An astute plantation cook deemed “a mere brute” soon changed into a stylish man “in European dress with a countenance beaming with intelligence and hope,” as the young Rajput who was “most enthusiastic” to become the first East Indian Christian missionary in British Guiana managed to avoid further estate work as an indentured immigrant.
Jowhyhur Singh, 22 from Plantation Bellevue was permitted by the pleased authorities to take indefinite official leave for long term study under various Christian instructors in Essequibo and Georgetown, having switched religions in one of the colony’s much hailed earliest conversions from Hinduism about a year after the May 5, 1838 arrival of the two introductory shipments of labourers.
Governor Henry Light would applaud proof of the “disposition in the ‘Coolies’ to Christianity.” He reported to the British authorities that the “young man who attended the sick Coolies, at the colonial hospital has been baptized” making “considerable progress in reading and writing under the Reverend Mr. Fox; and has been sent to Essequibo to be under the care and superintendence of the Church Missionary Reverend Mr. Bernard, to enable him to become a missionary amongst his countrymen here – on which point this Coolie is most enthusiastic. I saw this man on my first visit to the colonial hospital – a mere brute – he is now in European dress, with a countenance beaming with intelligence and hope.”
In December 1839, the Scottish Kirk Reverend, Robert Coltart disclosed “the Bellevue Coolies have lately made considerable progress in their spiritual and moral attainments, and that they will, I have reason to believe, continue under the blessing of God, gradually to improve in these important respects.” Writing to the Magistrate William Wolseley, he referred to Singh, adding that “two more have, within these few days, made earnest application for baptism, so that their advances towards Christianity are, thus far, highly satisfactory.”
“I have lately commenced a class, under my own superintendence, for their instruction, which meets in the church here three times a-week, and which will, I have no doubt, in a short period, prove most beneficial to them.” After spending just three years in the colony, the Reverend, aged about 40, would develop the dreaded yellow fever and die within one day at St. Mark’s Manse, in Demerara the following June. His widow and children would flee back to Scotland. Light revealed there was a ‘great drought in 1839” and “heavy long continued rains” which led to an epidemic of the mosquito-borne disease.
Another clergyman, G. Forward of the London Missionary Society would coolly acknowledge a related request for an update from the Assistant Government Secretary, William Bertie Wolseley, who also served as Stipendiary Magistrate. Drily observing, “(my) pleasure would be considerably augmented if the statements I have to make were of a more satisfactory nature” the Minister said “some of the Coolies” were “tolerably regular in their attendance” at his evening school.
“From among the whole number, two only manifest any great or continuous desire for Christian instruction ; and although there is much that is pleasing in their general demeanour, yet I do not see sufficient indications of sincerity or of knowledge in the fundamental truths of the gospel, to induce me as yet to receive them into the visible church of Christ: several others attend but with less regularity, and they appear desirous to learn, but there is a sad want of stability in their professions,” he added.
Yet, “Considering all things there is quite sufficient to excite my sanguine hopes that before long this interesting people will not only acknowledge the truths of Christianity, but also submit their hearts to its benign influence,” Forward stated, in his January 1840 letter from Lonsdale, near to Plantation Highbury up the eastern bank of the Berbice River.
Highbury and Waterloo Estates inherited and owned by London-based West India merchant and former slave holder, Henry Davidson had received the first two deliveries of India-sourced workers. A few years before, Davidson was awarded a fortune of some £140 000 in financial compensation from the British Government for 28 claims arising from the well over 5000 African slaves he owned or controlled including as a mortgagee and owner-in-fee, across as many estates in the West Indies. According to data compiled by the University College of London under its “Legacies of British Slave-ownership” website, these holdings ranged from the highest 387 slaves at Highbury, 313 at Rose Hall and 173 at Waterloo, to hundreds more spread across Caribbean plantations in Antigua, Grenada, Jamaica including Thomas-in-the Vale and Westmoreland, to Mount Bentinck, St Vincent, and Montrose, Trinidad.
