“Anyone without knowledge of the past is like a rolling stone that gathers no moss”

Qs & Ans: Professor Brij Lal, Historian

‘An accurate understanding of indenture should be enriching and informative rather than something that leads to isolation’


Professor Brij V Lal is an Indo-Fijian academic who is currently Emeritus Professor of Pacific and Asian History at the School of Culture, History and Language at Australian National University. He is also a Visiting Professor at University of the South Pacific. He is the author of several books, including an autobiography, and General Editor of The Encyclopaedia of the Indian Diaspora. He is in Mauritius to participate in the two-day workshop on the Indentured Labour Route Project, which has brought together several researchers tasked with indentifying a few projects to be carried out under the auspices of the Aapravasi Ghat.

Prof Lal considers that the sense of shame associated with indenture must be replaced by a greater appreciation of the system as an important phase in world history. And, in this perspective, the lived experiences of the indentured workers as they eked out their living and simultaneously struggled to preserve their identity to later adapt successfully and contribute to the development of their destination societies enriched the latter. Prof Lal accepted to answer some questions for us despite the pressure of time on him.


Mauritius Times: What is the rationale for implementing the Indentured Labour Route project?

Professor Brij Lal: Some years ago, the Aapravasi Ghat was approved as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and, as a result, thought was given to what kind of projects might be undertaken under the auspices of the Aapravasi Ghat. This workshop is about trying to flesh out ideas about what sort of things might be done.

Let me backtrack and say a few things. One is that there is insufficient knowledge about the indentured system in global history. We know a lot about the abolition of slavery and the whole debate about slavery; we also know a lot about Civil War in the US, etc., but very little about indenture. Between 1834 and 1917, 1.3 million people left India, 400,000 of whom came to Mauritius. In the end, 21% of those who left India went back but the majority stayed on. We are here looking at a massive experiment in a new form of labour supply to the tropical colonies. I think it is very important to emphasize that it is an important phase in world history.

The second thing is that now, after nearly a century, our own people are beginning to take interest in their heritage and their history. There was a sense of shame and embarrassment associated with indenture, which was associated with a period of darkness… But now the new generation is really looking at the legacy of indenture, not the slavery, the hardships endured… Yes, there was hardship – we know that, but the interest today is about studying and learning about how people lived through indenture, the new societies and languages they created.

Finally, there is a lot of research being done on nation basis, namely research on Mauritius, Trinidad, Fiji – all of which is being done in isolation. This project will try and connect these different research works as well as embark upon a comparative research as, for example, on the issue of culture, festivals, food, gender and study how people from a similar background from India went to different places and developed new ways of living. People are interested in those “lived experiences of indenture”. The Indentured Labour Route project is going to connect the disparate indentured communities or descendants of indentured communities in different parts of the world and work out four to five projects which will bring scholars from the different countries under the auspices of the Indentured Labour Route Project.

* You are amongst those who believe that we must not forget our past because our past can inform us about our present and also our future isn’t it?

Absolutely. I think that anyone without knowledge of the past is like a rolling stone that gathers no moss. With globalisation, people are beginning to look at their roots – who they are, what they are, where they have come from, what are the forces and influences which have formed them. I think that there is that aspect to it as well and the search for meaning and understanding of identity is growing by the day.

The second thing to note is that a lot of that was once written about indenture was hugely distorted particularly by outside historians; they did not understand who our people were, the circumstances under which they came. If you look at the old literature, you’ll see these people depicted as the riff-raff, picked up from the streets of Calcutta to be brought here and so on and so forth. What we are trying to do is to give the indentured labourers – the Girmityas – a human face, a sense of them as human beings with hopes and fears and desires. We are trying to give them some agency in the making of their own history. That is very important for it will help to correct the mistakes of the past. But, at the same time, let us not romanticize the contributions and the lives of these Girmityas; they are normal human beings like you and me – full of human foibles and flaws, blemishes – but they were human.

* The search for roots and the understanding of the making of identity/ies are not meant to create more separateness than we already have. Right?

Those of us who live in multicultural societies ought to understand the cultural milieu in which we live, and be aware of different cultures and other influences which have formed us. You are absolutely right; I do not think that the search for identity and roots should lead us into isolation. But what it can do is to enrich the conversation, whether it’s about Indian indenture or people who descended from slavery. I think an accurate understanding of that history should be enriching and informative rather than something that leads to isolation and narrow-mindedness.

* In post colonial plantation societies which had indigenous communities, the search for roots and identity by descendants of indenture might be or have been wrongly perceived as a willingness to create more separateness, hasn’t it?

A good example of that is Fiji where there was an indigenous population which had certain prior rights and responsibilities. They have their own chiefly system, they live in their own subsistence sectors, and so the rights of Indians had to be negotiated in the context of the pre-existing rights of other people. But I think that the danger that you are flagging can be there, that is using culture and history as a means of creating a separate and distinct identity.

It does not have to be that way, for an accurate understanding of the past will be good for everybody including those who are subjects of that legacy as well as the broader public. What I am saying really is that I hope that other communities – such as the Chinese or Creoles, etc — are also engaging in this kind of understanding of their history. For through better and accurate understanding of our respective histories, we will enrich ourselves rather than move away from each other.

* When one delves deep into the history of indentureship, we find that very much like with mass slavery earlier it’s really about colonialism colluding with capitalism to set in place ways and means – through repressive laws and regulations and the importation of “un-free” labour – to sustain themselves for a long number of years. Is that indeed the case?

Absolutely, indentured labour migration started again as a result of European capital expansion in the former plantation colonies whether it’s Mauritius, West Indies, Fiji and so on. In a sense really, the indenture labour system is a product of the late capitalist phase during which they devised all kinds of laws and regulations to impose on the indentured labourers whom they brought into these places.

The other important thing to bear in mind is that the indenture experience varied from place to place. In some cases, the indenture system lasted for generations – it was a life sentence and you could never escape from it. In other places, it was like what I have called “limited detention”: after five or ten years the indentured labourers became free and started on their own. We have got to understand the complexity of the system and how it varied from place to place.

There is no doubt, as you are suggesting, that there is a link between capitalism and the exploitation that came with indentureship. After all, the indentured labourers were un-free labour, they worked for the benefit of colonial masters and capitalists living in Europe. There was no doubt that the unequal equation built into the system was to the detriment of the indentured labourers.

All the broader questions that you have raised about capitalism and exploitation are absolutely true, but my interest in this debate has been more about how the indentured labourers themselves experienced indentureship; I am focusing more on how people lived and how they survived, the instruments they used to survive like culture as a tool of resistance; religion, food, music… It’s the lived experience that interests me.

* Does your research inform you that the indentured labourers had more tools to overcome the hardships of indentureship than the slaves could of slavery?

I think that the fundamental difference between the two was that the slaves were the private property of the slave masters, whereas Indian indentured labourers were in fact British subjects who were migrating and there were rules and regulations about the terms and conditions of indentureship. Now, these terms and conditions were not always observed but nonetheless the indentured labourers were never really left to their own devices as there was a system of accountability as well.


  • Published in print edition on 1 November 2017

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