STORIES OF OUR PAST
Credit : Angelo Bissessarsingh.
THE MILK SELLERS OF PORT OF SPAIN.
It was primarily the labour needs of the sugar industry, particularly those of the extremely powerful William Hardin Burnley of Orange Grove Estate that provided the impetus for the importation of indentured labour from India.
Indeed, almost a decade after the last stalk of sugar cane was ground at Usine Ste Madeline, there are stereotypes which bind indelibly, the Indo-Trinidadian to the canefield, either by dint of misunderstanding or lack of research into the diverse ways that many had of earning a living.
Far from being bound by their ‘navel-strings’ to the cane, there were several other productive sectors which the ex-indentureds and their descendants quietly began to dominate within the first three decades after the arrival of the Fatel Rozack in 1845.
The penchant of the newcomers for animal husbandry, particularly cattle, was evident since for both Hindu and Muslim arrivals, this had been a matter of course in their homeland. It continued in Trinidad which prompted Dr Louis De Verteuil to note in 1857:
“They are much attached to their cattle, especially the cows, and from them mainly the public get their supply of milk. A Coolie will never sell any of his cattle to the butcher for slaughter.”
This statement was especially pertinent to the Hindu population to whom the cow is a sacred animal. In rural districts, most people of Indo and non-Indo descent kept a cow or two as a store of wealth, since banks were generally not used even where accessible.
In and around the large towns , particularly Port-of-Spain and San Fernando, the East Indians being entrepreneurs found a niche as the suppliers of fresh milk daily to thousands of consumers. In Port-of-Spain, this supply largely stemmed from Coolie Town, which was the settlement of Indians along the Western Main Road that developed on the lands of the old Peru Estate in the 1860s. Known as St James today, many of its residents kept cows which were pastured on lands in the shadow of La Vigie or on the fallows near Cocorite.
Livestock was also reared by Madrassi immigrants at Boissiere Village in Maraval who were tenants of Madame Poleska de Boissiere of Champs Elysees Estate.
In those days, the princely sum of one dollar a month paid at the Town Hall on Knox Street would permit the owner of cattle to graze them unreservedly at the Queen’s Park Savannah. Indeed, there is the ruin of an old drinking trough, hidden in some bushes near the Pitch Walk which is a reminder of this time. Many of the Indians of Coolie Town and the two Boissiere Villages took advantage of this opportunity. There is at least one record of a courting couple who were put to flight by the charges of an enraged bull.
Every morning, the swish of fresh milk hitting galvanized pails would be heard as the preparations for the day’s sales began. It was a not entirely groundless accusation of customers that the milk was often diluted. Many echoed the sentiments of a lady in Sam Selvon’s epic novel, A Brighter Sun which is set in WWII-era Trinidad and wherein Urmilla is accused of this subterfuge with the statement, “Allyuh Indian too wutless. Allyuh does sell water flavour wid milk.” Sometimes, depending on the source of the water, debris would be unwittingly mixed with the milk and according to one local historian, this once included a healthy dose of live tadpoles!
Sales would be almost unanimously conducted by women, although men did make the rounds in donkey carts sometimes, with milk in empty rum bottles, stopped with twists of brown paper in place of a cork. This would be done on a route system wherein the bottles would be quietly placed at the back doors or service entrances to middle and upper-class homes and with the money being collected at the end of the week.
Women would hit the road barefooted with a four gallon pail balanced gracefully on their heads and hawk their wares with a piercing cry of ‘MIL..LL.LLK” in the cool air. They would sell to the occasional customers who had to provide their own containers, paying about 12 cents for a pint of fresh milk, doled out with a tin dipper. These milk sales provided a considerable income for many families.
With the increasing urbanization of Port-of-Spain and the availability of pasteurized milk at groceries along with the powdered variety, the milk sellers of St James and Boissiere Village had by the 1950s faded into the sepia-toned memories of yesteryear.
A milk seller of the late 19th century with her pail and dipper.