Faced with negative press and publicity over the ill-treatment of Indian indentured labourers on his Vreed-en-Hoop plantation, the rich and powerful British merchant behind the importation scheme quickly and quietly transferred the profitable estate to his sons.
The tough Scotsman, the Baronet, Sir John Gladstone, an influential politician and businessman would stealthily move in late 1839, to begin winding up his sugar producing operations in British Guiana mere months after the scandal broke, shifting into new railway investments. But the colonial authorities would not learn of the title changes until after his holdings were sold privately.
In anticipation of the August 1, 1838 full British emancipation of slaves-turned-apprentices, the permanent absentee planter and major slave owner had initiated the first two experimental shipments of East Indians who became known as the “Gladstone Coolies” with just over 400 having arrived on May 5, 1838 to work on several estates including his West Demerara farms at Vreed-en-Hoop, and Vredestein also called Vreedestein and Vriedestein.
Determined to secure unprecedented financial compensation for British slave owners like himself affected by the 1833 Abolition Act, Gladstone, with the help of his ambitious fourth son, William who served as Junior Lord of the Treasury and an Under-Secretary of State for War and the Colonies on his way to becoming the popular four-time Prime Minister, collected a huge official payout of nearly £107 000 in November 1835 and February 1836. These settlements came from nine associated claims for the listed 2277 slaves across big estates here and in Jamaica respectively, that he owned, partnered or held as a mortgagee and owner-in-fee, having taken over the mortgage debts of proprietors like the Essequibo River-based Swedish bachelor planter Jonas Fileen.
Gladstone negotiated to buy Vreed-en-Hoop after Fileen’s death in March 1822, reaching an agreement with Fileen’s alleged brother and heir, Paul, for £80,000. A rival claim delayed the purchase until 1828, according to detailed data compiled by the University College of London (UCL) for its “Legacies of British Slave-ownership” website.
Receiving £22 443 in compensation for 415 African and Guianese-born slaves at Vreed-en-Hoop, he would also be paid a similar amount for 429 enslaved people at another prized property, Success, the launching site of the brutally-suppressed August, 1823 Demerara Slave Rebellion.
Protesting bad treatment and seeking freedom in the mistaken belief that the British Parliament had passed an emancipation law that was being withheld, the largely peaceful revolt was led by the slave Jack Gladstone named like his father, Quamina for their absentee master, John Gladstone who acquired his initial half share in the plantation through mortgage default. Hundreds of slaves including Quamina were executed and their English pastor, Reverend John Smith was found guilty and died in prison of consumption before word of a royal reprieve reached the colony, becoming an indelible martyr for the abolitionists’ cause.
Jack had heard rumours of the colonists’ supposed concealment of the granting of freedom, which set off the uprising. In a rare plea, John Gladstone would write a letter seeking clemency for Jack who was sold and banished to the island of Saint Lucia. Born Gladstones, the second of 16 children John had dropped the final “s” from his surname when he moved to the busy city of Liverpool though this was not formally changed by royal licence until 1835.
Likewise in November 1839, Governor Henry Light finally heard of the “rumoured sale” of Vreed-en-Hoop and other estates and hastily wrote to the Attorney General and Solicitor General seeking legal advice on the status of Gladstone’s “coolies”.
Light would later confirm that Plantation Success was sold for £30 000 in London by Gladstone but that a better offer of £35 000 was on its way from Demerara, while Gladstone’s holdings at Wales and nearby Vriedestein went for £30 000. His Vreed-en-Hoop Plantation was listed by Light as having gone for just £35000 with an additional £4000 reportedly demanded for “services of the Coolies.”
Earlier in 1839, public newspaper reports of physical abuse at Vreed-en-Hoop and appalling living conditions at nearby Bellevue leaked by abolitionists, would lead to a Commission of Inquiry ordered by the Governor Henry Light, and a visit and investigation by British anti-slavery activist, John Scoble.
