An elderly Indian father, desperately searching for his two missing sons embarked on a fateful sea journey of no return when he crossed the “kala pani” or black waters. With a pair of seasoned sepoys from the First Anglo-Burmese War, he was among the 167 diverse passengers of the sailing ship, the “Hesperus,” who mistakenly believed they were headed to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius in 1838.
Instead, like many hopefuls in the 80-year-old saga of indentureship they had been lured with false promises, ending up disillusioned, broke and trapped on the wrong outgoing vessel headed for a tough trans-oceanic journey to the far side of the world and another distinct colony British Guiana (B.G), which was more than three times the Calcutta-Mauritius distance or 11,000 miles away. Cut off from his homeland and alone in a strange place, with no immediate hope of returning to the remainder of his worried family, the determined, then devastated patriarch died on a notorious sugar estate shortly after arrival on the Guiana coast, unmourned and dumped in an anonymous grave, his noble quest still unfulfilled, and all questions and answers about the fate of his offspring lost forever in the unseen mud, mists and mountains of Mauritius.
These men were among the so-called “Gladstone Coolies” of “young, active, able-bodied people” ordered by the influential Scotsman, John Gladstone, the permanent absentee but wealthy West Indies-sugar plantation owner and former British Member of Parliament. One of Gladstone’s four sons, probably the eldest Thomas, helped him craft the letter requesting the Calcutta mercantile trading firm of which they were patrons, Gillanders, Arbuthnot and Company, run by a relative, to organise and source the two introductory batches of workers, for several estates on the South American mainland affected by the abolition of African-sourced slavery and the impending end of the successor apprenticeship scheme.
That January, the pair of chartered ships, the newly-built barque “Whitby” and the “Hesperus,” were permitted to leave Calcutta for B.G with a total of about 434 men, women and children, launching an extended international trade in human labour that would lead to well over a million Indians documented as being exported to different places like Fiji in the Pacific Ocean, South Africa, Suriname and the French and British Caribbean colonies. The introduction of “coolies” had started back in 1826 on the French Indian Ocean island of Réunion, and by 1834, the system had rapidly expanded to include Mauritius, accelerating to 25,000 workers there four years later.
Ship pilot, Thomas Gurr, who stayed aboard the “Hesperus” to guide it down the 160-miles-long treacherous Hooghly River to the Sandheads where it joins the Bay of Bengal, would recall that while the vessel was less crowded than the “greatly lumbered” Mauritius-bound “Hooghley” named for the famed waterway, there was much heartache and consternation on board.
In a letter to Calcutta Superintendent of Police, F. W. Birch he would state: “The Hesperus had good accommodations, because they had only a few Coolies, but those few were greatly disappointed as to where they were going to; one old man said he was going to the Mauritius to look for his two sons that had gone in another ship; by the Captain’s request, I called two men that had been sepoys, and served in Assam during the war, and asked them if they knew where they were going to; their answer was the same, to the Mauritius, and were going to be made mauleys; they were healthy, and had plenty of food.”
Gurr’s “sepoys” reference to the then widespread designation given to an Indian soldier or private normally serving European interests, comes from the Persian-derived word “sepahi” meaning “infantry soldier” in the Mughal Empire and Mysore Kingdom, and “siphai” for Ottoman cavalry troops. Popularised by the forces of the British East India Company comprising mostly natives during the 18th century who would fight and secure the subcontinent for their foreign masters, “sepoys” joined similar-sourced words such as peons, topasses and gentoos, with many of these loyal former servicemen subsequently employed to recruit, guard and oversee fellow Indians and indentured migrants. The naval lingo “mauley” probably meant an official appointment sealed with a signature or endorsed by hand or fist.
Master Pilot, John Dyer would tell Superintendent Birch, that the “Whitby” coolies “came on board in pretty good health, but before I left (after 14 days), there were upwards of 20 attacked with a kind of infectious or gaol fever, besides five of their own crew, there being only a slight partition between them; the number of sick were daily increasing from the confinement, heat of cargo, change of food, anxiety from fear of losing caste, etc. with a general complaint of their being led away with false stories and promises, and in particular of being robbed of their advance while being brought to the ghaut for shipment in small parties, either late in the evening or early in the morning.”
He added, “I firmly believe that amongst the 270 or 280 there was not 300 rupees amongst them, as on the bum-boats coming alongside they purchased dry food, such as parched ‘gram’ (roasted ground channa/besan), ‘chuna’ (flattened rice) etc. as long as they possibly could, in order to retain their caste. Their old relatives who came with them under a promise of going with them were torn away, on the ship leaving, by the peons belonging to the crimps.”
Answering Birch’s queries “as to what I observed on board the bark ‘Whitby,’” with regard to the recruits’ “accommodation, treatment, health and general condition,” Dyer lamented that there “were by far too many Coolies on board for the size of the vessel (350 tons), having I think from 270 to 280…, besides their crew, with a rice cargo underneath, particularly so, being on so long a voyage within the tropics the greater part of the time.”
The “whole of the ’tween decks of the ‘Whitby’ with the exception of a part partitioned off for the crew,” measured “about 20 feet off the length of the vessel in the forepart” and “the Coolies got from the fore hatchway right aft, but the hospital was included in that space, and partitioned off.”
“Their arrangements for cooking were by no means sufficient for the number, neither were their seats of ease; their clothing was ill adapted, and ventilation insufficient for so many over so hot a cargo.” For, rice “is a very heating cargo and the longer it remains the hotter the ship becomes” he would inform a related Committee investigating reported abuses, months later, explaining that rice was the “principal cargo” on such boats destined for Mauritius and Bourbon (Réunion).
The Pilot wrote to Birch, “such is the account of this Coolie shipment, who were generally composed of ignorant creatures from the interior, kidnapped or cajoled away for the benefit of a set of crimps who laugh at humanity for the sake of profit. In this ship alone, the captain, doctor and myself calculated that they had made upwards of 12,000 rupees on this shipment.”
In his presentation to the Committee conducting a related hearing, he revealed the agony of the detained “coolies” who were separated forcibly from their elderly relatives. “From the trouble and distress occasioned by the separation, I should believe that the aged men, and others of their families, owed their subsistence to their children; and many aged and decrepid men must have starved, I conceive, unless they found those took compassion upon them; the peons only allowed the young and strong and able-bodied men to go; but their families had apparently received promises to be allowed to accompany their children.”
Questioned whether the “coolie” passengers appeared unwilling to proceed, Dyer would reply: “Generally speaking, I would say they were not; the men appeared to have no conception as to where they were going, or the length of the voyage; they said they had been told (I suppose by the duffadars – junior police officers who served as security) that they were to go on board for two or three days, and then land and march the remainder of the journey. They complained, generally, of being seduced from their own country by fine promises; and they had no idea, when they consented to come down, that they would of necessity lose caste. They complained, also, of being robbed of their advance on their way to the ghauts by the peons in charge. They mentioned that they had been kept in bands of 40 and 50 in the outskirts of the town, and particularly under Sree Kissen (Shri Krishna) Baboo in Bhowanipore.”
ID finds it ironic John Gladstone wrote his famous missive to Gillanders, mentioning an accident that confined him to his mansion and “from which I am now recovering,” accounting “for using my son’s pen for writing in place of my own.” Gladstone had observed a letter his son received “from Mr. Arbuthnot that he was sending a considerable number of a certain class of Bengalees, to be employed as labourers, to the Mauritius.”