Guiana 1838 (2004)
Director: Rohit Jagessar.
Starring: Aarti Bathija, Thomas Garvey, Kumar Gaurav (Laxman), Rufus Graham, Asim Mujahid (Dhaniram), Kiran Pande, Amit Patel, Henry Rodney, Bobby Routh (Lallu), Kern Wasan (Jagru), Neville Williams, Kenn Woodard (Thomas).
abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean in 1834 prompts a company to recruit Coolies from India to make them virtual slaves
British Guiana, 1833-1834. Gladstone Plantation. The plantation driver, David Youngblood, in charge of the slaves working in the sugar cane fields, tells an older male slave to report to the whipping post for six floggings at sundown. His offense is that he is the father of a runaway slave. The father says nothing, so the driver makes it 13 floggings.
"It was the legend of El Dorado and its gold that drew Walter Raleigh to the West Indies more than 400 years ago. A century before, Columbus ventured on his voyage to find the routes to India. Instead, he found the West Indies, the name which came from the idea that he had arrived in India. Back in Spain, it was realized that the West Indies would not produce sufficient spices, and so, instead, sugar cane was introduced into the territory. The potential of this vast region drew the European powers into what is best described as a great induced frenzy. These nations were busy fighting over these new lands in their quest to exploit and colonize. Although slavery was not new to the world, these countries and islands of the West Indies were among the first places to experience full-blown slave labor in the New World. The trade routes were now redrawn. Ships would sail from Europe to West Africa where commodities were exchanged for slaves who were then carried through the Middle Passage onwards to the West Indies. Sugar and other commodities were then transported back to Europe, completing this profitable trading triangle. Profitable for all, excepting those who were sold into labor. On December 31st in the year 1600 Queen Elizabeth I granted a charter allowing a group of British merchants to trade in the east, particularly in India. The British Empire would expand continuously over the next 200 years on the back of slave labor. Despite the insatiable thirst for slave labor, Britain was debating abolishing slavery. In these times, the brutality of slavery was still ever present throughout the colonies."
Overseer Bullock of the Gladstone Plantation rides through the cane fields beside his wife, telling her that he will supply a great deal of sugar to the British army. She reminds her husband that all this around them belongs to the Gladstones in Liverpool, England. She also says that the blacks have been in British Guiana for almost 200 years.
In the slave quarters the wife of the old slave who just got 13 lashes tends to the wounds on his back and she prays that her son Cabi will come back to her.
The plantation owners and their staff are notified that slavery has been abolished in Britain and the British Empire. Another overseer, named Thomas, comes to see Bullock with the news. He adds there will be investigations of the management of the plantation: rape, murder, bribery. A young, female black slave hears this and runs to tell her people that slavery has been abolished. That is, indeed, good news for the slaves.
Among those who helped abolish slavery were Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson. William Wilberforce led the abolition campaign in the House of Commons. The path to freedom had taken almost half a century. The British government paid the British slave owners as compensation for putting an end to slavery. Today this would be valued at over $3 billion dollars. The slave owners pocketed most of the money and forced the ex-slaves back to work in the fields.
But for now, the blacks in British Guiana celebrate their freedom with music and dance. Cabi, the son of the old man who had been whipped because he ran away, now comes back to be with his family.
August, 1835. Bullock comes to the old man asking him to have the blacks work in the fields. He says he will pay them real wages this time. The old man will not cooperate with the whites.
So, the wealthy seek new sources for a new form of slavery, called indentureship. The British now turn to India and the Indians for the new sources of labor. Over one million Indians would eventually be made into indentured servants on British colonies. On January 14, 1836, John Gladstone, the owner of the Gladstone Plantation, wrote a letter to Calcutta requesting that coolies be recruited and shipped as cargo to labor on his plantation. He says he is sending David Youngblood over to pick up the coolies.
The British use an Indian con-man to lie to the Indians, promising a journey by ship of only one or two days. He also says that where they are going, there will be lots of gold for everyone. In one or two weeks they will be back in India, if they so desire. So one man steps forward and says he will sign up to go. Other British agents were paid per person for those men they could capture and force to go to British Guiana. They place the coolies in large cages watched by many guards.
When the boat arrives, they load the coolies on board ship. A pretty Indian girl watches the people being loaded onto the ship known as the Hesperus. They force a woman to go despite her cries that she does not want to leave her baby behind.
Youngblood asks the captain how long will it take them to get to British Guinea? The answer is 80 to 90 days.
The men and women are stacked tight together in the hold of the ship.
January 29, 1838. The Hesperus leaves the Bay of Bengal carrying 165 Indians. The Indians are locked up in the darkness of the hold for all of February, March and April.
90 days after leaving the Bay of Bengal. The Hesperus still sails onward. The ship finally arrives in British Guiana on May 5, 1838 The people come ashore. 20 of the 165 Indians died during the four month voyage. They have to walk miles along the Guiana coastal waters to get to the plantation.
They finally arrive at their cabin homes. The blacks on the plantation don't know who these brown people are. They watch the brown people with great curiosity.
In the morning, Cabi's father talks to the leader of the coolie group, the man who was the first to sign his name to go to British Guiana. The black man wants to know who these newcomers are. After all, the blacks have been here for over 200 years. Cabi's father tells the Indian leader that the blacks will not let the browns take the land from them. The white man brought the browns here in order to destroy the blacks, but the blacks won't let that happen.
A large group of blacks protest the use of brown workers. They have sharpened sticks to use as weapons. The whites with their rifles chase the blacks away.
A black woman runs home to tell the men that the Indians are coming. The whites show up with the Indians behind them. Overseer Bullock has decided to have the Indians burn down the cabins of the blacks. He says the blacks are just squatters on Gladstone property.
