Cast out of the Manager’s residence a few months after testifying against the abuse of Indian immigrant workers, the courageous former house servant Narrain would chose to finally walk away from his indentured contract. Listed as Immigrant Number 86, he had boarded the “Hesperus” in Calcutta, January 1838 as a quiet 17-year-old solo traveller and the only representative of the obscure “Sooreecottee” caste, from the West Bengal district of Bancoorah now Bankurah. Within three years of tough plantation living in British Guiana (B.G) he would grow into an assured and determined young man.
Quickly learning basic English following his arrival at Vreed-en-Hoop Plantation, the diminutive Narrain, just under five feet tall, understood early that he had to adapt to survive in the sugar estate environment. While the story behind Narrain’s lone presence on the ship may never be known, with his burgeoning language skills he would emerge as an informal translator and a trusted envoy of the recruits in Demerara. Only a year on, he was able to tell a Court of Inquiry into related working conditions that “Coolies ran away” because of the ill treatment. “Those that were found they tied their Hands, and beat them with a Rope. They tied their Hands behind their Backs. They beat them before the Coolies Houses. Ten different Times they lick (beat) them.”
Narrain proved a key witness in the abuse cases against the ruthless and cruel Eurasian interpreter, Henry Jacobs who was found guilty, fined and jailed for several offences. Narrain recalled, “They have licked them in the Field. Mr. Jacobs licked them. Mr. Jacobs held the Rope in his own Hands. No other White Man was there. Manager (Robert Sanderson) was not present when Mr. Jacobs licked the Coolies. I heard them complain to the Manager…Manager told them that if they not work, and run away, they must get Lick.”
Narrain had seen Jacobs attack and beat an older Indian, the 29-year-old Rajput, Phacheeraw variously spelled Puckera and Puckerow in the Parliamentary Papers, to prevent the labourer from speaking with visiting British abolitionist and activist John Scoble. Narrain would provide key and brave testimony against the interpreter who travelled with the men aboard the “Hesperus.”
The fallout would soon follow. According to the historical files, Narrain complained to District Magistrate, J. O. Lockhart Mure, “that the Manager had given him no house.”
Mure recounted, “Accordingly, after the Coolies were paid, I told Mr. Sanderson that I wished to see Narrain’s house. He went with me and showed the house that was first given to Narrain and another boy of the same name. Narrain was dissatisfied with that house, and he had then another given to him which Mr. S. also showed me. Narrain admitted the truth of all this, but he said the last was a fowl-house. I entered, and to my surprise, found it very well stocked with poultry. The whole truth then came out. Narrain, when he got the house did not occupy it, and an old negro, finding it empty, took possession and tended his feathered stock there, though he had another house on the estate. The old man was ordered to move out, and Narrain had then his option either to take the (fowl) house or return to his former quarters with his namesake. He preferred the (fowl) house.”
The “Hesperus” embarkation list revealed another lad, Immigrant Number 142, whose name was recorded as “Naraen” but of the “Kyest” caste originating from the neighbouring coastal city of Ballisore, now Balasore, in the state of Odisha, Eastern India. Naraen apparently registered at the same time as Immigrant Number 143, Lall-shaw, 27, of the Kyest caste and from Ballisore too.
With the secret sale of the Vreed-en-Hoop Estate by John Gladstone’s sons, and the transfer of the “coolies” to the family’s other estate Wales in March 1841, emboldened by language, Narrain had become confident enough to lodge an official protest.
Magistrate Mure reported: “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 (the new owner) Dr. Smith – I undeceived him on this point” and “he consented to go with his companions.”
By that July, the differences with the latest expatriate Estate Manager, D. Cameron escalated. “Narrain complained of being worked in the field” but his “Contract of agreement proved he had engaged himself as a field labourer,” Assistant Government Secretary, William Wolseley curtly noted in a compilation of the monthly Magisterial reports on the so-called “Hill Coolies.” Wolseley wrote, “Puckerow complained of being beaten by the driver” but “evidence produced, which proved that complainant had commenced the first assault.”
A year before, suffering from sores caused by the common “chigoe flea” Puckerow was confined to the hospital. The attending doctor would blame his condition as caused “entirely from neglect and inattention” citing Puckerow’s “impatience and going out” before the sore healed. Mure would note, “I am sorry however to say… the patient with the sore got drunk, left the hospital, and was so abusive and riotous that Mr. Sanderson found it necessary to send for a policeman, who carried his unruly patient for that night to the station.”
He continued, “The Coolies are entitled to daily allowances of food. It has been customary, however, to issue the allowances weekly. Mr. Sanderson found that several on receiving a week’s allowance disposed of the greater portion, and in the middle of the week came into hospital under pretence of sickness, but in reality because that portion of their food which they had retained was already consumed. In consequence of this discovery Mr. S. now gives rations daily to those in hospital, a regulation to which he partly attributes the diminution in the number generally in hospital.”
The Magistrate acknowledged that Puckerow protested he had no usual food allowance for at least three weeks. Mure explained, “He has been offered his rations daily, though not entitled to them, having been at the same time fed in the hospital at the expense of the estate; but he refused to take his rations unless a whole week’s allowance was given to him at once. In other words, having no occasion for the food for his own use, he refused to take it unless in such quantity as would enable him at once to dispose of it.” The doctor “told him he might go out to his work that day if he would take care of his leg. He left the hospital, has been in town, and walking about. The consequence is that the sore has broken out afresh. I have directed that he shall be restricted to the hospital till discharged by the
medical attendant, and that his daily allowance of food shall be carried to and be cooked for him; and in the event of the medical attendant prescribing another diet, then the diet so prescribed to be substituted for the allowance.”
By July 1841, Narrain and Puckerow informed Mure, “that they were not desirous, any longer, of serving on Plantation Wales. Narrain stated he had worked as a domestic while living at Vreed-en-Hoop, and. till lately, also at Wales; that the Manager, Mr. Cameron, could not agree with him, and had ordered him into the field, being informed his contract stipulated that he should work in the field if required; and, as Mr. Cameron refused to receive him in the house again, he was told to do field labour, which he refused, and stated his wish to leave the estate.”
“On being informed he would forfeit his rights to a free passage hack to Calcutta, at the (1842-43) expiration of his contract of service, by quitting the estate, he said he was satisfied to provide himself a passage, but that he would not live any longer on the estate. He was then informed he could go if he thought proper, but was strongly urged by the Magistrate to remain.” On August 3, 1841, the pair of friends from different castes, thrown together by a wish for a better life enduring a sea odyssey and sudden suffering, left Wales Estate forever, on another British Guiana journey into the unknown – but as free men.
ID looks at another young Rajput migrant Bauldee who agreed to give up his indentured contract and work in the sugar factory under the free market system. Shortly after Bauldee discovered “he had not time to cook his rice” and he “objected to rice cooked by any one not of his caste. As a cook could not be given him, he has since given a preference to the field,” and ended up working for $9 per month.