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An Olympian with an indenture past

“This is, of course, Manny Ramjohn, an Indo-Trinidadian, the long-distance runner who represented Trinidad and Tobago at the London Olympics in 1948,” San Fernando Mayor Junia Regrello told me, pointing at a rectangular panel on the wall of Harris Promenade in the city in Trinidad and Tobago. Two lines drew my attention: 1946: first place, Central American and Caribbean Games, Barranquilla, Colombia, and 1948: Olympics, London, England.

It was Trinidad and Tobago’s first Olympics, and Manny was in the nine-member contingent.

I was visiting San Fernando, called Sando by the locals, at the Mayor’s invitation. He suggested that we walk around the public park and Harris Promenade to get a sense of its history and rich culture.

Shamshu Deen, an octogenarian of Indian descent and schoolteacher-turned-genealogist, says Manny Ramjohn’s ancestry traces back to the village of Taleeanee in Jaunpur district of Uttar Pradesh. His great grandparents Tursoo and Soogeah, with their two daughters and two sons, left Calcutta by the ship Indus on January 10, 1872. They arrived at the immigration depot of Nelson Island on April 6, 1872. The depot, built in 1866, served as a disembarkation point and quarantine station for indentured immigrants.

Tursoo and his family were assigned to the La Fortune estate in south Trinidad for five years. Completing the indentureship, they settled in San Fernando and Siparia. Manny was the third child and only son of Sakeena and Lil Ramjohn. Sakeena was the daughter of Ismail, the youngest child of Tursoo and Soogeah.

Illustrious contributions

Over generations, Tursoo’s descendants made noteworthy contributions to the Trinbagonian society. Noor Hassanali, one of Manny’s cousins, became the first President of Indian ancestry. Another cousin, Jean Ramjohn-Richards, a doctor, was married to former President George Maxwell Richards. Manny’s incredible story catches Trinidad and Tobago’s imagination.

He was born in San Fernando on November 15, 1915. His son Radcliff Ramjohn, who lives in North Carolina, U.S., says Manny was passionate about agriculture, horticulture and animal husbandry at a young age. He started Boy Scouting in 1927, and in 1937, he was elevated to King Scout and Patrol Leader. Manny was one of the 12 representatives from Trinidad and Tobago who attended King George VI’s coronation. He represented the Scout Association at the World Jamboree in Calgary, Canada in 1983 and the Inter-American Scout Conference in Curitiba, Brazil in 1984.

Manny started running at the age of 15. Roy Joseph, who was married to Manny’s aunt, took him to his first athletic competition organised by the Southern Amateur Athletic Association. He won the one-mile and was runner-up in the three-mile event. For Manny, this competition was the beginning of a long athletic career between 1936 and 1951. He registered 96 wins, was runner-up on 40 occasions and came third 13 times. In 1946, at the Central American and Caribbean Games, he won gold in a 5,000-metre race, setting a record. His was the first gold medal for Trinidad and Tobago in an international game. In 1948, he participated in the Olympics, but did not qualify in 5,000 metres and did not finish the 10,000 metres.

Mr. Radcliff says the ship carrying his father’s running gear did not reach London, and Manny used to say that the level set at that time in 10,000 metres by Emille Zatopek, famous as the “Czech Locomotive”, was high.

Manny worked as a senior research laboratory technician. In 2001, Trinidad and Tobago named a stadium at Marabella in San Fernando after him. The then Prime Minister, Basdeo Pandey, opened the stadium. In 1982, the government awarded him the prestigious national honour, the Hummingbird Silver Medal, for his contribution to sports and social work. He died on January 23, 1998. Though he is long gone, one can hear his humming in Trinidad and Tobago.

(The author is the High Commissioner of India to Trinidad and Tobago)

arun.sahu68@gmail.com

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Printable version | Apr 20, 2021 10:06:41 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/an-olympian-with-an-indenture-past/article33828169.ece

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