Along The Sugar Route in 1856

By Nivriti Sewtohul

Indentured labourers faced difficulties, but none equalled the tragedy of Gabriel Islet, which is unique in the history of labour transportation in the world

At the height of the Indian immigration in 1856, occurred the worst tragedy in the history of the indentured labourers.

It coincided with the outbreak of cholera in the colony, a killer disease that first reared its ugly head in Mauritius in 1819, then in 1854. At first, people in Mauritius were unaware of its contagious nature. It was proved to be so by Koch in 1884. Dr Alexander Thom had shown the insalubrious state in which Port Louis was found. Because of this, together with its geographical position and free trade, an epidemic could arise at any time and have devastating effects.

In early January 1856, two ships, the Hyderee and the Futtay Mubarak, carrying 272 and 380 indentured labourers respectively were entering the harbour of Port Louis where cholera had been playing havoc. The inhabitants feared that the ships were bringing the disease. Faced with their hue and cry, Dr Ford sent the two ships into quarantine at the Pavillon where the Hyderee was fumigated. The health condition of the passengers on board was satisfactory.

On the 13th January, both ships were sent to Gabriel Islet (1212 metres by 230 metres). The labourers were landed there, but there was water for one day only. The captain of the Hyderee denied the existence of cholera on board and the captain of the Futtay Mubarak asked for the immediate disembarkation of the indentured labourers to avoid too many deaths. There was no sign of contagion on board the ships. The Hyderee had two cases of cholera while in the Hooghly River (in India) and the Futtay Mubarak had two on Gabriel Islet.           

There was much hesitation and wasting of time by the Health Committee of which the mayor was a member. It was a stupid and powerless committee stuck in slow bureaucracy, inefficiency, uncertainty, indecisiveness, with much conflict of opinions. Dr Finlay reached the island on board the steamer ‘Lord Fitzroy Somerset’ with provisions. He reported to the Colonial Secretary on the 25th January.

The governor declared Flat and Gabriel Islands as quarantine stations. It was only around the 10th February that the yellow flag, sign of the quarantine, was hoisted. There was much traffic between the two islands and Mauritius in the meantime. On the 10th February, even the government officials in Port Louis did not know that Flat Island was on quarantine since the 24th January. Neither the Colonial Secretary, nor the Chief Medical Officer or the President of the Health Committee, knew their respective roles.

Although the islands were healthy, there was lack of care, lodging and provisions. A lighthouse was being built on Flat Island. All the indentured labourers were therefore put on Gabriel Islet which was not meant for 700 people. No preparations were made on the islet to receive them. Wood, ropes and tarpaulins were available but were still insufficient for all. The indentured labourers were put under sails or tarpaulins that were very hot during the day and very cold at night.

On top of that, the cyclonic period was on and the weather bad. These were enough to make people ill. The indentured labourers did not have enough food to eat and water to drink. Besides, the tanker boat had capsized on its way to Flat Island and there was no water on Gabriel Islet itself. The indentured labourers refused to drink dirty water sent from Port Louis. They went to collect rainwater at the other end of the islet in the hollow of rocks.

Dr Finnimore deponed during the Commission of Enquiry in 1857 presided by Justice Henri Koenig. According to him, Dr Finlay was an inveterate drunkard and unemployable. Of the three native Indian doctors, one had died, the second one was sick and the third one in excellent condition. The indentured labourers were in a deplorable state, ill, very weak, badly sheltered under posts and tarpaulins and those, too, were insufficient for the great number of people. There was no organisation set up to help them.

The quarantine was to be lifted on the 12th May, 1856. Some 298 indentured labourers perished; the exact figure is not known. Their bones were strewn on the islet, bleaching on stones in front of the eyes of fishermen over decades. Most of them have been hidden under the sand now. In the 1950s and 1960s, people still spoke of the horrifying ‘Ilot Aux Morts’ and kept away from it as far as possible.

Le Cernéen of the 13th January 1856, described the tragedy of Gabriel Islet as “un si grand malheur pour l’humanité.” An article in the “Friend of India” attacked Mauritians, Port Louis and its municipality, the government and the planters for blaming all on the indentured labourers. The Indian immigration stopped and all the plantations were in disarray, so important and indispensable was Indian labour, according to Le Cernéen. The evils were found in Port Louis itself. Sir James Higginson had said that cholera did not come to Mauritius from India or from Flat Island. It had arisen by itself among us. Indian immigration was resumed in May 1857.

Indentured labourers went to all colonies where sugar cane was grown, be they British, French or Dutch, the greatest number coming to Mauritius, and this is known as the Sugar Route. They faced difficulties, but none equalled the tragedy of Gabriel Islet, which is unique in the history of labour transportation in the world. It happened because of neglect on the part of the authorities in place that failed to play their roles conveniently. It was also a symbol of cowardice on their behalf.

It is high time a monument were erected on that island to commemorate that sad event so that coming generations, as well as the present one, may know how the history of our country and the world has evolved over the centuries gone by. This was one of the last wishes of Beekrumsing Ramlallah in an edition of the Mauritius Times in 1990. He died before realising it. Mauritians owe him the debt of fulfilling that one wish of his and have it tied to his Aapravasi Ghat.

* Published in print edition on 18 November 2011

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