Guyanese Slaves: From India to the Caribbean
The West Indies is home to a large and vibrant South Asian population descended from indentured labourers who worked the plantations after the abolition of slavery. The arrival of the first, from Bengal in 1838, is recorded in the journal of a young doctor who accompanied them, as Brigid Wells describes.
On June 23rd, 1837, a 330-ton ship called the Hesperus slipped out of Liverpool with only two passengers: the newly-married Mr and Mrs Wilmot. Fortunately, they were much absorbed in each other, because their only regular company for 14 weeks was the ship’s surgeon, 22-year-old Theophilus Richmond, who on the first leg of the voyage had very little to do. He amused himself by writing a diary of the voyage for his mother and sister Charlotte to read when he got home. He expected to be away for at least a year: the Hesperus was eventually bound for Demerara on the South American mainland via Mauritius and Calcutta. She had been chartered by Sir John Gladstone, the father of the future prime minister, and his partner John Moss to collect and transport an Indian workforce to replace the slaves on their sugar plantations in British Guiana (modern-day Guyana).
In his diary Theophilus never explains why he signed up for this expedition, nor the need for it at this particular time. It was very clear to the Gladstones. After the Act for the Abolition of Slavery was passed in 1833, the West Indian planters of Liverpool, with Sir John as their spokesman, feared that the writing was on the wall for the profitable sugar trade. Although his son,W.E.Gladstone, was never entirely comfortable with the institution of slavery, Sir John saw it as entirely acceptable. He wrote to the Home Secretary Robert Peel in 1830 claiming that it existed naturally in aboriginal societies; negroes had a ‘particular constitution and the power of labouring beneath a vertical sun’ but he warned that, although their current labour was ‘cheerfully performed without injury to their health and comfort’, it was ‘vain to expect, and impossible to depend upon, the labour of free negroes in the field’. The cultivation of sugar cane depended on a plentiful and continuous supply of agricultural workers: what would happen to the trade and to the British public’s craving for sugar if and when the slaves were free to leave? When the Emancipation Act was finally passed in 1833, the plantation owners and West India merchants did manage to secure some advantage: £20 million compensation for the planters’ ‘property’ and, although all slaves were now technically free, a compulsory further period of seven years ‘apprenticeship’ – in other words, compulsory indentured labour – from their field workers, which safeguarded production in the short term at least.
By 1835, however, Gladstone’s agent in Guiana was reporting that he had ‘never before seen such idleness and insubordination and insolence’ among the former slaves. They were waving scimitars at the magistrates, refusing to apprentice their children to field labour and it was clear that they were most unlikely to stay at work themselves once the compulsory period came to an end. Without regular cultivation, the plantations would revert to jungle, sugar production would fall dramatically and with it the planters’ income. Gladstone and his partner were determined this should not happen. They considered various possibilities: Chinese labour, Maltese emigrants and (W.E. Gladstone’s helpful suggestion) asking the Poor Law Commissioners in England to release some young married couples out of the workhouse. As none of these ideas bore fruit, it was finally agreed to ask agents in Calcutta whether Indian labour, already used on plantations in Mauritius, might be a possibility.
‘It is of great importance to us,’ wrote Sir John, ‘to endeavour to provide a portion of other labourers, whom we might use as a set-off, and when the time for it comes, make us, as far as possible, independent of our negro population; and it has occurred to us that a moderate number of Bengalees, such as you were sending to the Isle of France, might be very suitable for our purpose.’ He wanted to know ‘whether the class referred to are likely to be of any particular caste, and under the influence of certain religious feelings, and also restricted by any particular kind of food; if so, we must endeavour to provide for them accordingly’. In any case, he promised comfortable dwellings, medical care and clothing. The agents’ reply was promising: ‘We are not aware that any greater difficulty would present itself in sending men to the West Indies, the natives being perfectly ignorant of the place they agree to go to or the length of the voyage.’ They proposed to recruit from the hill tribes to the north of Bengal, where the men ‘are well limbed and active without prejudices of any kind and hardly any ideas beyond those of supplying the wants of nature’.
