Indentured Labour: An Alternative Perspective

While some may wonder why their ancestors decided to migrate to Mauritius for they were better off in India, others still find poverty prevailing here

The 2nd of November marks the symbolic arrival of indentured labour in Mauritius. We commemorate the event but rarely celebrate the arrival of Indian labourers in the island. In the minds of many, this is not a cause for celebration for it reminds us of the bitter days of indenture endured by our ancestors. Yet many descendants of indentured labourers tend to express gratitude to their ancestors for having settled in Mauritius and escaped the grinding poverty that probably is the plight of their many relatives back in India. They may be right but they may also be wrong in making this comparison. Since November 2 is also a day of reflection about that past, we shall put forward some facts, which may help us to put our assessment in its historical perspective.

Those who still think that the coming to Mauritius in the 19th century had been an Eldorado for our ancestors need to be reminded of some hard facts. The period of indenture covered the years 1830 to 1917, with a final group reaching Mauritius in 1923. During that period, the Indian labourers, except for a small minority, did not benefit from better living and working conditions. In fact, the bitterness that lingered about indentureship had been conveyed to their descendants by the indentured labourers themselves. They knew best what they lived through.

Of the 420,000 Indian indentured labourers who landed in the island, approximately one third returned to India because they found life better there. One third stayed back in Mauritius for a number of reasons and the remaining one third actually died due to excessive mortality. Between 1837 and 1844, mortality among immigrants varied from 6.3% in 1837, 2.9 in 1840 to 7.6% in 1844. The total number of deaths among male labourers between 1834 and 1844 was 8667 in a population of 54,244. In 1867, malaria killed about 40,000 old immigrants in Port-Louis. Marina Carter finds that 14% of adult males and 12% of adult females died within the first five years of arrival. Until the end of immigration, there was no major increase of the Indian population except by immigration. The mortality rate is a reflection of the poor working and living conditions then prevailing in Mauritius.

Present social mobility

On the other hand, the descendants of Indian labourers may point to their present social mobility to account for the success of immigration. One must remember that our social mobility and improvement in the conditions of Indian labourers and the rest of the population is relatively recent; they improved only after the 1940s with the creation of a welfare state by the Mauritius Labour Party and the post-colonial interventionist state which pioneered the political, economic and social development of the island. Take, for example, education: in 1891, of the 54,249 Indo-Mauritians (born in Mauritius) between the ages of 5 and 15, only 3666 or about 7% received education. For the number of immigrant children, it was under 1%.

Before 1940, life for most Mauritians was ‘nasty, brutish and short’ to borrow a Hobbesian phrase from a different historical context. On the other hand, we still do not know if the majority of the descendants coming from Bihar would have climbed the social scale if they had stayed back in India to ultimately join today the middle class and the rich, or would have remained among the deprived lot which constitutes about 70% of the poor.

One of the main arguments advanced to show how immigration to Mauritius was beneficial to Indian labourers was the rise of a small planter class in the late 19th century. It is true that the number of small planters reached about 12,000, and there were at most 2000 sirdars and job contractors. In fact, in 1861 there were 1639 sirdars, and 1734 in 1871.Their number remained small relative to the population of Indian immigrants during indentureship.

Even the land acquired by indian immigrants included purchases by job contractors; land acquired by small entrepreneurs and some other occupations did not amount to much, and the majority of Indian labourers remained landless. In 1915, Indians cultivated 76,000 acres out of 204,000 acres under cultivation. Only 20,000 acres were still to be purchased under the morcellement system, and the number of acres for lessees (metayers) amounted to 6000. Most often, the same person was job contractor, small planter and a lessee.

In 1925, Kunwar Maharaj Singh, who reported on the situation of Indian immigration in Mauritius, learnt from the Director of Agriculture that there were at least 10,000 Indian planters owning from a fraction of an acre to 50 acres and a few hundreds in possession of more than 50 acres, that is to say 20% of the total agricultural male population owned land in their own rights.