Scoble’s revelations would prompt some fretting from Governor Light, who grumbled Scoble’s “sole Object in visiting this Country was to examine the Condition of the Coolies,” on both these estates. Writing to the Home Secretary, the Marquess of Normanby, Light admitted: “I have given Notice to the Stipendiary Magistrates of what has occurred, and required their utmost Vigilance. I assure your Lordship it has given me great Pain to find that such Irregularities have occurred in spite of my Care. I am sorry that such additional Reason will be given for endeavouring to prevent the Introduction of a most valuable Body of Labourers, who under better Regulations might be safely located in this Colony.”
In April 1839, Scoble was visiting Vreed-en-Hoop when he witnessed the beating of a Mussulman “coolie” Puckeira by the interpreter and enforcer, the Eurasian, Henry Jacobs. The indentured lad Narain who had quickly learnt English would translate Puckeira’s submission: “(I) had a quarrel with Jacobs in the Negro Yard of the Estate, and Mr. Jacobs licked me; he held me by the Hair and the Throat, and threw me down, and put his Knee in my Stomach, and struck me several Blows in the Face. I was coming out of the Sick House, and big Massa (meaning Mr. Scoble) called me to go with him in the Negro Yard; and Mr. Jacobs said I must go to take Allowance; I said I would not go; Mr. Jacobs said, ‘If you don’t go, who will give you Allowance?’ Then Mr. Jacobs took hold of (me) by the Throat, and licked (me), When Mr. Jacobs began to beat me, I held Mr. Jacobs’ Jacket to shove him from me; did not strike Mr. Jacobs. When Mr. Jacobs began to beat me, I asked him, ‘What he beat me for; and he replied, ‘What for do you follow Mr. Scoble?’ When Jacobs was beating me on the Ground, Bass (Policeman) Vincent came and took him off me.”
Narain testified “the Negroes called out, ‘See Coolie kill Coolie’… and Mr. Scoble hurried back and said to the Constable, ‘Vincent, see, these Men fight there; you must go there, and see who they are.’”
The Engineer and Constable, Vincent Paradise would tell the Court, “Mr. Scoble was trying to speak to the Coolies in the Negro Yard, and Mr. Jacobs wanted them to go take Allowance (and some of them went and took Allowance); but Puckeira wanted to go to hear Mr. Scoble, and Mr. Jacobs stopped him, and I passed them standing all together. Mr. Scoble went on about Twenty Roods, and I was following him, and I then heard People hallooing (hollering) ‘Mr. Jacobs killing Coolie!’ and Mr. Scoble turned round and ran back till he got to a Cocoa (sic) Nut Tree, and stood up behind it, and peeped out and said to me, ‘Constable, you see that Fight, go and stop it ‘ and I ran back, and met Puckeira on the Ground, in a dry Trench near the Negro Yard, and Mr. Jacobs on him, keeping him down, and he gave Puckeira Two small Slaps in the Mouth, and said, ‘Instead of my correcting you, you want to correct me’ and I said to Mr. Jacobs, ‘Get up’ and I gave him my Hand, and he got up. I asked him what was the Matter; he said he was speaking to the Coolie, and the Coolie wanted to collar him, and he was obliged to defend himself.”
He added, “Mr. Scoble came to us and said, “Ah, my Man, I see what you have been doing; I will make you see what you are about” and he took Puckeira and Narrain to the Ferry to make Complaint to the Magistrate.” That Magistrate, W.B. Wolseley would fine Jacobs 30 shillings with imprisonment in the Georgetown “gaol” till paid, but not exceeding 14 days.
ID considers Magistrate Wolseley’s “Coolies” complaint: “Unfortunately the bright Beams of Christianity have not shone among them, and it is much to be lamented that they are left so entirely destitute of religious Instruction as scarcely to be raised above the Beasts of the Field: this may be harsh Language, yet what but Religion raises Man above the Level of the Brute Creation?”