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Indian Militancy On Sugar Estates
The 1869 Leonora episode

by Basdeo Mangru
Guyana Journal, October 2007

During the first two decades of Indian indentureship in postemancipation Guyana, accommodation was the strategy adopted by sugar workers for survival. Several factors accounted for such a strategy. Guyana was an alien environment to Indian villagers whose movements in their native land were largely circumscribed by caste, tradition and the pull of the village. Consequently, they rarely ventured beyond the confines of the village except in times of economic hardship. Their sole aim in the colonies was to survive and accumulate some savings to return to India to liquidate debts or redeem ancestral lands. Militant action could not only jeopardize their return passage entitlement but also result in incarceration, heavy court fines and extension of their contracts. Moreover, the perceptible lack of organized leadership, since potential leaders were co-opted in the system as drivers, tended to stymie any form of militant action. Additionally, the plantation system was geared to stifle initiative and drive and to reduce plantation workers to a state of helplessness and dependence similar to slavery. A repressive estate apparatus was yet another deterrent for it tended to check or localize unrest and confine it to a particular plantation. These factors initially tended to foster a degree of acquiescence in the indentured community.

However, by the late 1860s as the sugar planters progressively tightened their control over the indentured workforce through draconian laws and regulations, resistance became the strategy for survival.1 By this time Indian immigration had become a permanent feature of the colony’s immigration system which continued until its demise during the first World War. There was a comparatively large number of reindentured workers who ‘knew the ropes’, unlike the newly imported ‘simpleton’, and could not be cowed into submission. Since they were more conversant with the plantation system, they were prone to militant action when there was a perceptible violation of their rights, when they were overworked, underpaid and brutalized, or when management unilaterally reduced their wages or prolonged the hours of labor. The riots of 1869 at Pln. Leonora, West Bank Demerara, was the first in a series of labor protest which rocked the sugar belt and stirred considerable concern at Whitehall. It was clearly a watershed event in that it was the first time that indentured Indians overtly protested against the iniquities of the plantation system. Earlier studies on resistance tended to neglect or gloss over this landmark event in Guyanese history.

By the late 1860s, there was an over supply of labor on estates which correspondingly led to a reduction in wage levels. In May 1868 the Royal Gazette, a local paper which originally printed government news but later expressed an opinion, was reporting that “hundreds, perhaps thousands, who would now work on the sugar estates cannot find employments”.2 Yet the sugar interests continued to import large numbers of immigrant labor as their principal aim was to drive down wages by multiplying the labor force and simultaneously dividing it. No wonder wage reduction or the arbitrary withholding of wages constituted the principal reason for the dissatisfaction and restlessness prevailing on estates, and this was particularly true at Leonora.

Leonora, managed by William Russell, estate proprietor and Attorney for several other estates, was one of the largest functioning estates in the colony. It was producing nearly 2,00 hogshead3 of sugar annually. Such large output was deemed “second to none in the British possessions”.4 Indian insurgency seemed more active on large estates where employer/employee relations were largely impersonal and indentured workers seemed to derive strength from numbers.

The clash between management and indentured Indians on this estate occurred on 5 August 1869 but discontent was brewing long before this incident. It seemed to stem from the arrival of Richard Rose Manson as Deputy Manager. Reportedly, Manson was accustomed to the system of coerced labor as he previously worked under the slave system in the cotton plantations of southern United States.5 William DeVoeux, Stipendiary Magistrate 1862-1867, in his celebrated letter to the Colonial Office, had charged that on the West Coast Demerara “cruelties were being practiced on the immigrants, apparently without check or hindrance”. He cited a case where Manson was brought before him on a charge of assault and battery of an indentured worker. According to the evidence, Manson had “knocked down” the immigrant for leaving work at 8:00 am on Sunday morning after “having been at work, with the mere intermission of meals, from an early hour on the Saturday previously”.6 Such extended hours were clearly a violation of the labor laws which restricted factory labor to 10 hours a day. Additionally, on Sundays indentured workers were legally entitled to rest.

