For nearly four long months aboard the crammed “Whitby” the two little girls precariously hung on to life, as grown men groaned, suffered and died in the low, dark deck of the sailing ship. With anxious mothers caring for them, the children somehow managed to survive the steady onslaught of sea-sickness, dysentery and “bowel complaints” during the barque’s hazardous journey up the Hooghly River and the unexpected delay at India’s Sagar Island. They lasted through the wild waves and weather of the Cape of Storms, the testing transoceanic crossing, and the passengers’ pervading fear of the unknown “kala pani” or “black waters.”
The records show that the pair finally arrived in British Guiana on May 5, 1838. Among the very first families travelling to the colony, the brave women and baffled youngsters had accompanied the batch of men many of whom must have been apprehensive fathers recruited to work on the sugar estates of the colonies. While the documents do not indicate which of the passengers were parents of Nunneedy, eight, and Fuah, four, only two women are listed immediately above their names as tiny Sudney, 30 who stood just four feet six inches, and Luckeah, 22, taller at five feet.
Described as all “copper-coloured” and “Hindoo” they remained on the boat and must have watched as others left for Plantations Highbury and Waterloo, in East Berbice. Having been pre-assigned to the notorious Bellevue Estate on the West Bank of Demerara owned by the wealthy sugar broker and absentee plantation owner, the Scotsman, Andrew (Wedderburn) Colville, they arrived in that county on May 14.
Colville, 59, a leading figure in the early history of Canada, had inherited West Indian slaves and estates including in Jamaica from his rich father, James, but sought to increase investments and profits by widening business to include the lucrative North American fur trade through the Hudson’s Bay Company. On the firm’s Board from early, he would, eventually, be made Governor. Colville also served as Chairman of London’s West India Docks. With influential friends, led by William Gladstone, Colville had agreed to co-finance their latest venture, the recruitment, shipment and indentureship of the country’s first “coolies” aboard the “Whitby” and “Hesperus.”
Meanwhile, on the “Hesperus,” the elderly Indian father, desperately searching for his two missing sons sent as bonded labourers to Mauritius, had also outlasted and outlived far younger able-bodied men who were struck down by cholera and other ailments. Mistakenly believing that they were all headed from Calcutta to the Indian Ocean colony, the old man and others were tricked into boarding the older vessel bound for South America, an 11,000-mile-journey. Like nearly all the Indians aboard he was unable to speak or understand English, being dependent on two cunning interpreters, and he may have never realised just how far Mauritius was from British Guiana.
Cut-off, broke and trapped in a strange country, and far too advanced in years for backbreaking work in the fields, he is not named in the register of indentured workers and barely surfaces in the existing historical records, and then only through the courageous testimony of a schoolmaster who would perhaps live to forever regret the decision to speak up.
According to Parliamentary Papers, the schoolmaster, titled only as “Berkeley” informed magistrates and other officials at a hastily-appointed judicial enquiry into media-reported appalling conditions at Bellevue, that he, “Remembers having seen a Coolie from Vreed-en-Hoop on the Estate, an old Man, with a very bad Sore; saw a Worm in the Sore; understood him to have come to see his Son(s); the Case was made known to the Manager, who said the Man must be sent back to Vreed-en-Hoop; (but) the Man died on this Estate; the Coroner’s Inquest was held to Deponent’s Knowledge.”
While it may never be ascertained why the senior really travelled to Bellevue, Berkeley’s statement suggests that the father’s ongoing quest to find answers and be reunited with his sons, did not dim even as health and life quickly faded. He may have tapped into the enduring kinship forged through the crossing and common hardships, reaching out to fellow “jahahji bhais” and “behen,” ship brothers and sisters for support and assistance, since the records show that at least two men, two boys, two women and two girls were not indented at Bellevue.
Cut off from his Indian homeland and with no immediate hope of returning to the remainder of his worried family, the determined, then devastated patriarch kept looking as long as he could, apparently unaware British Guiana was on the mainland of a vast continent on one side of the world, and certainly not close to the island of Mauritius, out in the distant Indian Ocean.
