The Devonshire Castle strike and riots of 1872 and our earliest indentured martyrs
History This Week
By Tota C. Mangar
October 5th 2006
Last Friday, 29th September, 2006 marked the 134th Anniversary of the Devonshire Castle Strike and Riots of 1872, an event in Guyana's history which unfortunately was over the years not given the prominence it so richly deserves. As a consequence not many in Guyana and the world at large are fully conscious of this highly significant historical event. Indeed, they are more familiar with the Enmore strike of 1948 and Enmore Martyrs Day because of its recency and more widespread publicity.
Within recent years however, the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport and the administration of Region Two and other related agencies have been making strenuous efforts to highlight this event and its importance largely through their annual commemorative activity at the monument site, Devonshire Castle on the Essequibo Coast.
The importation of indentured labourers from the Indian sub-continent was part of the continuing search for a reliable labour force to meet the needs of the sugar industry and the powerful plantocracy following the abolition of slavery and the termination of the apprenticeship system in the 1830s.
The system of Indian indentureship could be characterized as one of intense struggle, supreme sacrifice and persistent resistance. It was closely linked to slavery. This was certainly the view of prominent historians Hugh Tinker, Dr Walter Rodney, Dr Basdeo Mangru and Chief Justice in the second half of the nineteenth century, Charles Beaumont.
In the colony indentured labourers had to endure the critical period of 'seasoning' or adjusting to their new environment. This was no easy task and many found themselves introduced to plantation labour very quickly after their arrival here.
On the estates the indentured labourers experienced the harshness of the system and it was obvious that the powerful plantocracy had effective control of the immigrant labour force which they exploited to the maximum. An important aspect of this control was the contract under which the immigrant was recruited from his homeland. While it stipulated the obligations of the labourer and the employer, the labour laws weighed heavily against the former. The implementation of the labour laws and the period of industrial residence were taking place thousand of miles from the labourer's homeland and in a social and political environment dominated by the employer. It was not surprising therefore that laws were easily varied and very often abused by the plantocracy to suit their "whims and fancies". Of added significance was the fact that some Immigration Agent Generals and Stipendiary Magistrates tended to side with the planter class and as a result cases of intimidation, assault and battery were often covered up.
Court trials were often subjected to abuse and were, in many instances reduced to a farce as official interpreters aligned themselves with the plantocracy while the hapless labourers had very little opportunity of defending themselves.
Throughout the period of indentureship immigrants were faced with meagre wage rates and unrealistic tasks. Weekly earnings depended on the number of tasks completed, the nature of tasks, whether it was weeding, shovelling, manuring, planting or harvesting and the speed with which they were completed. In any event it was the employer or planter who invariably determined the wages rate and whenever there was a fall in sugar prices immigrants found their wages minimized.
The immigrants often went before the courts as victims of the harsh labour laws and the legal system of the day. The planter had at his disposal several instruments of prosecution. He could prosecute for refusal to commence work, or work left unfinished, absenteeism without authority, disorderly or threatening behaviour or even neglect. Punishment resulted in imprisonment or fines. Moreover, an immigrant imprisoned for misconduct could have his indenture extended to include the period in jail. This meant that the immigrant was effectively punished twice for the same offence.
Immigrants also suffered from a paucity of social amenities. The tenement ranges or 'logies' were small, overcrowded and unventilated, potable water was virtually nonexistent and medical facilities and sanitation were poor. As a result outbreak of diseases tended to assume epidemic proportions.
Through vagrancy laws immigrants had their movements restricted. This was an integral part of the planters' strategy to localize labour and to place restraints on workers' liberty. It was because of their vast powers of control over the indentured labourers that planters become increasingly arrogant. Some openly and repeatedly boasted that the labourers on their estate should only be "a work, or in hospital or in goal." One Demerara planter publicly stated "give me my heart's desires in coolies and I will make you a million hogsheads of sugar".
It was not surprising that from the 1860s onwards the myth of Indian docility on the plantations was seriously challenged as the labourers began to openly defy the system. There was a steady deterioration of industrial relations, increasing working class protests and imperial investigation. Violent eruptions were occasioned by many specific and localized grievances such as overbearing behaviour of managers, wage rates disputes, disagreement over tasks, sexual exploitation of women by overseers and the arbitrary reduction of labourers' wages. In 1868 the Royal Gazette reported that "hundreds perhaps thousands, who would now work on the sugar estates, cannot find employment." Further by 1869, the price paid for cutting canes to make one hogshead of sugar was only half of what it was in 1854.
Signs of mounting discontent and assertiveness among the workers were evidenced through pulling down of fences, vandalism of equipment and implements and various other destructive acts including arson to crops and building. Of a more confrontational nature was the tendency to refuse work, demand concessions, reject orders, threaten whites and ever so often reacting to violence.
The first major disturbance and strike took place at Plantation Leonora, West Coast Demerara in 1869 and this was followed by violence on Plantations Hague, Uitvlugt, Mon Repos, Non Pariel, Zeelugt and Vergenoegen during the next two years. Of significance around this time was also the lengthy letter of Stipendiary Magistrate, George William Des Voeux to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in which he complained bitterly about the depressing conditions and numerous abuses facing immigrants. These complaints led to the appointment of a Royal Commission of Inquiry which investigated living and working conditions in the British West Indies.
The 1872 outbreak
For weeks prior to the 29th September 1872, the time of the Devonshire Castle Uprising, restlessness and assertiveness had became an almost daily feature of estate life on the Essequibo Coast. The root cause of this uneasiness was widespread dissatisfaction with the allocation of tasks, the poor prices offered, the long hours of work, the frequency of unilateral pay deductions from wages of labourers and general ill-treatment and abuse. So marked had the restiveness become that there was a motion before the Court of Policy recommending the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry to settle serious disputes. The motion was approved but for one reason or the other the Commission was not appointed.
