The indentured immigrants caught up in the secret transfer and subsequent sale of John Gladstone’s Vreed-en-Hoop plantation were allowed little choice but to stay on for the two remaining years of their 1838 contracts. Left uninformed for months that the agreements were breached, and then given just four days to choose between moving to another Demerara plantation and pursuing all but impossible legal action against the powerful British merchant to enforce their early shipment back to India, the group of about 60 labourers was officially discouraged from testing the local courts.

In a March 4, 1841 meeting with the “servants” most of whom spoke no or little English, the District Stipendiary Magistrate, James Ochterlony Lockhart (J.O.L) Mure stressed, “(A) short time ago many of you told me that you did not want to go to India just now, but would go back at the end of the two years you have by your indentures yet to serve. I hope you are still of the same mind. I would not advise any of you to demand a passage just now, for if Mr. Gladstone refuses you, you can only have recourse by actions at law, and these will be attended with delay, expense, and some uncertainty. I cannot undertake to give you an immediate passage, nor am I authorised to ensure you a free passage at the public expense in the event of a recourse to law being unsuccessful.”

Mure was instructed to avoid any early communication with the labourers “likely to cause excitement” given the Crown’s view Gladstone’s transfer of Vreed-en-Hoop to his sons and employment of the “coolies without their consent” had broken the terms of the five-year pacts. So the labourers could cancel their engagements by applying to Magistrate Mure, demanding free passage and in case of refusal on the part of Gladstone or his representative, seeking “recourse upon him by actions at law.”   

However the Magistrate claimed, “Not one expressed the least wish to return immediately to India; on the contrary, several in answer to a question put by me declared that they did not want to go just now, that they wished to make more money and to return at the end of two years, the time at which their indentures will expire.” But the historical records reveal there was at least one young indentured man, the bold Narrain/Narain, then about 19-20 years old, who openly protested. He had quickly learnt English while working for the previous Manager of Vreed-en-Hoop, Robert Sanderson as a domestic having arrived in May 1838 as a teenager from Bancoorah (Bankura), West Bengal.

Mure admitted to the “coolies” neither Gladstone nor his agent James Stuart had the power to unilaterally transfer indentured services. “You know that Vriedenhoop (the estate’s Dutch name) has been sold to (Colonial Surgeon) Dr. (E.M.L) Smith and his brother; but perhaps you do not know that Mr. Gladstone parted with Vriedenhoop twelve months before to his sons. You have, therefore, for the last year been employed in the service, not of Mr. Gladstone, but of his sons, and without asking your consent. I was not aware of this till lately.”

“It is now my duty to inform you of the opinion entertained by the Attorney and Solicitor Generals. They say that the act of Mr. Gladstone, in transporting Vriedenhoop to his sons, and employing you there in the same manner as if you had been transferred with it, without your consent declared before a public officer, as required by the contract, was so far a vitiation of that contract that you might, on application to me, be released from your agreements to him.” He continued, “If any of you apply to me to be released” and “(I) put an end to your indentures,” then “you can demand a free passage back to India, and if Mr. Gladstone refuses to give you a passage you can have recourse upon him…”

However, “If any of you wish to be free from your indentures with Mr. Gladstone, and to go back to Calcutta now, you must tell me someday soon” or “you will lose your right to a free passage, except by remaining in (his) service” or of some authorised person “in which case you will still be entitled to a free passage in less than two years.”

Outlining three choices, Mure told the men they could “hold on by your present indentures with Mr. Gladstone, and refuse to be employed in the service of any other person; but in this case you cannot refuse to work anywhere in the service of Mr. Gladstone, or refuse to go and work at (Plantation) Vreedstein (Vriedestein) so long as Vreedstein belongs to him. It is well known that Mr. Gladstone has agreed to sell that estate, but neither possession nor transfer has yet passed.”

Secondly, “If perfectly satisfied with the treatment you have met with from Mr. Stuart, as agent of Mr. Gladstone, you feel disposed to serve him at Wales or Vreedstein, both of which estates Mr. Stuart and Mr. Matheson have agreed to purchase, you can do so, and in that case Mr. Stuart…must fulfil the obligations incurred by Mr. Gladstone to you.”

Finally, the Indians could resort to the open market system, where, “You may apply to me to cancel your indentures, and if I put an end to them I shall relieve you from your engagements to Mr. Gladstone, and you can then go and employ yourself as you think proper. You can work for whom you please, and at such wages, and on such conditions, as you may bargain for, but in this case you will lose your right to a free passage back to India at the end of two years.”

A Scotsman like Gladstone, Mure briefed the recruits using as his translator the Eurasian or “coloured” interpreter from Anna Regina Estate, Charles J. Wiltshire, who had accompanied the immigrants to British Guiana (B.G) aboard the “Hesperus.” The Magistrate cautioned the assembly, “You ought not therefore to think of this unless you are determined not to return to India, or unless you can get a person to employ you as a free labourer who will give you his bond that if you remain with him in his service till 1st January, 1843, nearly two years, he will then guarantee to you a free passage back to your native country.”

Reporting “an immediate and general declaration on their part that they would go anywhere Mr. Stuart wished,” a relieved Mure penned, “Stuart told them that in his own name, and as agent for Mr. Gladstone, he promised a free passage back to India to any who might continue to work for the benefit of Mr. Gladstone till the termination of the indentures, but that he would not give a passage to any who might refuse to adhere to their

contract, or refuse to go to Wales or Vreedstein.”

“I thought it was proper that they should have some time for reflection” until Monday, March 8, 1841 “to make up their minds.” Stuart assured the “coolies” he “would have a boat ready on that day to carry such as might be disposed to move.”

When Mure returned, he “found the coolies cheerfully and actively employed in carrying their things to the schooner.” But, “One (Narrain) only objected to go, he said he did not like the manager at Wales. I told him that he might apply to me to cancel his indenture, but then he must either demand an immediate passage (which, however, I could not ensure his getting) or forego his claim to be sent back free of expense to his native country.” Narrain thought “by remaining at Vriedenhoop he would be entitled at the end of two years to a free passage from Dr. Smith – I undeceived him on this point” and “he consented to go with his companions.” Mure added, “A little after three yesterday (Monday), the whole of the coolies, with exception of one in the hospital, took their departure from Vriedenhoop for Wales.”

Governor Henry Light later explained to Secretary of State, Lord John Russell the Smith brothers refused Gladstone’s proposal to pay extra for the workforce, since “on examining the condition of the coolies, (Dr. Smith) did not find them in the effective condition represented” and declined the transfer given the “doubtful” lawfulness. Hours before Mure’s caucus, Smith sent him a note, “I have consulted several friends as to the propriety of my offering a free passage back to India to the coolies who might remain on Vriedenhoop, but all were unanimous in dissuading me from such a step. Under these circumstances I am sorry I cannot come to the resolution you speak of.”

ID mulls the frosty response of permanent absentee owner John Gladstone who denied he originally planned “to offer the Coolies for public competition by sale” if his terms were not met. “The offer I made of the Coolies did not stipulate that the people were to be in the effective state described by the Governor, but stated simply to be ‘Labourers.’ Mr. Smith had long resided in the colony, and was acquainted with their character as such.”

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