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The Argyle Chronicles II – The changing demographics

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by Dr.Arnold Thomas Fri, Jun 04, 2010

Following the end of slavery in 1838, many blacks moved off the estates to the new villages of Stubbs and Victoria Village. The shortage of estate labour was partially met by importation of alien labour, from neighbouring West Indian islands, from “Liberated African”, followed by Portuguese from Madeira and then Indians who were to completely transform the demographics of St. Vincent, and Argyle in particular.{{more}}

St. Vincent was spared indentured Chinese because it was too costly to bring them in. In November 1845, James Porter, as attorney for several absentee owners, brought in the first shipload of 254 Madeirans, 26 of whom were assigned to Argyle Estate. More Madeirans were to follow intermittently up to 1865.

The Indians

When clearance was given by the Colonial Office to bring in Indians, the St. Vincent planters specifically requested Calcutta Indians, for the Madras Indians in the Caribbean had established somewhat of a reputation for being prone to violence and disrespect for laws and the estate managers, but in 1860 only Madrasees were on the menu for the planters. The Travancore dropped anchor down in Edinboro on June 1st, 1860; it carried 260 Indians, two more than the number with which it left port Madras, for there were two births and no deaths, something absolutely remarkable in the annals of the transportation of Indians. The Madrasees exceeded all expectations and became model workers for the later Indians.

The fortunes of the Indians very much depended on the fortunes of the estate for example when the second lot arrived in 1862, the price of sugar had fallen and the island was hit by bad weather. Under those circumstances planters attempted to cut costs by lowering wages and withdrawing the customary weekly allowances of molasses, rum and sugar. About 200 workers at Mt. Bentinck estate protested the manager’s move by closing down all operations on the estate on 22 September1862. From then until October, the “molasses riots”, as I called them in my book, spread southwards on several estates reaching four miles to the east of Kingstown. The prime targets of the rioters were unquestionably the planters and managers, but immigrants were also targeted, for example, Portuguese shops were looted, and Indians were forced off the fields by blacks at several estates.

When the second ship Castle Howard arrived in 1862, things were so bad that the planters refused to take up their allotments and the 300 or so Indians had to be housed at the Commissariat Building in Edinboro which we know today as the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital. The treasury had to pay a very high price for upkeep of the Indians before they left for the estates.

Over the next decade, five ships arrived from Calcutta bringing a total of 1,700 Indians, each ship greeted with much fanfare heralding a new era of prosperity and good relations between workers and employers. Unquestionably, the Indians had made an enormous contribution to the sugar industry and society, for the local St. Vincent Guardian of November 18, 1865, reported that unlike St. Lucia, “our coolie venture is a successful one,” citing their presence as a stimulant to native workers who turned out in large numbers on many estates after their introduction, that they were thrifty, hardly ever committed a crime, and were baptising their children as Christians.

Special mention should be made of the Countess of Ripon which left the Indian port city of Calcutta in November 1865 carrying over 500 Indian immigrant labourers for Grenada and St. Vincent. On 20 January, 1866, the Countess of Ripon wrecked off Skeetes Bay on the east coast of Barbados. I have detailed the wreck and rescue operation elsewhere, but as I discovered, my maternal grandfather Gangaram Emanuel King was born on the ship and subsequently lived on Argyle Estate.

When the first lot of 35 Indians returned to India in 1871, they complained that they had received less than their contract wage of 10 pence per day and as a result the Indian Government gave low priority to emigration to St. Vincent; it was not until 1874 that Emigration resumed, prompted by severe famines in India and a new Immigration Act in 1874.

The last ship to bring Indians to St. Vincent was the Lightning which arrived here on 22 May 1880 with 213 Indians. The Lightning also carried a consignment of Indians for Jamaica. It also brought my paternal great grandparents Ramphul and his family. By then the international market for sugar had become very competitive and there were indications that St. Vincent could scarcely compete with its low grade muscovado sugar.

Continued next week.

Dr Arnold Thomas is a former diplomat at OECS Embassy/Mission in Brussels.

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