Colonial Emigration


During the days of the coolie trade, the British kept records of indentured workers and their travels in official diaries. Mrs Leela Gujadhur Sarup, historian and researcher, pulled out many such records from archives in India, and compiled books like the one above. Here’s an excerpt from page 165 of the book that looks at a complaint against a captain of a ship returning from Demerara in 1874
Colonial Emigration

19th-20th Century


1875 - August 1876

Vol. 7

Leela Gujadhur Sarup

R. W. Cooke, Esq., M.R.C.S.,
late Surgeon-Superintendent of the Ship Ailsa,
The Secretary, H. M.’s Emigration Commissioners.
Dated Gateshead on Tyne, the 27th November 1875. 

I beg to acknowledge the receipt of your letter No. 2197, dated the 24th of November 1875, with its enclosures, relative to the statement made by Captain Russell of the ship Ailsa, charging me with misconduct when Surgeon-Superintendent of the vessel on her voyage from Demerara to Calcutta in 1874, and to request the favour of your laying this before the Commissioners.

The Ailsa was the second return emigrant ship from Demerara in 1874, and she received on board the surplus of those emigrants who were entitled to the return passage, and who were clamorous to leave. There were many lepers, and at starting I estimated the probable mortality at 5 per cent. When we started the disease broke out afresh, and as a matter of course proved very fatal. From the date of leaving deaths occurred, and it will be found on reference to the returns that leprosy was the chief cause of the mortality.

The first appearance of annoyance on the part of the Captain was in connection with these deaths. Both he and the Chief Officer were continually talking about the people being murdered and improperly treated: their conduct was excessively aggravating and insulting, and in conjunction with a Mr. Farrel, who was a returning apothecary, they formed a committee of observation, watching everything, and, as I was informed at the time, taking notes. The result was an amount of embarrassment completely paralysing the efforts of myself and my assis¬tants, although when the voyage commenced it was upon precisely the same principles as the other voyages taken by me, which had terminated successfully, and with the assistance of the same compounder, Jugmohun Sing.

The Captain and Chief Officer were each furnished with a set of rules to which they were constantly referring. The object was to make me feel that they were the masters and I was to obey their dictum in all things. This speedily resulted in a very unpleasant state of things. During the voyage the Captain was in the habit of using most foul and filthy language to my assistants; he somewhat modified that used towards myself. The position of affairs was intolerable, but we were at sea, and I saw no way out of it. I was informed by both the Captain and Chief Officer that they were taking notes and intended to use them against me. The Captain expressed his intention to complain to the Governor at the Cape.

I pointed out that his proper course was to address me officially, stating his grounds of complaint, and if in earnest his proceeding was to lay the case before His Excellency in Cape Town. This he said he would do. On arriving there I was very unwell and went on shore for a day or two. I had daily reports that all was well. The Captain was very friendly in his manner and assured me there was no need to go on board; but I was prepared to do so at any moment. The man who died there was one of the lepers, and there is no treatment in the advanced stages of the disease. Continuing the voyage, I was much better for a week; but both the Captain and Chief Officer resumed their systematic course of annoyance, and continued it till the end of the voyage. I have private notes relating to their conduct, and also a short journal kept by my assistant, Jugomohun Sing, showing the character of the language in daily use, which is too gross to report in this communication, but would be admissible in an inquiry.

On reaching Calcutta no complaint was made to my knowledge, and when I saw the Captain, last he was friendly and kind in his manner.

I consulted with Mr. Firth, and he came to the conclusion that as I felt myself bound to speak in very high terms of the Captain as a commander, that the matter was a personal one and should not be taken official notice of. I complained verbally to Mr. Firth of the gross interference and impertinence to which I had been subjected, and thought if he would admonish Captain Russell the case would be met, for otherwise, my opinion of him was a very high one. It is possible Mr. Firth did this, and that the Captain, who is an exceedingly passionate and vindictive man, concocted his statements on his way to Demerara, having reference to his notes before referred to. That this must have been the case is evident, and he cannot plead duty. He condoned the alleged misconduct by passing the constituted authorities before whom it was his duty to represent it, well knowing that it must be attended to. But I was present and well able to defend myself; he therefore did not bring his case till he could do so ex-parte.

