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4 posts from January 2021

14 January 2021

Bibee Zuhoorun: Women’s Voices in the Indian Indenture Trade

Bibee Zuhoorun was one of 1.3 million Indian labourers recruited in Caribbean and Indian Ocean sugar plantations after slave-labour was abolished in the British Empire.  She migrated to Mauritius in the 1830s and on her return to India, testified in an official inquiry committee set up to investigate transgressions in the Indian indenture trade.  As the earliest voice of female indentured labourers, Zuhoorun’s testimony offers a rare insight into early migration—painting a story of deception, ill-treatment and injustice.

Title page of Report of the Calcutta Committee of Inquiry 1839 containing Zuhoorun’s testimonyReport of the Calcutta Committee of Inquiry, 1839, containing Zuhoorun’s testimony 

In Calcutta, she was persuaded by a labour-recruiter to travel to Mauritius and work as a servant.  After her departure, however, she realised she had been deceived: ‘I got no clothes given to me, nor blankets, nor brass pots’.   Nor did she receive the quality of wages, or the six-month wage advance that the recruiter had promised.

In Mauritius, she spoke of the injustice meted out to fellow labourers—a story of overworked men subjected to ill-treatment and corporal punishment.  Labourers were often confined within plantations, and denied wages if they refused to work.  She felt stuck in a foreign land with no means of returning to her homeland, urging ‘every one would leave if there was a land journey; not one would advise any of their friends to go there’.

View looking towards a ground of labourers' huts on a sugar plantation in the Plaines Wilhelms district of Mauritius, with a small group of labourers posed in the foreground and a mountain rising against the skyline in the background.‘Indian huts on a sugar plantation, Plain William near Port Louis’ c. 1853. Photographer: Frederick Fiebig. British Library Photo 250(25) Images Online

Zuhoorun’s testimony attested to the gendered experience of indentured migrants.  While men tended to cultivate and process sugar, women often worked in the households of plantation-owners.  Zuhoorun testified to ‘making salt, climbing tamarind trees to pick them, sweeping the house, and cutting grass for cattle’.  She even learnt French to communicate with her French ‘master’.

Her testimony also highlighted instances of sexual harassment and the expectation of sexual favours—a common occurrence in plantations.  Zuhoorun complained that her plantation-owner Dr. Boileau asked her to be his mistress.  She refused, saying ‘I have degraded myself by going on board ship; I would not further degrade myself’'.  Her attempts to complain to the police were met with a three-month stint at a house of correction, and then a return to Boileau’s house, where she was beaten and harassed further.  Eventually, she decided to return to India before the end of her five-year contract, even if it meant not receiving any wages for her 2.5 years of service.

Zuhoorun’s bitterness towards the indenture system is evident in her testimony.  She urged: ‘I would not return to Mauritius on any account; it is a country of slaves; […] I would rather beg my bread here’.  Overseas migration had also damaged her social position.  She implored, ‘even my mother will not drink water from my hand or eat with me’; a sign of social ostracization tied to a taboo on crossing the Indian Ocean.

Indian and Chinese Indentured Labourers in British GuianaIndian and Chinese Indentured Labourers in British Guiana. Image from Edward Jenkins, The Coolie, His Rights and Wrongs (1871) from Wikimedia commons

Zuhoorun’s story is not just one of tragedy, injustice and violence, but also strength and resilience.  She not only resisted Boileau’s advances and ended her contract early, but even complained to his wife, sacrificing her livelihood at the same time.  Although relegated to the footnotes of history, her testimony remains the earliest account of a female indentured migrant, characterised by its strength, detail and passionate criticism of the indenture system.

Purba Hossain
University of Leeds

Further reading:

Read the testimonies of Zuhoorun and other indentured migrants in Letter from Secretary to Government of India to Committee on Exportation of Hill Coolies: Report of Committee and Evidence. Parliamentary Papers (House of Commons) 1841, Vol. 16, No. 45

Discover the life stories of indentured labourers -
‘Becoming Coolies’ - Life Stories and From the Archive
The Indentured Archipelago 

Marina Carter, Voices from Indenture: Experiences of Indian Migrants in the British Empire (London; New York: Leicester University Press, 1996).
Marina Carter, Servants, Sirdars, and Settlers: Indians in Mauritius, 1834-1874 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995).
Gaiutra Bahadur, Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

 

12 January 2021

The hunt for Syed Mahamad Yusufuddin

A dip into the records of the India Office Legal Adviser reveals an exciting tale of espionage behind a Privy Council appeal against wrongful imprisonment.