Nevertheless, the practice of forcing immigrants to work from 16 to 20 hours a day without additional pay seemed to be the rule rather than the exception, especially during crop time. DeVoeux disclosed that Quintin Hogg, an absentee partner in the firm of Bosanquet, Curtis & Company, was horrified at finding that immigrants on one of his estates had been working 22 hours a day for several days. Hogg further admitted that the manager was “aggrieved at his interference in ordering the employment of relays”. Granted that the hours of labor might have been exaggerated, opined Des Voeux, such open confession from an absentee proprietor “could hardly have been far from the truth”.

Manson had reportedly been “repeatedly guilty” of assaulting immigrants who are either afraid to complain or who believed that such complaints would be futile. One, however, with financial resources hired a lawyer and extracted a considerable sum from him as damages. In such cases of assault, DeVoeux regularly fined the guilty heavily and warned that a second offense would involve either incarceration or trial before the Supreme Court. DeVoeux’s tough stand had certainly paid dividends: “I believe that this had the effect of checking the evil to a great extent for the time at least. But it is a significant fact that these offenses were committed on plantation Leonora where the disturbances broke out three months after my departure”.7

The first overt signs of discontent at Leonora occurred in July 1869 when 40 workers of the shovel gang protested over the withholding of their wages for unfinished work. They complained that they were unable to complete the job because the soil was waterlogged. Out of this dispute resulted a case before the Stipendiary Magistrate of the district who decided against the immigrants. Violence flared up on 3 August 1869 when several indentured Indians of the shovel gang demanded enhanced pay for replanting cane tops. After some commotion, they assaulted Manson, one even hitting him with a shovel stick.

Two days later a detachment of police armed with a warrant arrived on the estate and attempted to arrest Latchman, Baldea and Khodabacchus for the assault on the Deputy Manager.8 They informed Bhugwansing, reported an ex-Sepoy (an Indian soldier in the army of the British East India Company) that they only wanted the three accused. Instead, they were confronted with a crowd of roughly 300 armed largely with Hackia Sticks9 and refusing to surrender the accused. When one policeman aimed his gun at the crowd and pulled the trigger which failed to go off, the crowd responded with a fusillade of bottles and sticks. What was significant was that the main bottle throwers were Indian women. It was reported that the bottles were thrown in “volleys of fifty and sixty at a time” and replenished from supplies at a neighboring Portuguese rumshop.10 The police failed in their initial attempt to apprehend the accused but soon returned with reinforcement from the Second West Indian Regiment. The 30 armed men led by a Colonel Herbert were previously sent from Georgetown and were on standby at Fellowship, about three miles from Leonora. That the unrest was viewed seriously by Colonial authorities was evidenced by the fact that prominent government officials were present. Governor John Scott, who throughout his administration had endeavored to uphold the status quo, was on an inspection tour on another part of the colony. His view of the situation was that the police was repulsed through a “want of firmness”, but that the use of the military to assist the police in the arrest of three workers was “injudicious”.11

This novel episode in the history of Indian indenturedship in Guyana culminated in the apprehension of the Sepoy leader who surrendered before the police with fixed bayonets and Enfield rifles charged the crowd. Fortunately, the order to fire was not given or many immigrants would have been fatally shot. One immigrant, Gopaul, was allegedly goading the crowd to beat the police, claiming that he had sufficient financial resources to hire defense lawyers. As was the fashion of the time, the ‘ring’ leaders were arrested. Some were acquitted while others were incarcerated with hard labor.

Following on the heels of the Leonora incident, labor disturbances broke out on several estates in the sugar belt. At Pln. Farm, Mahaicony, indentured workers went on strike and jeered the arbitrator and Sub-Immigration Agent who attempted to settle a wage dispute. On 19 August 1869 workers at Pln. Chateau Margot, East Coast Demerara, assaulted the driver.12 At neighboring Pln. Success violence flared up when the manager repudiated an earlier agreement and arbitrarily reduced the wage rates for field work by between 20 and 25%. It culminated in the arrest of five leaders. Likewise, workers at Mon Repos surrounded the manager’s house, resisted the arrest of the leaders and only retreated when police reinforcements arrived. There were also labor disturbances at Plns. La Jalousie, Goldstone Hall, Uitvlugt, (where workers allegedly conspired to kill both the manager and an overseer) and Non Pareil. A serious incident also occurred at Pln. Vergenoegen, West Bank Demerara, where workers attacked the estate manager, W. Daly, beat him mercilessly and threw him into a trench. He was conveyed to the hospital “in a dying state” but he subsequently recovered.13

This succession of labor disturbances prompted Scott to conclude that the defiant attitude adopted by immigrants at Leonora had had “an encouraging effect” on workers of other estates and that labor unrest was not “a novelty of recent date”.14 This observation was on the button for muted unrest was brewing as the planters simultaneously tightened their control over labor. The appointment of a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the upheavals on estates, following the Leonora incident, seemed to embolden labor.

