Untold lives blog

285 posts categorized "Work"

25 February 2021

Sources for Dr B R Ambedkar

The India Office Records and Private Papers contains much fascinating material relating to one of the most inspiring figures in India’s struggle for independence from British rule, Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar.  Despite the obstacles put in his way, Dr Ambedkar rose to become one of the leaders in the Indian Independence movement and championed the poorest and most disadvantaged in Indian society.

Popular colour print depicting Dr Ambedkar, shown wearing glasses and in a European suit and tie.Popular colour print depicting Dr Ambedkar © The Trustees of the British Museum 

Dr Ambedkar was born on the 14th April 1891 at Mhow, India, into a Dalit Mahar family.  During his childhood he regularly experienced discrimination from higher caste members of his school and community.  A scholarship awarded by the Gaekwad of Baroda enabled him to continue his education, and he studied economics and law in New York and London, following which he set up a legal practice in Bombay.

He quickly became a leading campaigner for the rights of Dalits, starting protest groups, founding newspapers and journals to raise awareness of their plight, and entering the political arena to push for reforms.  He served in the first government following independence as Minister for Law, and helped shape India’s future through his contributions to the writing of India’s Constitution.

Dr Ambedkar has inspired people around the world fighting discrimination and injustice, and the British Library’s collections illustrate the many stages of his life.


John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
Information Department file on Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, 1946, shelfmark IOR/L/I/1/1272.

Journey to England from the USA of British subject Bhimrao, alias Brimvran Ambedkar, 1916, shelfmark IOR/L/PJ/6/1443, File 2349.

Correspondence regarding a proposed scheme by Dr B R Ambedkar to start a Social Centre for Depressed Classes in Bombay, 1941, shelfmark IOR/L/PJ/7/4410.

Publication in English entitled Mr Gandhi and the Emancipation of the Untouchables by Dr B R Ambedkar (Bombay, 1943), shelfmark IOR/L/PJ/7/7068.

Cabinet Mission; Depressed Classes, Apr-Dec 1946, shelfmark IOR/L/PJ/10/50. This file contains a note marked ‘Secret’ of a meeting between the Cabinet Delegation, the Viceroy and Dr Ambedkar on the 5th April 1946. It also has a letter from Dr Ambedkar to the Viceroy, Lord Wavell regarding the Cabinet Mission, and the Viceroy’s reply.

Duplicate passport for Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, 1932, shelfmark IOR/L/PJ/11/1/585.

File on political developments, including Ambedkar on scheduled castes, 1943-1947, shelfmark IOR/L/PO/6/102C.

File on the Poona Pact including correspondence with Dr Ambedkar regarding Depressed Classes, 1931-1933, shelfmark IOR/L/PO/6/77.

File on the Poona Pact, including Ambedkar on modification of Depressed Classes seats, 1933-1935, shelfmark IOR/L/PO/6/89A.

Correspondence between the Secretary of State for India and the Viceroy, 1944-1946, shelfmarks IOR/L/PO/10/21, IOR/L/PO/10/22 and IOR/L/PO/10/23.

Submissions to the Indian Statutory Commission, 1928-1929, shelfmarks IOR/Q/13/1/6, item 3; IOR/Q/13/1/23, item 10; and IOR/Q/13/4/23.

Submissions to the Round Table Conference, 1930-1931, shelfmarks IOR/Q/RTC/2, IOR/Q/RTC/24 and IOR/Q/RTC/25.

Submissions to the Indian Franchise Committee, 1932, shelfmarks IOR/Q/IFC/41, IOR/Q/IFC/51, IOR/Q/IFC/74 and IOR/Q/IFC/80.

Correspondence with Gandhi and Dr Ambedkar and Ramsay MacDonald, 1932, shelfmark Mss Eur E240/16 (from the papers of Sir Samuel Hoare, Secretary of State for India 1931-35).

Ambedkar is discussed in the correspondence between Sir Samuel Hoare, Secretary of State for India and the Viceroy Lord Willingdon, 1932-1933, shelfmarks Mss Eur E240/2, Mss Eur E240/3 and Mss Eur E240/6.

