Paid at least “a guinea” or about 21 shillings for each Indian indentured immigrant delivered alive to the destination colonies in the West Indies, seasoned medical doctors appointed as surgeons-superintendents wielded significant power aboard commercial “coolie-carrying” ships.
In the case of the 1877 maiden voyage of the fast clipper, the “Sheila,” Dr. Chapman would have earned a minimum salary of 624 “guineas” from merchant owners, Sandbach and Tinne for the corresponding number of passengers including 84 children and several newborns who finally disembarked “in fine condition” on November 17 at Five Islands, Trinidad. An estimated seven individuals died during the then speedy record 10-week long trip, a low figure given the usually poor living conditions of the closely-confined and multi-caste “jahaji bhai” and “behen” – ship “brothers” and “sisters” aboard, the ever-present threat of deadly epidemics and diseases, and ensuing high mortality rates.
Originally produced in the 17th century, the guinea was the largest denomination in British currency until it was replaced by the pound in 1816. The name refers to the Guinea and West African-origin of the gold supplied by the Royal African Company (RAC) to the English Mint for the 22 carat-coins. The mercantile firm, RAC, established by the House of Stuart of the British Royal Family was led by the Duke of York, James, whose brother Charles, the Second, gained the throne in the 1660 Restoration, becoming the beloved “Merry Monarch.” Taking half of the profits, King Charles allowed the company a lucrative monopoly supported by the country’s army and navy, to trade in precious metals, and commodities like ivory and tens of thousands of slaves. The Catholic Duke would succeed his popular brother on the throne in 1685, becoming King James II.
In his memoir, the “Sheila’s” Captain, William Angel, refers to the vessel’s senior medical doctor, only by the surname and is initially worried that Dr. Chapman will report him to the authorities after the October 11-12 “wildest” trip racing in “hard winds” and “an enormous sea” round the “Cape of Storms” off the South African coast.
“As to dear old Dr. Chapman – he used to be very fond of amusing the coolie children with clockwork mechanical toys, and on last being used, the mechanism of all of them (and he had quite a number) got stuck; but in the violent jerking of the ship, they fell off the shelves where he had placed them, and as they careered along the saloon floor, in the heavy rolling of the ship, the works got loosened and they all started off to dance and go through their several performances. The poor old gentleman scrambled after them on all fours, and was awfully afraid I should be vexed and ‘think things’ if in the midst of it I should suddenly come into the saloon, with those things going on and he on his knees – and I came down occasionally from the poop to study the weather glass, and reassure my wife.”
He added, “Next morning I asked the doctor what he thought of the ‘Sheila’ now. All I got out of him by way of answer was: ‘Hobbery, bobbery old craft; she is not like the old ‘Jorawhar,’’ (his previous ship for several voyages – she had been a steamer converted into a sailing ship). ‘Well, doctor,’ I answered, ‘you can now boast that you never before travelled at sea so fast in your life.’”
“But that fact did not comfort him. He was a dear old gentleman, and it goes without saying a hint from him, or what would have been worse, an official letter of complaint, that he would have entered in his log-book that what I was doing was injurious to his coolies, would have squashed me any time; but he did neither the one nor the other,” Angel acknowledges. “He was too old on the other hand, to enter into the zest of the racing, but I noticed that without any hint from me (which of course I dared not give myself), he gave instructions to his subordinates to take all precautions with the coolies; he could see by the preparations and the look of the weather, what we were in for.” “The wind took off in the afternoon of the 12th, and went into the west again with rain, finally veering into its old quarter, north-west. It was dirty looking weather, with a falling glass; but I was around the Cape, though I had only just saved it with good luck,” the skipper said. As the weather improved, the sailors caught a “monster man-eating shark” that disgorged 24 young ones “which, when placed in a deck tub of sea water, swam about in quite a lively manner, and amused the children immensely.”
Back on the upper deck “the coolies and their children were all about now; they also knew that all the bad weather had passed, and got quite fat and sleek. We had only two more deaths to report, and two births, so now as to the number of souls we are equal, as when we left Calcutta. Dr. Chapman was quite happy, too, as he saw ahead of him a prosperous report and a corresponding number of guineas.”
With each coin carrying an average weight of about 8.3 grams then worth just over a British pound, the doctor’s guinea payment would be valued around £138 000 today according to current gold prices.
Surgeons-superintendents like Dr. Chapman must have made at least five prior voyages in the trade. Usually helped by assistants versed in the main “Hindustani” languages, the “Sheila” had on board, Indian doctors Gug Mahon and his junior Essen Mitter. Responsible for inspecting each immigrant before boarding, the surgeon-superintendent was required to check for diseases and physical fitness, and to sign a related medical certificate of good health, though much bypassing of the vetting process ensued to fulfill quotas and meet plantation labour demand.
“He had an amusing habit, at which I could not help smiling. Of course in dealing direct with the coolies, you have to acquire rather more than a smattering of the native vernacular; the doctor, whenever he spoke in the native language, would nearly always repeat what he said in English, thus: ‘nichy-jow’- go below; ‘tuum-jeb-deda’ – show me your tongue; ‘jeldi-carow’- make haste; ‘suh-a- carow’ – stop a bit – and so on,” Angel recalled. The landed “coolies” were sent to the depot at the outlying Five Islands, “with Dr. Chapman, the two native doctors, and Mr. (Samuel) Hearn, my third officer, who was detailed from the first to be entirely at the command of the doctor. We had to send to the islands provisions – lanterns, candles, medical stores, etc., for seven days,” while the passengers remained in quarantine.
“We paid a farewell visit to the depot at Five Islands, and saw the debarkation of several batches of immigrants to their future homes on the plantations. They all again salaamed the ‘Burrah Sahib’ and his ‘Mem Sahib,’ and if allowed would go on their knees with their foreheads to the ground. Poor souls, an utterly different world was about to open to them. I again scanned their faces, after my experience on their leaving the ship; no, I could not call to recollection the features of one half of them,”
Besides his hoard of gold guineas, Dr. Chapman also enjoyed a first-class passage provided by mail steamer from Britain to Calcutta, and on the completion of his Caribbean assignment, return travel to England.
On their last day on shore in Port-of-Spain, Captain Angel and his group “went to the races,” at the Queen’s Park Savannah, “a great local and West Indian event” showing “real sport, with splendid race horses, some being brought from the other islands, and Guiana, as this island (Trinidad) is chosen as the general racing rendezvous.” He confessed ship racing was more his forte “but I enjoyed the excitement” and “the evident enjoyment of the well-dressed crowd in attendance. Everybody was present from the Governor and his suite, with their ladies, and in gradations all the principal inhabitants of the island and visitors downwards; all resplendent – and the ladies’ dresses!”
Angel disclosed, “Our party made up a sweepstake for a goodly sum. They allowed my wife to choose her horse, and she chose the one with the prettiest name – ‘Village Belle’ supposed by the knowing ones to be a rank outsider. There was great excitement within our party on the grand stand, and amazement amongst the others, when the youngest son of our host kept shouting excitedly: ‘Village Belle, Village Belle! Mrs. Angel’s Village Belle leads -Village Belle wins — hurrah!’ It was the Derby of the races, and the mare was bred and owned by a Coolie (who had long ago concluded his contract on the estates), and who was seated on the grand stand not far from the Governor of the crown colony.”
ID is surprised that guineas cited in luxury fees is still quoted in the pricing and sale of fine horses at auction. Several famous equine races bear names like the 1000 Guineas Stakes, a prestigious British event open to three-year-old fillies.