Immigrant Number 51 was a young “brown” Bouree man from Bancoorah, West Bengal reduced to just a single distinctive name, “Persaud” in the 1838 British Guiana (BG) historical files. Taller than average, the 25-year-old Indian was the first of many marked by the mangled moniker who would board the waiting boats over some eight decades, praying and hoping for a better life on the other side of the world.
Derived from the Sanskrit term “prasada” translated as “precious gift” for a sacred religious offering of food, traditionally consumed after ceremonial worship, Persaud and several variants such as Prasad and Persad have since become like the ubiquitous Singh and Khan among the most common surnames of these migrants’ numerous descendants mainly in the former colonies of Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago.
A few more newly-indentured men from the “Hesperus” sailing barque bore similar names inadvertently merged into a single-word English equivalent, as transliterated from the Hindustani languages by the British shipping agents and officials who registered the labour recruits. “Gungawpersaud” (Gangar Prasad) was listed as a “Tamlee” or Tamil from Cawnpore. However he may not have come from the far northern garrison town of the British East India Company, now known as Kanpur, but rather the small Bengali villages of the same title either in Ramnagar or Hugli (Hooghly).
Rampersaud (Ram Prasad) was part of a large group of Dhangars or so called “Hill Coolies” from the city of “Hazareebagh” (Hazaribagh) in the eastern resource-rich but impoverished state of Jharkhand – “Bushland” or “the land of forests” recently carved out of the southern part of Bihar. During colonial times the simmering South-West Frontier region was prone to prolonged revolts by the various native peoples against the feudal “zamindars” or tax-collecting land grabbers and owners, often Indian aristocrats known by their titular suffixes of lordship, such as Maharaja, Pillai, Khan, Babu and Sardar etc.
“Zamindar” or “land owner” and “Sardar” for “Commander” were old Persian-derived words, and the latter would move from a description of Mughal and Marathi nobility to a popular colloquial designation for diverse people ranging from chiefs, military men, Sikh former soldiers, community and group leaders, to eventually the managing heads of the indentured Indian labour gangs assigned to sugar estates.
Perhaps learning from the inevitable apprehension and severe punishment of those who had earlier tried escaping the harsh working and living conditions, Persaud, like several other members of the Bouree or Bauria caste sent to John Gladstone’s Vreed-en-Hoop plantation, did not join the five Bancoorah men who had fled Demerara for Berbice in a two-week odyssey desperately searching and failing to find a way out. The records show that Bourees such as Sreemunt, Cheedam, Aukool, Raghoo and Khartee Raw (Ram) stayed back on the estate.
During the nearly four months aboard the “Hesperus” the Indians quickly learnt that the cruel superintendent and powerful interpreter, the scheming Eurasian, Henry Jacobs was the man to be feared. At Vreed-en-Hoop, the extortion and beatings would intensify as he liberally used his favourite form of punishment, the dreaded cat-o-nine tails on sirdars and Singhs, a surname drawn from the Sanskrit word for lion “simha.” Nearly six feet tall like Jacobs, even the sirdars Munbode Singh and Bhowanuy (Bhowanee/Bhawani) Singh, possibly former sepoys, were not exempt.
But according to the records, the worst thrashings were reserved for the runaways. Former slave turned freed labourer, Elizabeth Caesar would testify that the Bourees and “different Coolies” had absconded at various times. The recaptured men “were locked up in the Sick House, and next Morning they were flogged with a Cat-o’-nine-tails. Mr. Jacobs applied the Cat with his own Hands. The Manager was in the House, and they flogged the People under his House. No one was present except Mr. Jacobs.”
She said: “I came out of the Negro Yard and went to the Sick House. I saw the Flogging while going to the Sick House. I walked underneath the Gallery of the Manager’s (Robert Sanderson) House. The Coolies who were flogged were tied to the Post of the Gallery of the Manager’s House. The Post was under the Balcony; not under the Stairs. I saw Mr. Jacobs lick them, but I cannot tell how many Licks he gave any one of them. He gave them enough. I saw the Marks on the Backs of some of them. Marks across the Back; they were cut, and I saw Blood. When one Set run away they ‘catted’ them, and they ‘catted’ the others when they ran away. They ‘catted’ the first Set under the Manager’s Balcony, and the other in the Negro Yard opposite the Coolies House. Mr. Jacobs himself catted them both Times. The whole Gang were present in the Negro Yard. No White People were there.”