Papers relating to the resignation of Dr Ambedkar as Minister for Law, 1951, shelfmark Mss Eur F158/1015 (from the papers of the India, Pakistan and Burma Association). It also contains two bulletins from the Reuters news agency reporting the death of Dr Ambedkar on the 6th December 1956.

Correspondence, papers and pamphlets concerning Indian constitutional reforms, particularly the Communal Award and the Poona Pact, 1933-1934, shelfmark Mss Eur D609/22 (from the papers of 2nd Marquess of Zetland as Governor of Bengal 1917-22, and Secretary of State for India 1935-40).

Photographs of Dr Ambedkar, 1930-1946, shelfmarks Mss Eur F138/16(1), Photo 81(13), Photo 1117/1(44) and Photo 134/1(37).

Castes in India, by Bhimrao R Ambedkar, (Bombay, 1917), shelfmark 10005.g.19. (Re-printed from the “Indian Antiquary”, Vol. XLVI, Part DLXXXII, May 1917).

Making Britain website

 

23 February 2021

Unwitting accomplice or habitual offender?

On 29 June 1876 Joshua Keith Hilton and his accomplice Charles Victor Cleghorn Down were tried at the Old Bailey for forgery and intent to defraud.  Hilton was known to the authorities as a serial forger.  He would befriend someone with the authority to cash cheques on another individual’s behalf and then pretend to have been given a cheque by that individual which needed to be cashed, getting his new friend to take it to the bank for him.  Once he had the cash he would exchange it among local tradesmen so that the money could not easily be traced back to him.

Scene of a trial at the Old Bailey in 1872 showing a young man in the dock
'A sketch at the Central Criminal Court during the late trial of O'Connor' from  The Graphic 20 April 1872 British Library Images Online

Charles Victor Cleghorn Down was born in February 1855, the second son of Captain William Down of the Madras Army.  At the time of his father’s death in April 1868 Charles was the eldest surviving son, his brother William Henry having died in 1864.  His older sister Arabella has already been featured in Untold Lives following her involvement in a divorce scandal in 1869.

In 1876 Charles was living in Stafford Place off Buckingham Palace Road in London and was employed in the theatre which is where he met Joshua Hilton.  Both men worked backstage in set design and as general stage hands and found themselves employed at the same theatre.

Charles Down was also a friend of Hilton’s next target, the son of his landlord.  Hilton used Down to lend validity to his story: Down even accompanied the victim to the bank when he went to cash the cheque, worth £75.

The Court found both Joshua Hilton and Charles Down guilty of forgery and intent to defraud.  As the mastermind Hilton was sentenced to five years’ penal servitude.  The jury concluded that Down had been an unwitting accomplice, but an accomplice nonetheless, and that he should have realised something wasn’t right.  Down was sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment at Clerkenwell House of Correction.

For Charles Down this appears to have been the start of a downward spiral into a life of crime.  The Habitual Offenders register records him being released from Cold Bath Fields Prison, London on 27 August 1881, and being placed under police supervision for the next four years.  It is unclear whether he had his original sentence extended, or whether he committed another crime following his original release.  Charles Down died unmarried in Marylebone in 1889.

Perhaps Charles Down was not quite so innocent and unwittingly involved in the crime of forgery as was claimed in court?

In a future post we will follow the story of Charles’s younger sister Eva Crompton Neale Down, a witness at her brother’s trial.  Eva was caught up in scandal and adultery involving her brother’s partner in crime Joshua Hilton!

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further Reading:
Old Bailey Proceedings 26 June 1876 No. 265:
Charles Victor Cleghorn Down (21), and Joshua Keith Hilton (23), Feloniously forging and uttering a warrant for the payment of 75l., with intent to defraud. 
Madras Military Fund Pension Records, Account-General’s Department - British Library IOR/L/AG/23/10/1-2 William Down (1822-1868)

12 February 2021

Chinese New Year in Canton 1731

James Naish was Chief of the English East India Company Council in Canton (Guangzhou), China.  He kept a diary of ‘Observations and Transactions’ which includes a description of Chinese New Year celebrations in January and February 1730/31.

