In Indian legends he is the much-loved baby, Bala Krishna, the holy, curly-haired child with huge eyes and a prankish passion for fresh milk, sweet cream and smooth butter. The cute, chubby cherub grows into the handsome, happy shepherd boy of the outdoors, playing a magical flute to his herd of contented cattle, and sporting irresistible charm as he captivates gorgeous girls and great gods alike.
Even the Hindu deity of love Kamadeva is entranced, wielding a symbolic bow of sugarcane with a string of honeybees and arrows decorated with fragrant flowers, like diverse lotuses, heavenly jasmine and pale mango blossoms. For some two millennia, Krishna and his stories have remained perennially popular in the pantheon, with his birthday Janmashtami widely celebrated annually in August-September.
Known by many titles, he is the brilliant black-blue-hued or charismatic “krsna” icon of an international movement, the skilled philosopher and calm charioteer of feuding families in the Mahabharata text, a powerful avatar of the Universe’s Supreme Being in similar ancient accounts, and the devoted consort of the beautiful Goddess Radha reflecting the inherent dualism or male/feminine balance of the divine. The revered slayer of tyrants and the protector of the poor and oppressed, Lord Krishna was long woven into Hindu mythology, history and culture, but especially so at Vrindavan, his ancient pilgrimage town of thousands of temples in the Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh.
So too, back in January, 1838, an unfortunate Indian man named Gopaul, confined to the hot and stifling lower deck of the “Hesperus” sailing ship must have so yearned for the fresh air of green fields and the distinct scent of cows that he loved. “Gopala” is the Sanskrit for “cow protector” and may have been bestowed on him as the offspring of “Dhangars” a nomadic, agrarian people or he could have been lured as an “ahir” or shepherd from further away. Now based primarily in the state of Maharashtra, the “Dhangars” are animal-herders, farmers and weavers who roam the forests, hills and mountains of their dwindling homeland. It is ironic that with his youthful appellation for Krishna, the god of compassion, Gopaul found little or none, when he needed it most, aboard the “Hesperus,” transporting the second of the two sets of pioneering indentured labourers to British Guiana (B.G), 180 years ago this month.
Among the “Hesperus” passengers and those of its sister chartered vessel, the new barque “Whitby,” there were several males such as a youngster, 17, also bearing identification as Govind, another derivative of the deity. According to the official records, the “Hesperus” had just 21 “Dhangas” and 26 more “other” tribesmen in its list of 157 workers, as against the “Whitby’s” 129 so called “Hill coolies” of its 267 migrants. Seven women and 10 children were on the smaller “Whitby.” Many are believed to have originated in the Chota Nagpur plateau, Eastern India, covering Jharkhand state and adjacent parts, while some were supposedly from Burdwan and Bancoorah near to Calcutta, eastern India but since none spoke English and there were few competent multi-dialect interpreters, only the basic information from the sly local “arkatis” or recruiters and the various layers of officialdom survive.
The two vessels were chartered by the well-known mercantile house Gillander, Arbuthnot & Company run by F.M. Gillanders, the nephew of wealthy Scottish merchant and former African-slave trader, the influential John Gladstone who had helped finance the India-based firm. An absentee West Indies-estate owner, the elder Gladstone finally received permission in 1837 to launch Indian indentureship to B.G.
Gladstone’s proposal was welcomed by other sugar planters and with his Liverpool friends John and Henry Moss he chartered the 330-ton “Hesperus” through Gillanders to proceed to Calcutta, while Andrew Colville and the firm Davidson, Barclay and Company arranged for the freshly-built 100-foot-long “Whitby.” The “Hesperus” Captain, the “experienced” R.E. Baxter would notify Gillanders on February 2, 1838 that the boat left Calcutta on Tuesday, January 29, in tow of the Steamer Banyan, bound for Berbice and Demerara, with a cargo including 2,530 bags of rice, nine bales of clothing, 150 male coolies, six women, 11 children, and two interpreters. He would state, “all well with the exception of two, and they have nothing serious the matter with them,” but “we lost one man the day after we left Calcutta from inflammation in the bowels” and “the ship sails very well, and in very nice trim…myself and crew are all quite well.”
