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Re-Imagining the Guyanas

Lawrence Aje
Thomas Lacroix
Judith Misrahi-Barak

Remembering Rose Hall and Beyond

The Rose Hall Uprising1

Gaiutra Bahadur

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  • 1 Permission to reproduce this excerpt from Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture has been granted (...)

1The following account of the 1913 uprising on Rose Hall Plantation, an uprising significant for the abolition of indenture, is an excerpt from Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture (Hurst & Co. and the University of Chicago Press: London and Chicago, 2013), courtesy of the publishers.

2The book reconstructs the journey of the author Gaiutra Bahadur’s great-grandmother Sujaria from Bihar to British Guiana in 1903. On October 17, 1906, Sujaria was transferred from a plantation near the capital, Georgetown, to Rose Hall. Bahadur writes:

Sujaria took her newborn daughter Mundi with her as she embarked, in the police custody typical for transfers, on yet another journey: sixty miles east by rail, then by ferry across the undulating brown back of the Berbice River, past a marshy island named after crabs, through the old Dutch town of New Amsterdam, beyond the colony’s insane asylum, over to the east bank of Canje Creek, where tucked in a bend in the river sat Rose Hall Plantation. At the time, its manager was Charles Bethune, a strict manager but subdued compared to his successor, a cursing man under whose watch one of the deadliest plantation strikes in the Caribbean took place seven years later.

3On 9 September 1913, in the Viceroy’s Legislative Council in Delhi, a pioneer in India’s nationalist movement spoke aloud the name of my great-grandmother’s plantation, uttering into history that remote rectangle of mud, my own. Invoking it in the anti-colonial cause, Surendra Nath Banerjee asked: ‘Has there recently been a case of collision between the police and some Indian coolies at a sugar plantation, Rose Hall [Canje Creek], Berbice, in British Guiana?’ At sixty-four, Banerjee doubted the confrontational tactics that had been so crucial to dismantling indenture in South Africa, two years before. The Brits had nicknamed this elder statesman Surrender Not Banerjee but he had evolved, over time, into a conciliatory figure. He consulted the Viceroy before posing the question: ‘Is it the case that the police went fully armed and equipped with a Maxim gun to secure the arrest of five Indian coolies, and that resistance being offered, the police fired two volleys upon the coolies, killing sixteen and wounding thirty?’

4Six months earlier, on 13 March 1913, Rose Hall had indeed become a scene of carnage. Police killed fifteen workers, including a woman they shot in the stomach, and injured another thirty-nine, seriously enough to warrant amputations. It was perhaps the deadliest suppression of indenture-era unrest throughout the Caribbean. Sujaria was living on the plantation or right outside it, in Cumberland Village when the colony’s police chief, Colonel G.C. de Rinzy, paraded through with a phalanx of men and a Maxim gun. That weapon of war had been credited with swiftly subduing large swathes of Africa for colonial rule in the 1890s, as much because of the panic inspired by its fearsome appearance in battle as the bullets it discharged rapid-fire. Through Cumberland to Rose Hall’s Great House, de Rinzy marched with the creature-like machine gun. Leaving it there, he led seventy men into the ‘nigger yard’ where the immigrants lived. In the fusillade that followed, five free and ten bound workers were killed, including some just sitting in their rooms when policemen’s bullets, missing their mark or having none, hit them.

5The violence was the climax of six weeks of agitation by the plantation’s Indian laborers, both the indentured and others who, like my great-grandmother, were by then free. The trouble had started when the manager, James Smith, broke his promise to give the workers four holidays in exchange for forfeiting Sundays off during the sugar-grinding season. His breach of faith infuriated the immigrants. For a day, they defied his order to work. As a result, Smith had seven men criminally prosecuted, for mere labor violations. Hundreds had been absent from work, but only these seven were punished, jailed for six months. The injustice of it roused the indentured to express their grievances. One man accused a driver of assault, but the magistrate threw out the charge. Several women alleged starvation wages and regular beatings by drivers, but the immigration agent dismissed their complaints. ‘You are strong, healthy women,’ he told them. ‘Some of you have healthy-looking babies. You don’t look as if you were starved.’ In the weeks ahead, the shovel gang struck several times to protest against illegally low wages. As usual, manager arbitrators were dispatched, and as usual they determined the wages to be fair.

