Defying District Magistrates and serving imprisonment with hard labour for “unlawful absences,” the first group of indentured Indians would challenge colonial authorities while adapting to a new life in British Guiana.
Parliamentary Papers from the period feature numerous monthly records of stiff fines and jail sentences for many unnamed men who ran afoul of the law. The manager of Plantation Bellevue would file official complaints “against two Hill Coolie labourers for contumacious disobedience of orders, refusing to perform their work, and instigating others to do the same.” One was punished with a week’s imprisonment while his counterpart was “admonished and discharged.” A second “case resulted from the decision on the previous one, and was a complaint against two other Hill Coolies, who acted as ringleaders on the occasion, and attempted to set the authority of the Magistrate at defiance, by declaring that ‘if one Coolie was sent to gaol they would all go.’ The accused were both sentenced to one week’s imprisonment.”
Some months after the labourers’ arrival on the “Whitby” in 1838, a group of prominent Magistrates, at a related hearing of grievances over food, supplies and deductions, were impressed with the opposing evidence of the Bellevue sirdar or work group leader, Immigrant Number 225, “Nuthaw Khaw,” a misspelling of the name “Natha Khan.” Khan was a 25-year-old “Mussulman” from Allahabad, in Uttar Pradesh, North India who converted to Christianity early. His “character has been considered sufficiently good by the minister of the parish to admit of his being baptized into the Christian faith” the Magistrates stressed and therefore his “testimony given upon oath, duly administered according to the custom of our church, may consequently be received with some degree of confidence,” so they found the complainants’ assertions “distinctly contradicted.”
A year later the situation changed when Khan refused to continue trying out the three-times better-paid “free system” of competitive labour aggressively pushed by the authorities who wanted the recruits to permanently abandon their contracts covering set salaries of between $2-$3 monthly, food and clothing allowances, free medical attendance and above all, full return passage to India. “He is now superintending the weak gang of Coolies, and where he has been put merely to keep him out of mischief,” Magistrate J. O. Lockhart Mure would comment.
Mure later wrote: “I asked a man who is indentured as mate, and who I know to be a steady worker, why he did not work on the ‘free system?’ His answer was, ‘The Demerara people get too much money; this, (showing his three dollars) is enough for me.’ This answer appeared to me at first perfectly incomprehensible. On further reflection it has occurred to me that he and others may be under an impression that by deviating from the terms of the contract they forfeit some advantage they at present possess. If so, it will require time and caution to root out such a suspicion.”
Estate Managers would repeatedly report “indented Hill Coolie labourers for unlawful absence from their master’s service” with different pairs of accused convicted of being away for periods ranging from days to more than a month. They were each sentenced to imprisonment, with hard labour for 10-13 days exceeding the official maximum term of six days.
Others were ordered to pay their “masters” financial compensation reaching a third and greater of the Indians’ overall monthly salaries. For example, one man was fined a dollar for being away five days, while an unfortunate “Coolie convicted of 26 days’ unlawful absence” handed over a full month’s wages in lieu of six days imprisonment. Some were slapped with fines of $6 totalling over two months earnings for going missing “20 days and upwards” and were mulcted for having no “excusable” or “justifiable cause.” Charges were proved against an individual “for having been repeatedly drunk, and thereby rendered incapable of performing his stipulated labour” and he surrendered two days salary.
According to the Papers, a rare few apparently gained permission for breaks. The files revealed Vreed-en-Hoop Estate’s “Monbode gone to Anna Regina for a change of air” and Anna Regina Estate’s “Sultan gone 16 days on a visit to his countrymen.”
However, 30-year-old Annandoo of Bellevue “having again absented himself, for a period of 54 days” was “arrested by police, and sentenced to be imprisoned, with hard labour, for the term of six days in the gaol of Georgetown” in November 1841. At Plantation Highbury, “Munnu and Mangallan for repeated absence from their labour and the estate; the first for 6 and the other for 5 days,” were “condemned to refund to the estate $3.33 cents, and $2, in default of which imprisonment in Her Majesty’s gaol unless sooner paid. They paid.”
Stipendiary Magistrate William Wolseley expressed concern over the Bellevue and Vreed-en-hoop “Coolies” who developed “the habit of coming into town in small parties of six or eight at a time, and as a cloak for their absence generally present themselves at the Public Buildings in the character of complainants; though, upon investigation, in none of these instances has it been found that they had any but the most frivolous excuses for leaving their work.”
“The Magistrate is restricted in his sentences to a forfeiture of two days’ pay for each day’s absence, or to six days’ imprisonment in the colony gaol; but as the pay of a Coolie labourer is no more than 4d. (pennies) per diem, or 8s. (shillings). 4d. per month, his daily food and clothing being found him, the pecuniary penalty presents no sufficient obstacle to check this disposition to take occasionally a few days to themselves; neither has the dread of six days imprisonment any better effect; this evil must, therefore, correct itself, and doubtless at no distant time the employers of this class of labourers will see the propriety of placing the Coolie upon precisely the same footing as other labourers,” he added.
His counterpart Mure fretted about the high number of Bellevue outpatients and “hospital birds” declaring “there are generally about thirty on the sick list, with few cases of any importance” and “I am satisfied that in a large majority of these cases the invalids are of a class well known in former times by the name of ‘skulkers.’” Upset “a single chigoe or slight scratch” served “as an excuse for two or three days absence from duty” he argued that the non-restriction of patients to the facility led to abuse of the system. “The truth is that they draw a superabundant allowance of food and can more profitably employ their time in the manufacture of baskets, or other occupations, than in the performance of their stipulated work; a strong temptation is thus afforded, not merely for a neglect of duty to the estate on the part of the idle, but for disregard of health on the part of the sick, whose ailments, though in the first instance trifling, may and often do, through indifference or inattention become serious.”
Soon with the support of the attending doctor, Archibald MacFarlane he perfected and suggested a “remedy” to Governor Henry Light for banishing “prevalence of this evil.” Mure’s scheme accepted by Light, recommended that a keeper be appointed to guard the gate at the end of the canal bridge to the hospital allowing critical cases from only two of three categories to be looked after and fed. Class One sufferers were those the doctor considered “absolutely necessary” to be hospitalised. Class Two covered “coolies” requiring regular medicines, remedies, cleanliness and proper diet, plus “all cases of doubtful sickness” restricted outside to several acres with “sufficient range for exercise or amusement.” Third class subjects were the remainder who could be “left to the indulgence of their usual tastes and pursuits in their own houses.” Class One and Two patients would be fed at the State’s expense but when no special diet was ordered, the patient “is to have as much of his ordinary food as he can consume cooked for him,” with all the ordinary allowances or rations suspended, and “he shall not be permitted to sell or carry away rice, etc. from the hospital.”
Mure concluded, “Hitherto, it has been the practice, even in cases where the patient has been ordered a generous diet and has had fowl, soup, wine, ale, porter, etc. at the expense of the estate, to give the stipulated allowances of food in addition. Such generosity is equally unnecessary and impolitic, and often hurtful to the patient,”
ID finds in the files, Georgetown residents who were punished for “Obeah practices” with a woman labourer reporting an accused man soon “adjudged to be a rogue and a vagabond and sentenced to 28 days’ imprisonment with hard labour.”