Thorny legal issues unexpectedly emerged in British Guiana (BG) over the uncertain status of John Gladstone’s East Indian indentured labourers when the influential politician and wealthy merchant secretly transferred his Vreed-en-Hoop sugar estate to his sons in 1839 and they quietly sold it a year later. But Gladstone’s key connections protected him from any fallout.

Worried that Gladstone’s actions had invalidated the workers’ contracts and “having reason to believe that it would neither be advantageous to their health or comfort if this transfer were to be enforced without the consent of the Coolies,” Governor Henry Light hurriedly wrote to the colony’s Attorney General (AG) and Solicitor General (SG) in November 1840, before informing the British Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, Lord John Russell. Light would repeatedly admit in separate despatches, “I fear I shall have some difficulty in the arrangements regarding the Coolies brought to this country by Mr. Gladstone.”

Light had requested careful examination of the indentures of the some 60 affected workers brought in by absentee owner, Gladstone as part of the 1838 introductory scheme, citing the “rumoured sale of the estate, by the importer of the Coolies, and a reserve of his (Gladstone’s) right to their services.” Light had heard Gladstone reportedly added ‎£4000 for the use of these “services” to the ‎£35 000 price for Vreed-en-Hoop paid by the buyers BG’s Colonial Surgeon, E. M. L. Smith and his brother, a London-based attorney.

AG Henry Gloster and SG Willim Furlonge confirmed in a succinct advisory, “The consent of the Coolie is indispensably necessary to his transfer.” Light also sought guidance on “whether, if a transfer of the Coolies may take place without their consent from Vriedenhoop, it must not be restricted to a transfer to an estate which is also the property of the importer.” The second query was “made because of a rumour, that the importer of the Vriedenhoop Coolies has sold his other estates as well as plantation Vriedenhoop.” The original Dutch name of the farm “Vriede-en-Hoop” used by Light translated as “Peace and Hope.”

Lamenting to Russell that Gloster’s and Furlonge’s opinion came “unfortunately too late” Light acknowledged “Knowing, as I did, the attention and skill of Dr. Smith to the numerous Coolie patients who were brought to the colonial hospital at the time of the (Plantation) Belle Vue inquiry would render the Coolies unwilling to leave his service, I determined to secure by a legal opinion the advantages to both parties of their mutual rights.”

Gladstone had ordered the twin shipments of about 400 East Indians on the chartered vessels the “Whitby” and “Hesperus” for several top BG proprietors and estates including his Vreed-en-Hoop and Vriedestein plantations in Demerara. About 60 surviving recruited men plus three wives and three children from the “Hesperus” were assigned to Vreed-en-Hoop while 31 men brought by the “Whitby” went to Vriedestein. Their January 26, 1838 contracts with Gladstone through his lawyer, James Stuart featured free passage back to Calcutta at the end of five years.

The historical files feature a flurry of official correspondence among Light, Gladstone and top United Kingdom-based officials, with leading Crown lawyers from London’s Inner Temple, John Campbell and Thomas Wilde sending opinions. Wilde succeeded Campbell as Attorney General in 1841. Both later served as Lord Chancellors and were raised to the peerage as Barons.  Campbell and Wilde advised Russell’s Under-Secretary, Robert Vernon Smith and they concurred “the consent of the Coolies is indispensably necessary to the validity of the transfer of their services” but only “assuming, as your Lordship had no doubt was the case, that Mr. Gladstone’s facts are correct.”

“Yet, if that consent was fully and fairly given, we do not see anything illegal in the transactions” since “such transactions, certainly, have very much the aspect of a sale of the services of the Coolies as if they were slaves for a limited time, and must be liable to great abuse; but they do not appear to be contrary to any of the Ordinances on the subject laid before us; and the Coolies cannot complain of a breach of contract if, with a full knowledge of the facts, they agree to serve the purchaser of the estate instead of the vendor, by whom they had been imported,” the pair said.