Gladstone lost no time in getting permission for the scheme from the East India Company’s Board of Control and an Order in Council from the Colonial Secretary. The ‘Hill Coolies’, as they were always known at the time, were to be bound by five-year indentures, translated and sworn before two local magistrates. After five years, they were entitled to a free passage home. If possible, at least half were to bring their wives. After a medical examination, the Indians were to embark on the Hesperus for the three-month journey back round the Cape across the Atlantic to the plantations of Demerara, where they would begin to replace the African workers.
Slaves gain their freedom
Gladstone’s plans had been laid not a moment too soon. In the summer of 1838, to his consternation, Parliament debated a motion to shorten the period of tied labour from seven years to five. His son William was expected to argue the planters’ case and dutifully did so, but not without a qualm: his diary for May 30th records that he sent up a little prayer before the debate, but ‘I hope it was not a blasphemous prayer, for support in pleading the cause of injustice.’ In any case, it was not answered. The former slaves in Guiana were genuinely free from August 1st, 1838, only three months after Gladstone’s Hill Coolies had landed in Demerara.
Meanwhile, on the outward leg of the journey, Dr Richmond had no duties apart from attending to the occasional minor injury among the crew. He and the Wilmots had the run of the ship. They ate large meals of roast pork, often with Captain Baxter, ‘a young and most gentlemanly man’, and amused themselves with impromptu concerts and occasional shooting practice when weather permitted. At other times, a storm could flood both cabins knee-deep so that their intermingled possessions floated round on the surface. ‘For eleven hours I have not had a dry thread about me, the cabins being inundated and the beds almost drowned … The ocean was beyond description awful and magnificent … To add to our discomfort the kitchen was thrown down and we could not get any dinner.’ For Richmond, the voyage was a huge adventure, a kind of delayed gap year for a young man who had been a student at Edinburgh from the age of 16 and had only qualified as a doctor the summer before. He was fascinated by the sea creatures he encountered: whales, dolphins, sharks – one of which was caught and dissected on board – turtles, butchered to make soup, flying fish and one day an albatross. There were other forms of wildlife on board, particularly cockroaches: ‘They are most abominable looking animals and it is perfectly useless to kill them for the purpose of lessening their numbers, as 20 live ones come to the funeral of every dead one. The pall bearers are earwigs, of which we have some hundredweight in the ship.’
When they finally reached Mauritius, where the ship stayed for several weeks, he was at first bewildered by the scene on the wharf:
Covered with people of all costumes and tongues … Animals and vehicles of all kinds and varieties, noise and uproar of all sorts and dimensions, the effect, on our first landing was overpowering … The Chinese with his peaked shoe and long pigtail, the Arab with his lofty turban and flowing vest, the Turk with his cloth of many colours and flowing beard, the Indian with his tunic of shawl and robe of muslin, the picturesque clad Greek, the Grave Parsee, the black favoured Negro and the still blacker Caffre man, were every instant passing before us, mingled together in ‘most admired disorder’.
Mauritius had only been acquired by the British after the Napoleonic Wars and its society was still French-speaking. The girls were particularly delectable. Theophilus was taken to meet a 14-year-old bride:
The next leg of the journey to Calcutta took about six weeks. On December 3rd the ship arrived on the Hoogly river, where it was soon surrounded by little boats:
... dressed in a most elegant morning robe of white muslin; one of her pretty little feet alone was visible and shrouded from the too curious gaze in a satin slipper, the other with retiring delicacy was withdrawn within those precincts where the imagination might not follow … The whole thing was rather too good for anyone beyond a glumpy old Monk, and she looked so excessively young and so passing pretty, that ere five minutes were fled, I felt the most overpow’ring inclination to kick her happy and good-looking husband out of the room and give her a kiss before he could come back again. But ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife’ came to my aid just at the proper time and so with a mighty effort I quelled Apollyon.
