A dogged determination to return home with their earnings and to see their families drove the 1838-indentured men at one estate to prematurely demand a ship back to India. However, they were unable to leave until May 7, 1843, five years almost to the day they arrived in British Guiana (B.G).
B.G’s Governor, Henry Light was ordered by Colonial Secretary, Lord Stanley to meet with the group of about 43 men at the Anna Regina sugar plantation to explain “their real situation” four months before their contracts ended with the wealthy Moss family. Only three of the recruits had travelled with wives and children. Liverpool banker and major railway investor, John Moss, a well-compensated former slave-owner like his younger brothers James and Henry, all absentee estate proprietors, had written to the Colonial Secretary suggesting the briefing.
“I think I could prove that no contract for labour was ever made where there was less cause for regret on either side, or so little mortality from change of climate,” Moss boasted to Stanley on September 28, 1842. “We have engaged to take these people back, at the end of their servitude, to Calcutta, and a vessel shall be sent, if your Lordship thinks it desirable; but as it is possible these Coolies may decline going to Calcutta, when they know that they cannot return to Demerara with their families and friends, I beg to ask whether your Lordship does not think it desirable that their real situation should be explained to them by the Governor of Demerara, before a vessel is sent…”
Moss blamed the negative “observations made in and out of Parliament respecting the Coolies and their employers” for forcing him to seek Stanley’s “sanction to the arrangement for sending them back.” He assured the Colonial Secretary, “should you think it best to send a vessel from here, without further inquiry, it shall be done.”
Lord Stanley sent detailed directions to Light the next day from Downing Street. “You will cause it to be stated to them individually that the time has now nearly arrived when, according to their contract, they are to be furnished with a passage to Calcutta at the expense of their employer, and that it is necessary to make provision for those who may intend to return.” He continued, “You will state…that if any of them should be desirous of remaining, they are at liberty to do so, but that in that case neither Mr. Moss nor anyone else will be liable, nor can be expected, to pay for their passage back at a future time, and that they must fully consider this before they decline the present offer of conveyance to India. On the other hand, you will acquaint them, that as the law now stands, if they return to India, they cannot be brought back again to Demerara.”
He urged Light to ensure “they fully understand the choice” and “that no undue influence is exerted to bias their judgment either way,” making clear to the men when their bond ended in January 1843, “they are free to continue in the service of their present employer, or to seek for work elsewhere, at such wages as they may be able to obtain. “
Advising that the labourers be given “a reasonable time” to make up their minds and then “you will report it to me without delay,” Stanley instructed Light to “ascertain, as far as you can, what have been the accumulated gains of those who return.”
Stanley stressed, “I rely upon your giving particular attention to this case, and especially on your taking care that whatever may be the decision of these people, it shall be taken deliberately, advisedly, and with a full understanding of the option which is given to them, and of the consequences of the choice which they may make.”
The official Despatch Number 145 would reach Light in November 1842. Travelling by steamer from Georgetown to Airy Hall on the left bank of the Essequibo River, he drove by carriage to Queen’s Town and then Anna Regina on the Atlantic Coast. In his reply to Stanley, Light observed, “My knowledge of the character of these people led me to suppose that, however much they might have benefited by their industry in British Guiana, the love of home, and the desire to see their families, as well as to carry home their gains, would prevail over any offers that could be made as inducements to remain after the termination of their indentures.”
Through the estate’s interpreter, Charles Joseph Wiltshire, Light briefed the workers. “They one and all declared their determination to return to India; and many of them, calculating, I presume, by moons instead of months, declared that their indentures terminated in 13 days, that is, on the 20th instant, and demanded a ship for that date to carry them back, which they said I, as Governor, their god on earth, could order. It was so figurative an expression of their confidence in their chief, that I mention it.”
Since the Anna Regina indentures were dated 26th January 1838, Light concluded “the Coolies have certainly miscalculated their time; and they were rather discontented when I told them I should be obliged to make them adhere to the contract as it stood on paper.” The November 20-date may have been when the men were delivered to the Calcutta emigration depot by the scheming “arkatis” literally “fish hooks,” the silver-tongued agents so named for their slick labour-luring skills.
Of the six estates to which over 400 people were assigned from the “Hesperus” and “Whitby” ships, Anna Regina provided the best living and working conditions, resulting in minimal mortalities. In an earlier visit Light declared, “The Coolies located on Anna Regina on the Arabian Coast, Essequibo, have suffered least; and from what 1 saw in February last (1839) of the kind and friendly Relation existing between them and the Manager, it was evident that he had been fortunate both in his Treatment and in his Selection; a finer Body of Men could rarely be seen, nor apparently more contented; the Manager equally content with them.” An investigating team would highlight the deadly contrast between Anna Regina and Bellevue estates noting “much Care and Attention has been bestowed on some of the Coolie Emigrants, whilst others of the same Country have been treated with Neglect.”
The Governor reiterated in his 1842 note, “They acknowledge good and kind treatment, and good payment for their industry.” Many squirrelled away “considerable sums of money; some few refused to say what they have gained, or rather saved; and it is more than probable that neither the minimum nor maximum are truly given” for “there was much reserve and some difficulty in obtaining any acknowledgment of their gains; but when they thoroughly understood that it was your Lordship’s wish, in the name of the Queen, the objection was conquered in many.”
Light gave the batch six hours to reconsider but, on his return, “I found the same firm determination as in the morning, with a more fixed idea on the part of some that their indentures terminated on the 20th instant.”
The estate’s Manager, Mr. Hughes asserted during the four-hour session that “he was willing to guarantee to all or any of them a passage to India, if they chose to remain; but I did not consider myself authorised to become a party to any engagement of this kind, nor was there the slightest disposition, except on the part of three or four, to swerve from their decision. Several would be glad to return here, with their wives and families, if permitted to do so; but if, as I told them, permission was not given, it was God’s will, to which they must submit,” Light said.
The Governor revealed, “Of the three or four who were desirous of remaining, two were man and woman; the woman had been wife or mistress of one of the chief or influential Coolies, had played him false, and abandoned him for the man in question. They feared the vengeance of the first husband and his friends, and would willingly avoid going back in the same ship with them; the others had lost caste, or were afraid of their comrades. I have no doubt that Mr. Hughes will fulfil any promise made to these exceptions of the whole body, who remained till eight o’clock at night to receive my last assurance that they should be sent back to India at the proper time.”
ID is saving after the Governor’s comment that “Gambling, and payment for female favours, and losses by theft on their hoards, have made the minimum on the list; the maximum has been, I believe, from great thrift and industry.”