Indentured Labour – Another name for Slavery

MT 60 Yrs – 2nd Year No 51 — Friday 29th July 1955  —

Glimpses of Mauritian History

“All is left to the will of their master, who in allowing them their nightly rest and a holiday during the afternoon of Sunday, is but too often actuated only by the same considerations that prevent him from killing his oxen with overwork.”

Adolph De Plevitz

Though the planters knew that Indian labour was a matter of life and death to them, their treatment of immigrants was not any the better than that of slaves. They had themselves lately owned slaves or were the sons of slave-owners. They could not overnight shake off habits formed during a lifetime.

In the early years of immigration an enquiry was made on the treatment meted out to the immigrants. A magistrate forming part of this commission had the courage of telling the truth that “it would be well to protect them from every change of injustice, in a colony where there has always been such a tendency to take advantage of the labouring population.”

When the Indians embarked for Mauritius, all that they knew about their contract was that they were “to have such and such wages and rations and lodgings and medical attendance.” Their engagement referred only to what the employers undertook to do for them during their five years’ service. They were kept in the dark as to the punishment to be inflicted upon them for breach of the contract to work for five years. According to their contract they were to be paid monthly wages. It was only after they had been in harness that they came to know that for absence from work which might be caused by a hurricane, by illness or by any other major cause, not only their wages were to be deducted for the days that they were to be deducted for the days that they were absent but for two days for everyday of absence. They could even be sent to goal for any minor offence.

The employers might be as unjust towards their employees as they wished. Still the employees had to submit to their ill-usage as they could not obtain justice in a country where they could not obtain justice in a country where the local magistrates were themselves planters or were intimately connected with the planters. The Indian’s ignorance of French and Creole and his want of means were other factors against him.

In this connection Rev Patrick Beaton writes: “The system of cutting wages is not confined to mere absence. It extends to all possible offences, real or imaginary, and when it is practiced by a master ingenuous in discovering faults, the poor labourer at the end of the month often finds himself mulcted of a large portion of his hard-won earnings. His only mode of redress is to summon his master before the local magistrate where in consequence of his ignorance of French he is placed at a great disadvantage and except in very glaring cases rarely obtains justice.”

A commission of enquiry was appointed in 1838. Mr Special-Justice Anderson was of opinion: “That, with a few exceptions, they (the immigrants) were treated with great and unjust severity, by overwork and personal chastisement; their lodgings were either too confined or disgustingly filthy, or none provided for them, and in case of sickness the most culpable neglect was evinced in withholding the accommodation, advice and attendance which the utter helplessness of the sufferer so urgently required.”

In the Legislative Council there was nobody to speak in the interests of the immigrants. This is shown plainly by the passage of the Ordinance No 16 of 1835, which was sent to the Secretary of State for the Colonies who denounced it thus – “The design of the law might more accurately have been described as the substitution of some new coercion for that state of slavery which had been abolished, the effect of it at least is to establish a compulsory system scarcely less rigid and in some respects even less equitable than that of slavery itself.”

That Ordinance qualified as “vagabond” any unemployed person up to the age of sixty. On first conviction a ‘vagabond’ was to be imprisoned for a term not exceeding three months and on second conviction to imprisonment not exceeding 12 months. “Any person who could not find work or might have the mind to rest himself for some time was running the risk of being subjected to labour reserved to convicts. If any person declared vagabond did not find employment after three months he could be placed on some plantation or in some factory to be employed for a period of three years. If after the expiration of these three years he would again not find employment he could again be subjected to an engagement of three years.” Every person aged 21 or more was to register himself at the police and a ticket was to be given to him without which he could not be employed. Failure to have the ticket on his person might result in imprisonment for eight days.

The Ordinance also subjected to imprisonment not exceeding 12 months any workman who would menace or strike his master or his master’s representative.

Lord Glenleg, the Secretary of State for the Colonies disapproved of the Ordinance, commenting very bitterly on its arbitrary nature. “This system of registering the whole working population is contrived to bring them all into virtual bondage to their employers,” he wrote. And again, “Thus the lowest servant on an estate, armed with the delegated authority of the owner, is to be regarded by the workman with such reverence that a blow, however well he may have deserved it, or a threat, however reasonable, or by whatever ill usage extorted, is to subject the labourer to a penalty which should be reserved for crimes against the state of the most notorious kind.”

There is no need to tell that the Ordinance did not meet with the approval of the Secretary of State for the Colonies. However, the planters continued to act in accordance with many of its enactments which in the course of time found their way into the statute book.

Vagrant hunts began to become as common an occurrence as maroon hunts in Ile de France. The Indian who had left his home and hearth and had come to save Mauritian planters from the worst crisis through which the island had even passed, was subjected to injustices which compared favourably with the worst days in the slave’s life.

  • Published in print edition on 20 November 2015

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