For over two incredible months, the 34-year-old labourer fought valiantly to live as many weaker souls perished around him. Defying the constant cold, a deadly, mysterious poison, and torturous medical treatments, he would confound the young American surgeon struggling to save lives aboard the death-struck “Louisa Baillie” vessel, careening in the storm-swept seas of 1843.
Returning migrant Number 63 proved a tough man, who had left his simple village home and bravely boarded the “Hesperus” five years before, not knowing the forbidden voyage would last several months and an exhausting 11000 miles, taking him to a strange place so far south of the globe, none could speak of it. Hoping for a better life and bearing dreams of riches, he watched several of his “jahajis” or “ship brothers” expire on the crowded vessel, surmounted disease, abuse and extortion at a notorious estate, and survived to see the Indian Ocean.
In time, he too would find his voice, and dared protest with the others, when violent overseers and awful working conditions became too much to bear, or the far horizon remained clear of the billowing sails that signalled the symbolic closure of their contracts. But in the end, he had no more words left. No time remaining.
With a shortened name and a matching height of five feet two inches, according to the official documents of his May 5-1838 arrival in British Guiana (BG), Immigrant Number 30, “Soobull” came from the “Lohar” caste. The “Lohars” are part of a traditional “Panchal” or five-type grouping of metal-working artisans. India’s British administrators loosely used the term “Lohar” in the 19th century as a synonym for blacksmiths and similar craftsmen ranging from carpenters, goldsmiths and stonemasons, to copper and brassware fabricators.
Originally from the eastern city of Midnapore, a restless centre for revolutionary activities against the British, in Bengal, “Soobul” toiled on the Vreed-en-Hoop estate of John Gladstone, the wealthy absentee owner and powerful business magnate behind the introductory “coolie”- labour importation scheme to fuel plantations left empty by the exodus of former slaves.
The sadistic interpreter, Henry Jacobs, who had accompanied the batch of about 150 recruits on the “Hesperus,” was directly responsible for at least one death, of “Govind” who could not pay up to use the “water-closet” or loo in a secret extortion scheme executed by the Eurasian. Jacobs would inflict severe beatings and exact money from the remaining men within weeks of their BG arrival. After British anti-slavery publications broke the news he was charged, fined, jailed and fired. He fled to Berbice and was hired by the manager of the Highbury and Waterloo estates, owned by Gladstone’s friends, Henry and his brother John Davidson.
Parliamentary Papers from 1843 indicate Jacobs was appointed a “sirdar” for the India return trip declaring a paltry $78 from the overall $3 399 of Waterloo’s 21 returnees who revealed their savings. In contrast, “Soobul/Soobhull” had carefully pinched his meagre weekly earnings of less than a dollar to put aside a hefty $190, the highest declared by an individual among the 16 male workers of the Wales Plantation where they were transferred when the Gladstone family sold Vreed-en-Hoop following the embarrassing exposé.
“Soobul” must have been most relieved when his five long years of hard indentureship ended. As he prepared to leave Port Georgetown the labourer became another faceless metal tag slapped with a new number, like 67-men, plus the woman, “Piarree/Peachree/Pitri” and the boy “Sheremento” from three Demerara plantations. However, illness and death stalked the unsuspecting passengers as they risked all crossing the “kala pani” or dreaded “black waters” a second time, collectively carrying at least $18 000 carefully scrimped during their bonded service. Many handed their cash to the Captain for safe-keeping, but others chose to keep quiet and hide all of their hard-won earnings presumably in their scanty clothing.
In related papers for various leading medical journals now digitized by Google, the “Louisa Baillie’s” surgeon, Dr. Thomas Moore, only 23, vividly detailed sudden sickness and deaths starting with “the stoutest coolie” as drinking water ran short, the weather deteriorated, and a killer freeze and unknown diseases spread. Recognising that “poison” was responsible for some fatalities, he concluded it came from the “intermixture of verdigris” with stale food, declaring, “the post-mortem examination(s) cleared away all doubts.” He pointed to “the difficulty of preventing the coolies stowing away by stealth the food which remains in excess: —rice, ghee, salt-fish, pea-soup, and other articles, are heaped in a mess on the same copper plate, and concealed by them for two or three days. “
“Judging from the suddenness of the attack, from the general features of the disease, and from a corresponding train of symptoms observed in parallel cases but a short time previously, I did not hesitate to express an opinion as to the cause of the (stoutest) man’s illness to my friend, the commander of the vessel (Captain Michael Rimington). He coincided in my views.”