6The wrongs exposed by the immigrants weren’t merely economic. There had also been insults to their honor. They claimed that the plantation’s head driver Jugmohan reassigned women from one man to another. Any man who wanted to keep his wife had to pay $1. This pimp-like shakedown, as well as the driver’s many other sins and extortions, incensed the immigrants. A revered pandit at Cumberland, banned by Jugmohan from performing religious ceremonies at Rose Hall, had fanned their outrage. The immigrants demanded that the driver be fired, but the immigration agent failed to investigate their charges. Indeed, the system did nothing for the workers, except give them the four days off that they had been promised.

7In retaliation for the unrest, the manager requested the transfer of five men he deemed ringleaders, and the immigration agent obliged. The five men were called to court, without knowing why. The county police inspector was there, waiting with a car to take them, instantly and forcibly, to five different plantations. The mass of immigrants at the courthouse objected, and the men refused to climb into the car. They said they needed time to gather their property, their wives, their savings. The police promised to send all on later, but the men resisted, asking: ‘But how will you find what we have buried in the ground?’ The crowd grew restive, and the police released the men, for the time being.

8But twenty-five armed constables were posted to Rose Hall. The next day, the immigration agent general arrived from the capital to lend authority to the transfer. One of its targets, a Muslim scribe literate in English, a newcomer to the colony and to agricultural labor, waved a soiled copy of the immigration ordinance that he had scavenged in India. Maula Bux knew that its provisions were routinely violated, and he insisted that management lacked legal grounds for a transfer. ‘They know I can read and suspect me of teaching the people not to go to their work, so they [falsely] put this blame on me,’ he said. In front of the colony’s immigration chief, Bux vowed: ‘Only my dead body can you remove from this plantation.’

9In the days ahead, the police ranks grew to forty, and the immigrants kept striking. The indentured urged the unindentured not to work. One day, while escorting free immigrants into the fields to work, the police narrowly escaped a clash with the indentured. Then, a week after the police garrisoned themselves on the estate, they searched the immigrant barracks, fruitlessly, for firearms. The laborers heard rumors that the police had entered their rooms to molest their wives. Sensing the mood, Berbice’s police inspector wired Georgetown. ‘Things are very serious,’ he alerted his boss. ‘The coolies are most insolent and overbearing in their manner.’ The inspector wanted backup.

10By special night train, arriving at dawn, came that backup: an added force of fifty under the command of de Rinzy, the very man who shot Jungli in the back seventeen years earlier at Nonpareil. In his self-serving account of the incident, de Rinzy described quelling a murderous riot by coolies. The immigrants described surviving a slaughter by police. The colonel told a reporter that he heard warning whistles as he approached the barracks. ‘Then,’ he said, ‘there was a tremendous roar. It is a noise which some people have never heard. The fierce roar of an angry, infuriated mob.’ He claimed to see coolies springing ‘from nowhere and wildly brandishing all kinds of weapons, sticks, cutlasses and spears made from cutlasses mounted on sticks,’ as if in ‘a wild, barbarian country.’ When a corporal tried to arrest one of the wanted men, another indentured man grappled with him, and both the policeman and the immigrant tumbled, wrestling, into a trench. Police fired into it, and neither man emerged alive. That was the testimony of the immigrants, who claimed to be completely unarmed. In de Rinzy’s version, the mob pounced on the corporal, beating his brains out in the trench before the police discharged their guns. A bullet definitely pierced the corporal’s brain, but whether it—or an attack by the immigrants—killed him was contested. Tellingly, and atypically, the Guianese government decided not to prosecute any immigrants for murder or riot. There was only one legal consequence. Four of the men wanted for transfer were scattered to different plantations. The fifth had been killed in the shooting.

11When The Daily Argosy splashed the headline ‘BLOODSHED’ across its front page, two special envoys from the British government in India happened to be in Guiana to see it. Their presence made members of the Colonial Office squirm. One worried that the newspaper’s language—legacy terms evoking slavery, such as ‘nigger yard’ and ‘driver’—might disturb the delegation as much as the shooting itself. Indenture was under attack in India, and the men had been delegated by the viceroy to investigate the system in the five colonies where it still existed.

