Towards a new ethos

179th anniversary of the arrival of Indian indentured immigrants in Mauritius

Lest we forget

The forthcoming commemoration of the 179th anniversary of the arrival of Indian indentured immigrants in Mauritius on 2 November 1834, is an occasion to remember and mull over the systemic inhumanity of the Indian indenture system as well as experience deep respect and admiration for the more than four hundred thousand Indian indentured workers who arrived in Mauritius from 1834 to 1924, when the widely decried indentured labour system was stopped in Mauritius.

As is well documented, they brought wealth and prosperity to the island in terms of a quantum increase in land area brought under cane cultivation, higher sugar output, exports and revenue through their disciplined and diligent hard work in spite of the cruel hardships, the unjust punishments, and the abject exploitation they were subjected to and resolutely fought against. Acreage under sugar cane, which stood at some 9,300 acres in 1820, rose to 128,000 acres by 1880. Sugar production which was some 35,000 tonnes in 1943 jumped to 115,000 tonnes by 1873 in line with the influx of Indian indentured labour.

Akin to the story of slavery, the treatment of indentured workers by their planter employers and the British colonial establishment in Mauritius is shameful. They were repeatedly short changed although promised a bright future and protected by Emigration Acts. Those Acts required that a named Protector of Immigrants (normally a Senior Police Officer posted in the port allowed for the embarkation of emigrants in India) would only issue emigration permits after ascertaining that conditions of travel aboard ships concerning space, diet, rations, medical supplies, the services of a medical officer and an adequate number of women in each consignment were respected and that work contracts lodged with him comprised a monthly salary, agreed rations, return passage as well as the provision of a hospital and lodging on estates. The white planters systematically reneged on these contractual conditions and endeavoured with the collusion of the colonial establishment to repeatedly water them down.

Throughout the shameful history of the indentured immigrant system we witness successive waves of protests of the immigrant workers against their harsh conditions of work from dawn to sunset in a repressive system allowing corporal punishment and imprisonment enforced by the colonial police on behalf of the sugar planters. Lobbied by the sugar planters, the British colonial government in Mauritius passed utterly odious laws between 1840 and 1860 which allowed the double cut system whereby a planter employer was allowed to cut two days pay for a day’s absence, restricted the movement of Indian labourers to say visit relatives, controlled their movement through a Pass system and allowed corporal punishment. The planters used this heinous double cut law to prolong the contract period and to extend its application to all possible offences real or imagined with the result that the labourer found himself mulcted of a large portion of his hard earned wages.

The labourer’s only means of redress was to summon his planter before the local magistrate. However, pending the arrival of the planter in court, the labourer was imprisoned. As the proceedings were in French, the Indian labourer could not fight his case as no interpreter was provided. Each wave of revolt raised concerns in India and Britain and in the British Parliament leading to the setting up of successive Commissions of Enquiry, Committees and Royal Commissions who made fresh recommendations and new legislations were enacted to protect the rights of immigrant workers which were again flouted by the sugar planters leading to fresh protests and new Commissions of enquiry.

The testimony of Rajchunder – Immigrant no. 138,928, at the Commission of enquiry set up by Governor Gordon following allegations of Police abuses in the wake of the introduction of the Pass system reveals the excesses of the prevailing system. He stated: ‘In December 1865, I went to the Vagrant Depot to have my photo taken. I had to go on five successive days and was each day turned out with violence. There were peons with three rattans with them who struck me with them and then turned me out. I remonstrated against this. I had to travel 100 miles backwards and forwards and pay 4 s before I could obtain this photo.’ Any labourer without a pass was jailed in the Vagrant Depot.

This cycle of abuses and repression of the planter employers intent on imposing a new form of slavery on free workers was broken with the end of the Indian indentured immigrant system in 1925 pursuant to the report and recommendations of Kunwar Maharaj Singh, the first Indian official to be sent by the Government of India to Mauritius to enquire into the conditions of Indians labourers in the country. He was appalled by the work conditions of the Indian worker on the sugar estates and made a series of recommendations for the improvement of their conditions. In spite of these hardships and attempts at proselytising Indian labourers, they kept their traditions and culture. It should be remembered that many died in transit or on Flat and Gabriel Islands where they were quarantined without provisions or under the harsh conditions of their employment.

It is therefore fitting that we honour and salute not only our individual forbears but the totality of indentured immigrants who stepped on Mauritian soil for their courage and resolve to robustly fight for their fundamental rights against the combined might of the sugar oligarchy and the British colonial establishment in Mauritius. When I visited Aapravasi Ghat for the first time, I was moved as I faced the first sixteen steps taken by the immigrants on their arrival to Mauritius and I naturally bowed in humble traditional respect. Respect for their bond of kinship and solidarity as well as their fortitude and moral strength to systematically protest, revolt and resolutely fight for their rights against the repeated broken promises and deceitfulness of their planter employers.