Relations took a turn for the worse when on Tuesday, 24th September 1872 the labourers at Plantation Devonshire Castle complained to the acting Sub-Immigration agent that "they had been paid a too low a price for their work".
Upon an invitation by management to have the work valued in the customary manner, the labourers, in frustration and lacking confidence in the official, promptly declined. The officials considered that was the end of the manner but the workers clearly did not think so.
Parag, a factory worker also complained that he "had been compelled to work all night in the building". In response, an official chose to be dismissive claiming that no worker could be made to work in excess of ten hours in the building. The next day, and based on the official's interpretation, Parag went about encouraging his fellow workers to cease work after ten hours of labour had been given. Obviously a militant, Parag was targeted. He was arrested on the order of the estate manager but was promptly rescued by colleagues who were subsequently accused of threatening the manager's life. Events of almost a similar nature took place at Plantation Anna Regina and Plantation Eliza and Mary in Berbice at the same time.
Lacking confidence in the local officials, labourers of both Anna Regina and Devonshire Castle decided to travel to Georgetown to air their grievances to either the Governor or to the Immigration-Agent General. Unfortunately, neither group of workers succeeded in getting to Georgetown. However, Anna Regina workers were somewhat fortunate to encounter emissaries in the form of an acting Inspector of Police and Mr Trotter, the Sub-Immigration Agent promised a serious investigation of their complaints.
With regard to the Devonshire Castle episode, on Sunday 29th September 1872, the labourers refused an offer to appear at an inquiry at Danielstown village. Instead, workers in their hundreds headed for the estate where they attempted to invade the overseers' compound. Most were armed with their hackia sticks and in a quarrelsome and aggressive mood they forced the overseer and their families to evacuate.
Police were subsequently summoned and workers were told by the Stipendiary Magistrate to disperse. They refused while threatening to become more aggressive. It was clear that the labourers had endured too much for far too long and were now reluctant to reason with those they perceive as their abusers.
With the recognition that the striking workers could not be persuaded to disperse the Riot Act was read. They were told that if they did not disperse peacefully to their homes within an hour the magistrate would be compelled to use force against them.
The labourers stood their ground "remaining in position insulting and defiant." It was clear that the labourers were emotionally charged. There were a mere 24 policemen against well over 300 angry and unified labourers. Interpreters were dispatched to persuade the workers to disperse but to no avail. Women and children were also active in the protest action and this was a significant development in Guyana's history.
Those who died were Kaulica, Baldeo, Ackloo, Maxidally and Beccaroo. Some 15 labourers were arrested by the police for "having been unlawfully, riotously and tumultuously assembled together in open breach of public peace". To the discerning, one implication of these charges is that five persons were gunned to death merely because they were considered to have been in open "breach of public peace".
Faced with a volatile situation the police were ordered to load their rifles and this action further infuriated the labourers. The police charged forward and the available evidence suggests that the labourers armed with their hackia sticks, rather than retreating, advanced headlong with a charge of their own. The result in the uproar and confusion was the fact that the police opened fire on the crowd of protesting labourers. During the confrontation five sugar workers were killed and seven were seriously injured.
Public response to the 1872 Devonshire Castle tragedy, especially from the official section of the community was most unsympathetic. Not surprisingly they blamed De Voeux since they argued it was his intervention which caused immigrants to suddenly find grievances of "which they had never dreamed before," such was the arrogance of the authorities. One commentator even brazenly declared "Better sacrifice a few lives, if it comes to that, than have an Indian mutiny on a small scale. Short, sharp and decisive should be the measure adopted with regard to men found in open rebellion and the defiance of law and authority."
The Devonshire Castle Protest was the first major protest in which Indian immigrant labourers lost their lives at the hands of colonial police. It represented a turning point in the manner in which colonial authorities would henceforth react to sugar workers militancy. Succeeding uprisings were to be brutally put down with several losses of lives. At the same time planters were deluded by the myth of Indian docility. For over 30 years estate owners had constructed an intricate web of exploitation that was excessive. The Indian labourer was subjected to uninhibited abuse of the manager, overseer, driver, magistrate and immigration officials.
The Devonshire Castle, incident had clearly illustrated that the indentured labourer had altered his attitude in his relationship with his exploiter. He was more rebellious and was prepared to assert his rights, demand justice and was willing to confront his oppressor headlong.
Quite predictably the inquest into the tragedy exonerated the police of their action in opening fire that resulted in five deaths. At the same time there was an obvious contradiction. The Supreme Court of Criminal Justice freed the 15 persons arrested during the protest. This was a position that would there after not re-occur. In future disturbances those arrested would be convicted if only to vindicate the outlandish use of excessive force against sugar workers.
Did the Devonshire Castle victims die in vain? I venture to say an emphatic no! They paid the ultimate price of supreme sacrifice-their precious lives in the face of an oppressive colonial oligarchy. Largely through their valiant efforts reforms and improvement were achieved during the period of indentureship. Devonshire Castle labourers of 1872 including the fallen heroes must have inspired and influenced their colleagues countrywide to intensify the struggle for social and economic justice and betterment in general.
In the final analysis the Indian indentured labourers were to triumph with the eventual termination of the harsh and exploitative indentures hip system in 1917. The pioneering heroes and martyrs of Devonshire Castle will long be remembered for their sterling contribution towards the development of the Guyanese working class and of a better tomorrow.
As we commemorate the 134th Anniversary of the Devonshire Castle Strike and Riot of 1872 let us take inspiration from the priceless sacrifice of our heroes. The names Kaulica, Baldeo, Ackloo, Maxidally and Beccaroo are certain to live on.