Monday 30 January 2012

An Indentured Prince

This is a tale of two royal princes and how they made their way to the Land of the Hummingbird. It is a fictional, dramatised account of two true adventures, one of an Indian prince who came to Trinidad as an indentured labourer, and one of an African prince who was freed from a slave ship.

The history of Trinidad and Tobago is a story of immigrants. Coming to these islands from three continents, these themselves separated by thousands of miles, distinguished by cultures fundamentally different, the immigrants shared, however, the island's eclectic and dynamic 19th century culture. Sometimes, they had a unique background in common, like royalty.
Ishwarisingh, by the grace of God, was born into the royal house of Jaipur. He was the third son of Motilal Singh, uncle and one time guardian of the Maharaja of Jaipur, Surat Chandra Singh. Ishwarisingh grew up in the shadow of the great mandir dedicated to Shila Devi, who represents Mahishasuramardini, the 'slayer of the buffalo-demon'. He became a musician, poet and devotee, a dedicated priest to that shrine of Her benevolence.
Ishwarisingh was born in the 20th year of the reign of Queen Victoria of England, whose majesty had spread across the known world, even to India, where her agents and military had engulfed the Mungal kingdoms and threatened the independent princely Rajput states. Jaipur stood as an island, independent, as it had done for close upon a thousand years. defended by the wealth and the wisdom of her ruling house and walked in the ruins of long deserted temples.
Ishwarisingh, in the flower of his youth, decided upon a holy journey, a pilgrimage, so as to visit shrines and sites of his devotion. He traveled in the style not of a prince of the blood, but as a mendicant, a humble musician, a storyteller. He followed the dusty roads of India's vast hinterland, through huge forests and across gigantic mountainscapes. He bathed in holy Gangama, visiting ancient cities that had been built upon even more ancient ones. He thronged with millions of the poor and touched the feet of the holy, and visited in wonderment the great and majestic palaces of long dead kings.
His travels took him eventually to the magnificent city of Calcutta, built up the breast of the great river Ganges. One evening, the sun setting with Asiatic splendour, he found himself in a throng of travelers surging up on the great wharves of the city. In the distance, he could see the tall masts and elaborate rigging of a sailing ship. Soon he could see her vast hull, portholes, gunells, ballast, bails, barrels, boxes, trunks, cargoes. Lines of passengers with expectant, eager, fearful, excited expressions surrounded him. The gang plank leading to the vessel "Count of Lancaster" now named by the merchant Yusuf Haji Mohammed Sadeek of Bombay  the "Fath Al Karim", Victory of Allah the Generous, the Noble.
What karma placed the foot of Prince Ishwarisingh upon that path none but he could tell. What destiny drove him to leave his dharti mata, his land of birth, his kingdom, to take this journey that for some would be one of no return, no one would ever know. It is said that he was told by the immigration agent that he had been recruited under false grounds. His reply was that he had promised to go and so he must go.
The ship slipped away with the very early morning air on the hoogly on the 19th April 1871 with a cargo of 218 Indians. It sailed silently down the river for about 100 miles and reached Sangor Island at the mouth of the Ganges and would not drop anchor for another 60 days and 500 miles.
The journey to the South Atlantic island of St. Helena commenced with the Fath Al Karim sailing to the south west towards Africa's Cape of Good Hope, the Kali Pani. The towering waves in a monstrous running sea became even more terrifying for the passengers as the icy waters of the Antarctic met the warmer of the Atlantic. Raging storms sent the wind howling through the rigging. The ship's decks were awash from stem to stern. Creeping damp grew to clammy wet to a dripping cold, which affected the food, the minds and eventually the sanity of the travelers now bound together in the contracts of indentureship.
On a bleak afternoon, the exhausted sea reduced to rolling swells, the ship sailed warily into the great bay beneath the ancient volcano of an island that had known only one famous visitor some sixty-odd years before by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte. In the placid bay of St. Helena, the memory of the "Pagal Samundor", the mad sea slowly fading, the indentured were prepared for the final leg of the journey. This island, held by the British since 1673, had previously been used as a holding bay for slaves en route to the Americas, and from 1810 for the Chinese who were destined for indentureship to the New World. Now it was a stop to drop off the sick or dying, the "troublesome coolies"  and the rebellious European seamen.
The "jahagis" longed to be put ashore to touch the earth, to step upon its firmness. but no. Soon, she set sail again, taking the tradewinds north and westward over a rolling water for another 40 days and nights to yet another island, named by the Christian navigator for his triune God, Trinidad.
The journey had been gentle, and the jahagis had recuperated. The sea was calm and the winds allowed the "Victory of Allah the Generous, the Noble" to enter the Gulf of Paria through the Grand Boca, to drop anchor before the smiling town of Port of Spain.
Ishwarisingh now knew his fate. To which estate he was sent and what was his experience here is forgotten - there is no record. However, Sir Neville Lubbock, Chairman of the West Indian Committee from 1884 to 1909, in his evidence before the Sanderson Commission of 1910, makes reference to this strange adventure. The following extract is taken verbatim from the minutes of evidence of the said commission:
"I do not know whether you have had before you a rather interesting report by Mr. Mitchell of Trinidad. It appears that there was a Prince went out from India to Trinidad by mistake. He thought he was making a religious pilgrimage, but when he got to Calcutta, he found his mistake. The emigration agent there told him that he had been recruited under false grounds. Well, he said, he had promised to go and he meant to go. He went to Trinidad, served his five years, remained there the ten years, and when he was returning to India, he told Mr. Mitchell his story: how he was an Indian Prince and how he was very pleased with the way in which he had been treated in Trinidad and thanked them and returned back to India. I think that is about ten years ago. It is a rather interesting story."

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