From Lucknow to Moor Farm

The salt air, sea winds and ever-stronger spring tides sweep in from the swirling Atlantic sliding through the thick bushes and around the tall coconut trees that have taken over the long perished plantations. Nature steadily struggles to reclaim this part of the large axe-shaped island.

A splendid beach of pale pink-brown sands made up of the powdered remnants of millions of shells still draw the occasional villagers to this lonely and lovely spot, seeking a weekend jaunt and “bush-cook” past the straggly tree marooned in the line of mudflats mashed by the matching waters of Guyana’s mighty Essequibo River.

Abandoned rice fields and rusting remnants of a now fast-dwindling industry hint that dreams can easily die at Moor Farm, which was previously a bustling British sugar estate and strange new home to some of the free African and later Indian indentured immigrants brought in ships from the vast, teeming far side of the world. 

Old, obscure Dutch graves dot this 18-square-mile-island at the mouth of the waterway, left alone and lurking in the lush undergrowth as scattered stone testimony to a bygone time when cane was king, and the European colonials ruled and fought for possession of these fertile lands. The titles of settlements such as the adjoining Zeelandia, Noitgedacht, Meer Zorg, Bendorf, Domburg, Fredericksburg, Breman and Sans Souci are reminders of this Netherlands/Germanic heritage even as “Wakenaam” inexplicably remained the Dutch equivalent of forever “waiting for a name.”

Forgotten families paid tribute to their own through Maria Johanna, Maria’s Pleasure, Sarah and Arthurville, optimistically hoping for Good Success, Friendship, then New Friendship and hard life to emerge Free and Easy. Classics like Palmyra, Belle Plaine, Caledonia, Rush Brook and Ridge feature too. Today a single crumbling wooden house, its occupants gone and their plans scattered in the cool breeze, is all that lingers in overgrown Amersfort.

Agriculture is still the main occupation of the islanders who coexist in harmony as the descendants of the native Amerindians, and the indentured African “Krus” and Indians brought in to work on the plantations following the British abolition of slavery in 1838.

It was to remote, little muddy Moor Village that “a very light-coloured, intelligent-looking” young Indian man, the educated and cultured Mohamed Sheriff came ashore in great shock, in 1870, travelling from one country Demerara to Essequibo after being assigned from among the freshly-arrived passengers of the “Medea.” Christened for the mythical sorceress princess, the “Medea” was a big 1,066-ton vessel chartered to carry “coolies” from Calcutta to British Guiana at the rate of £12 a head. Consisting off mostly younger males, the “human cargo” included 91 women, 31 children and 21 infants. During the tough nearly three-month voyage through the Indian Ocean, around the wild southern African coastline and across the Atlantic, five babies were born and only six passengers died.

In the blazing summer of 1870, the handsome Muslim was in the Lucknow Bazaar busy buying blooms when a fateful meeting took place with a wicked wizard of a different kind. Sheriff would later appear as an independent witness before the “Commissioners Appointed to Enquire into the Treatment of Immigrants into British Guiana” eloquently relating: “My name is Mohamed Sheriff. I was a gentleman’s servant in Bombay (Colonel Adams of the 13th Native Infantry). I went to Lucknow, where I was buying flowers for the table in the Bazaar, and was there met by a peon, who asked me if I wanted service. I said yes.”

“Lucknow” is the anglicised spelling of the Indian pronunciation “Lakhnau” and the current capital of the Indian State of Uttar Pradesh (U.P). Among various legends are claims the populous multicultural city known for its architecture, arts, music and history, is named after the Hindu Goddess of Wealth, Lakshmi or the hero of the ancient Hindu epic the Ramayana, Lakshmana who maintained a beautiful palace in the area called Lakshmanapuri or Lakshmana’s city. Lucknow was the then capital of the wealthy Kingdom of Oudh or Oude the former princely state in the northern Awadh region during the British Raj until 1856, from which many indentured immigrants, both Hindus and Muslims originated. In turn, Oudh was derived from Ayodhya, the ancient city believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu Warrior God Rama and the setting of the much-loved 2000 year-old eponymous Ramayana poem of a dizzying 24 000 verses.  The saga follows his 14-year-exile to the forest from their kingdom as ordered by his father King Dasharatha. Ram’s travels with brother Lakshmana, and consort Sita who is kidnapped by Ravana, the demon ruler of Lanka, resulting in war and Rama’s eventual return to Ayodhya to be crowned king, are celebrated annually by Hindus during Deepavali, the joyous festival of lights which have survived the 11 000 mile-long journey and the travails of indentureship and colonialism.