Caesar would bravely state, “The first Time when they were flogged at Manager’s House they rubbed salt Pickle on their Backs. Mr. Jacobs put on the Pickle. After the Pickle was put on they went to their own Houses. The Second Time no Pickle was applied: they went away too. I saw the Day after, on both Occasions, those who had been flogged at their Houses. I did not see them go to work. They were not taken to the Sick House to have their Backs washed. One of the Coolies, named Moduir, went away. It is not Four Weeks since he came home. I do not know why he went away. I did not see him flogged at any Time. I never saw Mr. Jacobs strike Moduir. There were Two Coolies (Jummun and Pultun) who ran away and have not returned. They died in the Bush. They died on the Berbice Side.”
She added, “Mr. Jacobs sent for the Pickle. He flogged all of the Coolies even. I think they gave Twenty for all of them; Ten and Ten; that was the first Time. They did not get so many in the Negro Yard. They got Four there. Only Three were catted there. The first Time the four Coolies were locked up in the dark Cells below the Sick House, and carried from thence to be flogged. Those flogged in the Negro Yard were taken from the Top of the Sick House. I cannot tell the Names of any who were flogged. Two Days the Coolies did no Work after the First Flogging; they lay up in their Houses. The Second Time, next Morning Mr. Jacobs carried them to their Work. They were tied to a Post in the Negro Yard. 1 did not see Mr. Jacobs send any one for the Pickle, but I saw he had it. I tasted it. Mr. Jacobs was not present when I tasted it. He left the Pail. It was Pork Pickle. I am sure it was Pork Pickle. I knew it was Pork Pickle, for I saw a little Pork.”
Another labourer, Rose gave some different evidence that “Mr. Jacobs was the only White Man present” at the “Coolies” punishment around seven a.m. on September 3, 1838. “Their Backs were not cut, but in Bumps. They appeared to me as severely punished as my ‘Matties’ (‘Mateys’) were during the Apprenticeship when flogged; they were flogged with a Cat the same as was formerly in Use; some cried, and some did not cry. There was no Blood. When the Blacks have been flogged I have seen Blood on their Backs.” After, “I went away to my Work.”
Rose acknowledged to the Magistrates, “There was a Trench between me and the Coolies. I looked and saw all flogged. I cannot say whether they were at their Houses that Evening or not. The Day after they were flogged I saw some of the same Coolies in the Field. I cannot tell why they ran away. The Coolies have as good Houses as we have.”
Labourer Alexander Barrington, swore, “When they run away and are stubborn they get Two or Three Lickings.” Explaining that he worked as a gang “driver” before the August 1, 1838 full emancipation of the former slaves in the colony, Barrington admitted some of the “Coolies” were beaten by their own “Mate” or “driver” on the back. “I have seen them flogged. The whole Estate People were present… he People who were licked cried out. They were licked opposite their own Doors.”
Maybe afraid to jeopardise his future prospects of being re-hired Barrington declared he had never witnessed Jacobs or the “Mussulman” “Mate” Kyvantallee (Kyvant/Kiran Ally) abuse the men. “I have seen no Flogging, except for a short Time after the Coolies first came… They (the Coolies) cried out, but not hard; not so hard as we Black People. They did not flog for Work, but only for running away.”
ID finds an 1838 publication featuring several enduring Eastern India delicacies including literally for Lord Krishna’s enjoyment fragrant “Mohanbhog” or “prasada” misspelt “parsad” in Guyana. Then, as now, “meal is made into toasted cakes (Roti), or into cakes fried in ghiu/ghee (Puri), and into a sweetmeat called Mohanbhog, composed of flour, ghiu, sugar, and milk, boiled to a paste, and formed into lumps.”