Shrimati Sushma Swaraj Chief Guest for the celebrations

180th anniversary of the Arrival of Indian Indentured Labour Immigrants

The legal termination of slavery in the British colonies in the nineteenth century, which came to be definite with the passing of the law of abolition of slavery in Parliament on 1st February 1835, led to another form of exploitation of human labour known as the Indenture System. Even before the Emancipation of Slaves was proclaimed and became a reality, the sugar oligarchy in Mauritius was desperate that the ex-slaves may down their tools and abandon the plantations.

Apprehending the economic doom that might befall them in the aftermath of the abolition, the sugar oligarchy turned towards the teeming millions of British India whom they believed they could induce to work in lieu of the freed slaves for a pittance.

Thus it was that on 15 September 1834 a batch of 36 workers were recruited from the Chotta Nagpur Hills in the then Presidency of Oudh, Behar, Bengal and Orissa of British Raj and arrived in Mauritius on 2nd November of the same year on board the Atlas. The system known commonly throughout the world among the Bhojpuris as Girmit from the English term Agreement came to be known also as Engagé – worker on contract in Mauritius.

As a result Mauritius became the first post of the ‘Great Experiment’ which became such a success in the transaction of human labour that not only the British, but the French and the Dutch shared in the exploitation of the Indian workforce. The system was decried in the colonies, in India and in England. Several Commissions of Enquiry had to be instituted to remedy the abominable system. Finally after a Commission of Enquiry led by Raja Kunwar Singh set up by the British, the system was terminated on 31 May 1924, marking a period of 90 years during which some 450,000 Indian workers on contract had migrated to Mauritius only.

It was largely the labour of these workers and their descendants recruited from the hinterlands of Calcutta, Madras, Vishakapatnam and Bombay which created the wealth of the plantocrats and the economic empire of the British. How much did those indentured and their descendants gain from their migration?

However, it should be noted that the advent of Indian migration to Mauritius did not start with the Indentured Labour Movement. As early as the Dutch period, Indian slaves were introduced in the island. The periodical movement of Indian soldiers, seafarers, sepoys, political prisoners and convicts, artisans, craftsmen, engineers and small traders to Mauritius during the French and early British periods should not be minimized. Free labour and artisans were brought to Mauritius from the French comptoirs of Pondicherry, Chandernagore and the Malabar coast of Kerala during Labourdonnais’s administration of “Ile Maurice”

 The Saga of Indian indentured Labour Immigrants

 The saga of the Indian immigrants is no doubt one of trials and tribulations, oppression and injustice. But triumphs and victories also have determined the political, economic and socio-cultural turnaround of 26 plantation countries including South Africa, Malaysia, Singapore, Fiji, Trinidad, British, Guyana, French Guyana, Dutch Guyana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Reunion Island, St Lucia, Barbados, Jamaica where a total of over 2 million Indentures were taken.

It is in this context that just as the UNESCO has inscribed the Slave Route on its charter, it has shown keen interest to chalk out an Indenture Labour Route with the help of world scholars, historians and experts in the matter with the help of the Governments of Mauritius, India and other countries with similar experiences. A Secretariat would be set up at the Aapravasi Ghat with the support of UNESCO.

It would be remembered that during former Prime Minister of India Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee’s visit to the Aapravasi Ghat in 1998, he said that he would consider including the Aapravasi Ghat as the 8th jewel of India.

The Commemorations of Indian Arrival in 1935 and 1994

Two commemorations that have marked Indian Indentured Labour Immigration to Mauritius are outstanding: the Centenary Celebrations of 1935 by the Indian Arrival Celebration Committee marked the watershed in the change of tide in the political, educational and socio-cultural awakening of the descendants of the Indentured, and former indentured. At that time, Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam freshly returned from the UK, full of the ideas and visions of Fabian socialism and Westminsterian democracy and one of the prominent members of the celebration committee said in his address: “What is a person who has no culture, no language, no roots to which he can go?”

It is worth remembering today also his sterling words, especially after we have just celebrated his 114th birth anniversary a couple of weeks ago. “It is only by the subordination of self by selfless sacrifices and endeavours that this great community of Indo-Mauritians will be saved from being a burden unto itself and it is through these that will come unity, strength and the hope of a happy community capable of great achievements like those of our forefathers…”

In 1984-1985, the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Indentured labour immigrants and the abolition of slavery was celebrated in a grandiose way by the National Organising Committee set up by the government.