Here I would beg leave to bring to the notice of the Commissioners that in the inquiry held in Demerara the only evidence produced by the Captain to substantiate his asser¬tion that he had laid the matter before the Emigration authorities in Calcutta was his bare word. The personal charges against myself before the matter was brought to the notice of the Government of India should have been forwarded to the Commissioners so as to afford me the opportunity of defending myself. It allowed Captain Russell to commit himself to a gross and unjust defamation of character. I am at present somewhat at a loss to know how to deal with the rest of the matter. The Captain might have been quite in order in stating that there was intemperance and neglect of duty, but he is allowed to make his damaging assertions, which do not affect the chief object, of his complaint, and these framed by men who were pledged to injure me as much as possible.

I visited the between-decks as often and as carefully as usual. The lepers were visited at least once daily. What they term "crawling on deck" means getting them up for the sake of the air. No food was eaten till I had seen and passed it. I attended personally at the cook¬ing of Thursday and Friday's dinner, those being the two great dinners of the week. I inspected the people when eating as much and no more than I had done on former voyages. The Captain's "bucket or, more of rum" will be found on his producing my requisitions to be from two to three pints. The case of the little girl Hurah was an ordinary one of worms in unusual quantities, and she could not stand the irritation consequent upon the attempt to expel them with santonine. I have had many such. The Captain and his officers only saw that one. The Captain would go about talking aloud of the accumulated sum lost by the deaths on board, using anything but complimentary language. There was an exceedingly bad feeling between us, and the only and popular mode is to attack the Surgeon on the score of intemperance.

I kept my cabin more than usual on account of my health, but chiefly to avoid the constant supervision and interference to be encountered outside.

A reference to some of my reports will show that I pointed out how easy it is if the Surgeon does not agree with the Captain, to ruin him, under some circumstances, whoever he may be. From the subsequent behaviour of Captain Russell, I had no idea he entertained feelings of personal animosity, and set down what had passed as akin to the hard words and doings always met with occasionally during a voyage only to be forgotten on shore.

As respects the charge of being always drunk; I most positively and emphatically deny it. No one ever saw me drunk.

I had been on three voyages in the S. S. Ennore, and the third had tried me exceedingly. Instead of resting, I was three months in Malaica, officiating for the incumbent, who was sick. I had charge of six estate hospitals, the leper asylum, and the jail. When there I narrowly escaped death by drowning. When I came down to Demerara to take charge of the Ailsa, I had not recovered from the shock, and did not do so for many months. I was worn-out, nervous, and anæmic (that is from loss of blood), and properly speaking should not have taken charge at all. I would not have done so had I foreseen there would have been any departure from the usual precedent on board ship.

At this time I required constant stimulants, and it was the only thing that carried me over. Sometimes I feared I might not reach Calcutta. With respect to the details regarding spirit and spirit consumed, the entire statement is a misrepresentation, to enter into which does not affect the main question. I deny that I ever took more than was needful, or more than any other medical man would have sanctioned under the circumstances. The free use of stimulants was necessary till I reached England. They had to be continued under medical advice all through the winter, during which I was a close prisoner to my room. When the system had been recruited by rest, I found stimulants not needed, and now take scarcely any.

I tried to explain to the Captain how easily you may mistake nervous debility for drinking to excess, especially when the subject does take stimulants; but he only met it with a display of course raillery, and a refusal to listen to me.

His remarks regarding the medical treatment are uncalled for. As far as discipline was concerned it is very difficult to maintain any with returning English-speaking emigrants, especially when the Captain and his Chief Officer are perpetually interfering and tampering with the people.

By adopting the course taken by the Captain of the Ailsa, he effectually prevented my defending myself. In addition to this, he deprives me of my source of livelihood, besides wantonly damaging my character, and I must seek other advice, so far as he and I are concerned personally. His Chief Officer was working with him, and his subordinates as a matter of course follow their chief.

I beg to protest against the unfair character of the inquiry, and to bring to the notice of the Commissioners that, granting Captain Russell's assertions are correct, he is far more to blame, since in that case I should have been incapable of judging, while he in his senses condoned the offences for the purpose of bringing them forward in the cowardly manner he has done.

February 2012

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