Indo-Mauritians’ fight for cultural survival

Mauritius Times – 60 Years

By Doojendranath Napal

One obvious fact about the Mauritians of Indian origin is that they have preserved their culture and religious outlook to a remarkable degree. However, we are apt to forget what a tough fight they had to put up against the many forces which allied themselves to cut them off from their moorings. They came in poor conditions; they had often to work as little better than slaves for more than twelve hours a day. Their children had meagre opportunities for education. Those children who ever got any opportunity at all for education, went to schools where they were subject to influences noxious to their culture and religion. Yet those indentured labourers, despite finding themselves in the humblest and often most humiliating circumstances, saved their culture from complete annihilation. For they were conscious all the time that they were the heirs of a rich culture.

All the while they had to resist the in-roads of militant Christianity. Those who had received some European education had to fight against temptations which Christianity offered them. The bait of a prospective government or semi-government post or a job in some firm or other private concern was often dangled before them. And the Christian missionaries were the not sparing in their efforts to proselytize the Indian masses. Fortunately for the Indians these efforts proved almost fruitless. For example, in the years 1854-1863, Pere Laval worked hard to spread Catholicism among the lower classes of the people. He made marvellous progress among the emancipated slaves but failed to make conversions en masse among the Indians. If he met with any success, it must have been insignificant enough not to be mentioned in his biographies. One curious fact about this period is that many Indian immigrants who had professed the Christian faith in their native land returned to the hold of Hinduism after having stayed for some time in this island. Here is what Rev. Patrick Beaton writes in this connection:
“These men, on their arrival in the Colony, were at once surrounded by all the seductive influences of sin, without any agency to counteract these influences. They had no pastoral superintendence and no place of worship. That under such circumstances many of them should have relapsed into those sinful habits which are common among their heathen countrymen causes no surprise.”

In those days, Protestant and Catholic missionaries vied with each other in making converts. In the year 1854 came to the island Messrs A. Taylor and John Baptist in order “to make some provision for the spiritual wants of the coolie immigrants in Mauritius.” (Report of Madras Bible Society for 1855). The rivalry between Catholics and Protestants continued with intensity. The above Report tells us: “The Indian intellect is too subtle to present a favourable soil for the reception of the seeds of Romanism.”

On the whole the endeavours of the Christian missionaries proved fruitless. Conversion en masse never took place among the Indians. This is laudable enough but what is worth remembering is that there were very few intellectuals among the indentured labourers. These did their utmost to impart to their less literate brethren a knowledge of their culture and religion. They all toiled as slaves in the day; but till deep into the night and early before dawn their little lamps could be seen burning and their voices heard chanting hymns or reading their sacred books, the heritage they had brought from India.

John De Lingen, an orientalist who had made a study of the cultural and social life of the Indians in Mauritius summed up the position: “These poor people in their utter destitution and lack of mental and material resources, dazzled by contact with Western material achievements, cut off completely from their motherland and from the higher ranks of their countrymen, were left almost naked to choose between Western ideas and utter blankness… The government on its part took in hand the cause of the Christian missionaries. It was interested in the proselytisation of the Indians who were branded as heathens and idolators.”

Despite these heavy odds, they strove hard not to allow the torch of faith to be extinguished. In course of time, they began to have their places of worship — their temples and mosques and could put up some huts (baitkas) where their children could be initiated into their rich culture and could learn their mother tongue.

Meanwhile the Christian missionaries began to be frightened by the state of things. They felt all the bitterness at their failure to bring these aliens within the fold of Christianity. A meeting was held on the 21st of May 1874, under the aegis of the Bishop of Mauritius. The avowed purpose of this meeting was to find means for the conversion of Indians. As was to be expected, the culture, religion and morals of the Indians were criticized; the fact was deplored that the Indians were shut off from the blessings of Christianity. Governor Sir Arthur Gordon, who was at that meeting, said: “The first fact — that the population is largely, I may say chiefly, heathen, is one patent to all. Indeed, it may be questioned whether the island can properly, any longer, be styled a Christian country. An enormous proportion of the population are idolators, whilst another large portion, the Mussulmans, are non-Christians. It is impossible to travel many miles in any direction without coming upon some idol temple, many handsome and substantial structures of stone and lime. There is hardly a place in which the sound of the gong, calling men to worship the false gods of the Indian Pantheon, does not penetrate. I hear it daily coming from the ravine below my house. I doubt not, my Lord, similar sounds are as distinctly heard in yours.”

At this meeting the Governor passed the following resolution: “That the condition of the Indian population of this Colony offers a most urgent and important field for Missionary operations, and this meeting pledge itself to increased and sustained efforts for duly carrying them into effect.”
Such then were the bare facts. If a Governor expressed himself in such terms, no wonder that every effort was made to bring the “heathen” Indians under the shadow of the cross.
These systematic efforts, however, proved fruitless. The Mauritians of Indian origin have known how to keep their ancestral faith alive. And at what sacrifice!

5th Year – No 190
Friday 28th March, 1958

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 6 May 2022

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