This Thursday, September 30, will be the 149th anniversary of the slaughter of five indentured sugar workers and the wounding of seven others at Devonshire Castle, Essequibo Coast. The 1872 killings signalled the unity of interests of the sugar planters and the state, since the highly armed Police could be called in to “settle” labour disputes between workers and management. The Devonshire Castle killings also exacerbated already strained relations between newly-freed African slaves and the Indian immigrants, since the Police Force, then and now, was overwhelmingly African-manned.
While some Indians who had completed their indentureship had been recruited and performed satisfactorily, by the 1870s, Governor Kortright discouraged this practice by imposing “minimum physical requirements”. He said he feared them making common cause with the “coolies with cutlasses on the plantations”. Additionally, while most of the official violence was deployed to quell labour uprisings on the plantations, there were other daily humiliations inflicted on the immigrants. 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 any protest of their working conditions on the plantations was arbitrarily defined as an “overt rebellion” and resulted in lengthening of their indentureship term, immigrants did not lightly embark upon such actions. Yet, since they did protest, one could only imagine the provocations. The overall dire conditions on the plantations by 1870 can be gleaned from the bare population statistics. Of the 69,380 Indian immigrants that had arrived by 1869, some 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, or 26%, had died.
The seminal precursor to Devonshire Castle occurred in July of 1869, when forty workers of the shovel gang 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. After the “Leonora Riot”, the Guiana Police Force became “the most heavily armed Police in the British West Indies,” according to 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”, and then the judiciary would emphasise the condign lesson by applying the “law”, where any claimed 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 immigrant and expel some of them from the plantations for good measure.
The Leonora protests precipitated a Royal Commission, but not any changes on the unbalanced Police-immigrant equation, which continued inflicting violence to “keep the Indian in his place”. The underlying cause at Devonshire Castle was the Indians’ mistrust of the judicial system.
On Sept 29, one Parag had been arrested for “assaulting” a Manager at Devonshire Castle, but was rescued from confinement. He cross-charged the Manager. The next day, 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 henceforth routinely dubbed “riots”.
The Colonist, a paper friendly to planter interests, exulted, “the leaden argument has brought submission quicker than all honeyed words that could have been used.” The “leaden argument” from the Police guns was to be made with terrifying regularity against Indian Guyanese sugar workers from then – 1896: Non Pareil (6); 1903: Friends (6); 1912: Lusignan (1); 1913: Rose Hall (14); 1924: Ruimveldt (13); 1939: Leonora (4); until 1948: Enmore (5).
They were just “coolies”.