This Friday, September 30, will be the 150th anniversary of the slaughter of five indentured sugar workers and the wounding of seven others at Devonshire Castle, Essequibo Coast. It reminds us of the seminal role of labour in the struggle for independence from Britain, since the 1872 killings reinforced the unity of interests of the sugar planters and the state. Sugar bosses could summon the state Police to “settle” labour disputes. The killings also exacerbated already strained relations between newly-freed African slaves and Indian indentureds, since the Police Force, then, as now, was overwhelmingly African-manned.
While some Indians who had completed their indentureship had been recruited and performed satisfactorily, by the 1870s, Governor Kortright vetoed this practice by imposing discriminatory “minimum physical requirements”. He said he feared Indian policemen making common cause with the “coolies with cutlasses on the plantations”. Supplementing this physical violence deployed to quell plantation labour uprisings, other daily humiliations were inflicted on the immigrants. In addition to demanding to see “passes” for Indians off the plantation, Police Force historian John Campbell noted: “Police were employed to levy rents and to act as bailiffs (and) East Indians quite rightly viewed the Police as agents or allies of their oppressors”. Chief Justice Beaumont noted Police harassment of Indians in the 1870s as “galling subjection”.
Since protests of working conditions on the plantations was arbitrarily defined as “overt rebellions” eliciting shootings, Girmitiyas did not lightly embark upon such actions. One could only imagine the provocations that they did. The abysmal conditions on the plantations by 1870 can be gleaned from the stark population statistics. Of the 69,380 Indian immigrants landed by 1869, 6,523 had returned to India, but only 44,936 showed up in the census. It meant that if not a single birth occurred – which was impossible – 17,921, 1 in 4 had died.
The seminal precursor to Devonshire Castle occurred in July of 1869, when shovel gang workers at Plantation Leonora disputed the wages for work done and allegedly “assaulted” a manager. The response was swift: the Police and the 2nd West India Regiment were called in. Following the “Leonora Riot”, the B.G. Police Force became “the most heavily armed Police in the British West Indies,” according to historian Adam Adamson. Even though no one was killed, the protesting workers were arrested, convicted, and jailed in short order. The system had begun to perform a “one-two-three” – first the Police would use violence to maintain “order”. Then the judiciary would emphasise the condign lesson by applying the “law”, where any alleged non-performance or underperformance of their tasks – civil violations – earned criminal penalties of jail terms and onerous fines. Finally, the planters would add the “jail time” to the indenture period of the immigrants. Some were expelled from the plantations for good measure.
The Leonora protests precipitated a Royal Commission of Inquiry but instituted no changes in the Police composition or SOPs that continued unleashing violence to “keep the Indian in his place”. They became a bogeyman in that community.
On Sept 29 at Devonshire Castle, one Parag had been arrested for “assaulting” a Manager but was rescued from confinement. He cross-charged the Manager. The next day, Sept 30, Parag refused to appear at the Magistrate Court, where the accused, as a Manager, would have been allowed to sit beside the Magistrate. Instead, he, along with 250 other immigrants, appeared at the Estate, and prevented the Manager or anyone else from entering.
Twenty-three armed Policemen and the Magistrate appeared, and the latter ordered the Policemen to load their rifles. The Police were then ordered to charge – the immigrants stood their ground, and one Policeman (Archer) discharged a shot. The other Policemen thought the order to shoot had been given, and nine of them opened fire. Five workers, Maxidally, Kaulika, Beccaroo, Baldeo and Auckloo, were killed, and seven others were wounded. At the Inquest, the Policemen’s actions were exonerated as “justifiable homicide”. Labour protests were now routinely dubbed “riots”.
The planter-friendly paper “The Colonist”, exulted: “the leaden argument has brought submission quicker than all honeyed words that could have been used.” The “leaden argument” by Police guns was then made with fatal regularity to murder Indian Guyanese sugar workers protesting the syatem: 1896 – Non Pareil (6); 1903 – Friends (6); 1912 – Lusignan (1); 1913 – Rose Hall (14); 1924 – Ruimveldt (13); 1939 – Leonora (4); until 1948 – Enmore (5), when the PPP was formed to demand Independence.