The judgement of Privy Council appeal No. 19 of 1902, brought by Syed Mahamad Yusufuddin against the Secretary of State for India, is available to view on BAILII, but doesn’t tell the whole story of the case. 

Photograph of a street scene in Simla (Shimla) in the 1880s showing shops and people going about their daily business Photograph of a street scene in Simla (Shimla) taken by an unknown photographer in the 1880s British Library Photo 94/2(35) British Library Online Gallery

The background of the case can be found in the India Office Records held at the British Library in the Legal Adviser’s records (IOR/L/L/8/42).  The story begins in Simla, in the far north of India, in July 1895 with the conviction of Babu Gopal Chandar, a hotelier, for attempting to procure government documents from the Record Keeper, Mr Schorn, through bribery.  The record keeper reported that Chandar had visited him at his home and offered 600-700 rupees and an annual salary in return for information on Hyderabad, the largest princely state in British India.  Mr Schorn contacted the police and arranged a further meeting with Chandar so an inspector could eavesdrop and take notes as evidence.

Following his arrest, Mr Chandar claimed he was working on behalf of a 'Sardar of Hyderabad' , meaning a prince or nobleman, staying at his establishment, the Central Hotel.  As a result, in September a warrant was issued for the arrest of one Syed Mahamad Yusufuddin, who we assume was staying in the hotel when the crime was committed.  However, by then, Yusufuddin had left Simla, so a manhunt began.

A copy of the initial order for the arrest of YusufuddinA copy of the initial order for the arrest of Yusufuddin taken from case documents supplied by the Foreign Department at the time in a file marked 'SECRET – Internal'. IOR/L/L/8/42 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Magistrate issuing the warrant was aware that if Yusufuddin had returned to the princely state of Hyderabad, then, as a foreign territory, the warrant would not apply.  Therefore the British would have to rely on the Nizam of Hyderabad adhering to extradition law.

However, the fugutive was tracked down in Hyderabad on 28 November 1895 at Shankarpalli railway station.  Fortunately for the British, at this time “the Government of India ... exercise[d] jurisdiction upon the railway” and could arrest him.  However, this jurisdiction only applied to railway offences, which brought into question their right to hold Yusufuddin.

A copy of a telegram dated on behalf of the Nizam of Hyderabad calling for the release of YusufuddinA copy of a telegram dated on behalf of the Nizam of Hyderabad calling for the release of Yusufuddin IOR/L/L/8/42 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Reminiscent of the 'Great Game' of espionage made famous in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, this manhunt across different territories in British-controlled Asia reveals a kernel of truth behind the fantastic stories to be found in contemporary literature for boys.  And Chandar’s covert attempt to gather information on British plans also suggests the suspicion in which the British were held in princely states like Hyderabad.

Yusufuddin was released on bail two days later on 30 November and avoided conviction.  He went on to appeal against his arrest outside of a British territory and claim damages for false imprisonment.  The case eventually reached the Privy Council who dismissed it, as the claim was made too long after the imprisonment.

Matthew Waters
India Office Records

Further reading:
P.C. No. 19 of 1902 - 1896-1903 - British Library reference IOR/L/L/8/42
Syed Mahamad Yusuf-ud-din v The Secretary of State for India in Council (Hyderabad) [1903] UKPC 32 (15 May 1903) 

 

07 January 2021

Severe weather hits Britain in January 1763

In January 1763 parts of Britain were hit by severe weather conditions.  London was badly affected, with reports that the River Thames was as hazardous as the ocean.  Seagulls were seen near London Bridge, a sign of how cold conditions were that winter.

