One of just six women with spouses stuffed among a shipload of strangers aboard the “Hesperus” her name was anglicized to “Mollie” within months of their arrival in British Guiana (BG). They would suffer through the hazardous week-long journey down the winding Hooghly River to the jutting Sandheads and into the unpredictable Bay of Bengal, during which several people, ranging from a thin five year-old girl Meenie to strong men, collapsed and perished from cholera-related and other ailments.
Enduring the 90-day dangerous voyage to the warm South American coast, the group of families would cross the Indian Ocean and round the wild, cold African Cape, as gales suddenly sprung up and two recruits were swept off to the depths and their deaths, before the vessel even reached the vast Atlantic.
Possibly the tiny immigrant Moonah, 25, “Mollie” was a pioneering woman and a courageous survivor of another sort who made inexplicable choices and repeated mistakes in a harsh, foreign environment. She is probably the country’s earliest recorded victim of domestic violence among the newly arrived Indians, in the introductory male indentured labour scheme of 1838. Her real husband may have been one of the 12 men who died during the trip, prompting her to become involved with another passenger who turned out abusive. By the time, the Hesperus reached BG on May 5, she had ended up as a non-indentured female being swayed by the cunning affections of an infamously ruthless figure, but a powerful player in the plantation hierarchy who would personally enforce his domination of the bound men with brutal beatings, exaction and torture.
Within hours of leaving Calcutta on January 29, the first to expire was Gopaul, 26. Likely having exhausted his paltry advance on food supplies sold by small boat-vendors, he had no rupees left to pay the scheming “chokeydar/chowkidar” or guard for access to the “water closet” on the top deck. Masterminded by the cruel interpreter, the “coloured” Eurasian, Henry Jacobs, the extortion led to Gopaul’s agonising death from “violent inflammation of the bowels.” The ship’s surgeon, Dr. J.P. Richmond would report the tragedy was “owing to the conduct of one of the ‘Chokeydars’ (Police), who purposely prevented his (Gopaul’s) illness being made known until fifteen hours had elapsed and he was so far gone then that no medicine had any effect on him.”
On the Saturday the “Hesperus” docked in Berbice, the Guiana Chronicle immediately published a related story that angered Dr. Richmond so much he wrote to the Editor to complain about it being “so utterly false.”
“It is stated in the Gazette that two of the Coolies belonging to the ship Hesperus, from Calcutta, perished during the voyage; one by cutting his throat, and the other by throwing himself overboard; but from what source the editor could have obtained his information, I am altogether at a loss to imagine, as nothing of the kind ever occurred. Both the cases, to which I take it for granted he alludes, were not as he describes them, suicidal, but purely accidental, one of the men falling overboard, the middle of the night, during a very severe gale, and the other being washed off the gangway by a wave during a second gale, about four weeks afterwards. In both cases every possible exertion was made to save them, though unfortunately without success.”
Some 70 survivors including Mollie, two other women and their three children were sent with the sole interpreter, the sadistic superintendent Jacobs to John Gladstone’s Vreed-en-Hoop Estate in May 1838. The anti-slavery publication the “British Emancipator” would publish a damning article in January 1839 following a visit to the Bellevue plantation also on the West Bank of the Demerara revealing the “British Public has been deceived with the Idea that the Coolies are doing ‘well;’ such is not the Fact; the poor friendless Creatures are miserably treated…” with one man lamenting, “Coolie sick (of) Salt; Salt no more” and “Calcutta better” an apparent allusion to either the bare rice and salt provisions or the salt water rubbing of cut backs and legs after severe beatings.
A Judicial Investigation ordered by the Governor Henry Light would point to persistent problems while giving a “favourable Report of the Coolies at Highbury” in Berbice and at Anna Regina on the Essequibo Coast. They were “very cheerful and contented; that some of them are so satisfied as to have expressed an Intention not to return at the Termination of their Time of Service, but to ask for their Wives to be sent for…”
Like “Mollie,” a sharp, young man of around 17-18 years, Narain, put to work as a labourer at Vreed-en-Hoop, understood early he had to adapt to survive. He quickly learned enough basic English to be able to testify before a Court of Inquiry a year later that “Coolies ran away” because of the ill treatment. “Those that were found they tied their Hands, and beat them with a Rope. They tied their Hands behind their Backs. They beat them before the Coolies Houses. Ten different Times they lick (beat) them.”
