The young Indian sirdar must have thought he had more than enough time for everything. Born in a mainly agricultural area of Ghazeepore on the left bank of the Ganges River around 1810, he had grown up in this dusty “City of True Believers” knowing that to everything there was a season. A season for planting the rice, maize, indigo, wheat, barley and the city’s famously superior sugar cane. Another for the fine cotton, tobacco and poppy.
At 28, he was still unmarried, unusual for the time, for he had become restless and wanted more. So, when the 1837-promising offer to oversee similar work in a strange land across the black waters came up, he felt it was time to make a change, away from helping to harvest the big “Aman” or winter rice crop and waiting as always for the whims of the seasons. Time for new beginnings. Time to sign up as the earliest recruit, and to leave his poor parents, their thatched mud hut and the cold, dry season behind. Time to travel, to follow the billowing sails and the beckoning winds wherever across the seas. He vowed to return, in time too, hoping to be better off at the end of his five years contract.
Annundo Ram was an ambitious man and when he boarded the chartered new “Whitby” at Calcutta, several hundred miles away in January 1838, he knew it could prove a dangerous but life-changing journey. Five feet seven inches tall, “brown” and “pock-marked” he would join at least 266 others crammed on the ship for a detour to Diamond Point and the hellish hold-over in the Hooghly River, when several old passengers would soon die of dysentery.
During the three month-long-voyage of 11, 000 weary miles, Annundo would strike up enduring “jahaji” friendships with those around him, including Immigrant Number 72, a Dhanga man his age, from Ramghur district, then part of Bihar, now in the resource-rich but impoverished Jharkhand state literally “Bushland” in Eastern India. Boodhoo was travelling with his brave spouse Jeebun, Immigrant Number 251 and their three daughters aged 12, 10, and seven years, and an “infant in arms.” They were just one of seven families, including as many wives aged from 18 to 28, and six young children, among them two babies who were registered as immigrants bound for British Guiana (BG).
The first indentured Indian to embark on Guianese soil on May 5, 1838, Annundo Ram would stride off the “Whitby” and into the pages of history for reaching Berbice’s Plantation Highbury at the head of the long line of men, as a strong sirdar or estate-gang leader, ready to earn his seven monthly rupees issued by the Indian-based colonial recruiting firm, Gillanders, Arbuthnot and Company. Equivalent to a paltry $3.50, he supplemented his income with extra work and the sale of farm animals. Contracted to Attorney John Cameron the representative of wealthy British absentee owners, Henry Davidson and Aeneas Barkly, who owned nearby Plantation Waterloo too, the Highbury batch of 114 was soon depleted by 16 more deaths. These ranged from the 12 who landed with deadly dysentery and diarrhea, to labourers struck down with the infamous local fever, dropsy, and “gangrenous ulcers” caused by chigoe flea infections. A mother, and a little girl perished, the online historical records show.
A time to weep, yet there was no time to mourn. Life went on and the aspiring Ram continued putting aside his precious savings, while thinking that given his improved finances he could finally afford a wife. No name is mentioned in the files, but it appears likely that he looked to the oldest eligible Indian girl who resided at Highbury, the eldest of the Boodhoo daughters. Another caste barrier would tumble, with Annundo, a Bauree/Bauria tying the knot with the Dhanga beauty. A traditional child bride, common in Indian culture, she would have been only 13, her groom then 29, literally old enough to be her father. Parents, Boodhoo and Jeebun would have also married as young teens. Perhaps a rare time for others to dance and celebrate, with the trademark yellow turmeric smeared on the bride’s body and the band of sacred red powder “sindoor” applied to the hairline, the 1839 ceremony marked the abrupt end of her childhood. The Highbury wedding done according to Hindu rites but not formally registered, was mentioned in the July 1839 report from a Commission of Inquiry appointed by Governor Henry Light to examine the conditions of BG’s immigrants, following reported abuse of the Demerara “coolies.”
“Anunto Ram, the head sirdar, an intelligent man, and who has recently married a young woman from a coolie family on this estate, says, ‘I have only my father and mother in India, no family of my own, and I will go to Calcutta at any time my master wishes, and return with plenty of these people; they would be glad to come here,’” stated the Commissioners. Ram’s first name was spelled many ways in the official papers.
At Highbury, they observed, “It is quite evident every attention is paid to render these coolies comfortable and happy; and from all the information we receive, they have considerably improved since their arrival. They execute their work with a cheerfulness not to be exceeded in any part of the world; many of them represent ‘we feel so content and comfortable here, that if our families were with us, we should prefer remaining in this country. We get more food and better taken care of than in our own country.’”
By the end of 1840, Ram had become a proud father and saved a huge sum of over $100, splurging on a rare personal indulgence, a special watch, all of which he deposited with the Manager, Thurnbull for safe-keeping. Busy making plans, the sirdar was sure if he went back to Calcutta he could “bring shiploads of his countrymen” to BG. “I will show them the money in my hand’ (meaning his savings) and they will come,” he assured Stipendiary Magistrate, Charles Henry Strutt.
Surely a time to be born, but hardly a time to die. Weeks later, on January 9, 1841, the “valuable sirdar” mysteriously collapsed on the estate leaving his widow and their baby. Light’s official account blamed Ram’s sudden death on apoplexy, another reported “internal congestion.”
Subsequently, Magistrate William Wolseley on a circuit tour of the estates, noted in a missive to Light, “the head sirdar, Anundo Ram, died about six months ago, leaving 163 dollars in the manager’s hands, a watch, a quantity of livestock, and a little household furniture. The stock and furniture I found upon inquiry were given to a coolie woman, with whom he had lived for about 18 months, and with whom he had one child; the money and watch still remain in the manager’s hands; the latter, I should say, ought to be converted into money and with the former deposited in the savings’ bank for the benefit of the mother and child, to be paid out to them when they return to India, by a bank order upon Calcutta, payable to some Government officer there, who could advise the poor creature in what manner to lay the money out to advantage.”
Querying whether BG’s Board of Orphans and Unadministered Estates was legally entitled to claim the administration of this property, Wolseley, concluded, “It is for wiser heads than mine to say how far the altered state of society renders necessary an alteration in the law regarding the administration of property possessed by labouring people dying intestate.”
On July 16, 1841, Light informed Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State, Lord John Russell, he would direct that Ram’s property “be placed in the savings’ bank for the benefit of his child.” Light argued fresh legislative provision for exempting the property of intestate labourers from the control of the Board was not required.
“That Board is under the direction of the Supreme Court of Justice, and it is invariably, I believe, the practice of the Court to grant, on application, letters of administration to any of the next of kin to the deceased intestate; the only case in which the Board took charge of the property of a labourer occurred recently in that of a black man, who was a captain of a colonial schooner, and without expense of any kind; the interference was a momentary protection to the property, and on their application a relative of the intestate person was appointed administrator,” Light said.
A review of the 1843 papers revealed 188 labourers from five estates opted to risk travelling on the hired “Louisa Baillie” back to India upon completion of their BG contracts, with almost $18 000 left with the Captain. The 68 men from Highbury, alone, officially declared a princely $8 536 in savings. Among them was “Boodoo and Family” showing $240 for their five years, among the highest individual totals. There is no mention of Annundo Ram’s widow, child, money nor valuable watch. A time to give up. A time to uproot. A time to heal. A time to leave.
ID pores over Magistrate’s Wolseley concern for the East Indians’ continued state of “spiritual ignorance” and “darkness.” He lamented, “They certainly have saved money, and their bodily health has in no way suffered; but in 18 months, when they return to India, what will be said of their five years’ residence in this Christian country?”