As the parasitic larva of the common chigoe flea or jigger, “tunga penetrans” prevalent in the country’s tropical sandy soils burrowed under his bare feet, he must have suffered greatly. A simple note in the files is all that remains of his fate and identity.
Stipendiary Magistrate, J. O. Lockhart Mure, wrote: “4. Budgenaut (not under Indenture), went on 26th September (1838) to Bellevue, where he afterwards died.” Seven more deaths were documented in Mure’s May 1, 1839 annotation for Plantation Vreed-en-Hoop owned by Gladstone. These range from the “Mahometans” Buxoo, 50 and Shaikdowlit, 46, to Derrounanth, 58, and Ramisaw all killed by liver problems. Mudow dropped dead from apoplexy that December while Bhim, 39 endured fatal dysentery, and Sooks, possibly short for Sook Rama, developed a deadly ulcer on his leg from the “chigoes.”
Nearly half of the 79 men at Plantation Bellevue were hospitalised for similar sores on various body parts including shins, toes and fingers caused by endless “jiggoes”, at the time of the regular checks by Stipendiary Magistrate, Thomas Coleman. Of the 17 anonymous deaths entered by Coleman, one was of a female child, killed by “violation of person.” Found raped and murdered, she was Fuah’s faithful playmate, Nunneedy. Governor Henry Light offered a big reward in an official proclamation but her killer was never caught.
The British Emancipator quoted Berkeley, in an explosive expose that January, stating “more than ten (workers) had died on this one Place, Bellevue, and the Manager (John Russell) refuses to give a rag of clothes to bury them in…”
Berkeley said that “they had enough of rice” to eat with “fat or lard.” He would later tell the Magistrates he had “seen the Interpreters strike the Coolies with a whip similar to that used by the Mule Carters,” and that he and his wife had donated clothes for decent Indian burials. He had witnessed “the Coolies with sores working on the Stelling, carrying board and the like” and “known the Negroes once or twice give clothes to the Coolies” but could not “say motives.” In his response, Russell resorted to lying, swearing that he never flogged any of the men but admitting to “once or twice” tapping “one or two on the cheek with his finger.”
Insisting that the workers received their full wages in Demerara currency at the rate of two rupees to a dollar, Russel claimed too “the Doctor prescribed for the man (Budgenaut), and saw him the day previously to his death.” The Manager added “that the Dead are always furnished with four yards of salempores (a broad, white cotton cloth), a yard wide, for shroud, or supplied with the clothing imported for them” and that “he has never known an instance of a coolie to be buried naked or without a coffin; that he has once given a shirt and pantaloons of his own” but “is not aware what the ceremony at their burials is…”
Having heard that the “Coolies in Berbice wished to burn the dead,” Russell “gave orders to prevent such practice if attempted at Bellevue.” He continued that “The Coolies either remain in their own house or come to the hospital; the doors are never locked either by night or by day. The Brahmins, being of a superior caste, never come to the hospital; the others mostly do, but no coercion is used. The Hospital has four Nurses, besides a man who cuts wood for fuel, and bushes for the wash for the Coolies sores…”
He disputed claims one Nurse Catherine was “addicted to rum” or that the indentured labourers were forced to work all week. Grievances were “trivial and readily removed” and he did “not exercise a more rigid discipline with the Coolies than with the other labourers, or in any other way take advantage of their ignorance…”
However Russell could not “say how they spend the Sabbath” although he did admit that the Estate was unprepared to house the “coolies” on arrival. More than 80 men, women and the children were lodged in the small hospital, remaining there until the middle of July before they were transferred to communal quarters consisting of a shed with a dirt floor – and far too many fleas.
ID admires “Berkeley’s” bravery for first hinting to the Emancipator of “the cruelties that were practiced on miserable coolies.” His stock was “wantonly killed” and in revenge he was driven from Bellevue Estate, “without payment of the miserable sum due to him for salary” becoming “the victim of a most bitter persecution on the part of every manager in the district!”