“Sweet Evelina, dear Evelina,
My love for thee shall never, never die.
Dear Evelina, sweet Evelina,
My love for thee shall never, never die.
Three years have gone by and I’ve not got a dollar,
Evelina still lives in the green valley holler,
Altho’ I am fated to marry her never,
I’ll love her I’m shure for ever and ever.”
This sad American Civil War love ballad was being belted out by a hardworking Guianese band of singing, sweating stevedores, back in December 1877, as they cheerfully loaded the “Sheila” sailing ship with potent Demerara rum and pungent brown sugar. British Captain William Henry Angel recalled a few of the lines in the local parlance, confessing in his memoir of the “perfect” big clipper some four decades later, that the men’s songs were “many which I forget now.”
The composition “Sweet Evelina” was created around 1863 during the midst of the costly and bloody conflict, fought from 1861 to 1865 in the bitterly divided United States, the largest slaveholding nation, triggered over the disputed power of the sovereign national government to prohibit slavery. Despite the country’s famous Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, seven slave-backing territories in the Deep South seceded and formed the Confederate States of America.
Ironically, several of the dock workers would have formerly been slaves in Guiana, only freed after the August 1, 1834 British Emancipation Act came into effect four years later. Trade in Indian “coolies” or indentured labourers, as a cheap source of alternative manpower in the Caribbean was initiated by Scottish merchant and slave owner turned politician, absentee proprietor Baron John Gladstone, the father of the four-time British Prime Minister William Gladstone. On May 5, 1838, two chartered ships, the “Whitby” and “Hesperus” brought about 400 individuals to British Guiana sugar estates, starting an economic emigration scheme that would last until 1917.The batches comprising “hill coolies” from Chota Nagpur, and the remainder from Bardhaman or Burdwan, and Bankura near to Calcutta in West Bengal, became known as the “Gladstone Coolies.”
By January 1877, the “most costly” and “proudest” 260-foot long “Sheila” would join the race, launching in the River Clyde even as a duplicate sister “coolie carrier” the “Brenda” was being completed by Chas. Connell in Whiteinch, Glasgow, Scotland. They were specifically built “for speed” to the order of the mercantile powerhouse Sandbach, Tinne & Company of Liverpool to transport the “coolies” over several decades, to toil on the West Indian sugar plantations, that the emancipated slaves had largely abandoned.
Significant slave, land and property holders, produce brokers and then leading ship owners, Sandbach evolved from the cotton-selling firm McInroy, Sandbach and Company founded in 1782, in Demerara, then under Dutch rule to running a hugely successful trading store in the county eight years later. By 1813, the prosperous and well-connected Phillip Frederick Tinne, a Dutchman of Huguenot descent with experience of managing Guiana coffee plantations, joined the company as a full partner and the ties were subsequently cemented through marriages between the families.
Described as “the Rothschilds of Demerara” after the famous Jewish banking dynasty, Sandbach was the second biggest recipient of slave compensation collecting a massive fortune totalling £150 452 from the Government. At least ten family members featured among the richest people in Britain on their deaths spanning more than a century, University College London (UCL) historians recently noted. John Gladstone alone would get nearly £107 000, the modern equivalent of £83M for the 2,508 slaves he owned or retained as a mortgagee across nine plantations in British Guiana and Jamaica, the Independent newspaper estimated in 2013. As many as one-fifth of wealthy Victorian Britons derived all or part of their fortunes from the slave economy, UCL found.
In its maiden voyage, the “Sheila” was on the second part of the latest lucrative triangular trade, having delivered its profitable human cargo of over 600 Indian men, women and children to Trinidad in record time, then dropping off rice and water tanks at the Sandbach dock in British Guiana. The skipper and his original crew of 32, “an exceptionally good lot of men” who he “could do anything with” spent about three weeks “enjoying the bounteous hospitality of all our friends in Georgetown and on the estates,” waiting for the next spring tide while the vessel was packed with 1550 tons of sugar and rum, headed back to the United Kingdom.
Since the firm considered all Captains financially responsible for any damage to casks of valuable rum, Angel “always made a point of supervising the stowage.” He instructed “that if any casks coming on board from estates showed signs of damage or leakage, they were to be held back for my survey, and at my discretion skipped into new casks sent on board from the town cooperage.”
Faced with bureaucracy, the shrewd Captain, a
teetotaler, non-smoker and a “voracious reader” came up with a satisfactory solution. “Very often the town cask would not hold within a gallon or two of what had been contained in the original cask; we were then supposed either to waste the surplus rum on the deck, to run into the scuppers en route to the river, or send it ashore to the Custom House. Had I chosen the latter course the officials would not thank us (and had so expressed themselves, privately) for the bother we were giving them, and in the next place I should have had the worry of filling up no end of forms, and attending personally at the Customs; so we had a third alternative – rum shrub, and milk punch, made out of forty per cent, over-proof rum. My (Jamaican, black) steward was a professional at the making; and they tell me, the result was very nice in hot water on cold nights in winter.”
Using then common but now derogatory terms to describe the East Indians immigrants and the former slaves and their descendants, Angel explained that ship masters had the privilege of employing “who they mind to as stevedore.”
“My old man was redoubtable, by name Douglas; he was one of the blackest specimens of nigger, but a good one, and he brought his own gang of stowers. We hoisted the cargo on deck with our engine and lowered it to him in the hold. The niggers were all notable singers, and in jack-screwing heavy hogsheads of sugar a ton weight, in the wings, or under the ‘tween decks aft in the run, they had their own shanties, in rhythmic time, and tune, screwing and singing, ‘Whar you been, Abram, whar yo been so long? Ebery time I turn in the bed,
I take the pillow for you – ew – ew.’ And again another, ‘Sweet Evilina — dear Evilina…’ ” He finds it “comic to see that black mass of perspiring humanity, a long way aft in the run of the lower hold, almost dark (for lights were not allowed owing to so much rum being about), with their great eyes rolling and blinking at you, caroling forth such ditties. It presented a glimpse of the nether regions, in more ways than one; for the heat where they were working was terrific, and the smells in the ill-ventilated hold of the mixture of sugar and rum fumes, overpowering to those not used to it.”
Impressed with the Guianese dockhands, he compares them to the “Trinidad coloured men” who liked “standing idle in the market place” while “praying that no man will hire them.” Angel contended that in contrast, the island’s “negro women, by some happy faculty in them, are notably more inclined to work than their men folk – whom they maintain as often as not; but they are very fond of dressing up to vie with, and if possible, outshine one another. It has been said that the first thing noticeable on landing on the wharf in Port of Spain, is the multitude of coloured men who are doing nothing…”
“The West Indian coloured population are very sharp in repartee, and in a battle of wits you are likely to be beaten, and badly so. As a rule they are good-tempered and can take a joke and give one back, and laugh – and have you ever seen a negro laugh? When jokes are intended as such, they laugh – but there is no race alive that can be so contemptuously insulting as a truly angry negro; and they can be dangerous, too, not caring a rap for consequences,” he wrote.
Captain Angel marvels that with 8 000 humans in Port-of-Spain “without visible means of support” the city is “an Elysium” for “people can live there – not without eating, for everyone you pass is eating something or other all day long – but without working.” In comparison, “the labourers on board ship in Demerara worked well under their own Boss, and in the terrific heat that prevailed in the ship’s hold no other human beings could compete.”
ID sings “Stormalong” a favourite melody of the “Sheila”- “I wish I was old Stormy’s son, He would build me a ship of a thousand ton. I’d fill her up with Demerara rum, And all my shellbacks they should have some.”