History & Heritage
By S. Peerthum,
Researcher, and C. Forest,
Head of Technical Unit
On Monday, 16th July 2012, the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund is commemorating the 6th anniversary of the inscription of the Aapravasi Ghat site on UNESCO’s prestigious World Heritage List. The Aapravasi Ghat is the Immigration Depot where almost half a million indentured labourers first set foot on Mauritian soil as they climbed up the site’s famous sixteen steps.
Through their toil, tears, suffering, resistance and endurance in the face of overwhelming adversity, they played a central role in the fashioning of modern Mauritius.
The Historical & Heritage Value of the Aapravasi Ghat Site
The Aapravasi Ghat Immigration Depot became operational on 1st May 1849, on the shore of Trou Fanfaron Bay in Port Louis harbour, in order to receive indentured immigrants who came mainly from India. During the 1850s and 1860s, the depot was enlarged and part of it even reconstructed to handle the thousands of immigrants who arrived each year. Between 1849 and 1910, more than 400,000 indentured labourers, from various parts of the Indian subcontinent, transited through the Aapravasi Ghat. During that period, this historic site played a central role in the day-to-day functioning of the indenture labour system as well as in the lives of the immigrants and their descendants in Mauritius.
As a World Heritage Site, it does not only belong to the Mauritian people, but also to humanity. It is a unique site which embodies the highest values of mankind. As a lieu de mémoire, it is playing a crucial role in bolstering our national unity and preserving our cultural values. Thus, the Aapravasi Ghat is a tangible symbol and forms a cornerstone of our Mauritian cultural heritage. Indeed, the indentured labourers were Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Buddhists and they came from different parts of India and also from Madagascar, Comoro Islands, China, South East Asia, Aden in Yemen, East Africa and Reunion Island.
The Aapravasi Ghat has a special place in the hearts and minds of all Mauritians, because it was where the ancestors of more than 70% of the present-day Mauritian population landed as they began their new lives in Mauritius. Today, their descendants form part of our peaceful multi-ethnic, and democratic country which serves as a shining beacon to the rest of the world.
In June 1970, during the state visit of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to Mauritius, Mr Beekrumsing Ramlallah, an Indo-Mauritian politician, member of parliament and a newspaper editor-in-chief of the Mauritius Times, was able to organize a brief visit for her to the Aapravasi Ghat with the support of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, the then Prime Minister. The objective of Mr Ramlallah was to draw attention to the dilapidated condition of this lieu de mémoire. In April 1987, the site was decreed National Monument which was reconfirmed in 1997 and 2003 through the NHF Act.
In 2001, the Government of Mauritius decreed 2nd November a public holiday to honor the memory of the indentured labourers. Each year, this special public holiday is commemorated at a national level at the Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site. In July 2006, it was inscribed on the prestigious World Heritage List of UNESCO.
Over time, Mauritian government officials became aware of the urgent need in saving and preserving this unique heritage site. Between 1996 and 2012, under the direction of the Ministry of Arts and Culture and eventually with the creation of AGTF ten years ago, a number of preservation and restoration projects were initiated with a view of establishing the Aapravasi Ghat as an important heritage site in Mauritius.
The Accomplishments and Projects of the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund
During the last few years, the Mauritian government has taken actions to preserve and enhance this unique heritage site. Between 2005 and 2012, under the direction of the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund and with the firm support of my government, several projects have been completed or are in the process of being completed.
The Inscription of the Aapravasi Ghat on the World
Heritage List: As early as 2003, a team was set up to conduct research aiming at documenting the history of the Aapravasi Ghat and of indenture labour in Mauritius. The objective was also to establish the physical evolution of the Aapravasi Ghat in order to undertake background research for the restoration of the heritage site. Indeed, all restoration project is based on the complete documentation of heritage sites in order to avoid misconjecture and to restore the site as per its authenticity and integrity. These notions are essential principles that potential World Heritage SItes should respect as per the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Natural and Cultural Heritage. Hence, the restoration of the heritage site was a key project in the process of proposing the inscription of the Aapravasi Ghat on the World Heritage List.
A team led by Dr Vijaya Teelock, Chairperson of the AGTF, undertook intensive research to prepare the nomination dossier for UNESCO. The dossier was completed and sent to the World Heritage Centre in February 2005. On 16 July 2006, the World Heritage Committee inscribed the Aapravasi Ghat on the prestigious World Heritage List of UNESCO.
The Conservation and enhancement of the World
Heritage Property: In 2004, the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund initiated the Aapravasi Ghat Conservation Project with a view of restoring and preserving the authentic features of the site. The long process of conservation and restoration of the World Heritage Site was completed in May 2010. After its completion, the maintenance plan for the World Heritage Site was enforced to ensure its sustainable preservation.
The concern of preserving the World Heritage Site is a core element that also led to the review of the Management Plan. The Management Plan is the key document stating the vision, orientations and projects to be implemented in order to retain and enhance the World Heritage Property. This document was first prepared in 2006 and is being reviewed to integrate all the developments and set out new orientations in the short, medium and long term for the development of the World Heritage Property.
The revised Management Plan (2012) will also integrate the developments related to the buffer zone – meaning the area delimitating the context in which the Aapravasi Ghat has evolved – as this zone had no legal existence at the time of the inscription of the site on the World Heritage List. To meet UNESCO’s requirement to delimitate this area legally, Planning Policy Guidance (PPG) for the protection of the Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site Buffer Zone was proclaimed to establish planning guidance ensuring the retention and the enhancement of the heritage component in the zone, extending from Arsenal Street to Place d’Armes, and from Royal Street to Quay D. The objective is to provide a planning instrument leading to the implementation of the vision for development in the area consisting in the creation of a vibrant historic centre in Port Louis.
