The Coolie Depots of Calcutta

By Ravi Dev

After the 1839 enquiry into the brutal treatment meted out to the first batch of Indian indentureds at Gladstone’s Vreed-en-Hoop plantation, there was a halt to further shipments – but they were resumed to Mauritius in 1842. New arrangements were mandated by the Government of India to better regulate and control the trade in coolies under the rubric of protecting their rights. One of these was the establishment of depots near the Calcutta docks to house the Indentureds as the required numbers were accumulated  to fill the chartered ships.
The first depot was built at Bhowanipore for Mauritius but was initially also used for British Guiana, Trinidad and Jamaica when shipments to the Caribbean resumed in 1845. Later, separate depots for men and women destined for the Caribbean were established in the Garden Reach area of Calcutta near the Kidderpore Docks, west of Bhowanipore. The Demerara  Depot was at  61 Garden Reach and Trinidad’s, Jamaica’s, Suriname’s, Guadeloupe’s and Martinique’s were nearby.
The prospective emigrants would have been recruited by the Arkatis, sequestered in inland sub-depots and then transported  in batches via railways to Calcutta under the watchful eyes of the guard or “daffadars” (guards). Some of them would have registered in the areas of recruitment by a local magistrate. But others who did not want their relatives to know they were leaving – like my great grandfather Rambishun from Ishmailpur near Patna  — or who were being spirited away would have been registered elsewhere. Rambishun was registered at Barrackpore near Calcutta over 500 km away from Patna.
And it was in the depots that the homogenising of the emigrants – drawn from the vast area west of Bengal and concentrated in the Bhojpuri belt of modern western Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh – into “coolies” to labour in the plantations began. They were inspected by a doctor to weed out those who were unsuitable for labour; given new clothes that made them appear like inmates; fed together in lines but separated into women and men’s buildings for sleeping – fixed cots on mud floors. The eating together presented a major challenge since caste rules up to then precluded this commensal practice. One attempted circumvention of this objection was to have the food cooked by Brahmin emigrants.  They were closely guarded as during their transportation to and at the depot to prevent absconding. There was an “isolation”  hospital at each depot to restrict contagious diseases.
The food that would be served on the ships – like biscuits – were gradually introduced  during the wait that could sometimes last for months. The transgression of caste prejudices was further broken down in the forced consanguinity of the depos and there were significant numbers of “depot marriages” or liaisons.
It was a stroke of irony that the “Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers (GRSE” – which replaced the Guyana depot – -in 2023 built the MV Ma Lisha ferry that transports Guyanese between Georgetown and Region 1.
Compare the quarters of the coolies (Background in feeding pic) and the agent’s quarters.