A traditional unrefined sweetener long made in Indian villages by boiling down fresh sugar cane juice, jaggery is an old concoction that carries a rich caramel flavour and a beautiful golden to dark brown colour. Without separation of the molasses and crystals, the opaque mineral-rich liquid is skimmed and slowly stirred by hand in large iron pots or “karahis” and finally reduced into a delicious raw sugar crafted into cones, circles and cubes. Used in Ayurvedic medicine for respiratory infections and to aid digestion, the buttery-scented substance is added to milk-based desserts, daily foods, and special candies like tamarind balls and halwas. It is given, too, as a sacred symbolic sweet offering to endear Gods and guests.
Called “gur” or “gurh” in Hindi, Bhojpuri and other Indian languages, it is less common as a prized sugar made from palm sap. “Gur” was also the fitting first name of Immigrant Number 233, a member of the hardworking agricultural caste, Kurmee, who migrated to British Guiana (B.G) from “Dhowgong” likely a settlement in Assam, then part of the sprawling Bengal Presidency centred at Calcutta, the bustling hub of British India.
Translated into English and recorded variously as “Goor” and “Gur” his auspicious names were inadvertently joined into Goordeeall, a misspelling of the surname “Dayal” from Sanskrit “dayalu” meaning “kind” and “compassionate.” At 27, likely a poor tenant farmer, he was one of the few men aboard the “Whitby” who made the long crossing to B.G. accompanied by family. Goor travelled with his wife Lukeeah, Immigrant Number 257 and their only child, a four-year-old son listed in the Parliamentary Papers as Jooa or Toohea, another name approximation by the British.
The family survived the crowded ship and were assigned to the notorious sugar cane Plantation Bellevue in May 1838, where Jooa or Toohea became the lone child and Lukeeah one of only two women on the estate. That August, nearly half of the assigned migrants, or 22 men, tired of bad conditions and daily beatings, would seek to escape at night by boat searching for a way back, but reaching only Plantation Herstelling, seven miles away on the opposite bank. For these indentured Indians in rags and sores, it must have seemed such a long time that they harboured dreams of their own, sailing from the Ganges to the strange land, its river and capital city they would all shorten to “Damra,” famed for the flavourful processed brown cane sugar they produced, that bore the shades of the silt-soiled Demerara.
By the following June, the authorities were forced to intervene following horrific neglect by the estate’s doctor resulting in several deaths, and the transfer of ailing patients to the colonial hospital in the town. A team of investigators appointed by the Governor Henry Light had reported, “Twenty have died of Diseases contracted in the Colony, and Twenty-nine are now in a wretched State from Ulcers, many of whom in all probability will die, and should they survive they will (some of them) be rendered unfit to support themselves, from the Loss of their Toes and Parts of their Feet. The Sick House presents a Spectacle pitiable to behold. These poor People are in a State of great Misery, and from whatever Cause it may have sprung, the Effects are so appalling that Humanity calls loudly for the Interference of the Executive. The Coolie Emigrants generally, when not affected with Sores, are contented, and doing their Work cheerfully, some of them boasting in their Capability of performing as much Work as is done by their more sable Brethren.”
Among those who survived were Goordeeall and his family. Suffering from yaws, a disfiguring tropical infection of the skin, bones and joints caused by a bacterium, Goordeeall, his young son and at least two others Rassik and Bongalee Mohan probably contracted the disease in the close communal quarters of the logie. Acting Colonial Surgeon Dr. E.M.L. Smith would note “Jooa (a Child) – Two Yaws Sores on Right Leg, Goordeall – Ulcer on Extremity of Right big Toe, with Loss of Nail; Patient affected with Yaws;” and “Lakeea (Wife of Goordeall) – Irritable and very painful Ulcer on Edge of Right Foot, beneath and around small Toe.”
“I am anxious to make known to his Excellency the Embarrassment I feel in reference to the Patients affected with Yaws. The highly contagious Nature of this very serious Disease demands a careful Separation of such Patients from the rest of their Companions, but the several Wards of the Hospital are at present so fully occupied, that I have no Means of effecting this very desirable Arrangement, and I am therefore compelled to suggest the Propriety of having these Yaws Patients removed from the Hospital to a Place of more entire Seclusion,” Dr. Smith would advise the Government Secretary, H.E.F. Young.
At least two of the worst cases would die. Bahaagbut, “extremely emaciated” and “in the very lowest state of debility” would prove “utterly hopeless” having “ulceration with destruction of all the soft parts covering the anterior portion of the tibia and fibula in five sixths of the length of the leg, with caries of these bones.” Sheery or Jherry also suffered greatly from a “much swollen” leg with “many of the bones of the foot exposed” but he refused amputation and eventually died July 14, two days after the Goordeeall trio was discharged
A few weeks later, Goordeeall was well enough to return to the city with a group, to complain that when, “I go to the field; they give me too much work, then the driver quarrels with me. I do not want the headman; the sirdar (Nutha Khan) takes the coolies to do his own work; I do not object to do buckra (the white man’s) work, but I will not work for the sirdar.”
According to the files, tragedy would suddenly strike the Kurmee family months later on May 30th, 1840 when “Toohea, a child not indentured, was seized with convulsions” and died the following day. Save for the small amounts of cane sugar they were sometimes allocated some migrants would find little sweetness at their journey’s end and certainly no jaggery. Yet, despite their tears and heartbreak, the couple would choose to remain in B.G rather than risk the 11 000-mile voyage back to India three years later. The estate’s doctor A. F. Macfarlan recalled in an official note, “I am sorry to say that there have been two deaths among the Coolies… one a very fine young boy about six or seven years of age at Belle Vue, and the other a man (Dhurney) at Vriedestien.”
Dhurney would refuse all medicines and pass away in a fit, prompting the doctor to complain, “The worst consequences must be anticipated from the conduct of the Coolies on this estate; when on the sick list they do just as they think proper, refusing to remain in the hospital when ordered, and refusing the medicine prescribed for them constantly. Under these circumstances, the attendance of the medical practitioner is a mere farce.” He added, “The man Dhurney who died on the 27th, was seized with apoplexy of the kind usually called pulmonary, depending on obstruction in the lungs; he was subject to asthma for some time.
Magistrate J. O. Lockhart Mure would meet with the workers, explaining to them the doctor’s concerns and pointing out “the serious and fatal consequences that might ensue to themselves by persisting in the rejection of the prescriptions and advice of the medical attendant.” Mure said, “I reminded them that medicine and medical attendance was part of the stipulations in their favour mentioned in their contracts of service, and that money was paid for these entirely for their benefit. I directed their attention to the recent illness of their manager, who was attended by the same doctor, and took the same medicines which were prescribed to them; that he recovered, while Dhurney, who had refused physic, died. I strongly urged them not to persist in the folly of refusing medical aid when sick, assuring them that it was offered solely for their good. From the manner in which my advice was received, I have some hope that it may be productive…but from the recent death of Dhurney the Coolies appeared more convinced of the goodness of the advice.”
ID ponders Magistrate Mure’s predicament over Dhurney’s outstanding salary of $4.10 from the estate, since the indentured labourer “left a mother in India, a mother at Vried-en-Hoop, and a host of creditors.” Mure observed, “The Boedel is decidedly insolvent. Some of the creditors have urged their claims on the $4.10. I know not how to decide in such a matter.”