Two centuries of Indenture
By Vijay Ram
A celebration of nearly two centuries of hard work, struggle and righteousness! That’s how we, the new generations of Indentures (the Indenturials) should look back on the journey of our ancestors. A journey of trials and tribulations, an accomplished journey nevertheless.
Yes, there was that umbilical pain of leaving loved ones behind, the perilous hardship of three weeks across an unknown ‘Kala Pani’, the apprehension of being accepted in that other ‘moolook’. Yes, there was that overwhelming feeling of uncertainty, fear, and forbearance.
But there was also the sense of challenge, of the will of trying something new, the urge to do better, to succeed, to help the others at home, to prove that ‘I did it’! This drive for a new adventure, very painful as it may have been, opened up into a quest for resourcefulness, effort, and entrepreneurship.
The canvas shows us pictures of revolting oppression, degrading behaviour, painful experiences, but there were also those depicting a sense of community, a livelihood, a will to thrive. And it is precisely that build-up of the spirit of entrepreneurship that we are going to dig into from reported anecdotes of a recently declassified archived document of 1840, where Lord John Russell, the then Secretary of State for the Colonies, raised in the House of Commons, the subject of Indian indentured labourers in Mauritius. He had just received the Parliamentary Report from Governor Sir William Nicolay of the Commissioners of Inquiry who spent weeks in Mauritius questioning labourers, plantation owners and officials on issues of labour and general welfare.
Hospital, Kali Mata shrine and mosque
After having heard testimonies of labourers and masters at the Mahebourg District Court, Commissioners Davidson, Wilmot and Villiers Forbes report about some people erecting a Kali shrine in the region of Union Vale in memory of and respect for the 19 coolies who died in rather atrocious circumstances on their passage to Mauritius, the last one committing suicide on arrival. They heard that, in July 1838, conditions on board the Donna Pascoa were inhumane and degrading, that emigrants destined to the Concession Gaston De Bissy, were offered no drinking water pushing some to die of poisoning and dysentery having had to drink their own urine with salt. That incident gave rise to detailed debates in the House of Commons.
There is also reference to Mr Barkatwollah, a sirdar of the Beau Vallon/Choisy estate, who had raised enough money to start a mosque together with his comrades. It was accommodated in part of a thatched house by Mr Sauzier, the owner of the estate.
The thrust of the recommendations of the three Stipendiary Magistrates for Grand Port dealt with the poverty of sanitary and medical assistance given to labourers. They deplored the lack of medical resources offered by many estates, especially the inadequate buildings and the long distance labourers had to travel. They made a strong case for the setting up of a public funded hospital, which later came up as the Mahebourg Hospital.
Women entrepreneurship and financial services
The key motivation of migrants is the wish to make enough money to be able send some back home, pay back debts, or to make some savings. The Emigration Committee encouraged the Indians to get registered with some bank savings schemes. Some employers were acting as their savings bank; those who were more literate would open a bank account, while others would rather keep their savings under their mattress.
There are reports of some immigrants having accumulated savings of over Rs 500 (the equivalent of 100 months of wages), most would have between Rs50-100. Some of the immigrants brought with them the tradition from back home, that of usury, money lending and the Committee had to intervene as in some instances lenders were charging interest rates as high as 300%. So, we already had a financial product even in those days and some did make it to the point of being able to buy lands well before the ‘Grand Morcellement’. In the 1820s, the Annasamy and Tiroumoudy were already estate owners, as also Ratungee Bickagee.
The rarity of women immigrants turned out to be of a commercial asset. Most of the wives and daughters of labourers pursued out of field activities, like the twenty six ‘women all dressed in European style’ on the estate of Charles Rouillard in Ile d’Ambre who were reported as doing needlework, sewing and embroidery. Commissioners Thatcher and Campbell also noted that one of their men had saved Rs 423.
Was also reported the case of the seven women in a family on the estate of Fantaisie/Plaisance who had taken voluntary work in courtyards or as servant maids to the Cloupet family. There were also those who would rather stay at home and raise poultry. They were a Dhangar family from Nagpur and earned Rs22 pm (more than x4 the average).
Others did not hesitate to engage in ancillary jobs like carpentry and other woodwork as exemplified by that group of men who took the challenge of Mr Guillot, a civil architect, who erected a sugar mill at the Mon Desert Mon Tresor estate. The labourers had a seamless shift from field work to new carpentry skills and for better money.
Community cohesion and conviviality
Among the testimonies recorded by the Commission, it became clear that some of the terms of the contract they signed in India were not enforced once they were in Mauritius, especially those relating to food, clothing, hospital expenses, freedom of movement and more importantly their right to a promised free passage back home.
Very soon the Indian labourers realised that the only way they could succeed to claim what was their due, was to fight – and to fight together as a community. Despite the attempt to divide them into ‘Calcutta’ and ‘Pondicherry/Madras’, even the disparity in the amount of food and clothing given to each group of immigrants, actions to improve their quality of life were mostly consensual. As rightly put by Mr T. Hugon of the Bengal Emigration Service, it is in their “dustoor”, the generally accepted moral custom, that what is gained should be equitable! And, together they gained as public holiday the celebration of Muharram and Pongole.
There were reports of an action involving Messrs Hurdial, Dijery and Ramchutten who instigated others not to start ‘la coupe’ because they were under the impression their contract was over and that they should be sent back to India. They were fined Rs25 each by the Court as they delayed Mr Brodelet’s harvest at Gros Bois estate.
Another incident involved Messrs Heeramun, Peerbux, Goordial, Matadeen and Seetul in which Mr Bestel withheld their quota of ‘arackh’ (rhum). They did not mind so much the wife’s protest about the poor quality of the Mangalore rice or that there was not enough ‘dhanya’ in the curry powder, but ‘please don’t touch the rhum!’ So, they marched from Gros Bois to Port Louis to complain of bad treatment to the Committee. And the struggle for basic human rights got its headstart!
The pride of the Indenturials
The journey has been long, at times painful, sometimes challenging, sometimes convivial. But it has mostly been one of achievement and of pride; we may today rejoice that across the diaspora, Indian immigrants have amongst their sons and daughters the elite of the societies in which they live. We have top scientists, doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, artists, politicians… and yes we have Prime Ministers too.
The journey shows contours of hard work, resilience and accommodation, and you don’t navigate these unknown terrains being “amateurs, incompétents, incultes”! No you don’t!
* Published in print edition on 2 November 2020