... selling all the different produce of the country in the shape of Vegetables, Straw hats, Mats &c. The clamour and the uproar they made was tremendous, and as they cared nothing for buckets of water which were plentifully showered down upon them, some small bits of Pork were thrown at them … this being an article which their religion teaches them to look upon with the greatest horror.
The fact that both Theophilus and the captain were amused by the pandemonium that followed only illustrates how most British people at the time regarded world religions other than Christianity as dark and misguided superstitions. To give Theophilus his due, he was genuinely keen to visit places of Muslim and Hindu worship in and around Calcutta and was capable of being impressed by the atmosphere. He was, however, a shameless souvenir hunter. Early on in his two-month stay in India, some friends up country took him to see a small Hindu temple, ‘having an altar in the middle, on which was placed one of their idols decorated with flowers … It was an absurd little clay figure of a dog on a horse, and as no-one was near, I took up his Godship and put him in my pocket.’ His friends, clearly aghast, rode off at a gallop and advised him to do the same – he could not think why, until it was explained to him what the natives would have done to him had they caught him. Later on, he stole a copy of the Koran from a mosque, ‘very wickedly I acknowledge’. On another occasion he did what he admitted was ‘a rather foolish thing’:
... for wrapped up body and face in an immense robe of white cloth, in fact disguised as one of the Faithful, I went into a place of Mahomedan worship and sat down among others (keeping however precious near the door) to hear the Koran expounded ... my servant (who would do anything for me) standing as close as possible in a mortal funk lest I should be discovered and whispering what I was to do when I found myself at fault.
He had learnt some words of Arabic that he was able to repeat with the rest, but ‘not knowing but that I might be pitched on for an extempore prayer, I thought it best to bolt, which I did uncommon quick when I saw them begin to look round.’ The young Indian bearer who risked accompanying him was apparently a fine figure of a man whom Theophilus came to admire and respect, as he did a few other Indians whom he got to know; from quaint background figures, a small number became people with whom he could empathise. Most of his time in Calcutta, however, was spent with the highly social expatriates. Every night there seemed to be a dinner, or a theatre or a ball, sometimes given by a rich Indian, with nautch girls [Indian traditional dancers] for entertainment. During the day, he took tiffin with friends, went to the races and enjoyed haggling in the market. Above all he loved the Indian countryside, seeing it go by from a boat on the Ganges, or exploring the riverbanks with a gun in his hand, noticing the amazing variety of trees, plants and animal life and sometimes bringing back a bird or two for his supper.
‘Happy and contented’
He left Calcutta and the friends he had made there with real regret. It was back to work; after he had medically examined the 170 Indians in Calcutta and taken them on board, the doctor was no longer a passenger. He was reasonably happy with their quarters:
The whole of the space between the Main and Fore masts has been fitted up for their accommodation, and it is far more roomy and comfortable than I ever thought it could have been made.
They were also clearly enjoying the supply of regular and ample food that Captain Baxter had laid on for them. The men sat:
... in two long double rows, each with his brass dish and drinking cup before him and busily employed in shovelling an extensive and recherché Olla Podrida of Rice, Salt Fish, Peas, Turmeric, Chili’s, Tamarinds &c. into their unbelieving stomachs.
They had also been given new clothes and, he says, were ‘as happy and contented as possible’. The cruise atmosphere was not to last. A week or so out from the Hoogly, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the doctor was called from breakfast to see an Indian who had fallen down on deck. He realised at once that this man was in the last agonising stages of cholera. No sooner had he carried out the post-mortem and ordered the body to be thrown overboard than several others fell sick. Richmond worked for 36 hours without stopping, isolating, fumigating and using what drugs he had (and what little the Indians could be persuaded to take; they were very suspicious of Western remedies). After a week, there were no new cases; he had managed to contain the epidemic. He was particularly affected by one family:
The Mother lying nearly in a state of insensibility with sunken cheeks and lustreless eyes, showing no sign of life, except as she occasionally opened her parched and burning mouth for a little water, and yet clasping her infant to that chill and almost pulseless bosom, that was no longer able to give the nourishment it was crying for, on each side of her two other children, one in the same condition as herself and the other already stiffening in the embrace of death, whilst to complete the picture the affectionate and wretched husband, whom neither threats nor endeavours could keep away from those he loved so well, watched over them unceasingly, his sorrow speaking in his tears. Seldom have I experienced more sincere pleasure than I did at the moment when I was first able to assure myself that the crisis in both mother and child was past and that I was to be the means of gladdening the father’s heart with the intelligence that they were out of danger.