That wretched man was 30 year-old Gopaul. In his report to the Gladstones, the accompanying “able surgeon” Dr. J.P. Richmond would note on January 31st, 1838: Gopaul “was attacked on the preceding evening with violent inflammation of the bowels at 12 o’clock; on Wednesday (today) he became speechless, and died at six (a).m.” He remarked, “This man’s death was in all probability owing to the conduct of one of the ‘chokeydars’ (Police), who purposely prevented his illness being made known until 15 hours had elapsed, and he was so far gone then that no medicine had any effect on him.”
Due to receive 10 shillings premium for “each Coolie landed” in B.G, Richmond worried that cholera had struck, citing 11 more similar cases in post mortem examinations. The “Hesperus” death list lasted until February 18, featuring “Gangoo,” 26, who was “seized with violent diarrhoea and pain in the bowels; a dose of castor oil seemed to give him ease, but syncope rapidly supervened, and he died…”
“Bandoo,” 50, went after 11 hours of hell, followed by Eerah Sing(h), 38; the elderly Seedum, 60; and the “very old and feeble” Dukooh, 62, who “had been accustomed to chew opium in large quantities, till within four days of his death;” Kaydoon, 44; Sooktan, 38; Perwanah, 66; Meenie, just five, “a thin, emaciated Child, who died comatose” and finally Juddoo, 52.
Dr. Richmond would note, “many more were attacked with the same symptoms.” The disease proved “very rapid” and “infectious” and resembled cholera. He said, “I believe its origin may be traced to the bad effect arising from the too sudden transition from a defective and meagre diet to a full and abundant one.” One man was washed overboard during a storm on the night of March 2, and another met with the same fate on Sunday, March 18 – “no efforts could save them.”
In an earlier letter to Gillander and later circulated by the Calcutta Superintendent of Police, F.W. Birch at a related official enquiry, the doctor would explain that Gopaul died “from the cruel conduct of one of the chowkedars (watchmen/guards), and which was unknown to any of us till too late to remedy it.”
He continued, “They had as many Coolies down between decks as they could get, and then would not allow them to come up without paying for it. In the case of the man who died, the chowkedar (whose name I could not learn) had made him pay one rupee for going upon deck, and when he came down again, complaining of illness, not only would not allow him to go up (to the water closet) when he wanted to but prevented his case from being mentioned either to myself or any of the officers. The consequence was, that very violent inflammation of the bowels came on, and the poor fellow was confined there in a state of great misery for 10 or 12 hours, till it was discovered by mere accident; it was, however, too late to reduce the inflammation, he being speechless, and dying rapidly. I have given you the account thus fully, that in case you should send more Coolies away, you may take measures to prevent the like happening again; and I think the chowkedar, whose name you can learn from the others, richly deserves some punishment, and I told him that he might expect it when he got back.”
Richmond added, “I made him refund back the money gained in this way, as well as the others, and gave it to the men who were cheated out of it.”
Initial confusion surfaced in India, over which ship Gopaul died on. An early activist, the clergyman Thomas Boaz, a minister of the Union Chapel in Calcutta would courageously speak out against the abuses. Consequently he would pen a public letter, read out an Anti-Slavery public meeting in London about the “Hesperus” suffocation death of the unknown man, later published in full in the Calcutta journals, setting off a campaign and commission of enquiry that led to a temporary ban in Indian labour export.
ID reads the Reverend’s views that the whole of the ‘Hill people’ who “are lively and happy” had “no conception of a sea voyage, or of where they were going” unlike the “low country people” who “seemed to understand perfectly what they were about” and “had no objection to go.” He argued, “It is contrary to the habits of the people of India to leave their own country; and this is more particularly the case with the Hill Coolies, who are supposed to be the aborigines.”