Riot at Devonshire Castle

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Throughout September 1872, Indian indentured labourers on sugar plantations on the Essequibo coast expressed their dissatisfaction over tasks allocated to them, as well as the poor wages and the long working hours. They also vocally complained about unfair deductions from their wages and the ill treatment and abuse they experienced at the hands of overseers. From time to time they expressed their grievances to the plantation owners who did nothing to alleviate these problems.

The situation worsened on Tuesday, 24 September 1872 when the field labourers at Plantation Devonshire Castle complained to the acting Sub-Immigration Agent in the district that they were being underpaid for their work. Parag, a factory worker, at the same time accused the plantation owners of forcing him to work all night in the factory. The official apparently did not show much concern over this accusation, saying that workers could not be ordered to work more than ten hours in the factory. Based on this response, Parag, on the following day, encouraged his colleagues to stop working after they had laboured for ten hours. This brought him into conflict with the estate manager who ordered his arrest. However, his colleagues rallied to his side and prevented such action, but they, in turn, were accused of threatening the manager's life.

Realising that their problems would not be resolved by the local officials and the management of the plantation, the labourers of Devonshire Castle, accompanied by those of Anna Regina who were experiencing similar problems, made plans to travel to Georgetown seek a solution from either the Immigration-Agent-General or the Governor. But these plans did not materialise; however, the Anna Regina workers managed to meet with the Acting Inspector of Police and Mr. Trotter, the Sub-Immigration Agent from whom they received promises that their grievances would be investigated.

On 28 September 1872, the Devonshire Castle workers went to the local magistrate and voiced their dissatisfaction with the rates of wages they were receiving. The magistrate, who was empowered to deal with labour disputes, promised to examine their complaints and to ensure that they obtained justice. However, the workers did not feel confident that anything would be done for them, and on their return to the estate they behaved in a disorderly manner. Some of them attempted to attack an overseer but others restrained them.

Finally, on the next day - 29 September 1872 - the labourers decided to strike in protest. Despite their action, the plantation management made little effort to listen to their complaints. But later that morning, they were asked by officials to appear at an inquiry four miles away at Danielstown Village; however, they refused to attend since they felt that their complaints would again be dismissed. By this time, most of them had already become very infuriated, and a large crowd armed with sticks, swarmed in an aggressive mood towards the overseers' compound from which the overseers and their families were forced to evacuate.

The police were notified of the disorderly behaviour on the plantation, and 24 armed policemen under a police inspector arrived to face a riotous crowd of striking workers. Accompanying, the policemen was the local magistrate who ordered the crowd to disperse, but as the strikers refused, he read the Riot Act. He gave them one hour in which to move away and return to their homes and warned that if they refused stern actions would be taken. He specifically appealed to the women and children to leave the area. Seeing the crowd was ignoring his orders, he advised the police inspector to place his men in such a position that they would not be surrounded.

As the crowd became more rowdy, the inspector ordered the policemen to break up the mob. While they moved forward with their guns ready to shoot, the incensed crowd also advanced and attacked them with sticks. The police then opened fire and five workers were killed, and seven others seriously injured. Those who died were Kaulica, Beccaroo, Maxidally, Baldeo and Auckloo.

The authorities later claimed that the inspector gave no order to fire, but that the shooting occurred after a policeman's rifle went off accidentally after a striker's stick hit the barrel, and this caused the other policemen to assume that the order to shoot was given.

Fifteen labourers were subsequently arrested by the police for unlawful assembly and rioting, but they were later freed by the Supreme Court of Criminal Justice.

Thus, the Devonshire Castle protest was crushed with brute force and became the first major action in which Indian indentured labourers were killed by the colonial police.

Soon after, an inquest was held but the verdict was not surprising. As expected, the inquest found no fault with the action of the police. The coroner declared that "the riot . . . . would, but for the fortunate explosion of these rifles, have become a widespread rebellion, most disastrous in its consequences". One local newspaper, The Colonist, openly rejoiced at the horrible tragedy, stating that "the leaden argument has brought submission quicker than all honeyed words that could have been used". This reflected the view of the colonial authorities and the local business class which showed no sympathy for the problems experienced by the Indian plantation labourers.