Another white man throws a torch to the Indian leader. He orders him to torch the black houses. The leader says: "No!" He adds: "We are farmers. We grow crops. We're not here to burn your houses or kill you. We're not here to destroy your livelihood." For this brave outburst, the leader will be whipped. The Indians return home.
More Indians arrive on the land. Bullock and Thomas talk abour a pretty Indian girl who Thomas is interested in sexually.
Cabi walks along a cane field road. He sees the Indians working in the cane fields. The Indian leader comes up behind Cabi. As Cabi turns around, the leader sees that he has tremendous welts on his body from whippings. He feels empathy for the black man and now tells him that his people are from India and are called Indians. Cabi says he is African. The two men get to liking each other and build up a strong bond over time. The leader says his name is Laxman and Cabi tells Laxman his name. Bullock comes over and tells Cabi to get away from Laxman. He says if Laxman runs, Cabi will be the first he will chase down and, after that, Laxman. Cabi leaves. Bullock tells Laxman that he is just itching for a lashing.
Youngblood lashes Laxman publicly. At the whipping is that pretty, young Indian woman who was watching the coolies be put on the Hesperus. She is also the girl that Thomas is interested in. She asks that the whipping be stopped. Bullock approves the deal, but only after making Thomas give up the girl to him. The whipping stops.
Bulllock gives his wife the pretty Indian girl to be used as a maid.
A group of Indians gets together with Laxman to ask him how they can get better working terms from the whites. The men share their individual and common complaints about their situations. The Indians haven't even been paid, and now the whites are not giving them any food. The truth is that they have very few options.
An Indian named Lallu attempts to rape one of the few Indian women in the camp. At last, Lallu wakes up and realizes that he can't rape this woman. He scolds himself and curses this place he was tricked into coming to.
Laxman talks to the pretty girl. He asks her if they caught her back in India and forced her to come on the ship? She says she was not captured.
At night Laxman comes over to talk with Cabi. Cabi says he feels bad about Laxman having been whipped. Cabi advises him to never try to escape from this place. The white people are everywhere and Laxman would be caught.
Laxman asks Cabi how did he ever get free? Cabi says that a whiteman came to the plantation one day to free them. Laxman asks where is this white man now? He went back to England. Laxman says maybe some day this white man free the Indians too.
Still at night Laxman goes over to the cabin of the pretty Indian girl. He sees Bullok rush away from the girl to his horse.
Three months later. Laxman is in iron shackles now, but still works in the fields.
The Indian con-man comes by a group of Indians. The Indians give the criminal a hard time and rightfully so. Laxman comes over to him and takes a note out of the man's pocket. The con-man looks to be in very weakened state physically. And he looks a bit crazy too. The people walk away from him.
Fires are started in the cane fields.
One day, Laxman sees a chance to escape and he goes for it. He jumps off a barge filled with sugar cane. The whites whip the religious leader among the Indians.
The whites search hard for Laxman, but he keeps evading them.
The pretty Indian woman washes clothes. She finds a bloody shirt worn by Laxman when he was whipped. Now she has hope that Laxman is still alive. She takes the shirt and goes over and takes a rifle from off the back of a horse. She starts walking straight for Bullock's house, perhaps to kill him. Bullock's wife sees her approaching and runs out to stop the young girl from getting hurt herself. She says she understands how the girl feels. The young girl drops the rifle. Then she comforts the crying wife.
February, 1839. Mr. Scoble, the man that freed the blacks, returns to Gladstone Plantation. The plantation operator says that they are treating the Indian workers very well, but Scobel doesn't believe that for a second. He says: "The coolies will be free to live and work as they please. Signed by John Gladstone, Liverpool." January 4, 1836. And now the danger of imprisonment falls on the white managers of the plantations in British Guiana. Scoble says: "Gentlemen, never again shall men, women and children languish in order for sugar to prosper in the British West Indies or, for that manner, anywhere on the British colonies. The coolie slave trade is over."
Laxman returns to the plantation.
Laxman and the others say goodbye to their black friends. The ship has finally come to take them back to India.
"John Gladstone was the owner of slaves. He was responsible for bringing the Indians to British Guiana. He made money from slave labor. He educated his son, William Gladstone, who would later become the Prime Minister of England. William Gladstone was one of the architects of the modern British Empire. An empire that could not have existed without the blood, sweat and tears of unpaid slaves and laborers. On the 28th day of February, 1840, the struggles of the British Guiana Indians were exposed by John Scoble to the British public. The system briefly came to an end. Indentureship was allowed to continue after some modifications. During the system, around one million Indians were shipped away from India. In addition to Guiana & Mauritius, Indians later arrived in Trinidad, Suriname, Jamaica & Fiji among other places. The exportation of indentured Indian labor to British Guiana would end in 1917. The entire system finally came to an end on January 1, 1920 when the last indentured Indians in Fiji were released from their contracts Although some of the Indians would return to India, many remained on the colonies."
Slavery is an institution that is hard to stop, judging from the history of it. In the history of the United States, after the abolishment of slavery, the southerners just developed a different form of slavery: sharecropping and the system of Jim Crow. This form lasted until the 1960s. And yet racial prejudice and discrimination are still very much alive. The British had a similar history it appears. They abolished slavery on the British colonies in 1833, but then the whites just established a different form of slavery on the colonies that was not abolished until 1920. One can't just abolish slavery and then assume it is defeated. Rather one always has to monitor the slavery situation to keep ahead of those looking to make a profit on the backs of the slaves. The film about the slave situation provides a parallel to what happened in the American south, and is a much needed chapter in history. I myself was not really aware of the on-going history of slavery on the British colonies. In places the movie drags with some long, drawn-out scenes, and there is no real love story in the film. Nevertheless, I was glad to learn new things about the institution of slavery on the British colonies.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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