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…..