Ice at London Bridge when the River Thames froze in February 1814  showing boats stranded and people walking on the frozen waterIce at London Bridge when the River Thames froze in February 1814 - British Library K.Top.27.41 Images Online 

The directors of the East India Company resolved at their meeting on 26 January 1763 to help the poor of London ‘in consideration of the severity of the season’.  They gave ten guineas to several parishes for the relief of the poor: St Andrew Undershaft, St Olave Hart Street, St Katherine Coleman, St Mary Rotherhithe, All Hallows Barking, St Katharine Cree, St Helen’s, and St Peter Cornhill.  St Bartholomew by the Exchange received five guineas.  The maritime pensioners living in the Company’s almshouse, Poplar Hospital, were awarded an extra month’s pension at a total cost of £200.  Another ten guineas was donated towards helping the poor of Poplar.

Extract from East India Company directors' minutes detailing winter payments to poor people in London

British Library, IOR/B/78 p.289 Court of Directors minutes 26 January 1763 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

A group of gardeners dressed in mourning pulled a cart without horses through Cheapside.  They asked for charity because the weather had prevented them from working.

In Cambridgeshire, Anne Sizer went to buy bread in Soham and became lost on her way back home.  She wandered into the fen, lay down, and froze to death.

On a lighter note, a gentleman from Lincoln’s Inn took on a skating challenge for a considerable bet.  He had to pick up 100 stones from the frozen Serpentine River in Hyde Park, laid out one yard apart in a direct line, and return with them separately to the starting point.  The time allowed was 1¼ hours but he managed to complete the task with ease in 52½ minutes.

Snowdrop with white flowers and green spreading leaves

Snowdrop from Sophina Gordon, Flowers, Earth's silent voices (Philadelphia, 1865) BL flickr

Not all regions were affected.  Dublin escaped the chill, and the weather was so mild in South Wales that snowdrops, daisies and primroses were blooming.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive e.g. Leeds Intelligencer 18 January 1763; Sussex Advertiser 24 January 1763.
London Chronicle or Universal Evening Post January 1763 via Google Books.
British Library, IOR/B/78 p.289 Court of Directors minutes 26 January 1763.

05 January 2021

Bevin Trainees now in India Office Family History Search

In 1941 the British Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin, supported the establishment of the Bevin Training Scheme to provide practical training in engineering for young Indians.  The Scheme was an effort to meet the demand for skilled engineers in Indian industries supporting the war effort.

Leo Amery, Secretary of State for India, chatting to an Indian trainee at work in a factoryLeo Amery, Secretary of State for India, chatting to an Indian trainee at work in a factory - from Engineering Bulletin September 1941 published by the Ministry of Labour and National Service (Crown Copyright) IOR/L/I/1/978

A previous story on Untold Lives revealed that the India Office Records include lists of the first seven batches of trainees invited to the UK and details of the firms they were placed with and houses they lodged in.

Example of a page from the India Office file showing the details recorded about the traineesExample of a page from IOR/L/E/8/8112 showing the details recorded about the trainees Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

As part of the India Office Records team’s efforts to identify records of individuals in our collections who historically have been overlooked, we have now transcribed all the names and details from these lists into the British Library’s India Office Family History Search.

Here are some examples of entries:
Prasad, R. – Placed with the Cincinnatti Milling Machine Company, Birmingham, on 13 Oct 1941.  Lodged at 77 Eachelhurst Road, Erdington, Birmingham.  Trainee reference number 2/42.
Deshpande, H.G. – Placed with the London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company, Crewe, on 28 Sep 1942.  Lodged at Saxon House, Carlton Road, Whalley Range, Manchester.  Trainee reference number 5/38.
Nandy, S. – Placed with Vauxhall Motors, Luton, on 7 June 1943.  Lodged at 21 Ascot Road, Luton.  Trainee reference number 7/5.

We hope that this data will help your family history research and reveal stories about collaboration across cultures.

Matthew Waters
India Office Records

Further reading:
Bevin Training Scheme: papers not transferred to the High Commissioner for India, including lists of Indian trainees showing firms with whom placed and lodging addresses, May 1941-Sep 1947 [British Library reference IOR/L/E/8/8112]
Indian workmen training in UK (Bevin Boys), 1940-1947 [British Library reference IOR/L/I/1/978]