THE IMMIGRATION ORDINANCE OF 1891
The Immigration Ordinance enacted in 1891 regulated labor conditions on the sugar plantations. It was signed into law by the Governor after approval from the Court of Policy.
The Ordinance provided for employment of indentured Indians by the task and by the day. Except for Sundays and holidays, a field worker was obliged to work for 7 hours a day, while a factory worker's work day lasted for 10 hours. Despite these new specifications, many sugar plantation owners kept their workers on the job for even longer hours but were not prosecuted for breaching the law.
The minimum wage was 24 cents per day for able bodied men, and less than 16 cents for other workers who were not "able bodied." This latter group included boys and women.
The payment for task work was supposed to be equivalent to that paid for day-work, but this did not generally occur. As such, some workers from time to time expressed their dissatisfaction to the plantation managers and to the immigration agents.
The ordinance also directed that if the task of a worker was not properly performed he could be punished by being fined or jailed. The punishment was a fine of 5 dollars or 14 days imprisonment on the first conviction; this penalty was doubled for a second conviction. Absence from work was punished with a fine of 10 dollars or one month in jail. However, workers who were ill were excused.
Other offences included drunkenness, willful deceit in the performance of work, and using insulting words or gestures to employers or anyone in authority. Serious offences included encouraging other indentured workers to refuse to work, and damaging employers' property. Punishment for these more serious acts was a fine of 24 dollars or imprisonment for two months.
The indentured laborer was also restricted to the plantation. It was also illegal for him to work for anyone else. Actually, he could not leave the plantation unless he obtained permission from the owner. He was entitled to a pass for one day and night if he worked for two consecutive weeks. If he was absent without leave for more than seven days from the plantation, he was declared a deserter and a warrant was issued for his arrest.
There was an important exception to this rule. A pass was not required by worker if he was leaving the plantation to make a complaint to a magistrate or the office of the Immigration Agent-General. But in doing so, he could not leave in the company of more than four other indentured persons. This requirement was not always enforced and on many occasions larger groups left the plantations to lodge complaints about their treatment at the office of the Immigration Agent-General in Georgetown.
Based on the regulations of the 1891 ordinance, the Immigration Agent-General had to investigate the complaints of indentured workers and make rulings without any lengthy delays.
The ordinance of 1891 also instructed the employers to provide suitable housing for the workers and a fine could be levied if this was not done. Despite this, no plantation owner was ever convicted even though their workers were housed in unsanitary and dilapidated living quarters which also offered them no privacy.
The Non Pareil Riot
Indentured workers complained regularly that the ordinance imposed harsh penalties on them, and that it was imposed for the benefit of the plantation owners. These conditions resulted in a riot at Non Pareil (on East Coast Demerara) on 13 October 1896 after Indian indentured workers staged a strike. One of the strike leaders was Gooljar who originally was indentured in 1871, and after he completed his contract, he became a cloth seller, and worked with the police force. He returned to India in 1890, but came back to Guyana in 1894 as a re-indenture to the Non Pareil sugar plantation where his experience and leadership qualities won the respect of the other Indian indentured workers.
The strike itself stemmed from actions taken by a planter who attempted to transfer to other plantations several Indian indentured workers whom he considered troublemakers. This arose after the workers protested against low wages and increased tasks at the plantation, and also the repeated sexual assaults on Indian women and girls by the White overseers. After they halted work, they went to the Immigration Agent-General's office to complain. On their return, they were confronted by a party of police, commanded by Captain G. C. De Rinzy, widely regarded as one who generally applied violent methods in curbing workers' protests. They attempted to arrest four of the men, but the crowd quickly prevented this action. The police, without reading the riot act, then opened fire on the crowd, killing five persons, including Jungali, who had earlier complained that his wife was abducted and raped by one of the overseers. Others who died were Kandhai, Chinahoo, Rogy and Mahabir. In addition, 59 indentured workers were injured in the hail of police fire.
Bechu's criticisms of the indenture system
It was this massacre that spurred the indentured Indian, Bhoshunath Chattopadhyay (known as Bechu) to write letters for the next four and half years to the editors of the Chronicle and several newspapers in which he brilliantly championed the cause of the immigrant laborers. His letters sharply upset the planter class and on two occasions (1898 and 1899) he was prosecuted for libel, but divided juries could not find him guilty.
Buchu expressed opinions most forcefully against the severe working conditions and the penalties imposed on the indentured Indians. He himself was a relatively highly educated Bengali immigrant who was well versed in the English language. As an orphan, he was raised by Presbyterian missionary lady in Calcutta and had lived and worked with other missionaries as a copyist and domestic help. Though he was never educated in a school, he had been taught by his missionary guardian as a child and as he matured he developed a keen interest in English literature.
As an adult, he indentured himself to Guyana and he was contracted on Plantation Enmore in 1894 where he worked in the house of the deputy manager until his indenture ended in 1897. In his first letter published in the Chronicle in November 1896, he condemned the White overseers' sexual exploitation of Indian females; refusal of estate hospitals to provide medical treatment to un-indentured Indians; and the planters' frequent breaches of labor laws in order to impose their total control of the Indian indentured workers and their families.
So powerful was his condemnation of the indenture system that the West India Royal Commission, appointed by the British government to examine working and living conditions of the people in the British Caribbean, invited him to present evidence and a written submission to the four-member commission when it visited Guyana in early 1897.
In his submission to the Royal Commission, Bechu cited his own personal experience as an indentured worker Bechu, pointing out that the concept of equality embodied in the contract was never applied in practice nor were the specific provisions of the contract applied by the planters or enforced by the colonial government. Workers also were afraid to complain against the drivers and overseers because they feared being prosecuted on trumped up charges.
Bechu noted the rampant practice of concubinage and sexual exploitation of Indian women by overseers and managers which he explained was a serious source of management-worker conflict and which resulted directly in the frequency of wife murders among Indians.
He opposed further immigration on the grounds that it was contrary to the interests of the indentured and free Indians in Guyana. As an alternative, he suggested Indian immigrants on the completion of their indenture, should be provided an incentive to settle in the country by providing them land instead of return passage to India.
Bechu writings in the local newspapers drew sharp responses from the sugar planters some of who responded by writing rebuttal letters to the same newspapers. But these only acted to encourage Bechu to respond with other letters to dissect their arguments.
Bechu eventually departed from Guyana and returned to India in 1901.
Unfortunately, all the exposure of the ills of the indenture system by Bechu and subsequently by other Indians failed to move the authorities to apply remedies. For over 26 years their demands for the immigration ordinance to be amended fell on deaf ears, and it was not until 1917 that the Court of Policy finally decided to amend this law. The Court of Policy no doubt was sensitive to the representations of the Indian government which expressed concerns over the treatment of indentured Indians in Guyana. In addition, the influential role of the anti-emigration movement in India, which was supported by Mohandas Gandhi, was instrumental in pressuring the colonial authorities to amend the ordinance
The amended ordinance stipulated that criminal actions against indentured workers were abolished. Civil measures including repatriation to India, in extreme cases, were now to be applied. Penalties were drastically reduced and fines could not exceed one-third of the weekly wage. Imprisonment for labor offences was also abolished.