We have just celebrated Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary. His advice to the Indian masses in 1901 when he sojourned here for 21 days, to educate their children and join politics still rings in our ears.

But join politics to do what? Have we achieved political Swaraj and with it economic Swaraj? In his distinguished Gandhi Memorial Lecture delivered at the MGI on Tuesday this week, Shri Anup Kumar Mudgal, High Commissioner of India asked if Gandhiji were to be with us in this century, what would he think about the different aspects of political, economic, cultural and environmental Swaraj? Have we reached it or do we still have miles to go? Have we fulfilled Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam’s dream? Are we moving in the right direction of good governance? Are we doing justice to those swarthy, brave and fearless, daring ancestors whose memory we stand to commemorate today? It is 180 years since they set foot on the Mauritian soil. Have the tears of all their descendants been wiped out? Have they really received equal opportunities and a fair share in the national economy?

To mark the advent of the Indian workforce in Mauritius and next year that of the abolition of slavery, the Government of Mauritius has through the Ministry of Arts and Culture earmarked for this year and next year a rich calendar of events. Indian arrival in Mauritius has been a significant landmark. It has changed the demographic, political and socio-cultural landscape of the island. The people of Indian origin make up around two thirds of the total population of Mauritius ever since 1860, and this has remained almost constant.

The visibility of their marked presence in terms of hospitality, tolerance, peace and harmonious living as well as a secular vision of live-and-let-live and sharing is enshrined in the spirit of the country.

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Commemorative Highlights

The Commemoration of the 180th anniversary of the arrival of Indian Indentured Immigrants and an International Bhojpuri Mahotsaw in Mauritius approved by government through a Cabinet decision on 22nd August last is marked by several International Conferences including Hindi, Bhojpuri and the Indenture Labour Route Project, Gopio International Conferences focusing on Woman and Youth & an Art Exhibition on the Glories of Bihar, a Food Mela of all sections of the Mauritian community, Photo Exhibition of Woman on Woman, a Bhojpuri Cultural Extravaganza with Chutney Music from the Caribbean, and Cultural troupes from South Africa and India.

The 2nd November marks the climax of the commemoration, at which national event at the Aapravasi Ghat, Shrimati Sushma Swaraj the Indian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Overseas Indian Affairs and No 3 in the Government of Narendra Modi will be the Chief Guest. At this commemorative event, a simulation of arrival of the first 36 immigrants, the unveiling of the bust of Beekrumsingh Ramlallah, and opening of the Beekrumsingh Ramlallah Interpretation Centre (BRIC) will be some of the highlights of the celebrations including the morning “Yaj” ceremony and the wreath laying on the 16 steps of the Aapravasi Ghat.

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Commemorative Dates

27 October – 1 November:

International Hindi Conference organised by the Indian High Commission focusing us on the teaching of Hindi in diaspora countries

30 – 31 October:

A two-day Antarastriya Bhojprui Sahitya Sammellan on the oral and written literature of Bhojpuri. Other themes include Bhojpuri and the Media; Bhojpuri and Youth. Distinguished scholars, erudites litterateurs are expected.

31 October – 1 November

Gopio Youth Conference at Octave Wiehe auditorium Reduit.

A Food Mela and Woman on Woman Photography Exhibition, Gopio International Woman Conference at IGCIC, Phoenix

1 November

Bhojpuri Cultural Extravaganza with world famous chutney artists from the Caribbean, South Africa, and India.

2 November

Traditional morning Yaj

– National Commemorative Ceremony at Aapravasi Ghat

Chief Guest: Shrimati Sushma Swaraj, Indian Foreign Minister and Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs

– Unveiling of bust of Beekrumsingh Ramlallah and inauguration of Beekrumsingh Ramlallah Interpretation Centre (BRIC)

– Unveiling of Rock bearing names of first 36 Indentures

– Simulation of arrival of first Indian Immigrants

– Wreath laying on the 16 steps of Aapravasi Ghat

3 November

– Art Exhibition on Glories of Bihar at the Rabindranath Tagore Institute; Ilot


* Published in print edition on 10 October 2014

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