Indians and patties

By Michael Burke

Thursday, March 15, 2012

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There are many things that should be highlighted in this 50th anniversary year of our political Independence. Our economic development has moved by leaps and bounds since that time and there are many things that we have to show for it. Today I want to focus on patties. In a real way it is even tied into the tourism product, which is the economic mainstay of Jamaica. Anything we sell abroad also helps to advertise Jamaica and as an extension enhances tourism. Many Jamaicans erroneously believe that it is only the hoteliers and others who sell things directly to tourists who benefit from tourism. But apart from the jobs in the hotels, there is a landing tax, room tax and a departure tax, which all visitors to Jamaica must pay.

The impact on the world market of Jamaican patties is yet to be fully told. But who was it that invented the Jamaican patty? Oral tradition in Jamaica has it that it came from the Indian indentured servants. Thirty years ago in 1982, while employed as a member of staff at the Council for Voluntary Social Services (CVSS), Mrs Icyline Seaton, a former permanent secretary, was acting chief executive officer for one year as the late Elsie Sayle was on leave. In a discussion with Mrs Seaton, she told me that in the old days Indian women would put about a dozen towels on their heads and place a patty pan with lit coals on top of their heads while shouting "Buy your patties", as the patties baked on their heads as they walked on the streets.

The late Dudley Thompson, who was born in Panama, came to Jamaica in 1927 when he was 10 years old. He arrived by boat and he and his brother were whisked away by train to Darliston in Westmoreland where his father who had returned previously was waiting for them. In his 1993 book From Kingston to Kenya (page 3), Dudley Thompson wrote of tasting patties for the first time as a woman selling patties moved up and down the train. He described the patty pan but did not say whether the woman was of Indian origin.

I checked the clippings file on Indians in the island from the history notes at the National Library of Jamaica, but did not see anything about patties. I also read Nyam Jamaica, a book of Jamaican recipes with some historical highlights and photographs. The recipe for patties is there, but in the little story before it I saw nothing about any connection between Indians and patties. I also read a very interesting biographical story of the late Dr Ivan Parboosingh about Indian life in Jamaica in a 1985 issue of Jamaica Journal. But he did not make any mention of patties. I "Googled" Jamaican patties and there is mention of the Indians only in so far as the curry that is put in some patties.

Is there any written material anywhere in the world that gives credit to Indians for introducing patties to Jamaica? I cannot place my hand on any in a hurry. In any case, I am inclined to believe the oral tradition that Jamaican patties are originally a product of the Indians. And if what I believe is true, then morally the Indians are owed a debt of gratitude. Owners of patty companies have become wealthy while many Indo-Jamaicans are still poor. Indeed, Indians still work the cane fields to which their ancestors were sent to work as indentured labourers from 1845 when they first arrived in Jamaica.

Dudley Thompson spent a great deal of his adult life trying to get reparations for the descendants of African slaves. But isn't reparation also owed to the Indians for their role in bringing money into the economy, especially if they are really the originators of the patties? Many Jamaicans already know the impact of Indian cuisine on Jamaica. A Jamaican wedding reception is not considered complete without curried goat and plain rice. The Indians brought the roti here as well as the curried goat. However, patties have had a greater impact worldwide than curried goat and roti. But what do the Indians have to show for it?

I am hoping that a letter writer to the editor will either correct me about who started Jamaican patties or confirm my belief that the Indians were the originators. If it can be ascertained that the Indians conceptualised the Jamaican patties, must they wait until "next never" to get reparations just as the descendants of African slaves have waited in similar futility ? And if the Indians were in fact the originators of patties in Jamaica, who should give them reparation? Those who should do so know themselves.

And speaking of Dudley Thompson, he was the first and perhaps only Rhodes scholar from Jamaica who did not go to a high school. Dudley Thompson went from Primary school to Mico then to the Second World War where he was a pilot and flight lieutenant before returning to Jamaica as a teacher before being awarded the Rhodes Scholarship. The irony of a Pan Africanist being awarded the Cecil Rhodes scholarship is for another discussion.




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