12The previous year, the unofficial members of the Viceroy’s Legislative Council, who were all Indian, had voted to abolish indenture. In 1910, they had successfully moved to end it in Natal, where Gandhi had been battling laws intended to exclude Indians once their indentures were done. Ex-indentured who failed to return to India, who stayed to compete against white colonists as traders or free workers, had to pay a discriminatory tax. South Africa wanted Indians, but only as cheap, exploitable labor to be repatriated once their contracts in coal mines, on railways or on plantations had been served. The policy made indenture a cause for the nationalists, who saw it as an insult to their dignity and self-respect, an attempt to make Indians permanent coolies in the eyes of the world.

13Fresh from their victory over Natal, the nationalists pushed to scrap the system everywhere—even in colonies, such as Guiana and Trinidad, that didn’t tax the exindentured for the privilege of staying. Indeed, driven by economic calculations, those colonies were doing just the opposite by making it expensive to sail home and offering cash or land to those who ceded their right of return. On 4 March 1912, the man who had introduced the successful Natal resolution did rhetorical combat again in the Viceroy’s Council. G.K. Gokhale, Gandhi’s political mentor, denounced indenture as ‘a monstrous system, iniquitous in itself, based on fraud and maintained by force.’ His resolution failed, but only because none of the official members, none of the British members, voted for it.

14Even so, the viceroy, Lord Hardinge, was worried. He sent the envoys to Guiana, the ones who landed in time to read of the carnage at Rose Hall, because he feared that Gokhale would dispatch his own delegation, comprised of less careful men. Hardinge chose as his delegates the senior Bombay tax collector James McNeill, an Ulster Catholic but a conservative, and the Indian businessman Chimman Lal, an honorary magistrate in the United Provinces perceived as a toady. Hardinge’s hope was that they would restore confidence in indenture. When his careful men ultimately filed their report, they included, in an appendix, an extract from the government’s Official Gazette about the Rose Hall shooting. Indeed, the report contained many damning details: statistics on alarming rates of criminal prosecutions for labor violations, allusions to overseers keeping Indian women and the observation that: ‘There is no doubt that the morality of an estate population compares very unfavorably with that of an Indian village.’ Nonetheless, the envoys concluded that indenture was, overall, a boon and recommended mending, not ending, it. But their report was embargoed as the rhetoric escalated on the ground, turning Indian public opinion so violently against indenture that British officials in India were forced to turn, too.

15By the time that Banerjee posed his question about Rose Hall, Hardinge had already read the transcript of Guiana’s inquiry into the shooting. In a dispatch to the Secretary of State for India in London, the viceroy had already criticized government officials as well as the plantation manager. The magistrate shouldn’t have convicted the seven men for absence from work, he said, and the immigration agent shouldn’t have ignored the charges against Jugmohan. ‘[W]e are forced,’ Hardinge wrote, ‘to the conclusion that the coolies had received considerable provocation and had good reason to complain of unfair treatment.’ He called for compensation to the wounded and families of the dead—a call that ultimately went nowhere. It was translated—from the viceroy in Delhi to the India Office in London to the Colonial Office to Guiana—into a request that the governor explain what alms houses, widows funds or orphanages were doing for the victims and survivors. And then it was translated into thin air. Still, Hardinge had asked. He understood how emotionally charged the fight against indenture was becoming. Out in the villages and in the cities of India, to the common man, it was emerging as a question of honor.


1 Permission to reproduce this excerpt from Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture has been granted by Hurst & Co. and the University of Chicago Press.


Gaiutra Bahadur is a Guyanese-American writer. She is the author of Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, a narrative history of indenture which was shortlisted in 2014 for the Orwell Prize, the British literary prize for political writing that is artful.  Her fiction debut, the short story ‘The Stained Veil’, is forthcoming in the anthology Go Home! (New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2018). She has won residencies or fellowships from Harvard, the MacDowell Artists Colony, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy, the British Library and the British Society of Authors, among others.

Bahadur has reported and written for The New York Times Book ReviewThe Nation, The Virginia Quarterly ReviewLapham’s Quarterly, Ms. MagazineDissentForeign Policy, The Guardian and the Washington Post, among other publications.

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