The AGTF is conscious that the vision for the development in the buffer zone is a new concept in Mauritius. Therefore, to assist developers, promoters and anyone planning development in the buffer zone, the AGTF has prepared a Conservation Manual to provide assistance in the design of new buildings and guidelines for the enhancement of heritage in the area. The ultimate objective is to help recreating an architectural harmony in the buffer zone and enhance the heritage preserved. Ultimately, this vision intends to ensure the sustainable development of Port Louis city centre.
With the same intention, the AGTF initiated the preparation of a Development Plan for the area in order to facilitate the process and stimulate heritage friendly sustainable development in the area. The Development Plan was completed as a 10 page document presenting 10 points aiming at encouraging development in a sustainable manner.
The setting up of an Interpretation Centre: The Beekrumsing Ramlallah Interpretation Centre (BRIC) was identified as objective 16 of the Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site Management Plan in 2005. A project proposal was submitted in 2005 and reviewed in 2008 in the light of the World Heritage Status. It presented the setting up of an interpretation centre promoting the Outstanding Universal Value of the World Heritage Site: the objective is to present the indenture phenomenon, the specificity of Mauritius and the experience of indentured labourers at Aapravasi Ghat Immigration Depot.
This project is currently under way and has led to more extensive research that will be presented in the Interpretation Centre. This project has started with the creation of a team of experts to materialize concepts and ideas. The setting up of the Interpretation Centre will surely bring a significant change at World Heritage Site and enhance visitor experience. Indeed, the setting up of the centre has long been discussed and it is now a critical need as before the inscription of the site on the World Heritage List, AGTF counted a total number of 1,600 visitors in 2005. After inscription, this number increased to reach 10,000 in 2006 and 25,000 in 2011. The aim of the Interpretation Centre is therefore to offer appropriate visitor infrastructures at the World Heritage Site, to mitigate visitor impact on the site in respect of international conservation standards and also to develop sustainable cultural tourism in Mauritius.
The conservation of other indentured heritage sites
The conservation of the Old labourers’ Quarters in Trianon, St Jean, Quatre Bornes: Trianon heritage site located at Trianon was the former accommodation of indentured labourers working on Trianon sugar estate established in 1803. The barracks are one of the rare remaining structures constructed in stone where indentured immigrants were housed. It was listed as a National Monument in 1974.
Since 2003, the site was vested in AGTF. The restoration and conservation of the Trianon Barracks started in August 2011. The objective is to restore the indentured labourers’ barracks and consolidate its structure to preserve it for future generations. On completion of the restoration of Trianon barracks in 2013, a comprehensive development plan will be prepared to propose activities for the public and retain and promote the heritage structure as one of the major component of Mauritian Heritage. it is proposed to initiate a project to provide visitor infrastructures, exhibition space and the installation of an office. The objective is to allow the creation of supportive visitor infrastructures to foster the development of cultural tourism.
The Conservation of the Vagrant Depot in Grand
River North West: The Vagrant Depot at Grand River North West is located in Port Louis district. For more than 22 years, the Vagrant Depot served as the colony’s central depot in a system of depots which were established around the island. It played a key role in enforcing the vagrancy laws, a form of labour control, in British Mauritius during the second half of the 19th century.
The Vagrant Depot Conservation Project was launched by the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund in February 2005. The Conservation Project consists of three phases. The first phase consists of archival documentation of the site and the restoration of the entrance gateway. The second phase consists of the consolidation of the main features of the Vagrant depot and the third phase consists of the development of the Vagrant Depot site into a major heritage attraction.
Between 2005 and 2008, the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund undertook various projects such as the historical study and land surveys of the site. In 2010, an architectural documentation of the Entrance Gateway was carried out prior to the start of the conservation Project. The Gateway of the Vagrant Depot, destroyed in 1999, was restored and conserved in 2011.
Research: Since 2003, continuous historical and archaeological research is undertaken to document and appreciate the cultural significance of the World Heritage Site and of the labour system of indenture; the result of research were published by the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund. This year on 2nd November, the 3 Volumes on The History of Indenture in Mauritius will be launched by AGTF as well as a seminal publication on the history of Gokhoola which covers the life of a well known immigrant and the temple he built.
Research results were also presented by AGTF staff in December 2011 at the international conference on indentured labour entitled ‘New Perspectives on Indentured Labour, 1825-1925’ held at the University of Mauritius. Local and international Scholars and Researches took part in this conference organised by the AGTF and it was the opportunity to exchange and discuss on specific aspects of indenture. The resolutions of the International Conference include the proposal to establish an international indenture labour route project as well as an international indenture database system.
The AGTF also took part in the preparation of the nomination dossier for the inscription of the archives related to the Aapravasi Ghat Immigration Depot on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. The nomination dossier prepared under the supervision of the Ministry of Arts and Culture was sent to the World Heritage Centre for consideration in March 2012.
The AGTF has also set up other research projects such as the project on Intangible Cultural Heritage consisting in the identification of intangible cultural heritage related to indenture in Mauritius.
The Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund has currently catalogued 60 elements of intangible heritage and conducts further research to complement their documentation. In total, the AGTF has conducted 125 interviews as part of this project. The objective is to propose the inscription of elements of intangible cultural heritage on the Representative List of UNESCO.
In March of this year, a respected ICOMOS evaluator, Dr. Juma, delegated by UNESCO, visited the Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site and reviewed the activities and projects undertaken so far. He praised the work accomplished during the course of the last six years. Today, AGTF is continuing its work to fulfill all the commitments made by Mauritius during the 30th meeting of the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO in Vilnius , Lithuania in 2006 when Aapravasi Ghat was inscribed on the World Heritage List.
* Published in print edition on 13 July 2012