In his missive, Minister Forward indicated, “The interpreter belonging to the Coolies at Highbury was a papist, and, notwithstanding his protestations to the contrary, I am inclined to think discouraged the people from receiving instruction through a protestant minister; at any rate he did not aid me in my attempts.”
Forward was referring in disparaging terms to the 40-year-old translator, Gabriel Francis listed in the disembarkation list as a “dark brown” Christian from Marejauungully. Madras. Really a Roman Catholic popularly termed in the pejorative, “papist” for perceived loyalty to the Pope rather than the Church of England, Francis would perish of “delirium tremens” on September 3, 1839, given the normal allowance of daily drams of rum leading to his “habitual intoxication.” In the files, he was also described as an “exception” for being “a Brahmin who lives with a Negro woman.”
“But now that he is dead, and the people are beginning to understand English and the Dutch Creole, no doubt the work of instruction will more rapidly advance,” Forward concluded. “If my testimony as to their general appearance – their treatment and the attention paid to their comfort on the estate be of any import, I most unhesitatingly give it; and it is my firm conviction that everything conducive to their welfare is done for them that can be reasonably expected,” he wrote.
The ruthless Vreed-en-Hoop interpreter, Henry Jacobs, later scolded, fined and jailed, was among the first to withhold rum rations. The driver, Kyranthalie (Kyrant Ally) complained Jacobs, “had ordered him to flog the Coolies if they did not do their Day’s Work, and also not to give them their usual Allowance of Rum at Six o’clock. When Mr. Jacobs first directed him to flog the Coolies he refused, and then Mr. Jacobs flogged him severely on the Back and Loins; Mr. Jacobs told him he was his-Servant, and must obey his Orders…he beat him with a Sugar Cane.”
The indentured men at Plantation Vriedestein protested they were not supplied with basic foods but grumbled too when their “Allowance of Tobacco and Rum” by their former Manager was stopped.” By January 1839, Governor Light would forward the Magistrates’ replies to official queries about the bonded labourers including, “Are they much addicted to rum-drinking? – A few of them.” At Vreed-en-Hoop “formerly they were, but at present not” as compared to the reported preference for imbibing at Bellevue and Waterloo, and the Anna Regina “six (who) have shown themselves addicted to rum drinking, but of late there has been a considerable improvement on the part of two of these.” However at Highbury, the manager assured Stipendiary Magistrate John MacLeod, “it is a very rare thing to see one of them the least intoxicated” even though their duties included general routine tasks on a sugar estate, “planting, weeding and cutting canes, transporting them from the field to the works, and assisting in the manufacture of sugar and distillation of rum.”
The Anna Regina Plantation even featured “a very respectable dwelling house” built by the proprietor expressly for a Moravian missionary but which ended up “unoccupied, and has been so for some months, the late minister having left the colony from ill health. The coolies were very fond of attending his evening school, and the absence of such an instructor is a great impediment to their intellectual and moral advancement.”
But at Bellevue, the young Bisram dropped dead from “intoxication” on 30th August, 1839. The records explained, “one of the coolies laid a bet he would drink a bottle of rum in the field, and having nearly finished it, continued his work; he was missed when his companions left their work; he had lain down, unshaded from the sun, and was found dead from the effects of sun and the rum he had drank.”
The powerful West India Merchants Committee including absentee proprietors Davidson and Andrew Colville soon stepped up lobbying for the months-old ban on the exportation of Indian “coolies” from India to be lifted. In a rousing letter to Lord John Russell, they stressed reduced output of sugar, rum and molasses was “not caused by bad seasons” but “to a want of continuous and regular labour.” They bemoaned “many of the emancipated since the 1st of August 1838, (have) betaken themselves to petty trading, and other employments in preference to the cultivation of the soil, most of the women having altogether withdrawn, and the children affording scarcely any assistance.”
ID smiles at the Committee’s view that given the “hundreds of thousands” who starved to death in the 1838 famine, it would “be an act of humanity, on the part of the British Government,” to give the East Indians access to “profitable employment for ages to come,” in a country where “such dreadful calamities are utterly unknown” and “they would also have the means of obtaining religious instruction.”