The history of Indians in Mauritius is closely tied to that of their motherland
“I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine (1942/43) was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.”
— Sir Winston Churchill
Modern day historians are uncovering the truth about former colonies whose past never found a chapter in European history books for students. The West used military power in its “civilizing” process to undo the peaceful trade and commercial negotiations that were going on in the most advanced and richest countries in the world – China and India – in the pre-colonial days. In fact, they were in the East for its tremendous material riches that were just for the taking from the unarmed peasants. No wonder, Lord Clive could take Bengal with barely a dozen soldiers. The history of Indians in Mauritius is closely tied to that of their motherland.
The termination of servile labour came in the first quarter of the 19th century. Britain removed duties from the export of sugar making its production more profitable. The planters became very keen at benefiting from that bounty. There was an acute labour shortage in the colonies. They knew that the ideal labour was found in India. The British government was condescending as that supply would make the French planters forget to rise in rebellion against the new Authority. It followed the principle of letting the colonies run themselves on its behalf. Huge benefits thus flowed in.
During the two centuries of their stay in India, the British East India Company was hard set at dismantling the second economy of the world after China in the name of its “civilization” process. It destroyed the Indian textile industry that produced the best cloth in the world and muslin “as thin as air,” so much in demand in the West. It destroyed the mills, even going so far as to cut off the thumbs of weavers in order to prevent them from practising their craft. They had to produce cotton that was exported to Britain and had to import cloth there from. The European agrarian reform with large-scale plantations (zamindar) replacing the existing individualized fields made it easy to gain control over the products for tax purposes, money that was not returned to Indians. This reminds us of land concessions to rich Frenchmen under Mahe de Labourdonnais.
The British East India Company made indigo and poppy cultivation compulsory and imposed up to 50% tax on the producers. Rice and vegetable cultivation was terminated, making the region famine prone. Rice stocking was forbidden. It normally helped to tide over scarcities later. Between 1729 and 1731, around 10 million Indians perished because of destructive heavy rains that were followed by droughts. Indian rulers used to waive taxes in such circumstances and compensate through irrigation. The British ignored all and even increased taxes further by 10%. Indian lives counted for nothing. Farmlands started to be abandoned and there was wilderness around leading to jungle formation. Those who could not pay the taxes or refused to do so were very harshly punished, women having nipples chopped off; men hung from trees in inhuman postures or simply scared off their properties. The East India Company was a private economic concern with profit as the only motive for its shareholders. It employed the local people as soldiers and clerks to manage its affairs. It provided an education that suited its requirements.
New lands like Mauritius required hands for their development. The lean, hungry and dispossessed Indians roamed over Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. The first War of Independence in 1857 added to their miseries further, as the British resorted to outright genocide to establish their authority more solidly by pushing the Crown with Queen Victoria as the first Empress, to take over control of the country. The European Christians considered non-Christians as beasts of burden till their eyes opened in the First and Second World Wars that the latter were their equals as soldiers. The Olympic Games of 1936 showed to Hitler that a Black could beat Whites at sports although he refused to hand over the medal to him and turned away his back on him. Sir Winston Churchill did worse in the 1942/43 famine he created in Bengal.
Over nearly a century (1834 to 1910), 1.3 million Indians fled their homeland to seek a living in far away colonies accepting to forgo religion and fear of the unknown. Mauritius harboured the greatest number of them, the rest used it as a hub to proceed along the Sugar Route of sad memory. Britain systematically engineered the ruin of India during its two centuries of presence. It used its Industrial Revolution to better consolidate its power over the sub-continent that was forbidden to set up industries. It had to stay an import market. Trains helped to further exploitation of the hinterland. The Indian shipping industry that produced better ships than Europeans was undone. The age-old steel industry was taken over. Indians were condemned to stay as laymen. The physical cruelties meted out to them brought fear of the British for generations. Mahatma Gandhi had to remove it in Champaran in 1917 to establish his Satyagraha movement in India. The repressions during and after the 1857 uprising were glaring, making thousands from provinces like Arrah seek refuge in Mauritius for example. Food, clothing and shelter were enough for them to make a new living in faraway lands.
It is worth noting that the migrants came in endless waves over a century implying that colonial cruelties were never at rest. The history of Indians in Mauritius needs a fresh look in the light of developments nowadays. It is high time it moved away from its romanticized version to a realistic one.
Indeed the Indians were mostly chased out of their mother country. Braving the dangers of the ocean, they landed in a land of plenty. The lagoons were teeming in fish and sea products. Rabbits, birds, fruit in the forests and the fresh air invigorated them. They were promised food, shelter and clothing. In case of late delivery, they could easily manage with the abundance they thrived upon, even verging on independence. A kitchen garden, goats, cattle and chicken filled their homes although they had settled in camps at the outset.
In return as indentured or contractual labour, they were to convert the Mauritian forests into gardens with their hands. John de Lingen qualified them as Cyclops for the efforts they made in the attempt. The British were able to make the French white landowners serve them in running the country for them. They were given free rein to recruit Indian workers. Most of the Whites were themselves estate employees who had the responsibility to eke out every bit of effort from the indentured labourers. At the outset, they behaved as slave-drivers. Soon they learnt to respect them for the land hungry Indians became owners of vast stretches of the most difficult lands. The second generation of Indians was the most intelligent. They set up schools, settled religion, achieved socio-economic prosperity, joined politics and produced the first Prime Minister of Mauritius who could have been one of the greatest freedom fighters in India of the caliber of a Sardar Patel.
Mauritius has a glorious history of which everyone of us must be very proud. We have but to be ourselves aware of it by fitting in the appropriate pages in our future history books.
- Published in print edition on 1 November 2017