View of  Canton (Guangzhou) circa 1760-1770View of  Canton (Guangzhou) c.1760-1770 Maps K.Top.116.22.2 tab. BL flickr

Naish’s diary reads –

27th January This being the first day of the new Moon & of the new Year, great ceremony is observed by the Mandarins & all other persons in their visits and congratulations thereupon.

30th January The Foyen or Vice Roy of the Province haveing signified his approbation of all sorts of diversions, costly Pageants are daily carried about the streets, in which the State & Power of Mandarins in high stations are represented, Country & Low life well describ’d, & the seasons curiously discover’d.  At night the streets are finely illuminated, & a vast variety of fire works continually seen in the Air from all parts of the City.

17th February The Foyen hath Affixed a chop in several places which putts an end to the long continued festival, & likewise directs all persons to return to their professions & employments, the Mandarins of Justice may punish such Offenders as have been guilty of any crimes since new years day, from which time to this no sort of punishment could have been inflicted upon any criminal whatever.

Account of Chinese New Year celebrations from James Naish's diary
Account of Chinese New Year celebrations from James Naish's diary IOR/G/12/32 p.1 27 January-17 February 1730/31 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

James Naish was a very experienced China trade merchant.  He was supercargo on East India Company voyages to Canton in 1716, 1722, 1725 and 1730, and had also worked for the Ostend Company.  In 1730-1731 he spent a whole year at Canton instead of returning to England between trading seasons, the only English East India Company supercargo ever to do this.   Naish wrote reports on the tea industry during his extended stay.

When China merchant George Arbuthnot arrived back in England in the summer of 1731, he accused Naish of fraud.  Arbuthnot claimed that Naish had understated the amount of money received for goods sold in China and inflated the cost of commodities purchased there.  Naish was also said to have imported a large quantity of gold bullion from China without paying duty. The East India Company decided that Naish had broken his covenant and considered sending a ship to seize his unlicensed goods and bring him to England under arrest.  Naish’s wife Hester was desperate to prevent this.  She had been given a letter of attorney by her husband in 1729 authorising her to conduct his business, so she agreed to deposit £20,000 with the Company to allow Naish to return as a free man.

The Company began proceedings in the Court of Exchequer.  Naish protested his innocence and lodged counter-claims against the Company in the courts.

The legal process dragged on for years.  When Naish made his will in 1736, he left everything to Hester because the size of his estate was uncertain, dependent upon the outcome of several pending law suits.  He said the family had long experience of Hester’s skilful management of his affairs whilst he was abroad and he trusted her to divide the estate as he would wish.  Although Naish did not die until January 1757, this will was the one submitted for probate.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/G/12/32 Observations and Transactions by James Naish at Canton in China (1926, 1929)
The Political State of Great Britain, Volume 44 July-September 1732
The Athenaeum January-June 1892,p.793
Reports of Cases Argued and Adjudged in the Courts of King's Bench ..., Volume 2 Naish v East India Company

09 February 2021

Sir Robert Preston and the East India Company

Robert Preston (1740-1834) was born in Scotland, the fifth son of Sir George Preston of Valleyfield.  He started his career with the East India Company at the age of eighteen serving as Fifth Mate on the Streatham, which sailed for India in July 1758.

Portrait of Sir Robert Preston in uniform, seated next to a globePortrait of Sir Robert Preston by William Dickinson (1794) © National Portrait Gallery, London NPG D40492 National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence

In November 1759 the Council of the East India Company at Calcutta was concerned about seven Dutch ships which were effectively blockading their port and they issued an order for the Duke of Dorset, the Calcutta and the Hardwicke to make a stand.  After considerable negotiation with the Commodore of the Dutch fleet, conducted under Flags of Truce, it was clear that battle was inevitable.  Charles Mason, Captain of the Streatham, joined the Duke of Dorset with ten of his crew including Robert Preston.