Landless throughout indentureship

In 1895, according to the Muir-Mackenzie Report, the surface of land Indian planters actually owned amounted to 40,000 acres. If land ownership appears to be widespread among the descendants of Indian immigrants, it was through marriages of the landless to those who owned and inherited land. Most of the land had been acquired before 1900, and most of the Indians today live on the land left by their ancestors; only a small number have bought land on their own account. Moreover those who became small planters were located mostly in the Northern and Eastern districts where most of the morcellements took place – not in other regions. There were many who returned to Mauritius to settle down or who had brought their kins or recruited labourers for the sugar estates. These returnees represented 5-6% of the total migration.

As for remittances to India of returning immigrants, no precise figures are available for a proper assessment. However, for one particular year, Marina Carter observes that ‘emigrants returning in 1842 either possessed sums between 10 rupees and 50 rupees — a small sum for a five-year contract – or between Rs150 and 250’.

The majority of Indian labourers remained landless throughout the indenture period. Richard Allen notes that in an Indian population of 166,000 adults there were only 3036 planters. He also observes that the agricultural census of 1930 reveals that more than 91% of the 14,495 smallholdings covered no more than 1.6 acres and the average size of Indian holdings off the estates was 2.5 acres compared to 15.1 for non-Indians.

The small number who benefited from land ownership should not be interpreted to show that indentureship was positive for the majority of Indian labourers. The majority remained day labourers – working casually and living from hand to mouth. In fact most of the major reports in the 19th century painted a dismal picture of the conditions of immigrants. Kunwar Maharaj Singh, who visited Mauritius in 1925, was impressed by the general prosperity of the Indian immigrants in contrast to the Sanderson Committee Report, 1909, which found growing poverty. It must be borne in mind that Maharaj Singh’s visit followed after the unprecedented prosperity produced by the sugar boom of 1914-1919; the great depression of 1929 – with prices starting to fall as from 1922 – plunged the country into dire poverty.

Major causes of hardships

Two major causes of hardships can be identified in the migration of Indian labourers to Mauritius. First, the working conditions were traumatic. They were not paid the wages they were entitled to; there was always shortfall in their wages so that their actual wages never corresponded to the contract they signed. There were all kinds of deductions from their wages for offences — real as well as imagined — deductions for shoddy work, double cuts, cheating on measurement and bad quality of rations. On the other hand there were fewer complaints from the labourers about living conditions.

But the most traumatic experience was the arbitrary action and violence which they had to endure, and which persisted right up to the 1960s. Any labourer who lived and worked on a sugar estate in the 1960s still remembers the harshness of working conditions and the violence which accompanied work supervision although such violence later found expression in tense industrial relations accompanied by arbitrary dismissals, reduction in wages following downgrading of posts and pressure to convert permanent employment into VRS and contractual labour. One can easily imagine what was the lot of the Indian labourers in the 19th century given that, even in the 21th century, intensification of labour (increase in the workload of labour) continues unabated.

Admittedly most of the labourers avoided protest after considering all the consequences but there was always a minority who stood up for their rights and they were the ones who bore the brunt of the system. The complaints of the labourers were usually met with counter accusations from the planters. They could be transferred to lower grade jobs and lower wages. Those who were late at roll call, whether they were ill or not, were often removed from their hut by force and assaulted. These were regular happenings on almost all sugar estates so much so that the planter or overseer remained a despicable figure in the minds of labourers and their descendants. Such ingrained dislike of the planter/sugar estate owners or overseer would not have lasted so long if these abuses had not violated the dignity of the labourer.

Some of the descendants who have visited their ancestral villages or families in India have come back with contrasting views about indentured labourers in the 19th century. While some may wonder as to why their ancestors decided to migrate to Mauritius for they were better off in India and they still are to this day, others consider that their descendants are neither rich nor poor and their lives today are comparable to their own in India, while there are those who still find great poverty prevailing in Mauritius after so many years. Before we can reach firm conclusions from our individual cases, a wider perspective is necessary.


  • Published in print edition on 1 November 2017
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