In this context, we should also remember that apart from indentured labourers, Indian slaves, artisans, soldiers and convicts from India were involved in major events which shaped the history of Isle de France and Mauritius. Indian slaves, skilled artisans from Pondicherry and Konkan (Goan) carpenters arrived as from 1728 and were used in the construction of Port-Louis by Mahe de Labourdonnais. Valliant sepoys from Madras helped conquer Mauritius for the British in December 1810 and for twenty years, as from 1816, Indian convicts were used during the British period as forced labour to undertake the public works and road building of the time. The supply of forced labour ceased in 1837.

Lest we forget, significantly more must be done to disseminate information on slavery and the Indian indenture system through the introduction of the teaching of history in schools with the support of objective history textbooks, audiovisual and other pedagogical tools so that we can reconcile ourselves with our past and make amends for a better future for all.

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Bonding with lost cousins

The system of Indian indentured immigrants is one of the largest movements of people across the world, in history. Following its introduction in Mauritius Indian indentured labour were sent to British and French colonies and countries across the world. More than a million indentured workers originating from mainly the same areas in India having same family names, cultural traits and a common language emigrated in as diverse places as Surinam, Trinidad, Guyana, South Africa or Fiji. It is time to have a structured approach to develop social, economic and cultural ties and exchanges as well as carry out joint research projects with these lost (and found) cousins of the Indian Diaspora bonded by their similar history, culture and common roots. Above all, there is a unique sense of kinship among them.

* * *

Fashioning a new future

In spite of the past atrocities suffered and the arduous struggle for independence as well as fears conjured by the most rabid opponents of independence, there was no witch-hunt or settlement of scores. Imbued by the highest democratic principles and the values of tolerance, the winners of independence turned the page in a spirit of national reconciliation and rebuilding for a better order. There was an implicit understanding that those wielding economic power who had systematically opposed independence would play their part as Mauritians to integrate mainstream Mauritius towards prosperity through growth.

The government helped the development of the private sector by introducing various incentive schemes and negotiating various preferential trade agreements, most of which lasted for some three decades, to spur growth through exports. 45 years after independence, has this implicit understanding been actually honoured? It is equally time for a reality check on whether the promises made during the struggle for independence to the downtrodden masses and the population at large for a better socio-economic order, a fairer distribution of wealth and the establishment of a level playing field with equal opportunities for all to ensure a more inclusive growth have been realised. In this context, what is the situation regarding the descendants of slaves and indentured labour who suffered the most through abuses of human rights? Is there a government will to urgently integrate the small sugar planters into the cane industry model in the context of reform if we are to stall the growing trend towards abandonment of cane cultivation or the sale of their lands?

A lot has been achieved in terms of access to tertiary education (although there are concerns about the quality of some local institutions and the plethora of some degrees obtained locally) to enable empowerment through education. Do the best qualified Mauritians from institutions of international repute have access to the best jobs in the private and public sectors, the more so in publicly quoted companies?

As we aspire to become a high-income country, should the emphasis not be on better income distribution? What is the situation regarding the distribution and concentration of wealth and the concentration of ownership of land assets in the country?

Pursuant to the end of preferential trade agreements, have we adapted to compete in a more liberal trading environment in an innovative way in cutting edge technologies such as Deep Ocean Water Application or other industries of the Ocean economy or the production of other green renewable sources of energy beyond our bagasse fixation or the waste disposal industry?

Is it not timely for us to generate further value added in our buoyant ICT and financial services sector?

On the local front, there is a perception that big investors seem to follow similar business plans. This relates to residential schemes, commercial centres or institutions in the tertiary sector. The investment in new commercial centres concentrated in the same geographic area chasing the same finite consumers show evidence of impairing the prospects of the old ones and to some extent of all. To respond to the aspirations of so many to own a house and provide a fillip to the construction sector, is it not time to provide incentives to construct new towns offering facilities for good living and an improved quality of life?

As regards the laudable government investment in road infrastructure to render road traffic more fluid and the impending investment in the Light Rail Transit system, there would be merit as an investment into the long term, in linking up the growing network of cross country highways bypassing town and villages to further improve the fluidity of traffic across the country. On the social front, what we have gained in terms of economic advancement, we seem to have lost in moral rectitude, norms of good governance and ethics. This must be addressed as one of our immediate priorities in order to ensure that our society regains its righteousness in the face of increasing sordid crimes and financial wrongdoings.

It is incumbent on primarily the Government to carry out a reality check on all the above issues and a host of others to ascertain the status of each of these and take urgent corrective measures and undertake robust reforms to recast a new ‘projet de société’ for the future which narrows inequalities and provides substantive and equal opportunities of betterment to all. As a nation, all the other stakeholders and in particular the private sector must do a similar exercise and come forward with concrete and meaningful proposals on how to enrich and further improve the nation building project. There is therefore a need for a new ethos to prevail in the country anchored on loftier ideals of a shared destiny and a collective commitment to adopt policies and appropriate reforms to create growth and wealth for a brighter future for all especially the most vulnerable.

(Main source: ‘Mauritius in Transition’ by Jay Narain ROY)


* Published in print edition on 31 October 2013

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