The Des Voeux Letter

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The sugar planters held a dominating influence in the Government of British Guiana, and they pressured the Court of Policy to enact legislation on the treatment of indentured labourers in their favour. Among the few Whites who opposed their views were James Crosby, the Immigration-Agent General appointed in 1858, Joseph Beaumont, the Chief Justice, and William Des Voeux, a magistrate. These three men were determined that the immigrants should be properly treated and given fair justice. From time to time, Beaumont and Des Voeux dismissed charges brought by planters against the Indian immigrants. Crosby also did his part by bringing charges against those planters who illegally stopped the payment of wages to their workers.

As a resulting of their actions, the Governor, Sir Francis Hincks, who sided with the planters, in 1865 brought about the dismissal of Beaumont and spitefully transferred Des Voeux from one district to another. Eventually, Des Voeux was transferred to St. Lucia as Administrator in 1869. Hincks had earlier taken away Crosby's powers and reduced his responsibilities to that of a clerk.

After the 1869 disturbance at Leonora and two others which followed shortly after, Des Voeux, from St. Lucia, wrote a long letter to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in which he accused the administration of Hincks with oppression and injustice.

The main points of Des Voeux's letter were:

1. The Combined Court of Policy, dominated by the sugar planters, made immigration laws which were in their favour.

2. The Governor showed bias towards the planters and acted unfairly towards the Indian and Chinese immigrants.

3. Officials in the Court of Policy owed their positions and livelihood to the sugar industry and thus they also showed bias in supported the interests of the sugar planters.

4. Medical personnel, employed on the sugar estates, declared the fitness of immigrant workers, even though these workers were ill. Sick workers were discharged from hospital and forced to return to work. If they were unable to go to work, they were charged with desertion and faced imprisonment.

5. Magistrates and judges showed unfairness to immigrants and sided openly with the planters.

6. Immigrants were brutally punished by some estate managers.

Des Voeux's letter eventually forced the British Government to establish a commission of enquiry to investigate the complaints. He himself was summoned as a witness, but due to injuries he suffered in a riding accident, he was not able to expressed himself clearly. Nevertheless, many of his charges were upheld by the commission of inquiry and some of his recommendations were accepted. One of these was the restoration of the powers of the Immigration-Agent General. However, changes for the better were slow in coming since many of the laws which stipulated harsh punishments for absenteeism continued to exist.