Georgetown – Vam
This short story is based on a historical practice in the British Empire. In this case, British Guyana at the turn of the century.
The sign read “WELCOME TO THE GUYANA COLONY – GATEWAY TO SOUTH AMERICA”. I was not impressed. Georgetown was a dusty, hot dirty town, hardly my idea of a colonial capital. I was hoping to transact my business and catch a steamer back to Trinidad, then back to Toronto and out of these infernal tropics.
My host, Mr. Weldon Thomas, the owner of Thomas Estate Rums, had invited me to stay at his estate outside of town. He had sent a driver to take me to the plantation. Being a Canadian I had never seen a sugar plantation and distillery, and must admit I was looking forward to spending a few days living like a sugar baron. My trip was to meet with Mr. Weldon and get the best price for his rum. I understood that he was a shrewd businessman who had made his fortune importing rum after his family lost theirs at the end of slavery. There are no roads to speak of in the whole colony; the cab ride to the Estate was bone shattering. The driver, who introduced himself as Wescott, gave me a long lesson in colonial history as we snaked through the narrow streets and onto the road.
“These are all coolie shacks here, suh. Dem planters brought the coolies in from India when the blacks no do slave work. Everyting went bad before de coolies come, now dey do de slave work, black man have land.”
I looked at the rows and rows of shacks along the roadside; each shack had cooking fires tended by Indian girls and women, not unlike what I’m sure one would see in Bombay. We drove into a long driveway up to a large white house surrounded by flowering shrubs. Wescott said, “There is Mr. Thomas, suh.”
A very tall, red-faced man approached the car, with his hand extended. “You must be Howlett, from Canada. Glad to meet you, welcome. Wescott, take Mr. Howlett’s bags to the guest house.” Wescott took my bags and I accompanied Mr. Thomas to the veranda.
“How is Canada, cold I say? I haven’t been to Canada for years. I understand that you were sent out by Walker & Trescott.”
“Yes sir,” I replied, and handed him my letter of introduction. Then I said, “Here are the offers we would like to make for your Navy rum this year.” I handed him the papers from my boss Mr. Walker.
He looked them over and said, “Looks good to me, let’s have a drink on it.” He rang a bell on the table and a young Indian woman wearing a maid’s uniform appeared with two tall glasses of rum punch on a tray. Mr. Thomas replied, “That will be all for now.” The servant girl left the tray and returned to the house. Mr. Thomas said, “The coolies are better than the blacks: they are obedient and most don’t try to rise above their station, maybe it’s the caste system. Don’t get me wrong, they still give us problems, but you’ll see how we handle them.”
Wescott came up to the veranda steps and said to Mr. Thomas, “Suh, I put Mr. Howlett’s bags in the guest house, will there be anything else?”
Mr. Thomas said, “No that will be all for now, but remember to be ready for tonight right after sundown.” Mr. Thomas noticed that I had almost finished my glass. He clapped his hands and the girl appeared with a pitcher and refilled my glass. “Drink up Mr. Howlett, drink up,” he said as he examined the papers, nodding occasionally and asking about shipping costs and customs. I assured him that we would be able to make satisfactory arrangements with regard to both of his areas of concern.
After two more glasses or so, I started to drift off to sleep in the intense heat. I felt a large hand on my shoulder, it was Wescott.
“Help you to the guest house, Suh? That rum punch, she some powerful drink.”
Mr. Thomas said, “Get some rest, lad. I’m satisfied that we can work out a deal. I’ll sign the contract and we’ll send you off tomorrow.”
Wescott helped me to stagger across the road to the guest house where I was back to sleep in a moment under the whirling ceiling fan.
I must have slept for a few hours before waking to the commotion by the great house. I dressed and washed my face in the basin then walked toward the great house. The road was full of black and Indian plantation workers all heading up to the veranda. I could see Westcott ahead of me on the road. I called out to him, “Wescott, what is all this?”
He said, “A house girl tried to run away, these damned coolies, they owe Mr. Thomas and they try to run away. Now we gone teach her a lesson.”
As I made my way through the crowd I could see my host on the veranda. Wescott had assembled the Indian laborers and house servants round the front of the veranda. Mr. Thomas told Wescott to bring me up to him.
“Suh. Mr. Thomas wants to see you.”
We moved through the crowd to the veranda. Mr. Thomas said, “Damned coolies, the constable caught one of my house girls trying to catch a steamer, can you believe that? These are people who owe me their labor for the next 10 years. Now this one is going to gaol for 3 months.” Then I looked across the veranda and saw an Indian girl about 18 years old, she was shackled to a rather stern white woman in a uniform.