Duke of Dorset journalPage from the journal of the Duke of Dorset, 24 November 1759 IOR/L/MAR/B/612H  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The journal of the Duke of Dorset gives a detailed account of the battle.  The Dutch initially brought their broadsides to bear on the English ships, but they manoeuvred until ‘being now in the middle of their fleet we played on them as fast as we were able to load and fire, as did the Dutch on us, which was pretty galling on both sides but with the most success on ours.  For, after a smart firing of two hours with double round & grape shot, the Dutch Commander struck his broad pendant and hoisted a flag of truce, when we ceased firing at him.  We continued engaging the other ships which, on ten minutes close fire, all surrendered.  Our officers were sent on board to secure their magazines, spike their cannons and divide their prisoners on board our three ships. . . . The killed and wounded on board our ships is very inconsiderable to that of the enemy’.

Captain Bernard Forrester of the Duke of Dorset was wounded in the knee by a grape shot.  His leg was amputated but he died on 3 March 1760 about three months after the battle. 

Robert Preston served on the Clive as Third Mate 1761/2 and Second Mate 1764/5 under Captain John Allen, both voyages managed by Charles Raymond of Valentines, Ilford.  Then between 1767 and 1776 Preston made three voyages as a Captain, on ships under the management of Charles Foulis of Woodford.

Preston accumulated enough wealth to invest in shipping himself and he took over the management of several ships for the East India Company which made 55 voyages.  For a time he served as chairman of the Committee of Managing Owners of Shipping.

Charles Foulis and Robert Preston set up as insurance brokers in London and became managers of the Sun Fire Office.  Preston was elected MP for Dover 1784-1790 and then for Cirencester 1792-1806.  He was an Elder Brother of Trinity House 1781-1803 and a Deputy Master 1796-1803.  By the 1780s Preston was living in a substantial house in Woodford which had been the home of his colleague and close friend, Charles Foulis, who left the house and other property to him when he died.

Window at Trinity House - Robert PrestonWindow at Trinity House dedicated to Robert Preston © Trinity House

On 23 March 1800 Robert Preston succeeded to his family baronetcy.   He returned to Valleyfield but continued his London business connections until around 1823.  Preston died at Valleyfield on 7 May 1834, aged 94, said to be worth one million pounds.

Georgina Green
Independent scholar

Further reading:
Details of the career of each officer who served with the East India Company can be found in Anthony Farrington, A Biographical Index of East India Company Maritime Service Officers 1600-1834 (London, 1999), whilst details of each voyage are given in Anthony Farrington, A Catalogue of East India Company Ships’ Journals and Logs 1660-1834 (London, 1999)
Obituary for Sir Robert Preston in The Gentleman’s Magazine (1834), ii. pp..315-16
R. G. Thorne, The House of Commons 1790-1820 (London, 1986)

 

04 February 2021

East India Company instructions for keeping records

We’re returning to the ship New Year’s Gift to share some more of the instructions it carried.  This time we’re looking at rules for record-keeping in Asia in the earliest days of the East India Company and the use of codes in correspondence.

The Company merchants in the fleet of four ships which sailed from England in March 1613/14 were told before they sailed that they were expected to record their work with care and ‘exquisiteness’. They were provided with –
• Four pairs of ‘faire bookes,’ i.e. journals and ledgers
• Four large ‘industriall’ or day books
• Books for expenses
• Books for copies of letters
• Large ruled sheets of paper for making copies of the journals
• Eight reams of paper, large and small
• Ink
• Penknives
• Quills
• Hard wax

More books had been sent to the Company’s trading post in Bantam in the ship Concord.