Later appointed an Assistant Surgeon of the British Gwalior Contingent, Moore published a paper in the “Lancet” journal in 1846 setting out his treatment of the affected through blood-letting, emetics and purgatives. “Of sixty patients and upwards, men, women, and children, attacked within a few days of each other, and all with nearly the same symptoms, three-fourths were convalescent on the sixth, seventh, or eighth days; the recovery of the others was more protracted…with the exception of the (stoutest coolie) case which terminated so rapidly, and of two other men, one of whom lingered for two months, and died on board from the effects of chronic dysentery; the other… (suffered) dropsical effusions into the abdomen, and anasarcous swellings of the lower extremities, but survived the passage from British Guiana. As soon as the vessel anchored off Baboo Ghaut, Calcutta, he was sent to the native hospital,” Moore disclosed. He identified the “second patient” as “the return coolie from Demerara” named “Seyboo,” really “Soobul.”
Word of the high mortality finally reached BG and Britain. The Broad Street-based, London, Anti-Slavery Reporter, an evening newspaper, published on alternate Wednesdays carried a brief article in its March 20th, 1844 edition. “From the West India papers which have come to hand since our last we had prepared a few extracts, the most important of them developing the working of the immigration scheme in British Guiana; but the length of our parliamentary intelligence has displaced them. If everything stated in these papers respecting (Colonial Secretary) Lord Stanley is to be believed, the noble lord is very far gone in this mad business. Of 191 Coolies who lately returned from Demerara to Calcutta, in the ‘Louisa Baillie,’ twenty per cent. died in rounding the Cape of Good Hope.”
It was based on a piece in “The Berbice Gazette” which represented the interests of powerful planters like the Davidsons who hired nearly half of the men. The paper acknowledged “this fearful mortality amongst those people was the consequence of intense cold in rounding the Cape of Good Hope, notwithstanding every precaution humanity could suggest.” It contended, “At their embarkation here, they were supplied with warm clothing to meet the change of climate they were certain to meet; but it never was anticipated that it was not until reaching the latitude of the Cape the necessity would arise, and at such a season. Its occurrence is to us most unfortunate, as, previous to the present mail, Lord Stanley had written to the Governor General of India, to report his opinion as to the emigration of Coolies to the West Indies, the Home Government being willing to remove all restrictions.”
The Gazette predicted “this accident” cannot “affect us in any other way than in delaying the measure till means be adopted, by fixing the season of departure, or probably substituting steam conveyance, to prevent the recurrence of such a catastrophe. Capt. Webb, formerly of the ‘Mary Hartley’ writes Messrs. Laing, Brothers, and Co., from Calcutta, that notwithstanding the dreary voyage and the mortality, those who had returned had reported so favourably of the trial given to sugar-growing here, as to raise the greatest desire in their countrymen to embark the moment restriction is removed. Cooly (coolie) emigration, then, is at least certain, and its commencement not far distant. Her Majesty’s Government have, at length, seen the necessity existing for giving us justice; and although somewhat of the latest, let us be thankful for the boon.”
ID debates whether the deaths were caused by powdered manchineel, purging croton, aflatoxins, the killer grain bacterium “Bacillus cereus,” translator Henry Jacobs or Captain Michael Rimington. She can confirm Dr. Thomas Moore, was “massacred by the (revolting) Sepoys en route from Cuttack to Sumbulpore” while “travelling by dak (postal convoy) to join his appointment at Sumbulpore” on 17th November 1857, 11 days before his 38th birthday.
Editor’s note: This is the final article in the series marking the 180th anniversary of the arrival of the first indentured East Indians aboard the “Hesperus” and “Whitby.”