The belle of the Shiela

By Ravi Dev

In the decades after the initial stop and start of shipments of indentureds up to 1851, there were a regular stream of time-expired immigrants who exercised their right to a return passage to India. They were accommodated in the ships that returned directly to India after dropping off their cargo. A recurrent theme about these returnees is their difficulty in readjusting to the India they had left, or in the case of children born in Br Guiana, to an India they had never seen.
One complaint was the money demanded for ceremonies in their villages that were supposed to remove the demerits that accumulated after crossing the Kala Pani and made them lose caste. Another was the changes they had undergone in the ten years they had spent in Br Guiana under a system that was regimented to have them work strenuously but allowed a wide range of mobility within their fellow indentureds. Caste restrictions had quickly broken down and inter-caste marriage or relationships became the norm due to the shortage of women. Others had been fleeced. Many quickly gravitated back to the Kidderpore docks in Calcutta from where they had departed and attempted to either re-indenture to their original colonies or new ones. Those who were rejected and were unable to pay their return passages soon formed a slum at a nearby location called Metiazburg.
But starting in the 1870s in almost each outgoing shipment there were a few returnees who were paying passengers. One of the most interesting was described by the captain of the ship Shiela in its return to Trinidad and BG in 1877.

“Amongst our coolie passengers (she paid her own passage money down), was a fine
looking woman about forty years of age. She had returned to India from Trinidad, having completed her term entitling her to a free passage. She got the name among us of the ” Queen of Sheba.” She had made quite a considerable fortune in the island, partly by judicious marriages, and partly in her widowhoods, and as a trader, for as such she had a natural inclination ; but in time a longing came over her to return to the land of her birth, but a short experience was enough for her. The priests got hold of her, and required her to do heavy penance, and pay a lot of money to get back her caste, which she had lost by leaving India ; but she declined to buy the goods at the price asked, and came with us again, her expression and verdict on the subject being, ” India only fit place for coolie.” She made a corner in fresh fish at St. Helena by buying up all the fishermen’s catch for the day, as a treat for the coolies on board. The lady was a sight to look at when she was fully dressed, according to her ideas.
For one thing slie was loaded with jewellery all over her person — immensely heavy silver bracelets from the elbows to the shoulder, also from the wrists to the elbows on both arms ; similar from ankles to knees ; a kind of diadem on the forehead ; a lot of rings of all sorts on her toes and her fingers ; a pendant nose ring ; and the ear-lobes were pierced with holes big enough to admit bottle corks, which were the customary adornment at ordinary times, but in cases of ceremony, the holes were decorated in the same manner as the rest of her person. Of course, I have not described the rest of her wearing apparel, but I believe she did have some on — must have had, or I should have noticed the deficiency ; but being a mere man I must plead inabiHty to describe the intricacies of ladies’ apparel. Anyhow, you may depend on it, she was in the height of fashion.”