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.”   ….

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