Paid just five rupees monthly, enterprising indentured Indians at Plantation Highbury still managed to accumulate significant savings by the end of 1840, through thrift, extra work, and early livestock investments. Under their five-year contracts, the some 400-recruits introduced to six assigned estates in British Guiana (B.G.) each received the equivalent sum of two and a half dollars provided they toiled daily, and were not sick or absent.

“These people are a money-getting, and many of them money-saving people: the manager has in his possession upwards of 1 000 dollars belonging to about twenty of them, he exhibited a list of their names to me, and I saw that one man had saved and deposited with the manager 100 dollars, and another over 80 dollars,” Stipendiary Magistrate, Charles Henry Strutt glowingly reported to B.G.’s Governor, Henry Light. Light had ordered a full tour of Berbice’s estates, worried about the August 1, 1838-labour impact with the end of apprenticeship, formalising the full abolition of slavery in captured Africans and their descendants.

He reviewed “a very fair display of industry in the rearing of pigs and poultry” and “the cultivation of vegetables” at nearby Plantation Waterloo, where “savings are frequently placed in the manager’s custody, and the deposits of one individual have amounted to as much as 30 dollars.” When sick the bound servants received “hospital diet and their usual rations, but no wages.”

Learning from the illustrious example set by the resourceful former slaves and skilled apprentices, the Indians purchased starter animals from those they worked alongside at Highbury and Waterloo, up the Berbice River. Hundreds of the so called “Creoles” had pooled their meagre, hard-won “outside” earnings secretly squirrelled away over many years, to surprise the colonial authorities by quickly acquiring failing but soon jacked up-priced estates and smaller tracts, from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars, to establish the first free villages and holdings along B.G’s fertile coast. In the official files of early January 1841, the Acting Registrar, Thomas Bagot published the passage of 475 such transports issued including to 83 Africans who paid 30 000 guilders/ $10 000 mostly in coins famously hauled through city streets, in crammed wheelbarrows, for the former cotton-Plantation North Brook renamed Victoria in honour of the British Queen; and at least 62 others who handed in $50 000 for Plantation New Orange Nassau, christened Buxton after the British abolitionist Thomas Buxton. Strutt even witnessed the North Brook-renaming petition sent to Light.

Praising the Berbice peasantry for their overall “habits of industry” Strutt hailed their peaceable conduct, civil and respectful deportment, and awareness of “their rights as free people (who are) yet not presuming or overbearing…”

“The number of poultry, goats, and pigs reared by the Coolies upon this estate (Highbury) exceeds everything of the kind to be seen in any other part of the colony. The poultry they rear principally for their own consumption; pigs and goats chiefly for sale. As yet they have not done much in the way of gardening, though a piece of ground is now about being fenced in for them by way of encouragement,” Strutt recounted in the historical records.

He added, “These people rear a large quantity of stock, which they dispose of to their advantage…and from this source I am inclined to think arise their savings.” However, “The rate of wages paid to them is…much too low, being only five rupees, or seven guilders and ten stivers, per month each” besides “food and clothing, agreeably to a tariff apparently approved of by them in Calcutta, a copy of which I saw.”

Light’s exhaustive examination list forwarded to Strutt ranged from queries about the Indians’ appearance, “proofs of the acquisition of property by means of their own industry” and even their “habits and associations as regards their intercourse with the negroes” to their proficiency in English, and moral and religious instruction. Strutt concluded the “Coolies” managed “precisely the same” amount of labour as the freed Africans and “generally have finished their day’s task by one or two o’clock, p.m, trenching excepted, of which they perform about one-fourth less. In comparison, those at Waterloo accomplished about one-fourth less tasks “by one or two o’clock.”

At Highbury, Strutt recorded “very little intercourse” and what he termed “no instance known of illicit cohabitation” between the two ethnic groups since the Indians’ May 5, 1838 arrival on the “Whitby”, except for the Brahmin interpreter, Gabriel Francis who lived “with a negro woman” in Waterloo. Francis died soon after of “habitual intoxication” having shown himself “incapable or unwilling himself to undertake the task” of Christian instruction, and opposed to teachings of the “coolies” by a Protestant minister.  The Magistrate found “comfortable detached cottages of the best description” with possessions like “good beds and benches, clothes-chests, cups, plates, and culinary utensils (which) present themselves to the visitor, with a degree of neatness in the arrangement seldom met with in the cottages of other labourers.” At Waterloo, the dwellings “upon a dry sand reef” proved “remarkably neat and comfortable in their appearance, from which nothing is detracted by an interior inspection.”

In fact, “A more healthy, cleanly, and cheerful looking people cannot anywhere be seen,” the Magistrate declared, welcoming Highbury’s increased 1840 sugar output of 400 hogsheads up from 260 the preceding year. “Many of them perform extra work for money after their ordinary day’s labour is concluded; the sum paid to them last month (November 1840) for such extra labour was 49 dollars. They amuse themselves when their work is done in shooting and in the pursuit of game, and the manager told me they possessed among them upwards of twenty guns.”

Hampered in his Berbice expedition by heavy rains and bad roads, Strutt travelled by police-boat for three hours upriver to Highbury Plantation where the first such Indian immigrants this side of the world were delivered. Of the 110 surviving “coolies” 94 were men with 87 indentured, plus four wives/women, six girls and four boys, among them a two-month old baby.

“Many of these people speak English sufficiently well to be understood; conversed with them; found them cheerful and good-humoured, and apparently contented and satisfied; they had no complaints to make to me of any kind, although fully informed by the manager that I was expressly sent by the Governor to hear if they had any. They are a fine, healthy-looking people, and I was told work well; I saw about a dozen of them employed in carrying canes at the mill door, and they were certainly quick in their movements and diligent in their application. The ordinary labourers of the estate refused to carry canes to the mill, although offered high wages to do so – two months ago, at which time the cane carrier machinery was accidentally broken to such an extent that it could not be repaired; and thus, had the coolies also refused, the manufacture of sugar must have been for a considerable period suspended.”

Strutt stressed, “These people are now seasoned and the climate agrees with them.” The Estate’s register of deaths showed in 1838, 15 “coolies” died; followed by two in 1839 and four the next.

At Waterloo, “a few” of the 39 all-male workforce “begin to make themselves understood, and though the parish church is at some distance, the Coolies frequently attend service. They likewise attend a chapel on the estate. Should the emigration of Hill Coolies to this colony be permitted, it might be advisable to invite the Church Missionary Society to send out a few teachers acquainted with the Hindostanee language. The colony would, no doubt, readily pay the expense,” he suggested.

Strutt “saw and conversed with them” and “they were very cheerful and contented, and told me ‘Berbice was a very good place;’ they keep a great quantity of stock” and “what their religious prejudices preclude them from eating they sell; the manager informed me that two or three of them frequently attend church on Sundays, I was gratified to learn this and requested of the manager to encourage them; I asked them if they were kindly used, to which they answered ‘Yes!’ and, shaking their heads, they said: ‘Their only source of uneasiness was that they were far distant from their parents and sisters.’”

“It is (also) their intention to return to India when their indentures have expired; but many of them informed me they would come back higher, and bring their families with them.”

ID views the promise of the Highbury “sirdar” or foreman, Annunto Ram, who said if he went back to Calcutta he could “bring shiploads of his countrymen” to British Guiana. Magistrate Strutt asked him “how he would induce them to come, to which he answered, ‘I will show them the money in my hand’ (meaning his savings) and they will come.’”

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