Narain said, “They have licked them in the Field. Mr. Jacobs licked them. Mr. Jacobs held the Rope in his own Hands. No other White Man was there. Manager (Robert Sanderson) was not present when Mr. Jacobs licked the Coolies. I heard them complain to the Manager. I have heard Borrida complain, and Anosseing, and Gorase, and Catoe, and Hiderah. They said to Manager that ‘Mr. Jacobs lick awe (us); Demerara not good; Chigar there, Sore there, and Coolie go dead’ Manager told them that if they not work, and run away, they must get Lick.”
He added, “Mr. Jacobs licked the Coolies with a Rope as thick as my Forefinger; there were Six Ropes. Mr. Jacobs licked all the Coolies on the Estate. When licked they put the Breast to the Post with their Hands stretched out. Some tie the Hands before; some behind. The Coolies run away because they are licked…I work in the Field, but did live with the Manager. The Coolies spoke the Coolie Language to the Manager when they
complained to him. Mr. Jacobs was not there when the Manager told the Coolies that if they run away they must get Licks. He told them so in English.”
That May, Governor Light appointed a team featuring the “Hindoostani-speaking” Berbice Sheriff, the Magistrate, Charles Whinfield to examine the conditions of indentured immigrants ferried into B.G from India, Malta, Germany and Portugal. During their visit to Vreed-en-Hoop, the officials heard from the “Coolies” who “express themselves much dissatisfied with Mr. Jacobs,” for having “beaten them very often severely.” One of their Sirdars or Leaders, Munbodhe Singh submitted a written “Memorandum of (31) Men” naming himself, the “Coolie” driver Kyrant/Kiran Ally, the Bouree Five recaptured escapees and a man called Lorkun/Lookun who were forced to each pay off Jacobs in silver dollars “in lieu of a Beating.”
The sums totalling over $30 and ranging from half dollar to as much as $2.50 were significant given that for most, the demanded bribes were equivalent to at least an entire month’s wages, since the Indians were only paid from 4-7 seven rupees, or an average five rupees monthly, officially valued at two rupees to $1. But in reality they received far fewer dollars given the British Emancipator’s “scandalous” disclosure the men were offered by B.G’s merchants mere pennies or just “Two Bits a piece for them.”
Singh further complained Jacobs took his $1, being the “amount paid to him for a Dhootie, which he sold to the sick “Buxoo, who is now dead” while Ally claimed his $1 handed over by Buxoo for a blanket was confiscated. Tormented by the common parasitic fly and its’ burrowing maggots or “chigoes,” the “Mussulman” Buxoo/Buxsoo, 50, expired in early August 1838 from complications of liver disease.
In their report, the investigators wrote, “Lookun complains that on landing from the Ship, Mr. Jacobs seduced his Woman, by Name Mollie. On inquiring of the Woman as to whether she would go back to her Husband, who was willing to take her, she said, ‘1 am not married to him; when I lived with him he beat me; I will not go back to him. If Mr. Jacobs does not come back I shall die.’ ” “The Coolies to a Man declare, that if Mr. Jacobs is permitted to return to the Estate they will no longer do any Work. They say, ‘Jacobs is a bad Man; a very bad Man.’ ” Advised to fire Jacobs, Vreed-en-Hoop’s lone interpreter slapped with multiple fines and jail sentences, and ordered to refund the stolen monies, Gladstone’s Attorney, James Stuart bluntly refused. In 1843, Jacobs surfaced as an Interpreter and “Sirdar” in “healthy” condition on the “Louisa Baillie,” the chartered vessel taking 121 returnees, their hard-won savings and their precious wives and children back to India. Mollie or “Moonah” was not listed.
ID finds an intriguing reference to an unnamed Indian couple who stayed on in B.G rather than return to India. “The woman had been wife or mistress of one of the chief or influential Coolies, had played him false, and abandoned him for the man in question. They feared the vengeance of the first husband and his friends, and would willingly avoid going back in the same ship with them; the others had lost caste, or were afraid of their comrades.”