The Protectors of the Rights of the Indians under Indentureship in British Guiana

By Harry Hergash                                                                     

Harry Hergash, a graduate of the

University of Guyana, taught at the Annandale

Government Secondary from 1964 to 1969.  

He immigrated to Canada in 1974.

Between 1838 and 1917, Indians were recruited and brought to Guyana, then a British colony called British Guiana, under the Indentureship system to provide manual labour on the sugar plantations, almost all in the hands of British and Scottish owners. Under this system, an overseas worker was hired under contract which bound the worker to a specific plantation for a fixed period of time under stated terms and conditions, including a fixed wage rate and paid return passage. Indians were not the first or only group of labourers recruited under this arrangement. However, most of the non-Indian immigrants withdrew from the plantations soon after their introduction, and by the early 1850s, India became the primary source. According to one report from the 1924 British Empire Wembly Exhibition, of  the 343,019 immigrants recruited between 1835 and 1921, India provided 239,979.

In the colony, the Indian immigrants suffered deplorable living and working conditions, poor wages, abuse by the European managers and supervisors, and had practically little or no recourse to legal protection. Laws affecting the immigrants, consolidated as Ordi-nance No. 4 of 1864, identified infractions and penalties against the immigrants but were silent or vague on infractions of employers.  For the five years ending June 1870, of the 32,876 cases before the stipendiary magistrates, the Des Voeux Commission’s Report noted “certainly not a hundred, perhaps not a score, were cases by immigrants, or by others on their behalf against employers”.

James Crosby, a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, and a Barrister-at-law of Middle Temple who had been a Stipendiary Magistrate in the colony,  was appointed Agent General in 1858 with responsibility to, upon the arrival of an immigrant ship, ascertain whether certain rules and regulations regarding the voyage had been observed, and to act as Stipendiary Magistrate in these matters. In 1864 he was empowered also to place information before a Stipendiary Magistrate regarding illegal “stoppage” of wages or any ill-treatment of immigrants contrary to the law.

From the time of his appointment he proceeded to exercise his own discretion and act independently in all matters relating to his new duties. He took on the role of Protector of Immigrants and worked tirelessly, traveling to estates, investigating complaints thoroughly, and instituting proceedings before Stipendiary Magistrates. However, his fight for the rights of the immigrants angered the planters and earned him the wrath of the pro-planter Governor, Sir Francis Hincks, 1862-69.  By the late 1860s Crosby was sidelined by the Governor into performing duties that “might be satisfactory performed by a Head Clerk, without any standing”. After continuing to ignore the Governor’s instructions, he was censured by the British Government and his power significantly diminished.

In 1871, as recommended by the Des Voeux Commis-sioners, Crosby’s status was not only restored but enhanced by his appointment as a member of the Court of Policy (the Legislative body dominated by the planters). Unfortunately, he would be called upon regularly to act as a puisne judge, a move designed to reduce his effectiveness as Agent-General. In  June 1880 he was offered an attractive pension on condition he retire. Reluctantly, he accepted on August 1, 1880 and died within a month of retirement. However, his name lived on in the memory of the immigrants and their descendants as the Immigration Department was still fondly referred to by them as “Crosby’s Office” for decades into the new century.  

In his fight to protect the immigrants from ill-treatment and violation of their rights on the plantations, Crosby had the support of two other officials, both appointed in 1863 and, like Crosby, would earn the displeasure of the planters and the Governor. They were Chief Justice Joseph Beaumont who was also a member of the Court of Policy by virtue of his office, and William Des Voeux, Stipendiary Magistrate.

Beaumont exerted his independence in the Court of Policy and was critical of government measures thereby infuriating the planters and the Governor. His downfall started in December 1867 when on the Appeal Court, he reversed the decision of the magistrate convicting an Indian immigrant for not completing sufficient work. The labour ordinance of 1864 had stipulated that every indentured immigrant shall perform five days labour or five tasks in every week and the planters’ preference was for work by task.  This system was greatly abused by management who  made arbitrary deductions from employees’ wages on the excuse of incomplete task work and was one of the greatest sources of complaints by the immigrants.

 In reversing the magistrate’s decision, Beaumont ruled that there could be no legal conviction for non-completion of five tasks because the local legislature had not defined the meaning of a task. Shortly afterwards, Des Voeux, using similar reasoning, dismissed a case for insufficient work and Beaumont upheld the decision, to the consternation of the planters.  In August 1868, following receipt of a petition from the planters, the British Government accepted the recommendation of the Judicial Committee of  Privy Council and dismissed Beaumont. That marked the end of his career and he died a few years later. 

Des Voeux of British Anglican parents obtained a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto before becoming a lawyer in Upper Canada. After a short stint in private practice in Toronto which he disliked, he applied to then Secretary of States for the Colonies, the Duke of Newcastle, for a colonial appointment and was offered the position of Stipendiary Magistrate in British Guiana. Interestingly, the positions of stipendiary magistrates were established under the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 to superintend the Apprenticeship system (1834 -38). By the 1850s the majority were appointed by the Governor from among men who had been long-time residents of the colony.