East India Company instructions for record-keeping 1614Instructions to East India Company factors 1614 from Thomas Elkington’s notebook IOR/G/40/25 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Having provided ample supplies of stationery, the Company expected accounts to be kept ‘perfectly’ in all places.  The chief factor at Surat, or someone else appointed to the task, was to keep a fair pair of books for the Company general account.  All factors, whether working at settled factories or employed buying and selling commodities in fairs or markets, were to give their accounts from time to time to the chief factor at Surat so they could be brought into the general books there.  But all factors were also to send to London a copy of their journal and the balance of their ledger whenever Company ships sailed for England.  The chief factor was to send by every shipping a verbatim copy of his journal written on the large ruled paper being supplied.  Since all copies sent would be the same size, they could in future be bound together in one volume in London.  The Company also expected to receive the balance of the chief’s ledger from time to time, and an exact copy of his ledger once a year.

Changes in personnel at Surat must not lead to alterations in the methods of record-keeping.  No factor was to take away Company books as had happened in the past.  Completed books were to be sealed up and sent to London, with copies made to retain in the factory if required.  Local coinage and weights should be used in the accounts, with an explanation provided for London.

Similar instructions were given for the factory at Bantam, with a central record taking in information sent by merchants working away from base.  The Company advised all factors to write down immediately everything that happened – ‘our memory at the best hand is very slippery’.  Moreover, sickness and death could strike at any time.

If factors wrote home about an important matter using a dangerous or doubtful conveyance and passage, the Company asked them to write the letters, or at least ‘poynts of moment’, in ‘caracters’ i.e. a code or cipher.  Then, if the letters were intercepted, trade secrets would not be disclosed and cause damage to the Company.  A copy of the cipher was included with the instructions.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/G/40/25 Instructions to East India Company factors from Thomas Elkington’s notebook
IOR/B/5 Minutes of East India Company Court of Directors 1613-1615

26 January 2021

Daniel Seton – Magistrate of Surat

A volume listing court cases from Surat, India, in 1796, reveals a lot about the legal process in a British trading post and a little about a Scottish administrator.

Introductory paragraph to the diary of Daniel SetonIntroductory paragraph to the diary of Daniel Seton IOR/G/36/81 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

As part of the India Office Records team’s ongoing efforts to identify historically overlooked individuals in our collections, I recently compiled a summary of the cases held in a judicial diary (IOR/G/36/81).  The summary has been added to the catalogue description on the British Library website.  The diary was compiled by Daniel Seton, Chief of Surat, while completing his duties in 1796.  It lists 242 cases and includes the names of the petitioners and defendants, the crimes or subject of dispute, and the decisions made by Seton.

List of cases from the diary of Daniel SetonList of cases from the diary of Daniel Seton IOR/G/36/81  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Surat factory or trading post, in Gujarat, was established by the East India Company in 1612.  A history of the area can be found in the Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency: Surat and Broach.  At first the chief seat of the Company’s trade, Surat declined in importance when the British took possession of Bombay in 1661 and made it their centre of administration in 1687.  By the time Seton was writing, Surat was run-down, having borne the brunt of warring European powers, a vicious storm in 1782, and a famine in 1790.

The History of the family of Seton during eight centuries lists Daniel Seton as the second son from the second marriage of Daniel Seton of Powderhall, Edinburgh, but we know little else about him.  Daniel’s role as Chief seems to fit between the Governor of the city and its administrators.  According to the Gazetteer of Bombay, a Dutch visitor to Surat in 1774 saw the native Governor as a puppet ruler under the Chief.  He claimed they had to obey British commands like ‘the lowest inhabitant’, although the Company men would ‘show him externally some honour’.

However this doesn’t seem to match with how Seton saw his role.  He wrote in this volume that he held ‘all the duties of magistrate prescribed by law to subjects living under the Anglish protection’ and hoped ‘to act up to a true sense [of] humanity.’  And in a letter from Seton to the Governor, or Nabob, of Surat, he claimed friendship and a desire ‘to co-operate with you to the honor of your Government and the Protection of the Subjects’.

Seton also favoured local advice, such as ‘a punchat or arbitration’ for property cases, or using ‘the patells or heads of the caste’ to solve social disputes ‘conformally to the laws of their sects’; thus demonstrating consideration of an unfamiliar culture.