Indian militancy on sugar estates produced a flurry of comments on its origin. One alluded to the emasculation of the Immigration Agent General, the indomitable James Crosby, who championed Indian welfare. Another emphasized the egregious impact of Ordinance 9 of 1868 which gave the planters the power to deduct wages arbitrarily for sloppy or incomplete work. The unilateral application of this ordinance by management tended to produce considerable “misunderstanding and complaints”, resulting in constant disputes and violence. The Royal Gazette (24 September 1869) was convinced that immigrants were “cheated in many instances” with regard to the fixing of wage tariffs.

Comments on the Indian increasing proclivity to violence were also aired in the local press. A correspondent in the Colonist, organ of the planting interests, alluded to the vulnerable position of the white community on estates: “on most estates in this colony there are between 300 and 400 immigrants to which are allotted four overseers and a manager (5 white men to 400 Indians) many of whom are Sepoys who bore parts in the memorable tragedies at Cawnpore and Delhi”.15 Another echoed the fear of the planting interests with regard to the danger of organization and combination among Indians who then formed roughly one-third of the colony’s population.

Responding to this posture of militancy adopted by Indian workers, the authorities proposed the use of colonial revenues for the strengthening of the Police force to maintain law and order on estates. The Governor and the plantocracy feared that “a combination amongst the whole of the coolies would be formed”, and that there were “many clever fellows” who were disposed to foment unrest.16 Concomitantly, Scott had written to the Officer in Command of Her Majesty’s troops in Barbados urging an increase in the garrison in Georgetown to deal with Indian insurgency. Consequently, the Colonial Office agreed to make British Guiana the Headquarters of the Second West Indian Regiment.17

This perceived combination of Indian workers against the estate hierarchy and subordinate personnel was largely illusory. The lack of effective leadership, division in the workforce, the presence of an effective state apparatus and the quick arrest and incarceration of the leaders tended to suppress demonstrative action. Accordingly, strikes and labor disturbances were confined to individual estates where specific grievances occurred. Nevertheless, the demonstrative behavior of indentured Indians not only questioned but also effectively demolished the notion of Indian docility.

1 For a discussion of these laws, see B. Mangru, Benevolent Neutrality. Indian Government Policy and Labor Migration to British Guiana 1854-1884 (London: Hansib Publishing, 1988), Chap.5.
2 See the Royal Gazette, 12 May 1868.
3 A hogshead of sugar was equivalent to 18 cwt. or 2,016 lbs.
4 See DeVouex to Lord Granville, 25 Dec. 1869.
5 See the Colonist, 7 Dec. 1869.
6 DeVoeux to Granville, paras. 43 & 45.
7 Ibid., para. 48.
8 For details of the incidents in the fields, see the Colonist, 7 Dec. 1869.
9 Hackia Sticks, cut from the hackia tree, were generally 4 to 5 feet long. They were very knotty and were used mainly in ‘Gadka’ or Stick Bouts.
10 The Colonist, 7 Dec. 1869.
11 Gov. J. Scott to Granville, no. 47, 22 April, 1870.
12 See the Colonist, 20 Aug. & 25 Sept. 1869.
13 Scott to Lord Kimberley, no. 133, 23 Nov. 1870.
14 Scott to Granville, no. 47, 22 April, 1870.
15 See the Colonist, 4 Oct. 1869. Cawnpore (today Kanpur) and Delhi were the main centers of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 which nearly toppled the British Raj.
16 Scott to Granville, no. 47, 22 April, 1870.
17 Ibid.

Dr. Basdeo Mangru teaches Caribbean Studies at York College, the City University of New York. He has written several books and articles on Indian Immigration and Indentureship to Guyana.

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