The influential 2000-year-old Sanskrit epic of the Ramayana narrates the perennially popular allegory of the divine prince Rama who is reluctantly exiled for 14 years by his distraught father, Dasharatha.
After the King suddenly dies from grief and a guilt-stricken conscience triggered by the scheming of an ambitious second spouse, his eldest son Rama travels with wife Sita, and younger brother Laxman to the Indian pilgrimage city of Gaya, in Bihar to dutifully perform the traditional final rites of “pinda-daan,” the stipulated elaborate and compulsory Hindu ceremony believed to help those who have passed, procure permanent peace.
Gaya is also mentioned in the other major Sanskrit classic, the Mahabharata, the longest known poem with over 200,000 individual verse lines or 100,000 “shlokas” or couplets, featuring the sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita. Presenting instructive detailed discourses on a wide range of topics from philosophy and ethics, ambition and hubris, to uneasy peace and the earliest concept of “dharma yuddha” or a “just war,” the ancient accounts contain the teachings of various revered sages. The constantly retold pair of literary works portray idealised characters and the often-painful intricacies of relationships.
Rama is still proudly claimed as a royal ancestor by patrilineal Rajput clans such as the custodian Mewar Dynasty of the northwestern princely state of Udaipur. Immigrant Number 36, first recorded in the “Hesperus” embarkation index as the “Rajpoot” Ramloll, most probably an official corruption of the name Ramlall, had travelled from Gaya then spelt “Gya” of British India, to Calcutta bound for British Guiana (BG) as a “sirdar” From the Persian word “sardar” meaning “commander,” it was originally reserved as a title of nobility equivalent to “Amir” but gradually evolved into a looser denotation of chief or leader of a tribe or similar group. Historically associated with warriorhood, the Rajputs tended to be deeply conservative, with some cliques practising abhorrent female infanticide and “sati” or widow immolation .
Standing five feet ten inches, Ramlall was among the tallest of the 46 indentured Indians who signed up to work in 1838, for five years on the Anna Regina holding of the British-based absentee bankers, the wealthy brothers John and Henry Moss. Three wives and four children who had accompanied the contingent, and survived the three-month long transoceanic crossing also resided on the Essequibo plantation, which offered the best working conditions and survival rates of the six assigned estates.
By November 1842, Ramlall variously registered in submissions as Ramloll, Ramball, Ramboll and finally Ram Coll, had boldly declared a handsome sum of $230 from his monthly income of seven rupees or $3.50, with an anticipated gain of at least $269 by the time his contract expired, according to the House of Common’s Accounts and Papers: Thirty-two Volumes for 1843, on the East Indies, preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University and available online through Google.
As the recruits awaited the chartered ship “Water Witch” and anxiously prepared to return home, Ramlall quietly intensified efforts to increase his fund, although he was the second highest paid of the band after the interpreters/superintendent who earned a minimum 16 rupees or $8 per month. Stipendiary Magistrate, A.M. Lyons reported a complaint from one “Coolie labourer” Hera, “against Ramball, Sirdar, also Coolie, for assaulting and beating him, and taking from him the sum of One Dollar and 67 Cents, on the 4th of February 1843.”
“Hera, Coolie, states that Saturday last, when in Georgetown, at Mr. Booker’s yard, the defendant came to him and asked him to come and eat dinner.” Lyons recounted Hera’s statement: “I went, and defendant then locked his door, and said, ‘Give me four dollars.’ I said, ‘I do not owe you half a bitt’ (sic) He then beat me, and loosed my pocket, and took away One Dollar 67 Cents. Nobody was present when he took the money. (But another labourer Ram Singh) Ramsing saw the defendant beat me. I then went to Mr. (P.) Hughes, the manager, who was then in Georgetown, and told him that I had been beaten by the defendant. Mr. Hughes said that he would send George (the estate’s carpenter) to tell the defendant not to beat me.”