Apart from two men washed overboard in storms so fierce that rescue was impossible, there were no more deaths and all but one of the surviving Indians was landed in good health on May 5th, 1838. The doctor sent his medical report on the cholera cases to Sir John, with a covering letter dated May 15th in which he explained that when the Indians first got on board, they were:
… in many instances very emaciated, from the defective diet, i.e. in point of quantity, to which they are constantly liable in their own country. The unaccustomed amount of food might have upset them, and once the cholera struck … in addition to the great weakness that was present preventing any very energetic treatment, there was the further obstacle of their prejudices against taking any medicine that was not made by themselves.
When they arrived in Demerara, ‘their appearance and condition were so altered by the good treatment and regular food that they had enjoyed during the voyage of 90 days that they did not look like the same people who had so lately been reduced in their own country to a single handful of rice for a day’s allowance. They were always happy and contented, understood perfectly for what purpose they had been engaged and repeatedly expressed their desire to give satisfaction.’ The Gladstone’s attorney in Guiana endorsed this:
From their appearance, I should say that they have been taken great care of during the voyage; there was only one sick man landed. Indeed, the state in which they were brought here reflects great credit on the doctor and captain of the ship, to whom the people seem much attached.
The Indians were despatched to their various plantations, where, according to Sir John, cottages had been prepared for them and for the first month or two all seemed to be going well. ‘The coolies on Mr Gladstone’s property are a fine healthy body of men. They are beginning to marry or cohabit with the negresses and to take pride in their appearance.’
No return home
The diary covers the whole period from embarkation in June 1837 to the end of April 1838, when the Hesperus was drawing near to Guiana. The final page is headed ‘Scenes in Demerara’ but it is otherwise blank. Although Richmond wrote two letters after he had landed on May 5th, he never found time to continue his diary. Nor did he return home with the ship. On July 5th he died in Georgetown of yellow fever, at the age of 23, ‘sincerely regretted,’ according to the British Guiana Gazette, ‘by all who had the pleasure of his acquaintances and to whom his amiable and cheerful disposition had so deservedly endeared him.’
It may have been Captain Baxter who brought the small square green leather-bound book home to Richmond’s mother, from whom it passed down within the family. Although several of his descendants had enjoyed the diary as a lively travelogue, initially none of us had suspected that it might have historical value. In fact, Richmond’s diary is the only extant personal record of the voyage that brought the very first Indians from Asia to the Caribbean. People of Indian descent are now such a significant element of the population in the West Indies, particularly in Guyana and Trinidad, that it is easy to forget how relatively recently their ancestors arrived. An Indo-Caribbean Conference at Warwick University in June 2008 celebrated the 170th anniversary of their arrival on May 5th, 1838, aboard the Hesperus and her sister ship the Whitby, chartered by Andrew Colville. The ship’s embarkation and disembarkation registers give an astonishingly detailed picture of this first contingent, with the name, age, height and religion of each of the Hill Coolies. On landing, they numbered 156 from the Hesperus and 248 from the Whitby, 404 in all. There were only a handful of women and children; although Gladstone had asked for wives, the agents had warned him that the custom was for the men to leave their women behind when they set out to find work.
