By Raju Mohit
Written submission to the Truth and Justice Commission on Indenture
- The indentured labourers filed more than 110,000 complaints against their colonial masters for non-payment of wages, during the years 1860 to 1885. And they were denied justice.
- An international scholar on indentured labour has estimated that the colonialists cheated the Indentured labourers more than tens of millions of rupees between the 1830 and 1940. Today this amounts to billions of rupees. Those were the days of the double cut system – a highly condemnable injustice.
- The reports of the protector of immigrants, the returns concerning the vagrants and other archival sources clearly indicate that between 1834 and 1922, around 300,000 of the 450,000 indentured workers who were introduced were arrested as vagrants and imprisoned in the local colonial prisons. Between 1860 and 1871 alone, more than 130,000 immigrants and ex-immigrants were arrested as vagrants. They were denied their basic fundamental right of freedom of movement. Another gross injustice.
- Between the 1840s and the 1870s, harsh pass and vagrancy laws were enacted by the local colonial administration, which controlled the mobility and labour of the New and Old Immigrants. They were imprisoned in colonial prisons like the Vagrant Depot and a network of rural depots and their labour was used freely to build and carry out the maintenance of buildings, roads, bridges and other public infrastructure. Again injustice.
- Between the 1840s and 1870s, vagrant hunts were regularly organized by the colonial police and the vagrants were also called maroons and thousands were captured in this manner. They were regularly wiped and beaten with rattan sticks at the Vagrant Depot, Port Louis Prisons and in the rural vagrant depots and on some occasions even receiving 30 to 50 lashes. Cruel injustice
- Between the 1840s and the early 1900s, indentured workers and ex-indentured workers were required by law to carry a pass and could not move from one district to the next or even from one sugar estate to another without that pass.
It was a racist and repressive colonial state system which stigmatized all indentured labourers and their descendants, meaning that all Indentured Labourers had to have a pass and their mobility restricted by the colonial authorities.
This even happened to hundreds of Indo-Mauritians and Indian free passengers or who came as non-indentured and not working on sugar estates over the years. Raw injustice.
- In July 1871, the De Plevitz Petition was signed by more than 9400 Old Immigrants to complain against the racist and unbridled harassment and harsh treatment inflicted upon them by the colonial police, and colonial authorities. Communal injustice.
- Even during the great morcellement movement between 1870 and 1920, tens of thousands of acres of undervalued marginal land were sold at an expensive price to thousands of indentured, ex-indentured workers and their descendants. This may amount to billions today. Should Justice remain silent even today?
- Many of the metayers or sharecroppers on and off estates as well as the small planters were cheated of their earnings when taking their cane to the mill to be crushed. They had to have their crop weighed on the weighing bridge which was frequently tampered with so that the actual tonnage of their cane in their ox carts were greatly underestimated. This was a common practice between the 1870s and the 1940s. Justice is still crying for remedy.
- Between the 1830s and the early 1900s, several thousand indentured labourers died of diseases, malnutrition, dehydration and exposure in the quarantine stations on Flat Island, Gabriel Island, Ile aux Benitiers, Pointe aux Cannoniers and Ile aux Tonneliers. Thousands more saw their health conditions worsen when sent to spend anywhere between 1 to 3 months on those islets or in those quarantine stations. Thousands died during the epidemics such as the Cholera Epidemic of 1854, the Malaria Epidemic of 1867-79 and the Spanish Influenza of 1918-19.
- Between 1834 and 1840, around 10-15% of the first indentured labourers died in Mauritius due to diseases, harsh treatment, terrible working conditions and for not having been provided with medical tratment. They were treated no better than slaves and apprentices which forced thousands to return to India. Horrible injustice.
- Between the 1830s and the early 1900s, thousands of indentured workers died during the ship voyage to Mauritius – usually some 3-5%. Thousands more died while serving their indentureship in Mauritius because of poor working and living conditions that have not been fully documented to this day.
In light of the above historical facts which can be substantiated with material evidence, oral evidence and equally archival documents, we humbly contend:
That the introduction of the indentured system in Mauritius just after the abolition of slavery was in fact a disguised form of slavery meant to be optimally exploited to produce sugar in the higher interests of the colonialists only. As such, the claim of compensation as a remedial measure for all the injustices endured by the descendants of indentured labourers is a warranted concept in its very essence. The issue of compensation should be vigourously considered by TJC in the name of justice. But it should be globally addressed to descendants of slaves and equally to the descendants of Indentured labourers, because both system of ilavery and indentureship could have been slightly different on the surface but the sufferings, the pain, the tears and the human exploitation were the same in depth.
For more than one and a half century, sugar was the backbone of the Mauritian economy. The capital was produced by the extremely hard labour of indentured labourers. Yet, they were very meekly paid and had to undergo all the injustices mentioned above. Gradually much Capital was accumulated but it remained only in the hands of few colonial masters and their descendants. That Capital was diversified towards the tourist industry, the textile industry and other highly revenue generating sectors like banking and other financial institutions. Huge profits were made but enjoyed by only a few descendants of the colonialists.
In view of the above, and taking into consideration our sensitive social fabric, our multi-cultural/religious society and keeping in mind the national unity, we remain guided by the most pragmatic approach that should be adopted as regards to the issue of compensation. We are therefore most humbly proposing that:
1(i). All Big Profit Making Companies whose main Shareholders are the descendants of the Colonialists should contribute at least 15% of their Yearly Net Profit into a Consolidated Fund for the coming fifteen to twenty years.
(ii). That Consolidated Fund should have Statutory label, with well-defined objectives and parameters of operations having its focus on social justice and integration.
(iii). That Consolidated Fund should be managed by an entity mandated by the Government of Mauritius.
(iv).That Consolidated Fund should be meant to alleviate the plight of the descendants of slaves and indentured labourers equally — on the basis of merits…
(v) That Consolidated Fund should provide free services of professionals for project write-ups, feasibility reports, permit clearance, marketing reports, consultancy services, etc., to those descendants of slaves and indentured labourers…
- (i) That an Special Tribunal be put on place by the Government of Mauritius with a limited life span to look after ONLY the cases of lands that have been dispossessed;
(ii) That Special Tribunal should have a Panel of Reputed Judges from around the world including Mauritius;
(iii) That legal aid be provided to Appellants;
(iv) That the creation of the Special Tribunal, the Legal Aid, the running costs of the Tribunal be funded by the Consolidated Fund as proposed.
Officer in Charge – AGTF
* Published in print edition on 19 August 2011