Upon arrival in December 1863, Des Voeux was placed in charge of Upper Demerara River, a district which contained just one sugar estate. In 1866, in the absence of the senior magistrate, he was appointed to act in the East Coast and East Bank Demerara district and reluctantly accepted the position after it was pointed out to him that he was selected because he was one of the only two magistrates with legal training. In this position he had extensive contacts with the Indian immigrants and came to understand their plight. He soon antagonized the planters by frequently discharging cases against immigrants who were detained without warrants, imposing heavy fines on employers convicted of assaulting immigrants, and suggesting to immigrants to bring charges against employers who were in the habit throughout the colony of forcing their way into dwellings and compelling the occupant to go to work when they claimed to be sick.

After the return of the senior magistrate, Des Voeux returned to his former position but he was transferred shortly afterwards to the West Demerara district. There he had to live in solitude with no social life as he was ostracized by his fellow whites in the district. Facing increasing hostility from the planters, he applied to Lord Grenville, Secretary of State, for a position elsewhere and was offered the position of Administrator of St. Lucia which he accepted in May 1869. 

In 1868, following Beaumont’s ruling on the lack of definition of task work, the Court of Policy quickly passed Ordinance 9 of 1868 giving a task a monetary value of 24 cents. This was 25% less than the 32 cents paid to slaves under Apprenticeship, i.e. nearly thirty years earlier. In July 1869, the price of 24 cents, became a major issue in a dispute at Plantation Leonora on the West Coast of Demerara. Soon the situation turned violent, resulting in the physical assault of the estate’s deputy manager and a confrontation between the police armed with Enfield rifles, and the immigrants armed with hakia sticks (knotted sticks).

Des Voeux, upon learning of this development and of the planters’ association meeting in London over  their concerns, wrote a long letter of around 12000 words in December 1869 to Lord Granville, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies. He expressed his belief that unless corrective action was taken, the situation would deteriorate and result in “greater calamities”

In the letter, he outlined what he perceived to be serious systemic abuses against the Indians, and to a lesser extent, the Chinese immigrants. He indicted the planters who controlled the Legislature,  for  making laws in their favour against the immigrants; the estates’ medical officers generally for allowing poor quality food to be served in the hospitals and discharging  immigrants from treatment before they were completely cured, thus contributing to the great number of immigrants who were charged, convicted, and jailed for breaches of contract; the stipendiary magistrates who imposed “loss of wages and exorbitant fines, or the alternative of certain punishment in gaol” on the immigrants in order to gain the favour of managers who had the power to make their life difficult; Governor Hincks, who sided with the planters against the immigrants; and the sub-immigrant agents who were intended to safeguard the rights of the immigrants but accepted the hospitality of managers and turned a blind eye to their abuses.

As a result of Des Voeux’s letter which was widely publicized in England and which raised concerns in India, in July 1870, a Commission was appointed to hold an inquiry and Des Voeux was requested to attend to give evidence.  The Commissioners commenced working in late August 1870 and submitted their report in late February 1871. Over the course of the inquiry, besides Des Voeux, a total of forty-six witnesses, among whom were the principal officers of the Immigration Department, many other Government Officials, several Stipendiary Magistrates, members of the Legal and the Medical professions, planters, merchants, agricultural workers and other private citizens. Also  55 of the 124 estates then employing immigrants were visited to enquire into their grievances.  The immigrants were not invited as witnesses to the hearings but John Jenkins, a British barrister, was retained by the Aborigines Protection and the Anti Slavery societies of Britain to represent their interests. The Advocate General of Bengal, Mr Cowie, was retained to represent the planters’ interests.

The Commission’s report was very critical of Des Voeux stating “Mr. Des Voeux was ill-advised in bringing, under any circumstances, a series of charges so vague, so sweeping, and so little admitting of satisfactory proof … in default of surer knowledge and wider information he was personally not entitled to bring them.”

In his autobiography many years later, Des Voeux noted “they (the Commissioners) ignored altogether how much they were indebted to me for the direction of their lines of inquiry and how in many respects the facts elicited by them proved the justice of my representations”.

Despite the criticisms of Des Voeux, the findings of the Commissioners supported many of his charges. The abuses uncovered revealed that the British and the Indian governments had failed to protect the immigrants in the colony and that colonial legislation offered no security to the immigrants. Consequently, both governments were anxious to ensure that recommended reforms were implemented without delay. An Ordinance drafted without the involvement of the planters, was presented in the Court of Policy but was rejected.  Subsequently, after compromises by the British and Indian governments and the planters, Ordinance 7 incorporating several changes, was passed in 1873. This marked the beginning of a series of reforms that continued until the termination of the Indentureship programme, although it did not mean the immediate end of abuse of the immigrants.

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