The group of strong, young friends in their 20s, had all signed up for their foreign adventure when the wily recruiters passed through the farming village in Bancoorah District, West Bengal promising steady jobs and good money.
But within weeks of their May, 1838 arrival in British Guiana, the men quickly realised how reckless and naive they had been giving up their simple homes and valued freedom, when the ill-treatment and severe beatings – by a sadistic superintendent serving as sole interpreter thrust into a fresh position of power – intensified on the Vreed-en-Hoop sugar estate owned by prominent businessman and former British Member of Parliament John Gladstone.
From the low-ranking “cultivating, earth-working, and palanquin-bearing caste” called “Bauri/Bauria” recorded as “Bourree” in the historical files, the band of barefoot-brothers communicated in the obscure “Bauria” language, reflecting Rajasthani and Gujarati influences. They quietly started plotting permanent escape from the hot, hungry hell they had sailed to, following an almost four month-long voyage featuring cholera, death and extortion aboard the “Hesperus.”
Probably accustomed to the dangerous jungles of Bancoorah’s western frontier that abounded with “tigers, leopards, hyenas, bears, jackals, foxes, wild hogs, etc.” they would steal away shoeless in the August night, across the wide Demerara River and venture into the dense, unknown backlands of Guiana’s coast, on another extraordinary journey of courage, endurance and kinship. Familiar with the Bancoorah bush and the Indian landscape “well-watered” by the Hadjee, Damoodah and Dalkishore Rivers, they must have seen soothing similarities in Guiana, crossing the Mahaica, then the Mahaicony and Abary Rivers, and thinking they would surely be able to navigate and manage in the new territory, as the natives had done in the Indian hills and forests for centuries.
With only their innate senses of nature and the outdoors to guide them in the strange South American tropics, the “Bourrees” would determinedly trek on chigoe-infested toes and thin but muscular legs through swamps and sidetracks, for more than 50 hard-won miles in their estimated fortnight of precious liberty. But here too unforeseen perils lurked for these latest arrivals and incomprehensible speakers of a locally unknown language. There were eyes and ears everywhere, waiting to inevitably apprehend the barely-clad, easily-discernible foreigners seeking to save their sanity in trying to trace a trail back and find a way out.
According to the records, several former slaves testified the runaways fled during August, with a former apprentice recounting, “We were free (on August 1, 1838) before they went away.” Likely led by the oldest “Bourree” the 26-year-old Muddon listed as Indian immigrant “Number 53” and five feet six inches tall, the faction included the copper-coloured “Number 54” Lubin, age about 24 years, and “Number 55” the dark-brown Mohun, 25. The other two were Khatoo, 23, and Mothoor, 24.
Traditionally hunter gatherers who relied on primitive tools such as bows and arrows, axes and spears, the Bauria tribesmen were skilled in identifying edible plants, roots and fruits of the Asian forests. Such valuable abilities may have helped the five fellows survive their Guiana odyssey. Although the full story will never be known, it was remarkable that at the time of their capture around August month-end/early September, they had already managed to reach the distant county of Berbice. On May 5th the “Hesperus” and its sister ship, the “Whitby” had delivered the first batches of indentured East Indians upriver, the first such consignments this part of the world, before sailing to Demerara with the remainder of the “Gladstone Coolies” named after the Scotsman who had initiated the latest leg of the international human trade.
A 19th-century guidebook would describe the men’s Indian home-district as mostly a place of “Brahminists.” Termed “level and fertile,” at the time it produced crops like rice, wheat, barley, gram, pulses, oil seeds, sugar cane, indigo cotton and vegetables. From the famous and versatile “Sal” deciduous tree native to the Indian sub-continent and sacred to the indigenous tribes, Hindus and Buddhists; villagers would prepare ancient Ayurvedic medicines, oil, resin or “Bengal dammar,” fire-resistant timber prized for housing and temple carvings, and even distinctive leaf plates and cups. But the flowers of “Shorea robusta” or “sakhua” are also edible and still used as the base for an intoxicating liquor “which is the favourite beverage of the lower orders.”
