COOLIE WOMAN

A Memorial in Words

The “nigger yard” on a sugar estate in Guiana. From the 1909 Handbook of British Guiana.

Wednesday marks a grim centenary in Guyanese history: a date that should have lived infamously, but has been forgotten, lost when the keepers of its memory were themselves lost to us. One hundred years ago, on 13 March 1913, resistance by Indian workers on Rose Hall Plantation ended in carnage, as British colonial police killed fifteen, including a woman they shot in the stomach, and injured another thirty-nine, seriously enough to warrant amputations. It was perhaps the deadliest indenture-era suppression of unrest in the Caribbean.

In the absence of a memorial in marble, I offer one here in words, for three reasons. First, the shooting had geopolitical significance, ricocheting far beyond Guiana’s borders in the service of decimating indenture worldwide. Second, that massacre by the state’s law enforcers, in a crackdown against protesting labourers, resonates in the days after a commission found Guyana police responsible for three deaths during last July’s electricity-rate protests in Linden, the first fatal confrontation of its kind since the British governed Guiana. And lastly, Rose Hall holds personal significance. Until the age of six, when my family left its orbit for America, that sugar estate ordered my world, through the physics of place and the geometry of identity. Its crisscross of canals and cane was at the center of my childhood – and my family history. My great-grandmother was indentured there.

She was living on the plantation or right outside it, in the Canje village where I grew up, when the colony’s police chief, Colonel G.C. de Rinzy, paraded through with a phalanx of men and a Maxim gun. That weapon of war had been credited with swiftly subduing large swathes of Africa for colonial rule in the 1890s, as much because of the panic inspired by its fearsome appearance in battle as the bullets it discharged rapid-fire. Through Cumberland Village to Rose Hall’s Great House, de Rinzy marched with the creature-like machine gun. Leaving it there, he led seventy men into the “nigger yard” where the immigrants lived in shoddy barracks lacking privacy or latrines. In the fusillade that followed, five free and ten indentured workers were killed, including some simply sitting in their rooms when policemen’s bullets, missing their mark or having none, hit them.

The violence was the climax of six weeks of agitation by the plantation’s Indian laborers, both the “bound coolies” and others who, like my great-grandmother, were by then free.

The trouble had started when plantation manager James Smith broke his promise to give the workers four holidays in exchange for forfeiting Sundays off during the sugar-grinding season. His breach of faith infuriated the immigrants. For a day, they defied his order to work. As a result, Smith prosecuted seven men, as some forty percent of the indentured were every year on average, criminally tried for mere labor violations. Hundreds at Rose Hall had struck, but only those seven were jailed. The injustice of it roused the indentured.

One man accused a driver of assault, but the magistrate threw out the charge. Several women alleged starvation wages and regular beatings by drivers, but the immigration agent – their state-designated protector – dismissed their complaints. “You are strong, healthy women,” he told them. “Some of you have healthy-looking babies. You don’t look as if you were starved.” In the weeks ahead, the shovel gang struck several times to protest illegally low wages. The manager, a cursing man, swore at them in Hindi: “Let a pig f*** the mother of any immigrant who strikes.”

The wrongs exposed by the immigrants weren’t merely economic. There had also been insults to their honour. They claimed that the plantation’s head driver, the Brahmin Jugmohan, reassigned women from one man to another. Any man who wanted to keep his wife had to pay $1. This pimp-like shakedown, and the driver’s many other sins and extortions, incensed the immigrants. A revered pandit at Cumberland, banned by Jugmohan from performing religious ceremonies on the plantation, had fanned their outrage. The immigrants demanded that the driver be fired, but the immigration agent failed to investigate their charges. The system did nothing for the workers, except give them the days off that they were originally promised.

The façade of justice was general. The incestuous social life of planters, magistrates and immigration agents utterly undermined any safeguards built into indenture, allowing for widespread abuse of “coolies” by their masters. The Immigration Department, the designated watchdog for the indentured, was as much cause for riot as anything awry in plantation pay lists or, as was often the case, in the beds of overseers who slept with Indian women. Indeed, the system for immigrants to secure their rights was so rigged that they rarely turned to it, preferring strikes and uprisings to resolve labour disputes instead. Acts of civil disobedience by Indian workers on Guianese plantations, which began in 1869, intensified over the decades; at least nine times, they ended in fatal shootings by police.

In retaliation for the unrest in 1913, Rose Hall’s manager requested the transfer to another plantation of five men he deemed ringleaders, and the immigration agent obliged. The Indian men were called to court, without knowing why. The county police inspector was there, waiting with a motorcar to take them, instantly and forcibly, to five different plantations. The immigrants massed at the courthouse objected, and the five men refused to climb into the car. They said they needed time to gather their property, their wives, their savings. The police promised to send all on later, but the men resisted, asking: But how will you find what we have buried in the ground? Faced with a restive crowd, the police released the men, for the time being.