Oudh joined other Indian states in a sporadic campaign against colonial rule in 1858-1859 during one of the last series of actions coming out of the 1857 Uprising, and was annexed by the British. Sheriff was literate in Urdu, English and Hindi like the upper-caste scholars of Lucknow, and had worked for Colonel H.A. Adams, the unit’s Commandant.

The silver-tongued local recruiter or “arkati” literally meaning “fish hook” sent out an irresistible lure. Mohammed would add, “He asked me if I could boil sugar. I said yes. He then told me there was plenty of work for me if I would take it – boiling sugar and other work if I liked it. That I should have to go to Demerara, and should get 10 annas to 2 rupees a day, and 19 dollars present. So I went with him to Calcutta, and was approved in the office, stayed there five days, and then embarked.”

“Some of the people were allowed to take their ‘lotas’ with them,” he said, referring to the ubiquitous small  spherical water vessel usually of brass or copper used for drinking and personal hygiene, and among Hindus and Muslims reserved for ritual purification and religious ceremonies or “pujas”.

“But all the others had everything taken away by the peons when they embarked, and was served with Government clothing. I got no extract from the register. Nine men came from Lucknow with me; they were not all cultivators; some barbers, coachmen, porters, and other followings,” Sheriff explained. This seems to confirm that he had not received the mandatory copy of the indentured contract into which he had entered by accepting passage to British Guiana and all it entailed.

Due to his fluency in English and the native languages, he had served as a “sirdar” or appointed headman or leader of the other immigrants aboard the “Medea.” By the time Sheriff spoke to the investigators, reality had started to sink in that there would be no excessive “ten annas to two rupees (32 annas) a day” promised by the sweet-talking “arkati” when he reached Moor Farm, a plantation whose owner purchased his indenture. At that time such wages averaged a mere 28 cents a day.

The investigators recorded his desperate story which has survived in the official documents, because they were impressed by his demeanour and language skills. Fifteen other ships would leave Calcutta for B.G that season carrying nearly 6,700 migrants, while several vessels landed almost 4,000 more in Trinidad and Jamaica.

In their report the Commissioners would note that “Dr. Cook, who came out in December as medical officer of the ship ‘Adamant,’ told us of a half-witted fellow among the passengers by that vessel, who was constantly being asked as a joke by his comrades whether he expected to make his fortune, to which he always replied, ‘No, but I shall get 19 rupees a month.’ He rated himself at the minimum rate upon his certificate, but we fear that he will hardly touch more than half the money.” They identified Sheriff as being “at the other end of the scale.”

Sheriff told them in apparent resignation: “I have not received 19 dollars, and do not expect it, but I shall get three dollars, I believe, as I have been a ‘sirdar’ on board the ship,” declaring that even though “I went with the 14th Regiment to Abyssinia (the Ethiopian Empire), and to Magdala (in Galilee) with the (British) regiments escorting commissariat stores,” now “I am going to Moor Farm.”

ID wonders whether the exceptional Mohamed Sheriff survived the hardships of Moor Farm, stayed and has any local descendants left in Wakenaam or whether he too fled when his contract ended to return to his homeland of India and the crowded streets, sleepless bazaars and soaring domes of Lucknow. She recites A.J. Seymour’s poignant poem in his honour:

“There runs a dream of perished Dutch plantations

In these Guiana rivers to the sea

Black waters, rustling through the vegetation

That towers and tangles banks, run silently

Over lost stellings where craft once rode

Easy before trim dwellings in the sun

And fields of indigo would float out broad

To lose the eye right on the horizon.

These rivers know that strong and quiet men

Drove back a jungle, gave Guiana root.”

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