The ruthless interpreter, 21-year-old Henry Jacobs had implemented an effective scheme early, forcing the vulnerable Indians to pay for coming up to the top, open deck of the “Hesperus” causing the death of at least one immigrant and being likely responsible for others. Jacobs had honed his techniques in terror during years of similar paid work in Mauritius, and was contracted by Gladstone’s agents, Gillanders, Arbuthnot and company to continue as the sole translator turned contemptuous and cruel enforcer at Vreed-en-Hoop. Away from any supervision and emboldened by an indifferent and complicit manager, Robert Sanderson, Jacobs immediately accelerated the physical and verbal abuse on the estate, with violent attacks on Indian labourers in the cane fields and thrashings with his favourite cat-o-nine tails for those who did not or could not pay up to escape sudden and certain punishment.
Given daily evening allowances of rum, the immigrants were also disciplined when they became intoxicated. The estate’s Sick Nurse, Betsy Ann would testify before a Court of Inquiry appointed to probe complaints of floggings reported to the Governor Henry Light by the British abolitionist and campaigner, John Scoble that Lubin, who had apparently taken to heavy alcohol after being brought back to Vreed-en-Hoop, was ordered put in the stocks because he “had been fighting and knocking himself against the partition” of the cells. “He got out of the window and came down on the outside. I reported Lubin’s conduct to the manager, and he ordered him to be put in the Stocks.”
She admitted, “I have known of coolies running away sometimes. I have known about seven or eight, and sometimes two. I recollect of some going away, and being brought back. They were put into the Hospital up at top; next morning Mr. Jacobs took them out. I heard he licked them, but I did not see him lick them. One Coolie who was drunk was locked in the cells below for the night. I do not know of any other Coolies being locked there. Two times Coolies were taken out of the Hospital to be flogged. On both occasions they were taken from the upper part of the Hospital. I do not know where they were flogged either time. The man who brought them back told me that Manager ordered them to be locked up, and that I was to give them victuals to eat, and water. Mr. Jacobs took them out in the morning. There are Stocks in the Sick House. One Coolie has been put in the Stocks. His Name is Lubin. He was drunk. Manager put him first at top, but he came down, and then Manager ordered him to be put in the Stocks.”
Referring to the “Bouree” five, the Estate’s Foremen, Will Clay and Adonis Prince said the men were finally captured, brought back to Vreed-en-Hoop by schooner from Berbice on Saturday, September 1, 1838 and locked up in the Sick House. Prince and a Rajput caste member, Ram Singh, likely a former soldier/skilled scout or guard were dispatched to Berbice to search for the “Bourees” but were unsuccessful, returning to the estate a day after the escapees were handed over.
Prince recalled, “they came back on Saturday, and I came on Sunday; they were flogged on the Monday morning,” when “Jacobs brought them from the Hospital to the Coolie House; I then saw the Mate (the Estate Gang Driver), Kyvantallee (Kirant Ally) tie their hands together round a post, and then I saw Jacobs flog them with a cat of about three or four cords; he gave them about five or six stripes each across their shoulders…”
“Jacobs passed one (Khatoo) and did not flog him, nor was he tied. The Manager was not present. I do not recollect seeing any of the women belonging to the Estate there. After the flogging they were sent to the field to their work. I do not know whether they were locked up in the Hospital or not; I do not know by whose orders they were flogged. Jacobs was present all the time; the first (man) flogged would not stand to take the licks, and then Kyvantallee tied them. Jacobs told them he flogged them because they ran away,” Prince said.
He did not yet understand English and may not have even known Hindi, but in the different language of indentureship one disturbing message stood out. Despondent Khatoo had simply given up and in fact paid off Jacobs, as demanded, to spare himself yet another licking with the cat.
ID considers the disclosure by Nurse Betsy Ann, that the “Coolies were brought into the Hospital to have their Backs dressed. Their Backs looked as if they had been licked; I rubbed them with Camphor and high Wines. They stopped One or Two Days in the Sick House.”