The Coolie Ships

By Evan Radhay Persaud
At the beginning of the Introduction to his notable work xSugar Without Slaves: The Political Economy of British Guiana, 1838-1904,x Alan Adamson posited that the principal themes of Guyanaxs post-emancipation history have to do with xthe survival of sugar as the dominant crop, of the plantation economy as the dominant system of production, and of the sugar planters as the dominant social and political groupingx.

In the wake of the abolition of slavery and under the conditions of emancipation, the freed slaves were bound as apprentices to their erstwhile masters for four years. After the loss of their cheap labour following the premature termination of the Apprenticeship System in 1838 and frustrated by the increasing reluctance of their former chattels to return to the plantations to work for low wages, the desperate planters sought to avoid ruin by importing bound labour from several places including the sub-continent of India, then largely under British rule.

The arrival of indentured labourers, especially those from India, enabled the planters to establish sugar as a monoculture, to reap profits over an extended period of time while keeping wages low and to continuously replenish the labour supply which had decreased dramatically after 1838 and especially in the late 1840s.

Immigration, thus, underlies all of Adamsonxs themes and arguably can be considered the dominant theme in the immediate post-emancipation history of Guyana.

Approximately 239,000 immigrants (Bharatiyaa) from India were transported in 245 ships which made 534 voyages across the Kaala Paani to British Guiana between 1838 and 1917 during the Period of Indentureship. Of this total, 234 were sailing ships which cumulatively made 492 voyages while 11 steamships made 42. A total of 103 ships of both classes made two or more voyages while 142 made just one voyage.

In the early decades of Indian emigration, ships were chartered each season as required, either in London or in India. As the years passed, an increasingly large proportion, often all of it, was chartered in London. Up to the early 1870s, it remained the rule for shipping to be chartered separately for each shipping season, which commenced towards the end of one calendar year and ended towards the middle of the following calendar year.

Then in 1874, as a result of a very sharp increase in the rates of freight, the colonies of British Guiana and Trinidad and the Emigration Commissioners agreed to try to obtain lower rates by awarding a contract for a term of years to a single shipping firm.

Messrs. Sandbach Tinne and Company of Liverpool, a firm with commercial connections in British Guiana, were awarded a contract for three years from 1875-76 to 1877-78. This firm was succeeded by G.D.Tyser and Company, which held the British Guiana contract for the following five years from 1878-79 to 1882-83.

Until 1888 the shipping contract was the subject of intense competition between the following three firms: James Nourse of London, Sandbach Tinne and Company and G.D. Tyser and Company. In 1888, however, James Nourse secured a hold on the contract which was never afterwards broken.

In the 1890s all competition disappeared and Nourse had the field to himself to such an extent that the colony of British Guiana sometimes found it an advantage to negotiate a contract with him privately rather than to invite tenders. In fact, Sandbach Tinne and Company agreed not to compete against Nourse on the understanding that a number of their ships would be employed under contract by him.

The last sailing ship to arrive (Ems) and the last steamship to arrive (s.s Ganges) were owned by the firm of James Nourse and Company.

The Whitby and the Hesperus, which sailed from Calcutta to launch the Gladstone Experiment, both arrived on 5 May 1838 – the first to do so. Seven years were to pass before the next ship, the Lord Hungerford, also out of Calcutta, arrived on 4 May 1845. The first ship from Madras to arrive was the Nestor which did so on 26 December, 1845.

Between 1845 and 1848, the second period of Indian immigration to British Guiana, 44 voyages (23 from Madras and 21 from Calcutta) were made by 34 sailing ships, ten of which made two voyages each. The Martin Luther, the first ship to arrive twice and in consecutive sailing seasons, completed separate voyages from Calcutta and Madras in 1846.

After immigration resumed, a total of 209 ships cumulatively accounted for 488 voyages between 1851 and 1917. Of these voyages, 463 saw immigrants transported from Calcutta only, 18 were from Madras only, while 7 were completed after immigrants from both Calcutta and Madras were received aboard the same ship.

Overall, 200 ships transported immigrants from Calcutta alone with 118 of them making only one voyage. A total of 25 ships sailed from Madras alone with 24 of them making only one voyage. Fourteen ships made separate voyages from Calcutta and Madras while five ships completed separate voyages from Calcutta and the Calcutta-Madras combination. One ship, the s.s. Chenab, made separate voyages from Calcutta and Madras as well as one voyage transporting immigrants from both Calcutta and Madras.