But twenty-five armed constables were posted to Rose Hall, owned by the colony’s most powerful conglomerate, Booker Brothers. The next day, the immigration department’s director arrived from Georgetown to lend authority to the transfer. One of its targets, a Muslim scribe literate in English, a newcomer to the colony and to agricultural labour, waved a soiled copy of the immigration ordinance that he had scavenged in India. Maula Bux knew that its provisions were routinely violated; the indentured worked more hours than were legal, without being paid the legal minimum. He insisted that management lacked legal grounds for a transfer. “They know I can read and suspect me of teaching the people not to go to their work, and so they (falsely) put this blame on me,” he said. In front of the colony’s immigration chief, Bux vowed: Only my dead body can you remove from this plantation.

In the days ahead, the police ranks grew, and the immigrants kept striking. The indentured urged the un-indentured not to work. One day, while escorting free immigrants into the fields to work, the police narrowly escaped a clash with the indentured. Then, a week after garrisoning themselves on the estate, they searched the immigrant barracks, fruitlessly, for firearms. The labourers heard rumors that the police had entered their rooms to molest their wives. Sensing the mood, Berbice’s police inspector wired Georgetown. “Things are very serious,” he alerted his boss. “The coolies are most insolent and overbearing in their manner.” The inspector wanted backup.

By special night train, arriving at dawn, came that backup: an additional force of fifty under the command of Col. de Rinzy, who had shot dead, in the back, the hero of another uprising by the indentured, two decades earlier. In his self-serving account of what unfolded at Rose Hall, de Rinzy described quelling a murderous riot by “coolies.” The immigrants, meanwhile, described surviving a slaughter by police.

The colonel told a reporter that he heard warning whistles as he approached the barracks that afternoon. “Then,” he said, “there was a tremendous roar. It is a noise which some people have never heard. The fierce roar of an angry, infuriated mob. I have heard it several times, and when once a man hears it, he never forgets.” He claimed to see “coolies” springing “from nowhere and wildly brandishing all kinds of weapons, sticks, cutlasses and spears made from cutlasses mounted on sticks,” as if in “a wild, barbarian country.”

When a corporal tried to arrest one of the alleged ringleaders, another indentured man grappled with him, and both the policeman and the immigrant tumbled, wrestling, into a trench. Police fired into it, and neither man emerged alive. That was the testimony of the immigrants, who claimed to be completely unarmed. In de Rinzy’s Technicolor version, the mob pounced on the corporal, beating his brains out in the trench before the police discharged their guns. A bullet definitely pierced the corporal’s brain, but whether it – or an attack by the immigrants – killed him was contested.

Tellingly, and atypically, the British government in Guiana decided not to prosecute any immigrants for murder or riot. But a commission of inquiry disparaged them as “ignorant natives” stirred up by outside agitators; the authorities blamed the tragedy on the protesters and on opportunists who riled them rather than on the underlying economic and moral grievances that provoked the protests.

When The Daily Argosy splashed the headline “BLOODSHED” across its front page on 14 March 1913, two special envoys from the British government in India happened to be in Guiana to see it. Their presence made members of the Colonial Office squirm. One worried that the newspaper’s language – legacy terms evoking slavery, such as “nigger yard” and “driver” – might disturb the delegation as much as the shooting itself. Indenture was under attack in India, and the men had been delegated by the Viceroy to investigate the system in the five colonies where it still existed. In their report, the envoys included an extract from the government’s Official Gazette about the shooting.

Six months after it, in the Viceroy’s Legislative Council in Delhi, a pioneer in India’s nationalist movement posed a question on the record about the shooting, uttering into history the name of my own remote rectangle of mud, invoking it in the fight to end indenture everywhere, the first successful battle in the Indian nationalist struggle against British rule. In the end, the Viceroy, knowing how visceral anti-indenture sentiment had become, campaigned behind-the-scenes for dismantling the system. He wrote, of Rose Hall:  “(W)e are forced to the conclusion that the coolies had received considerable provocation and had good reason to complain of unfair treatment.” And he called for compensation to the wounded and the families of the dead—a call that ultimately went nowhere. It was translated—from the Viceroy in Delhi to the India Office in London to the Colonial Office to Guiana—into a request that Guiana’s governor explain what alms houses, widows funds or orphanages were doing for the victims and their survivors. And then it was translated into thin air.

Generations later, as a government run by the descendants of those so wronged weighs compensating the families of the dead in the most recent fatally-policed protest and decides who should be held to account, perhaps one question they should grapple with is this: What difference has a century made to the hope of justice in Guyana?

This piece ran in the March 11, 2013 edition of Guyana’s leading newspaper, The Stabroek News, in its “In the Diaspora” column. The story I have reconstructed here, from archives in London, features in Coolie Woman. 

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