They noted, “It will be for your Lordship to consider whether, with a view to the protection of the Coolies, such transfers should not be forbidden, unless under the superintendence and control of a public functionary.”

While Russell directed Light to propose to BG’s Court of Policy a consequent Ordinance to that effect, he immediately moved to further shield Gladstone, a three-time Parliamentarian, pointedly warning the Governor, “You will understand that the Ordinance of which I speak, should not be made retrospective.”

“I have to observe that such a transaction as the one in question, will make Her Majesty’s Government insist more strongly on the maintenance of the Orders in Council, which forbid contracts of service for more than one year,” Russell drily commented.

In fact, besides the five-year long indentured pacts, Gladstone had never bothered to inform the authorities or the Indian men of Vreed-en-Hoop’s handover to his four sons more than a year before, or sought to obtain the workers’ consent for the transfer of their services as required.

On January 18, 1841, Gladstone carefully replied to Smith that Light’s disclosures were “not correct” and his letter is deliberately crafted with a sly and crucial reference that could be construed as referring to either the indentured servants or his sons, Thomas, Robertson, John Neilson and William Ewart.

“The Coolies in question were in the spring of 1838 located on Vriedenhoop, then my property; in 1839 I transferred the estate to my sons, with their services, when, with their consent, they remained on the same terms of remuneration; in September last they sold the estate, not in the colony, but to a gentleman residing here, a barrister-at-law, to whom possession would probably be given some time last month (December 1840), under the stipulation that I retained the power to remove these people to two other estates should I find it necessary to do so, or their desiring it, “ Gladstone said.

He continued: “I entered into an agreement with the purchaser to transfer the services of the Coolies to him, on the condition that they were willing to remain…for the remaining term of their agreement with me, which will expire in January, 1843…with food, clothing, lodging, medical attendance, etc. and employ them in the same manner as I had and paying them the same wages as stipulated.” At the conclusion of their service, Gladstone would provide a suitable vessel “to carry them back to Calcutta, free” for which the buyer “agreed to pay me the sum of ‎£2200 in four instalments, at intervals of six months,” but should they prefer being removed then this would be cancelled.

“1 think it right also to mention, that since my sons sold the estate in question, I have sold another (Vriedestein) on which a part of my Coolies were located, on the condition, that provided they remained on the estate, the purchasers were to provide for and pay them in all respects as stipulated in my agreement with them, and also relieve me from the expense of sending them back to Calcutta,” Gladstone stated.

According to the 1839 Sessional Papers of the House of Lords, Gladstone’s eldest son, Thomas penned a long missive on behalf of his father “for the Vindication of his Character,” earlier that August, to the Home Secretary, the Marquess of Normanby, following spirited debate in both British Houses of Parliament on the controversial introduction of Indian natives into BG. Conceding that “A Wish has been expressed in Parliament that the whole of the Coolies in Demerara and Berbice, about 400 in Number, should be sent back to Bengal by the Government at the public Expense,” he argued, “Such a Measure, as far as Mr. (John) Gladstone is concerned, would be injurious to his Interest, inasmuch as that during the Time they have been in the Colony they have had to gain Experience, which they are now applying usefully to his Advantage…”

“But should that Course be adopted by Parliament, and Mr. Gladstone be indemnified and repaid the heavy Expense he has incurred in procuring and engaging these Labourers in Bengal, and taking them from thence to Demerara, amounting to more than ‎£20 each, he is ready to relinquish their Services, and to cancel the Agreements of all those who may really desire to return now to Calcutta, should there be any such in his Service, which is very doubtful; this Fact being first ascertained by authorized Persons of Respectability,” Thomas declared.

ID thinks of Lord John Russell, the UK’s last Whig Prime Minister, who said, “I have made mistakes, but in all I did my object was the public good.” Charles Dickens dedicated the novel, “A Tale of Two Cities” to him, “In remembrance of many public services and private kindnesses.”­