In the early years the ships employed were wooden sailing vessels commonly built of teak. In 1861, however, when James Nourse entered this transportation field, his company began building iron sailing ships. Sandbach Tinne and Company, a rival shipping company, soon followed suit. By the 1880s wooden sailing ships had been replaced almost entirely by iron sailing ships.

Simultaneous with the gradual passing of the wooden sailing ships, the world was turning from sail to steam and the employment of steamships naturally came up for consideration. Although it was suggested in the 1860s that the use of the steamships to transport emigrants would be cheaper, that mortality rates would be significantly lower and that the duration of voyages would be significantly shorter than if sailing ships were used, only 5 steamships crossed the Kaala Paani to British Guiana before the 1908-1909 sailing season, making a total of 7 trips.

The size of the ships employed increased as the years passed, since ship owners found the building of larger ships generally more economical. In the mid 19th century sailing ships generally carried between 300 to 400 emigrants. For example, during the 1858-59 shipping season the following 8 vessels delivered 2720 emigrants: (1) Latona, 693 tons, 317; (2) Marchioness of Londonderry, 766 tons, 37 ; (3) York, 940 tons, 386; (4) Victor Emanuel, 955 tons, 358, (5) Plantagenet, 806 tons, 334; (6) Aurora, 536 tons, 234; (7) Ellenborough 1031 tons, 352; and (8) Simla, 1444 tons, 367.

By the early 1870s, however, vessels of over 1000 tons and transporting between 400 and 500 were the norm and this was illustrated by the fact that in the 1872-1873 shipping season only two ships of thirteen that sailed from India were below 1000 tons. These ships, the James Nourse-owned Ganges of 843 tons and the Gainsborough of 973 tons delivered 396 and 373 persons, respectively. The other ships landed between 403 (Trevelyan) and 561 persons (s.s. Enmore).

By the mid-1880s, heavier ships were transporting between 500 and 600 Indian emigrants. For example, during the 1883-84 shipping season the following five ships delivered 2731 emigrants: Bann, 1667 tons, 591; Foyle, 1598 tons , 564; British Peer, 1428 tons, 559; Ganges, 1443 tons, 490; and The Bruce, 1145 tons, 527.

By the early 1900s, ships were generally between 1400 and 1750 tons and routinely transported between 550 and 650 persons. With the increasing use of steamships after 1908, numbers transported per ship rose significantly to between 750 and 900 persons. For example, during the 1909-1910 shipping season the following three ships delivered 2508 emigrants: s.s. Sutlej, 2153 tons, 844; s.s. Ganges, 2151 tons, 847; and s.s. Indus, 2110 tons, 817.

As the years passed, therefore, fewer but larger ships were used to transport similar amounts of emigrants.

The first sailing ship to deliver more than 500 persons was the Blue Jacket which offloaded 522 persons from Madras on 1 February 1857. The first sailing ship from Calcutta to deliver more than 500 persons was the Apelles from which 503 persons disembarked on 4 February1866. The last sailing vessel to arrive was the Ems which offloaded 658 persons including two (2) casuals on 8 October, 1908.

The largest amount of emigrants to arrive on a sailing ship was 683 including two (2) casuals landed by the Mersey on 22 February 1895. The largest amount to arrive on a steamship was 907 including four (4) casuals delivered by s.s. Fazilka on 27 September 1901.

The s.s. Far East, which arrived on 21 October 1869, was the first steamship to transport immigrants to British Guiana even though she only used steampower as a secondary source of propulsion on this voyage.

The greatest number of ships to arrive in any sailing season was nineteen (19) in 1873-1874, beginning with the Buckinghamshire from Calcutta which delivered 526 persons on November 2, 1873 and ending with the India, also from Calcutta, which landed 382 emigrants on June 23, 1874. The corresponding number for a calendar year was 18 in 1869.The greatest amount of emigrants to arrive in a calendar year was 9,101 including one infant born after arrival in 1878.

The sailing ships that made the highest number of voyages from India to British Guiana were the Jura with ten crossings between 1877 and 1898; and the Foyle also with a total of ten crossings between 1883 (arriving on January 2, 1884) and 1899. The steamship that made the highest number of voyages was the s.s. Sutlej which made ten journeys between 1908 and 1916. the sailing ships Brenda and Sheila each made nine voyages.

The last shipment consisted of 437 persons, originating from both Madras and Calcutta, who arrived on April 18, 1917 aboard the s.s. Ganges


1 thought on “The Coolie Ships”

  1. This report is very comprehensive but I would like to see the entire list of all the ships in order of leaving India. I am involved in Family History and Genealogy work. Thanks

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