In 1840 the value of the BG guilder was fixed at a shilling and four pence or an overall 16 pence, and the four pence piece was therefore equated to the important quarter guilder denomination, known in the colony as a ‘bit’ which soon became the principal coin in circulation. As an ordinary worker, Hera was paid just five rupees or $2.50 each month.
“George came, and prevented the defendant from beating him,” Lyons said. “Ramsing states that he heard a noise in the house they were staying at in Mr. Booker’s yard, in Georgetown. He went to see and found the complainant and defendant quarrelling.” But he “did not see defendant strike the complainant” and “Never heard complainant say that he had lost money.”
The carpenter George Ned testified, “The manager sent me to tell the defendant that he must not beat him, and if the defendant did him any harm, to seek a policeman and take him before a magistrate. I went and told the defendant what the manager said. Defendant took hold of the complainant, and said, ‘If you do not pay me before night, I will take you to gaol.’ I then left them.”
Ramlall pleaded not guilty and Lyons dismissed Hera’s complaint for lack of proof, while the defendant was “admonished to be more careful in future,” as detailed in papers forwarded to Colonial Secretary, H.E.F. Young.
Meanwhile, Anna Regina’s proprietor John Moss would inform the British Parliamentary Under-Secretary, G.W. Hope that with his brother Henry they had “drawn out by ourselves” a printed form of agreement for “the passage of the Coolies” to Calcutta and “which we have forwarded to most of the ports in the country (Britain), but have had much difficulty in obtaining a vessel suitable for the purpose” before settling on the “first class vessel” the “Water Witch.”
In an extract from a despatch forwarded to Hope and copied to his Estate Manager, Hughes, Moss stressed, “Our present intention is not to allow any other parties to join us in the charter, or to take any other Coolie people as passengers, thereby insuring the exclusive management of the vessel, also plenty of accommodation and comfortable quarters for our own Coolies; we have been highly complimented for the manner in which we have always treated them, and we are now doubly anxious in this, the eleventh hour, to retain these good opinions; I therefore trust you will join in assisting us to fulfil the contract to the letter, and do your part on the other side towards carrying out the same.” He instructed, “Should the Coolies refuse to work after the expiration of their time, you will of course serve out to them the usual allowance of food and keep them on the estate.”
However, no labourer called Hera is listed in the 1838 Anna Regina arrival or 1843 departure files, so the name must have been abridged or altered perhaps from Herawloll (Heralall/Hiralall) Immigrant Number 57, a 23-year-old member of the lower “Manjee” or “Manjhi” meaning “ferryman” caste. In the 19th century, the complex caste system remained deeply entrenched in India with each class strictly confined to a specific profession, and members restricted from birth to operate, marry and die only within their own designated category. But nearly a century of indentureship and immigration to new lands would turn the discriminatory system upside down, throwing countless diverse peoples together in the holding depots, the crowded ships and the tropical sugar plantations. It would bring untold new opportunities for group reform, personal development and unprecedented wealth, leading to the complete breakdown of the caste hierarchy among the modern descendants of the colonial migrants.
Crucially, the circumspect Ram Singh was logged as being from the same Rajpoot caste as Ramlall, although from a different city, “Bistopore” in Calcutta. Ram Singh is documented among the Anna Regina repatriates, like the anglicised unknown individuals John Bull and Mary, as having taken back the second highest individual savings of $310. But the “Manjee” man Hera or Heralall was not mentioned at all, indicating that he may have remained in BG or changed his name and caste to John Bull!
The biggest surprise is the barely noticeable asterisked notation to the right of the page: “Ram Coll, deceased – $215.49.” At the bottom, the mystery only deepens – “*Transmitted to the heirs of the deceased at Calcutta.”
ID enjoys legends including of the Hindu Preserver, Lord Vishnu whose giant footprint or Dharmasila is said to be incised in black basalt at Gaya’s Vishnupada Mandir. Nearby is the Bodh Gaya where his serene ninth incarnation, Gautama Buddha is believed to have obtained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, a towering “peepal” (Ficus religiosa).