Trouble started aboard the “Hesperus” sailing ship from the time the ruthless 25 year-olds Henry Jacobs and his friend Charles James Wiltshire were appointed the only two interpreters for the mixed group of 167 pioneering Indians bound for British Guiana (B.G). Within hours, he and his counterpart implemented a “cruel” secret scheme to relieve the vulnerable passengers of dwindling meagre advances, leading to the first of several deaths and alarming abuses that would last for years.
Described in the files as “Christians,” the predatory pair of named “Protestants” were also directly hired as superintendents for B.G sugar estates by the India-based mercantile house and recruiting agent, Gillanders, Arbuthnot and Company. Gillanders organised the consignment and that of the preceding “Whitby” following instructions from the influential Scottish merchant, former British Member of Parliament (M.P) and slave-owner, John Gladstone.
Since both men had worked in a similar capacity in Mauritius, Jacobs from Westun’s Lane, in the city was contracted to the Vreed-en-Hoop estate, owned by Gladstone on January 27, 1838, while the six-footer Wiltshire came on a day earlier, assigned to Plantation Anna Regina inherited by the wealthy British brothers and Gladstone’s friends, Liverpool banker and railway investor John and attorney Henry Moss.
With a boatload of fresh people to intimidate and exploit, on a far longer journey, Jacobs and Wiltshire got to work immediately, determined to make as much as they could on the side. They would show no mercy, knowing that none of the Indians spoke or understood any English. Coming from many different castes, villages/cities and religions, the immigrants had problems communicating even among themselves, given the range of distinctive dialects all lumped by the colonial officials into the generic “Hindoostanee” group, incomprehensible except to a rare multilingual few.
The “Hesperus” surgeon, Dr. J.P. Richmond recorded the infamous case of 30-year-old Gopaul who would become Jacobs’ first fatality soon after the vessel headed up the Hooghly River to the Bay of Bengal, on the first leg of the 11,000 mile-long transoceanic journey to South America. On Tuesday, January 29, the “Hesperus” was towed down the dangerous channel by the steamer Banyan, with a cargo including rice, clothing, 150 male coolies, six women and 11 children, according to Captain R.E. Baxter. Baxter would casually state on February 2, “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.”
In a private letter to Gillanders, later revealed by the Calcutta Superintendent of Police, F.W. Birch at a related official enquiry, Dr. Richmond would confide 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.”
Richmond explained, “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.”
While Richmond acknowledged, “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,” the doctor did little else, perhaps worried about the promised “10 shillings premium for “each Coolie landed” in B.G.
Bilingual Jacobs and Wiltshire were “coloured” men born in the East Indies of white and native parentage and therefore easy to identify, had Richmond or Baxter wanted to officially disclose their names. Instead the sadistic superintendents continued on to B.G, confident they had made their point to the Indians while biding time and plotting revenge, assured that their latest position of power was secure as the “coolies” only communication conduit in a tough, new life, cut off from India and the familiar.
Belonging to the famed Hindu agricultural caste, “Kurmee/Kurmi” valued as skilled cultivators and great gardeners, Gopaul had hailed from the small town of Arra, in Raghunathpur, Puruliya district in the state of West Bengal. But he would never grow another bumper crop or plant any more flowers. At least ten more deaths would follow on the “Hesperus” until February 18, while others of the so-called “Gladstone Coolies” unaccustomed to the strange food would succumb to dysentery and diarrhoea upon arrival.
The Mosses had inherited 1000 African slaves in The Bahamas from their uncle James, who was in the process of moving them from his plantation on Crooked Island when he died in October 1820. Research done by “The Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership” at the University College London (UCL) indicate that the Moss brothers purchased Anna Regina and a cotton estate in 1823 for £10,000 in cash and a
balance of £40,000 to be paid in crops to utilise these enslaved people as a condition of the license to move them from The Bahamas. Between 1821 and 1825, 1762 slaves (927 men and 835 women) including some 600 sent by the Mosses from The Bahamas, were recorded as imported under licence into “Demerary and Essequibo” with the consignee shown as M’Inroy & Company. Worried about the looming abolition of slavery in British colonies and the impact on their estates and earnings, the Mosses joined several absentee B.G plantation owners to quickly fund the “Gladstone Coolies” venture leading to the first pair of ships arriving with indentured Indians in the region, on May 5 1838.
Heading the Estate’s salary and perks list, Superintendent Jacobs standing a menacing five feet ten inches, earned a minimum 16 rupees monthly and the special privilege of being “found at the Manager’s Table.” Next came the even taller “sirdars” or appointed “drivers” like “Mun boodh” who took in seven rupees as against the lower workers’ paltry five rupees, plus a weekly allowance at least on paper of “98 chittahs of rice,” 14 of “doll” (dhals), just over three each of ghee/oil and onions, one and three quarters of salt, and seven each of dried fish, turmeric and tamarinds. A “chittah” or “chittack/chuttack” was a common Indian measurement roughly mounting to just over two ounces.
Freed from the confines of the “Hesperus” and the watching eyes of the Surgeon, Captain and crew, Jacobs promptly resorted to old habits of terror and brutal control, perfected during his stay on plantations in Mauritius. Given the indifference of Gladstone’s Estate Manager Sanderson, Jacobs started with physical assaults of the “coolies” in the Vreed-en-Hoop canefields and followed up with severe beatings, prompting several to escape, by crossing the Demerara River and heading miles away for Berbice, desperately searching for a way back to India.
As reports trickled to England, it would take until 1839 for the local administration to act, following an explosive article in “The British Emancipator” that January 9th, by the prominent abolitionist and activist John Scoble. Scoble had undertaken a private impromptu trip to Guiana and the Bellevue estate to witness the living conditions and treatment of the so called “Hill coolies.”
Two days later, Guiana’s Governor Henry Light, unaware of the publication, would pen a glowing account to Lord Glenelg, Charles Grant, the Secretary of State for the Colonies. He claimed the “coolies” were “supplied well, lodged well, and though on limited Wages in comparison with the free Labourer, yet are as carefully protected from Oppression, and their Complaints redressed as speedily…”
Each “coolie” work gang had a leader (sirdar) with “Interpreters to explain their Wants, and have hitherto been very lightly worked.” He received the only complaint for ill treatment, made in person by three men, at the Public Buildings in Georgetown, against a headman, “which they resented by running away from Berbice” but were taken up by the Police on the road between Mihaica (Mahaica) and the capital.
“A Promise of not offending again reconciled the Parties, and they returned by the Despatch Boat to Berbice on the same Day” he stated. “The Coolies on Mr. Gladstone’s Property are a fine healthy Body of Men; they are beginning to marry or cohabit with the Negresses, and to take Pride in their Dress; the few Words of English they know, added to Signs common to all, prove that ‘Sahib’ was good to them.”
ID recalls the Governor’s candid observation that “The magnificent Features of the Men, their well-shaped, though slender Limbs, promise well for Mixture of the Negress with the Indian.”