The Martyrdom of Indian Coolies

Glimpses of Mauritian History

“They considered the Indians as a mere abject race fit only to work in cane-fields and in other subservient capacities and unworthy to live socially to brighten their future.”

— John Fokeer

The life of the indentured labourers was a woeful tale of suffering. Their torture began on the day, when lured by the mirage of plenty, they embarked for Mauritius and ended only with their death, which some often hastened by a suicide.

As they were huddled together on the boats without any regard for sanitary conditions, diseases were common among them during the voyage. At such times they were left to die without any medical care. In January 1856, for example, 656 coolies were disembarked on Flat and Gabriel islands, where no provisions were made for their food and shelter. “The condition of these miserable wretches,” writes Rev. Beaton, “was truly deplorable. The quarantine laws strictly enforced forbade them to land. The open sea and the bare rocks offered them only a grave. In the course of a short time the bones of two hundred coolies were bleaching on these barren rocks, the victims of Creole (white) cowardice and government mismanagement.

Upon their landing the immigrants congregated at the Immigration Depot, whence they were led to the various estates through the mediation of the Sirdars (job contractors). There instead of finding gold and silver in plenty without much exertion on their part, ordeals undreamt of awaited them. They had to work for as much as twelve hours daily, very often including Sundays. They could legally enjoy one day’s holiday — New Year’s day, for a notification of the 19th December 1943 clearly stipulated that: “The only holiday that can be legally claimed by the labourers is New Year’s day, itself. His Excellency sees no good reason for extending them.”

Their ration of rice and oil were supplied to them but in case of their absence (even for illness) they were cut. Besides their rations, they were entitled to the monthly salary of Rs 5. From this miserly pittance, they had to find “their clothes, condiments and all other incidental expenses.

Were the wages and rations of the immigrants delivered to their satisfaction? Here are figures which convince us of the contrary. In the year 1863, masters convicted for non-payment of wages were 4,699; for non-delivery or imperfect delivery of rations – 813; for refusal of medical care – 35; for assault and battery – 260. Though these figures are eloquent enough, we shall add this much: the immigrants were in an alien land, of which they were not conversant with the language. Experience had shown them early that those who were officially designed as their protectors did no more than bear that name. In such circumstances if more than five thousand took the bull by the horns in going before the Stipendiary Magistrates how many more must have borne their sad lot in silence, shedding their tears unseen.

There was a Protector of Immigrants — an office only lately abolished. The word protector is suggestive. It makes us take for granted that the immigrants could look to him for protection whenever they were tyrannized upon by their masters. In fact such was not the case. Whenever the immigrant after having walked for miles came to Port Louis to the office of the Protector of Immigrants, he was greeted not by a ready ear to listen to his grievances but by every humiliation that cruelty could imagine. Here is the comment of the Report of the Royal Commission 1872 on this matter: “We cannot conceive anything more scandalously indecent than the practice by the officials of an important public department of bullying, which might shame a schoolboy, openly indulged in at the expense of the very class for whose special benefit and assistance the department in question is maintained.

Cases of complaints of immigrants usually came before the district magistrates. It remains to be seen whether the magistrate always performed his duty with a sense of fairness. More often than not he was a planter himself or a mere tool in the hands of the planter. He was the least person from whom equity and justice could be expected. The Report of the Royal Commission, after giving in details the case of an estate owner, Mr Poulin for assault and battery and the case of a labourer of his sued for larceny, makes the following comment: “Perhaps these cases are not only a reflection upon the planters but upon the magistrates also, since six weeks imprisonment and a fine of 20 was an adequate punishment for an assault upon a pregnant woman, which was closely followed by her miscarriage and death; while a larceny of rice, sugar and rum, even if proved, could not be adequately punished with less than twelve months’ imprisonment.”

The masters did not always wait for the magistrates to punish those labourers whom they considered guilty. They had their own prison and arbitrary methods of punishment.

Mr Messiter (district magistrate) made the following Report of a prison in Beau Fond Estate: “I arrived about 3 a.m. and found a guardian in charge of a prison, the door of which was fastened by a chain and hook, and against the outside of the door was placed, in a leaning position, a very large piece of iron, apparently three quarters of an axle-tree of a piece of some kind of machinery which would render it impossible for the strength of one hundred men to force open the door from the inside. There was no other aperture in the building, which was a building of stone with an iron roof. On having these fastenings removed, I found 13 Indians, almost in a state of nudity, lying on the earthen floor, except three who had a piece of old gunny bag each, but all in a most wretched condition… I ordered the fastenings to be removed and the door re-opened. The unfortunate Indians were then removed at my request by the Police Inspector, as also the guardian, he being in charge of a prison contrary to law. Having thus far succeeded in establishing a most flagrant contravention of the law, as well as a most gross case of cruelty, I proceeded to La Rosa estate, fearing that a messenger might be sent thither to give warning, and which afterwards I had every reason to believe was the case.”

This is but a glimpse of a hundred years of woes and sufferings of the Indian immigrants — a tale which can only be compared with that of the African slaves.

* * *

Labour Delegates Return

The Labour delegates — with the exception of Hon G. Forest — are back. Hon G. Rozemont returned to the colony some two weeks ago. Hon Dr S. Ramgoolam and Hon R. Seeneevassen landed at Plaisance Airport on Wednesday night, coming from Italy where they have spent one week with Mr J. Thivy, representative of India at Vatican, after termination of the London talks. They were greeted by a crowd of about 1800 to 2000 people coming from different parts of the island.

Messrs G. Rozemont, R. Seeneevassen and Dr Ramgoolam unanimously agree that they were cordially received in London and elsewhere and that they have done their utmost best to convince Her Majesty’s Government of the legitimate aspirations of the people of Mauritius.

“We were listened to with sympathetic understanding,” declared Dr Ramgoolam.

Replying to one question, Dr Ramgoolam gave us to understand that the Communist bogey and the annexation of Mauritius to India stunt have fizzled out.

Dr Ramgoolam as well as Mr Rozemont have declared that they have not much to say at this stage. The Secretary of State for the Colonies Mr Lennox Boyd is busy in the Far East and when he will be back in the first days of September he will prepare a final report which will be transmitted to the Governor.

Mr Rozemont, chairman of the Mauritius Labour Party, was present at all the meetings except the last one because he had to join the National Heart Hospital.

Dr Ramgoolam, who is the Liaison officer of our Education Department, visited some technical schools of London.

The Mauritius Labour delegation has received the full support and advice of the British Labour Party.

(Mauritius Times – 26 August 1955)

* Published in print edition on 12 February 2016

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