“Oh, naughty, naughty Clara, how could you serve me so?
I’ll go to Demerara, if you tell me to go.
I’ll sail across the ocean, I’ll go far o’er the seas.
If you’ll tell me to go, my dear, I’ll do just as you please.”
The fast full rigged British clipper, the magnificent “Sheila” smoothly sailed into dark Demerara early on the morning of November 29, 1877, running “bang for the bar” of soft mud when the ugly, frothy river tide rose. Anchoring close to the stelling of Messrs. Sandbach, Parker and Company, the ten-month-old ship, with its huge iron masts towering 186 feet above decks, had just delivered its first human cargo of 624 “poor souls” to the indentured immigrant depot at Five Islands, Trinidad.
Built by Chas. Connell, a firm famous for some of “the fastest Tea Clippers,” the “Sheila” was designed to excel on the order of Liverpool’s Sandbach, Tinne and Company, in Glasgow, Scotland. No expense was spared in the modelling since “everything was to give place to speed” making the vessel “the most costly ship of her size that was ever launched” fitted with steam for all purposes except propulsion and “extremely heavily rigged” with 8500 yards of canvas sails.
Specifically constructed “for the special trade” of carrying indentured workers, the “Sheila” needed to be quick “because in conveying upward of 600 coolies, besides the crew, even a day saved on the passage was a great consideration in cost of food.” By November 13th she had achieved “the first arrival from India with coolies for the season – 74 days on the passage” beating by 13 days, her competitor, the “Lhassa” another new clipper from an opposition line scheduled to also stop in Trinidad but bound with immigrants for Demerara.
Travelling the long way round to catch the winds and currents, the “Sheila” left Trinidad and sailed up to the Eastern Caribbean, slicing past Barbados and beating the Boston ice ship, the “Delaware” one of “Messrs. Perot’s American Barques” bound for Demerara, in “a beautiful race.”
In his memorable memoir of that maiden voyage from Europe, to India and the West Indies, Captain William H. Angel complained, “The Guiana coast is one of the worst in the world to make direct from the blue ocean, it is so low, and shallows off the land to a great distance, there being only 20 feet of water 20 miles off in places, so it needs cautious approach.”
A crewman, “Paddy” would even joke that frequently “the first land you see off Demerara, would be the ships lying at anchor off Georgetown. The land is down under.” To be caught leeward of the attendant “lightship” was considered “an awful misfortune” as the current at times attained a velocity of four miles an hour and it was “the bad luck of many a poor unfortunate skipper, who has had a weary time of it beating back.”
In the “lightship anchored ten miles offshore, the pilot had to be roused at 1 a.m. to carefully guide the 260-foot long craft in.” However, “the less one says about the river the better” for “it is a very dirty looking stream, almost black at times, principally owing to the leaves of dye wood trees, very non-buoyant, and supposed to be even poisonous. The banks are low, but fringed by high trees, and you have to travel a long way up inland before the shore rises to any extent.”
Fondly saluting Georgetown “as my second home” the 33-year-old Sandbach sea skipper had frequented the capital on previous voyages, spending “on an average twice the length of time in Demerara that I did in my home in Liverpool, so that I knew everybody, and everybody knew me.”
“I found the people approachable, kindly, and beyond everything hospitable, and they showed me many kindnesses. Their city of Georgetown, once so dreaded, and even dubbed the ‘white man’s grave,’ has been rendered one of the healthiest cities in the tropics by strict attention to sanitary hygiene. It is also beautifully planned, and the villa residences, built of decorated wood painted and on stilts as in Trinidad, are very commodious and picturesque; most of them standing well back in lovely gardens, and all with the universal balconies and verandahs, they have such a ‘cared-for’ look. “
Angel felt: “The churches and public buildings cannot be excelled anywhere in the West Indies. They are mostly built, as to the framework, of green-heart, as are the towers and church steeples; the wood is plentiful here, and is practically everlasting. The streets are of enormous width. The principal one, has a main trench in the centre, which drains the land; it is kept clean and the banks are planted with choice flowers, whilst in the water are aquatic plants, notably the Victoria Regia, with its enormous saucer-like leaves floating on the surface, and the monster wax-like flowers.” Lying below sea level like the rest of the coastline, the city resisted flooding due to “a series of impervious dykes” with automatic shutters or “cokers” built with slave labour by the previous Dutch colonisers.
Bearing the “badly wanted” cargo of 300 tons of upland “mooghy rice” a brown coloured cereal much preferred by the Indians and “more nutritious” than the white grain used in England, “a shore gang commenced discharging it at once into coasting craft.” Similar amounts went to Barbados and the Windward Islands. The “Sheila” delivered sixty-six 400-gallon water tanks too, and was moored for three weeks to be loaded with 1550 tons of Demerara sugar and fine rum plus 50 tons of annatto for colouring cheese. Most was transferred from the company’s sister ship, the “Fairlie” manned by Captain Plant who maintained a city residence. Loaded and ready for the ocean crossing back to India to take up another batch of indentured immigrants, Angel noted that the “Fairlie” being “the big Coolie ship must not be detained!”
Estate produce for shipment came to Demerara in large, shallow, flat-bottomed punts, some with sails able to carry 60 to 80 one-ton-hogsheads and were “manned by two or three negroes who were very expert, and went a long way up and down the coast and river.”
Angel identified “stellings” as a noticeable feature of the river, being “extensive wharves built out over the river banks, on large baulks of greenheart – timber piles driven into the mud – and decked over. Even the offices and warehouses are built on them; but the latter thus built have this peculiar disadvantage: the enterprising negro in his narrow, native-made canoe has been known to worm himself between the piles and under the flooring of the rice store, prick the bags with a cutlass, and so has stolen off with many a load.”
Stressing that “of all the cities in the world, there was not one that could vie with Georgetown for the variety of skin colour of “the human faces you met in the streets,” the Captain said these ranged “from the blackest of black” and “the sort that if a piece of burnt cork were rubbed on their faces would leave a white mark” to endless gradations of black and yellow, “quite white,” albinos and mulatto mixtures “ad infinitum” to the coolies some being “as near black as makes no odds, grading to white again.”
Stabroek is described as among the “sights” with “high market” from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m when “it was a very busy scene, crowded with buyers and sellers, very vociferous, and creating a regular babel. Fish, flesh, fowl, and vegetables of wondrous sorts, and fruit of every known tropical variety were there. On the arrival of the Boston ice ship, there were also temperate zone fruits and food in abundance.”
But it was the seafood that caught the Captain’s eye “being uncanny-looking objects” since “although they all might be good to eat, some did not look it.” He singled out the giant grouper as one of the “ugliest” fishes in particular weighing about 200 pounds and sold by weight “to eager buyers.”
“I suppose it must have been scarce also, by the fuss they made, as they sent round the city crier when they had one to sell” and “he went into the streets shouting for all he was worth, and the whole capacity of his lungs: ‘Jew fish in de market.’”
The “extraordinary” stargazer or “four-eyes” fishes of the mud banks, giant squid, octopuses, sun fish, eels of all sorts even the electric variety were sold, and “what was unsaleable to regular buyers, was bought up by the Chinaman, who will mess up and eat anything that even remotely had life.”
ID learns that the “gaily” flag-decorated “Sheila” drew “crowds of ‘Georgetowners’ from the Governor of British Guiana, and members of the Court of Policy, to the townsfolk of all degrees.” She “was very much admired by all” and the Captain provided “lavish hospitality in the saloon.”