“The magistrate is a good fellow and a friend from my foreign service day in India, he was a colonel then. He lets us turn the runaway coolies over to the matron, after, of course we make a public lesson out of them.” Then he said to Wescott, “Quiet them down and have Desi translate to Punjabi.”
Wescott yelled, “Quiet! Quiet!” then to my and everyone else’s surprise he fired his pistol into the air. A muffled hush fell over the crowd. The crowd’s attention turned to the veranda.
“This girl, Rohma Chattergee, indentured Weldon Thomas, planter, was apprehended trying to leave the colony by constables in Georgetown. The colonial court sentence said indentured servant to receive 20 lashes well laid on, which is suspended and that she shall be committed to the common gaol for ninety days. Prior to commitment the said indentured servant shall have her hair clipped from her head and her head shaven by a prison matron at the property of Mr. Thomas at his pleasure and in attendance of all indentured labors and servants at the estate.” Mr. Thomas read the document, then said to Wescott, “Get the wench ready.”
Wescott moved a stout wooden armchair to the centre of the veranda, then opened a valise on the table behind the chair and removed a pair of shears, heavy black electric clippers that looked like they had recently been used to clip sheep, and a straight razor. He plugged the old clippers into the outlet in the adjacent salon and return to the veranda with the clippers and a basin.
“Matron, do your duty.” The women in the crowd began crying as Desi finished his translation, the men appeared more resolute, as all eyes were fixed on the centre of the veranda. Wescott grabbed the girl by her slender shoulders and with a single stoke tore off the top her gray prison frock exposing her breasts, then he and the matron handcuffed the trembling girl into the armchair. Mr. Thomas said to the matron, “Take your time, I want her to learn her lesson.”
The matron looked at her tools assembled on the table, then almost like she was planning her strategy, looked at her prisoner bound to the chair. Then she said to the girl, “All this is going to be mine, love,” as she slowly stroked her hair, then with a single stroke she sheared off a two-foot lock, letting it drop into her lap.
The matron sheared off lock after lock letting them drop to the floor. Wescott held the girl forward, tears were streaming down her face as the matron relentlessly sheared off more and more hair. She was crying out in Punjabi and pidgin, “No, No, memsahib.” Wescott and the matron ignored her cries. Wescott brushed the fallen hair away from her face and held up a small mirror to her face. The shears had taken their toll, her long black hair had been shorn down to 1″ and uneven all over her head. The matron reached for the clippers on the table. The crowd grew silent as the girl raised her shorn head. Wescott held her trembling face in the mirror.
Mr. Thomas said, “This will teach you that in Guyana you pay your debts, wench,” then he nodded to Wescott. “Finish her!”
The matron turned on the clippers – POP – and the crowd screamed, “No!” Wescott held her head steady and pressed her head down to her naked breasts, as the matron plunged the clippers into her remaining black hair. BUZZZZ and she left a brown strip of scalp and dropped a lock of black hair from the centre of her head. Wescott held her head fast, but her screams grew louder and louder. “Aya. Aya, No, No!”
The matron continued to clip until all that remained was a black down-like shadow, covering her brown scalp. Then Wescott released his grip and again held up the mirror to her face, as the matron stropped the straight razor. The matron rubbed soapy water from the basin on the her head, then she said to Wescott, “Hold her fast.” He tightened his grip on her head. The matron deftly stroked the razor, indicating that she had extensive experience doing this, rasping along across her scalp, from the crown to the nape and back and forth in short measured strokes.
The girl had surrendered all resistance. After 10 minutes the ordeal was over and Wescott again held up the mirror, before the matron led her away trying to cover her naked breasts and her shaven scalp, through the crowd to the constable’s wagon.
Mr. Thomas said, “Wescott, do you think they have learned a lesson. If it was one of my laborers I would have had him flogged and his wife shaved.”
Wescott replied, “Yes, suh, who dese people tink dey are?”
“Mr. Howlett, that sort of thing happens here occasionally. Those people keep the sugar mill and the distillery running, before this we had slavery here in Guyana in 1920. We’ve come a long way.”
At my feet was a 2′ mound of thick black hair. I picked up a 2′ lock, tied it together and kept it as a souvenir.
Mr. Thomas said, “Wescott, clean up this hair and get us a drink.”
I replied, “Thank you,” and took a seat on the veranda.