Friday, 12 April 2013

Return to Maldivia: Happy Ending or Anti-Climax?

Upper Jamestown Valley: Once the site of the Maldivia Gardens

Few of my blogs have attracted as much interest as those on Maldivia. With great anticipation and no little emotion I returned in January this year,

The upper Jamestown Valley: looking west

trying to imagine what those Maldivians who landed on St Helena in 1735 must have made of this place: a fertile valley in the shadow of rather threatening, barren rock, down which cattle were apparently once driven to be slaughtered.

I also went to work in the archives, trying to unlock the mystery of the Maldivians who according to legend created the beautiful gardens named after them. Failing to find any trace of them in registers of births or deaths, and on the verge of giving up, I found in Letters to England 1727-1737 the letter of 31st April 1735 from which the original printed extract compiled by Governor Janisch had come. The letter recorded the arrival of the Drake from Bengal under the command of Captain Pelly, then reported the arrival of the seven Maldivians,

Extract from letter to England, 31st April 1735

but contained a couple of lines which Janisch had omitted.

Captn Pelly at the distance of 150 Leagues from Land took up a Boat with Ten Blacks in her belonging to of the Maldivee Islands called who were drove out to sea & near perishing having no more Provisions or Water left when he see them than about Ten pounds of Rice & Three Gallons of Water three of the Ten died on board the other Seven Vizt. 5 men one boy & one Woman he hath left here & wee shall keep them at Work for their Living till we hear from Honours how they Shall be sent back to their own Country ..

The subsequent letter of 5th July 1735 complained of a lack of labour on the island:

.. wee have not had any Slaves from the West Coast & you have but forty one Working Blacks of Your own and the few we get of the Inhabitants at the low rate of 9d a day are not sufficient .. we have Weakened Ouselves by frequent Draughts of Blacks Sent to Bencoolen in & since the time of Govr. Johnson ..
Then, and surprisingly in view of this, it concluded:
Wee desire your Honours will give us directions how we shall Send those Blacks to their own Country whom Capt. Pelly miraculously Saved at Sea they belong to the Maldive Islands & are Seven in Number.

In view of the great shortage of labout on the island I assumed that that was the last that would be heard of the matter, and then I came across the letter of 16th April 1736.

The Blacks Capt. Pelly left here desire to return to their native Country & Capt. Crompton carried them to Bencolen wee treated them well & they seem highly pleased with their kind Usage which we hope will be of service to such of our Countrymen who trade among them.

So the Honourable East India Company for once acted in keeping with its name, and the Maldivians were presumably returned to the Maldive Islands. What a story they must have been able to tell when they eventually got there.

In reflecting on this saga I have to say in my defence that as far as I know nobody else has ever suggested that the Maldivians were returned to their own country. One of the leading inhabitants on St Helena who is very knowledgeable about the history of the island told me that his understanding was they had not lived very long after their arrival on St Helena. It also strikes me that we have no documentary evidence that they actually created what came to be known as the Maldivia Gardens (usually spelt in the archives as Maldavia incidentally), but we must assume that the name is proof enough. Quite how much impact seven people would have made in no more than a year is difficult to judge, but I would doubt if you could create a garden in such a short space of time. Anyway the name remains, and those seven have left a permanent imprint on the island.

I am left with strange and very mixed feelings about this whole business. Had Governor Janisch printed the whole extract it is unlikely that I would have ever made some good friends on the Maldive Islands, but neither would I have appeared on television spouting what I can now only describe as utter nonsense! Apologies are definitely in order.


Dr.Aishath Ali Naaz said...

John, thank you for this. It is indeed a strange ending, but strangely enough it brought me a relief.of a strange kind..hmmm. The best part is that through your interest in St. Helena, we came to know of the journey these Maldivians took, the history has become very clear and many people who took interest in this story, will find this very interesting and be thankful.Mostly me, b'cos through this we found a lovely everlasting friendship between us and our families. Thanks again for this bit of work John!

John Tyrrell said...

It is great to get your reaction to this; I have been wondering for some time what you would feel about it. It is a strange but happy ending, and I can understand your relief. I came very close to giving up in my searches, and for some time could not even find the original document recording their arrival on the island.

It was great to meet you both in January, and we often talk about you. I hope it won't be too long before we meet again, and please take care of yourself.

John Grimshaw said...

I fear that the EIC may have acted less honourably than you suggest in carrying them to Bencolen (sic) where, in 1685, the English East India Company had established a pepper trading centre. While the Royal African Company was busily transporting slaves from West Africa to the new lands of North America and the West Indies, the EIC was similarly occupied, though on a smaller scale with the business of shipping Madagascar slaves to India and the East Indies and using slaves at its “factory” and fort at Bencoolen now in modern day Indonesia.
Early in July 1758, the British East India Company’s Court of Directors wrote to officials in Bombay after receiving reports that the financial problems plaguing the company’s factory at Bencoolen (Benkulen) on the west coast of Sumatra stemmed from a “want of labouring people.” The directors noted that since the government at Madras was unable to procure slaves for the settlement and English merchants based at Bombay “have an intercourse with Mozambique and Madagascar, and make the Coffrees a part of their trafficck, we order that you purchase all the Slaves procurable, Men, Women, and Children, for our Settlement of Bencoolen, and convey them thither by the Cruizer we have ordered upon that Station, or by any other speedy method that may offer. Unfortunately, it is unclear how many of the five hundred slaves that the directors authorized to be shipped to Bencoolen actually reached their Sumatran outpost. Any who did so arrived in a less than expeditious manner; in March 1759, officials at Bencoolen were still pleading for a supply of slaves to meet their need for inexpensive labor. A census in November that same year recorded the presence of 460 men, women, and child slaves at Fort Marlborough and its dependencies, but did not report their places of origin or dates of arrival at the settlement.

The 1723 St Helena census recorded 500 whites, including 120 officers and soldiers and 592 slaves of which 153 were children. It was only in 1792 that the importation of slaves to St Helena was made illegal, Governor Patton recommending that the Company import Chinese labour instead.

Despite the Maldivians being “miraculously saved” and their “desire to return to their native country”, given the EIC’s involvement in the slave trade, taking them to Bencoolen to use as labourers rather than returning them home must have seemed the logical and profitable thing to do. Not the happy ending we would have wished for them.

John Tyrrell said...

Food for thought there. Presumably the records of the East India Company in London would might give some indication of their fate once they left St Helena?