Seton also imposed rules on the treatment of the accused.  Following reports about violent treatment and internment before trial, Seton ‘established as a rule never to be deviated from, that he should not himself or any other of the officers of Government attempt to p[un]ish before conviction any individual whatever’.

Of course we cannot know truthfully how fair Seton was, or how true to his word, but we can be thankful he has left us a valuable record of individuals and their crimes under his jurisdiction in 1796.

Matthew Waters
India Office Records

Further reading:
Surat Factory Records (IOR/G/36/81 : 1796)
Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency: Surat and Broach, Sir James MacNabb Campbell, Reginald Edward Enthoven (Bombay, 1894)
National Library of Scotland – History of the family of Seton during eight centuries – Volume 1

 

19 January 2021

Richard Walpole and the East India Company at sea

Writer Horace Walpole had a cousin Richard who served as an East India Company maritime officer from 1744-1757.  Richard Walpole had at least two encounters with hostile French shipping whilst serving as a Company officer, exemplifying the dangers faced by merchant ships even when as heavily armed as East Indiamen.

During Walpole’s first voyage as 6th mate and purser in the Augusta, his ship captured the French vessel Baronette on 21 October 1747.

Whilst commanding the Houghton in March 1757, Walpole was involved in an action near the Cape of Good Hope.  His journal of the voyage records how on the afternoon of 9 March the East Indiamen Houghton, Suffolk and Godolphin were approached by two unidentified ships.  Walpole immediately began to clear his ship in readiness for battle.  The three East Indiamen steered away but were followed.  Walpole had everyone on board prepared for action all night.

At daybreak the Suffolk raised its flags and made the signal for line of battle.  Here is a splendid drawing of that line of battle from the journal of the Suffolk.

Drawing showing the three East India ships in the line of battleLine of battle for the three East Indiamen from the journal of the Suffolk IOR/L/MAR/B/397D  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

At 8 am the unknown ships hoisted French colours.   The larger of the two shot at the English ships and the Suffolk returned fire.   After a short exchange, the ‘warm engagement’ ceased as the ships found themselves positioned outside the bearings of each other’s guns.  The French made to sail westward but were pursued by the East Indiamen.  They then tacked and came in close to the English ships and ‘a very smart fire’ was maintained by both sides.  At noon the French sailed away, probably bound for Mauritius.  Walpole recorded: ‘Every Body behaved during the whole Engagement with great Courage & Resolution; several of the Shot from the large Ship reached us, & four of them have lodged…(thank God) no Body hurt’.

Letter from Captain William Wilson of the Suffolk reporting the action against the French published in the Newcastle Courant newspaperLetter from Captain William Wilson of the Suffolk reporting the action against the French published in Newcastle Courant 9 July 1757 British Newspaper Archive

The three ships reached the UK without further incident.  Captain William Wilson of the Suffolk reported that the officers and sailors ‘behaved with all the Bravery and Intrepidity peculiar to our English seamen’.  He and his fellow captains asked the Company to honour a promise to reward mariners for their response to enemy attack.

Some of the crew of the Houghton, Suffolk and Godolphin did not reach their homes at the end of this eventful voyage.  They were pressed by the Royal Navy and found themselves on board HMS Hussar.

The French did defeat Richard Walpole five years later.  The ship Walpole for which he was Principal Managing Owner was captured off Ceylon by two French men of war and a frigate on 20 September 1762 on its outward journey to Bengal, laden mainly with cloth.  Captain Parson Fenner and some of the crew ended up at the Cape of Good Hope, others at Mauritius.  The East India Company decided that the capture was not through any misconduct of Fenner or his officers, but entirely owing to the superior force of the enemy which they were ‘utterly unable to resist’.  Richard Walpole was given permission by the Company to build a new ship for Fenner on the bottom of the Walpole.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
East India Company Court Minutes IOR/B/74 and IOR/B/79
Ship journals: Houghton IOR/L/MAR/B/438H; Suffolk IOR/L/MAR/B/397D
British Newspaper Archive (also accessible through Findmypast) e.g. Newcastle Courant 9 July 1757

 

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).

 

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