyes to their relatives and travelled from their village by horse-driven tram with their three sons and boarded a steamtrain travelling some 423 miles (some 681 km) to the port of Kolkata then called (Culcutta).

In the summer, on June 4, 1907, his family–comprising himself, his two brothers and his parents–boarded the (steamship) SS Mutlah bound for their new home in T&T.

The ship left the port of Kolkaka (Culcutta) and journeyed through the Indian Ocean, the Cape of Good Hope, passing the remote British Port of St Helena through the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean Sea and T&T.

Young Sewdass would have to be strong to endure the three months of torturous sailing, through dangerous rough seas, sickness, storms and blazing heat. He would have to even witness death, as 11 passengers from a total of 844 aboard the SS Mutlah succumbed to the journey and had to be thrown overboard.

He must have felt that he and his family would also become victims of the cruel seas when passing through the Cape of Good Hope on the South African coastline known for its unforgiving currents and mighty waves which they experienced.

The journey took between ten and 16 weeks, depending on weather conditions. Life on the steamship was similar to those on slave ships. The death rate for Indians travelling to the Caribbean was high due to diseases like dysentery, cholera and measles.

Steadfast in prayer

Though they were hanging on to the thin threads of life in the cramped, inhumane hull of the ship young Sewdass noticed something quite remarkable. He noticed his parents remained steadfast in pray and worship, and he and his brothers were encouraged to do the same–a level of spiritual devotion which served him well in the future.

Sewdass’s deep spiritual background and his experiences aboard the SS Mutlah certainly would have shaped his courageous mind, strengthened his character and his will each day, as the SS Mutlah cut through strong choppy seas and did a balancing act as it rolled back and forth on the threatening waves as it sailed onward to T&T.

September 4, 1907, the SS Mutlah arrived in T&T, its passengers clearly showing signs of extreme exhaustion from their journey as they disembarked at Nelson Island. The passengers were subjected to a rigorous inspection carried out by immigration officials under The Protector of Immigrants. They were fumigated with DDT, including their clothes, their belongings, as well as their ship.

After they disembarked, deaths continued. Poorly fed and weak, they continued to die in the holding bays and during the process of acclimatisation.

They were housed temporarily on Nelson Island until they were strong enough to be brought to the mainland. The immigrants were soon called by name, numbered, given a five-year contract to sign and assigned to villages.

Sewdass’s family was sent to the village of Barrancore, known today as Brickfield, the place where he would make history as he made a major contribution to T&T’s tourism development.

Barrancore (Brickfield) Trinidad in 1907 was a seaside village strewn with barrack-style existence with thatch-roof structures. The village was also inhabited by African people who were freed slaves from the emancipation of 1834.

Labouring in the field

The British authorities did not exclude children from labour, so young Sewdass and his brothers had to work alongside their parents, though they were only still under ten years of age. Sewdass was just six.

I was very fortunate to meet Sewdass’s good friend, Chunnelal. At over one hundred years of age, he still remembered quite a bit of history. “He said “the work was extremely hard and the hours were very long. The conditions were terrible, but what could you do?

“We had to work according to what we were told. Being young people didn’t matter to them.

“We worked for around 20 cents per day. And if we were made to work extra hours, we were not compensated at all.”

Twenty cents per day? How did Sewdass’s parents save from such meagre wages to purchase tickets for themselves and their three boys to return to India after their five-year contract was up?

Trinidad 1912–the horrific five-year contract had come to an end for Boodram and Bissoondayia and they would return to India with their three boys. Sewdass was now 11 years of age.

In 1920 Sewdass returned to Trinidad with his brothers after having spent eight years in India. Sewdass was now 19. His parents did not return.

He lived and worked in the sugar estate in Brickfield in Waterloo.

The colonial power that was Great Britain had indentured labourers in many parts of the world and they were treated more like objects than human beings.

Hausildar, an ex-indentured labourer in Fiji said, “We were whipped for small mistakes. If you woke up late, later than 3 am, you got whipped.

“No matter what happened, whether there was rain or thunder, you had to work–we were here to work and work we had to do, otherwise we were abused and beaten up.”

In no man’s land

Sewdass, being frugal, returned to India in 1920, 1942, 1946, 1963 and 1970. On his trip back to India in 1942 Sewdass almost lost his life when bad weather threatened to capsize the boat. Strong sustained howling winds and massive waves tossed the boat around. His prays and faith kept him hoping for life.

When he arrived in India, he confessed to a pundit that he was scared. This was the meeting that would turn Sewdass into the legendary figure that he has become today.

The pundit told him that Lord Krishna had saved his life, and that he needed to build a temple to honour him on his return to Trinidad.

In 1942 Sewdass, at age 22, utilised land owned by the British Sugar Company Tate and Lyle to build the temple.

The land was slightly better than mangrove and swamp. But he cleared it and started the place of worship.

Narine, Sewdass’s son said, “Back then there were maybe three or four temples in the country. My father’s temple was one of them. People came from afar to use it and satisfy their religious hunger.”

Sewdass by this time had already demonstrated his incredible multi-faceted skills. He had built a home for his family, which still stands today. In the downstairs of that house, he established a shop. He had thousands of customers. His record books showed a man who paid extreme attention to detail. The books, though fragile, show his record-keeping was impeccable. The legibility of his handwriting was astonishing. Given the fact that he had no formal schooling in business and architecture, the skills he displayed at this stage of his life was perplexing.

He was also gaining a reputation of being a Holy man in the village and was given the name Sadhu, as many people turned to him for advice, guidance and hope.

After five years of being used as a place of pray and worship for many, The Tate and Lyle Sugar Company instructed Sewdass to demolish his temple. Sewdass bluntly refused to destroy the temple that he believed was commanded by Lord Krishna to be built. He was arrested, charged for refusing to carry out a court order, fined 100 pounds and imprisoned for 14 days.

While in prison, the Tate and Lyle Company used a tractor and demolished Sewdass’s temple. His friend Chunnelal said, “I went with my bull cart and picked up all the rubble. I was sad to see my friend’s temple destroyed. It was a temple that was used by many of us.”

One can only imagine the tremendous hardships people faced in this country in 1947 under the might of the British. Also, the Second World War had ended just two years previously and food rationing continued. Indentureship was still ripe in the minds of the Indian people and the freed African slaves were still trying to find their lost identity, language and purpose.

It was against this background in 1947 that Sewdass was freed from prison after 14 days of incarceration. He gazed upon the spot which housed his temple. He saw only space. His friend Chunnelal was there to greet and console him.

Anger, rage and sorrow enveloped every one of Sewdass’s cells.

Chunnelal said he uttered the words, ” ‘They do not want me to build my temple on land, so now I will build it in the ocean, in no man’s land’.”

With those words, Sewdass began the 17-year odyssey that led him to conquer the Caribbean Sea, change the landscape of Central at Waterloo and leave a legacy that has become a major tourist attraction for T&T.

Continuing next week