Home Letters 2 historical errors about the 1872 Devonshire Castle shooting must be corrected
More than any other diaspora community to which Indian laborers were taken, British Guiana has earned the distinction of being a former colony, if not the only one, that has been characterized by a long tradition of continuous agitation and protests against British colonialism and the plantocracy. This has been a distinct characteristic feature of the Indian indenture experience since 1838 when, in 1836, John Gladstone brokered a lucrative deal for the arrival of 396 Girmitiyas on two ships, the SS Whitby and the SS Hesperus, up to the cessation of indenture in 1917 (it officially ended in 1920). Sugar workers have consistently been a bulwark in the struggle against a controlled economic and social system that defined their existence. On the morning of Wednesday, June 16, 1948, just after sunrise, five sugar workers were brutally shot to death at Enmore Estate while advocating for improved working conditions, fair wages, and for the recognition of a Trade Union of their choice. The five workers who died (14 others were seriously injured) became known as the Enmore Martyrs (Lallabaggie and Dookie from Enmore, Rambarran, Harry and Pooran from Enterprise/Non Pariel). One worker was shot in the back as he tried to flee from the scene. At their gravesite, following the funeral procession, a young Cheddi Jagan made his solemn commitment: “There was to be no turning back. There and then I made a silent pledge – I would dedicate my entire life to the cause of the struggle of the Guyanese people against bondage and exploitation”. Long before Enmore, however, estate workers played a major role in exposing the inhumanity of inclusive indentureship, demonstrated by a restless, habitual rebelliousness.
Perhaps the most dramatic protest in the Caribbean region was the Marienburg massacre of indenture workers in 1902 in Suriname. But for us in Guyana, that recognition goes to the massacre in Rose Hall. On Thursday, March 13, 1913, in Rose Hall Plantation, East Canje, British militiamen opened fire on Indian sugar workers, killing 15, including a woman shot in the stomach, and injuring about 40 others. The seriousness of some of the wounds warranted amputations. Prior to this event, the shooting at Devonshire Castle in 1872 had earned the reputation of being the first of many deliberate acts designed to deprive the indentured sugar workers of their basic human and economic rights. Devonshire Castle is significant for several reasons. One, it was an early insurgency that demonstrated a strong resolve to oppose the abusive hierarchical indenture system. Two, all five of the victims were direct descendants from ancestral India. Three, the protest, even within its spontaneity, established a precedent for future protests throughout the colony. Four, the callousness associated with the actions of the colonial authorities revealed their inherent disdain for the “coolies”, despite stipulations that existed in British regulations for their protection.
During the Devonshire Castle uprising, while protesting low wages and overwork, seven male workers were injured, and five others were killed. The five men viciously killed had arrived in British Guiana between 1854 and 1869. Anne Marie Phillips in her PhD dissertation, extracting information from an inquiry into the incident (A Report of the Proceedings and Evidence at the Inquest on the Bodies of Five Rioters, killed by the Fire of the Police, Georgetown: The Colonist Office, 1872), described the uprising in this way:
“On the day of the protest, over two hundred Indian laborers from Devonshire Castle assembled outside of the court house in Daniel’s Town. The complainants, Partaub and Paraag, refused to enter the court house. One witness to the incident, John Henry Blake, clerk to the stipendiary magistrate of the North Coast district, testified that he heard the immigrants saying that ‘the magistrate was not going to give them justice.’ After they turned away from the court house, the immigrants began to make their way back to Devonshire Castle. In response to the assembled Indian laborers, the armed police who had arrived in Daniel’s Town earlier that morning were deployed to Devonshire Castle. At the estate, the police opened fire on the immigrants …” What was remarkable about the Devonshire Castle shooting was that after hearing testimony from the “management, immigration and court officials and the local police”, four jurors found that the police constables had acted appropriately “in defense of their lives, and in defense of the lives of the said several other persons, then and there being, and also for the preservation of the public peace.” The colonial government attempted to prosecute the “ringleaders” of the uprising on three separate occasions but each time, the jury was unable to reach a verdict. The victims were not only silenced, but memories of the protesters had to be desecrated, as well.
In honor of their memory, a monument was established at Cabbage Dam, Devonshire Castle in Region 2, the victim’s memories now permanently etched in Essequibo’s history.
The five Devonshire Castle Martyrs, ages and immigrant ships that brought them to British Guiana included Kaula Khan [Kala Khan], 43 years, arrived on the SS Shand in 1854, Mucksoodally [Maqsood Ali], 36 years old, arrived on the SS Earl Russell in 1865, Becaroo [Bhikaaroo], 25 years old arrived on the SS Earl Russell in 1865, Akloo [Akhlu], 30 years old arrived on the SS Apelles in 1866, and Buldewo [Baldeo/Baldev], 32 years old arrived on the SS Far East in 1869.
Indians will be observing the 150th anniversary of the shooting of the five Devonshire Castle “ringleaders” from India. However, in honor of their sacred memories, two historical errors must be corrected. One, for several years, the Devonshire Martyrs Commemoration has been held mistakenly on 29th September. The actual massacre occurred on Monday, 30 September 1872. Second, as Evan Radhay Persaud has pointed out, it appeared that the names of two of the Martyrs were recorded incorrectly in the Commission of Inquiry Report of 1872 which can be accessed in the Rodney National Archives of Guyana (National Archives Document AA3/49). Kaulica and Maxidally as they appeared in the COI Report, should in fact be recorded as Kaula Khan (# 235) and Mucksoodally (# 236) instead.
The monument on Cabbage Dam, appropriately serves as a stark reminder of the tragedy of the senseless killing of the Indian Girmitiyas. The Europeans tried to erase their existence. We owe it to their memories to get it right.