The arrival of these first Indians caused a minor political storm both in Guiana and in Britain. It was immediately assumed that the 14 deaths on board the Hesperus were due to the kind of cruelty the African slaves had suffered on the Middle Passage. The Royal Gazette of British Guiana was not much reassured by a letter of May 7th from Richmond, indignantly explaining that the deaths on the voyage were not from ill-treatment but all but two from an outbreak of cholera. On May 8th, the editor felt bound ‘to denounce and protest … against the barbarous and flagitious system of bringing to a strange country, hundreds of men, without an adequate proportion of women.’ The importers, it said ‘look not to the rearing of progeny from the new Colonists, they make not provision for it; no, they contemplate the grinding of Sugar out of the bones and sinews of these labourers so long as they are fit to work, and as they wear out, to supply their places by fresh importations’. Richmond’s letter to the press and his report to Sir John written on May 15th were, however, later considered important enough to be laid before Parliament as evidence in support of the beleaguered Gladstones, who, from the summer of 1838, were constantly on the defensive. The Anti-Slavery Society and its spokesmen in Parliament branded Sir John’s venture as a revived form of slavery. Lord Brougham denounced the ‘hideous and frightful mortality’ on the Hesperus and Gladstone’s scheme was attacked as ‘a revival of slavery in the West Indies by exporting the kidnapped Hindoos to them, and also a transplantation of idolatry among the negroes’. After only a year, to Gladstone’s acute disappointment, the government was persuaded to cancel the 1837 Order in Council which had permitted the indenture of workers in India destined for the Caribbean.
Allegations of maltreatment
Perhaps it was as well that Richmond’s premature death spared him the later history of his Indian charges. By early 1839, the magistrates’ returns show creeping mortality figures, many as a result of infected bites from insects called chigoes or ‘jiggers’ (the Indians tended to tear off the plantation doctor’s bandages and ointments, preferring to apply their own remedies). Worse still for the Gladstones’ reputation, one of the overseers who had come from India was found to have beaten several workers illegally, saying that it was the custom in Bengal. He was arrested and tried, whereupon the coolies gave their evidence: ‘Mr Jacobs lick a we, Demerara not good, chigar there, sore there, and coolie go dead.’ The secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society, John Scoble, managed to join the investigative Commission of Magistrates in Guiana and was horrified by what he saw. On his return, he wrote a blistering memorandum, singling out Gladstone and Colville for allowing the maltreatment of the labourers. The Anti-Slavery lobby was both powerful and well organised and the government got cold feet. As Colville later remarked, ministers ‘will do nothing that will put a single vote to risk’. In spite of all Gladstone’s assurance of his good intentions – the provisions he had made for the coolies’ welfare, the appointment of a surgeon on board – the Order in Council permitting Indian emigration to the West Indies was not reinstated. The Colonial Secretary Lord John Russell had been partly reassured but not swayed by Richmond’s report:
Admitting the mortality of the Hill Coolies first sent may have been accidental, I am not prepared to encounter the responsibility of a measure which may lead to a dreadful loss of life on the one hand, and on the other, to a new system of slavery.
By 1843, when their indentures expired, only 298 of the original Indians were still alive to claim their free passage home and of these, only 60 opted to stay in the colony; hardly enough to justify Gladstone’s scheme. The mortality on the plantations had effectively discouraged the British Government from allowing Indian immigration for several years. After it was resumed, however, in 1845, with extra safeguards, a steady stream of new arrivals provided the planters with three or five years of indentured labour. Although a small proportion continued to claim their free passage back to India as late as the 1950s, the majority stayed on, bringing their own culture and increasing prosperity to the Caribbean.
Brigid Wells is the great-great-niece of Theophilus Richmond.
- D. Dabydeen, J. Morley, B. Samaroo, A Wahab & B. WdIs (eds) Theophlius Richmond, The First Crossing (The Derek Wilcott Press, 2007)
- S.C Checkland, The Gladstones (QUP, 1971)
- U Bahadursingh, Indians in the Caribbean (Sterling Publishers, 1979)
- M. Carter, Voices from Indenture: Experiences of Indian Migrants in the British Empire (Leicester University Press, 1996)
- Basdeo Mangru, 'Indian Labour in British Guiana' (History Today, April 1986)
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