The cultural policy of the government acknowledges the need not only to preserve but also to promote our ancestral traditions, values, resources, cultural heritage and history. Thus apart from the annual Yaj Ceremony instituted by Shri Beekrumsing Ramlallah in 1970, the official commemoration of the arrival of Indentures by the government as from 1978 onwards at the Aapravasi Ghat is a historical event and should not be tampered with.
In this context the coming of immigrants to Mauritius in whatever form or historical context is of great importance to our identity and existence. The 300 years of French presence in Mauritius was just celebrated. The French colonisers and plantocracy have bequeathed a rich legacy of architectural jewels, institutions, language, culture, press, art and law but also the legacy of a sugar industry, corporate system and overall vibrant private sector. The Dutch presence is felt but marginally. The British left us their administrative skills and the Parliamentary system as well as the official language. However, the colonisers needed manpower, which they exploited to various degrees and in a shameful manner which cannot be forgotten. The scars are there. The trauma is felt in generation after generation.
Abominable Slave Trade
Thus the abominable slave trade exploited throughout the ages found its climax in the advent of industrial revolution. European colonization of many parts of the globe created a new process of human transaction especially from the African continent, Madagascar and South East Asia.
As we are all familiar with the history now, the despicable slave trade led to a new demographic configuration of our country. The slaves were treated as mere goods and chattels and even today the names of descendants speak of the inhuman treatment meted out to them. Nevertheless, however horrible that process may have been, we have survived not without deep psychological and emotional wounds, creating a general malaise among the descendants.
It is in this context that the British abolitionists welcomed the ending of the slave trade. In fact after 1 May 1807, no British ship could clear port with a cargo of slaves and it was clearly stipulated that from 1 March 1808 no slave could be disembarked from any ship in any British colony. The slave trade had been hitherto perceived as a legitimate part of commerce. After this measure it began to be practised clandestinely, in breach of the law. However, the trade came to be definitely terminated by 1 February 1835.
The long-term consequences were disastrous to the colonies and plantocracy. They saw a ruin of their plantations. The legal termination of slavery not only was unable to liberate the slaves, but led to another system known in British circles as ‘A New System of Slavery’ (Huge Tinker: 1974). In fact much before slavery was abolished planters recruited clandestinely workers from British India.
Planters had their recruitment firms on the bank of the Hoogly River in Calcutta. For example, Hunter Arbuthnot and F.M Gillanders and Co., who had plantation interests in Mauritius such as at the Mount, Antoinette Estate, Phooliyaar and in Demerara; former (British) Guyana in Latin America.
The Great Experiment
The Great Experiment was made with the importation of contractual labour- indentureship which began on 2nd November 1834, the subjects of ‘experiment’ being 36 Hill Coolies from Chotta Nagpur, former Presidency of Oudh, Bengal, Orissa and Bihar, now in Jharkhand. This took place even one year before the Bill of Abolition of Slavery was passed in British Parliament. The immigrants came in majority from the port of Calcutta which was the seat of the capital of British India.
Over the years this system of indentureship came to be known in the plantation diaspora countries as Girmitia, Bhojpuri for Agreement as the immigrants were largely of Bhojpuri origin. The word agreement could not be pronounced properly by them hence it came to be known as ‘girmit’ and the system as girmitia. Other ports of embarkation were Visakhapatnam, Madras and Bombay where smaller pockets of recruits were exploited.
This transaction in human labour proved so lucrative that even the French and Dutch colonisers entered into an understanding with the British government to extract Indian labour for their various colonies such as Reunion Island, Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guyana, Suriname (Dutch), etc. Mauritius was known as the first post of this Great Experiment which led to the transaction of over 2 million Indians throughout the plantation colonies.
In Mauritius the system lasted from 2nd November 1834 to 31 May 1924 until the Government of India put a stop to it following a Commission of Enquiry led by the eminent Maharaj Kunwar Singh. In India, Mahatma Gandhi, Gokhale, Madan Mohan Malviya and others protested vehemently in mass meetings and in parliament against the injustice meted out to the girmitias. The findings of this Enquiry put a definite end to the system. In the meantime, in a period of 90 years approximately 450,000 Indian immigrants had been brought to Mauritius. They produced the wealth of the country along with others.
It is true that even before the Indian Indentureship, Indian immigration to Mauritius was a much earlier process with the periodical movement of Indian soldiers, seafarers, sepoys, political prisoners, artisans and engineers especially from the French comptoirs of Chandernagore, Pondicherry, Tranquebar, Coromandel along the Malabar coast of India. Thus it was that there were huge camps around the Aapravasi Ghat and the present Northern Bus Terminus known as Camp des Malabars. These earlier immigrants built much of Port Louis during the French period. The Camp des Malabars has left street names till date in Port- Louis: Goa Street, Vellore Street Bombay Street, Madras Street, Hyderabad Street and Calicut Street and so on. These need to be researched on by future or current research students. One street in Camp Yoloff was even known as Arab Street.
Chinese Indenture Failed: It must also be remembered that much before the Great Experiment in Mauritius had started, as early as 1826 proposals were made to bring workers from China. In 1829 Chinese labourers were recruited from Penang and Singapore to work on the sugar plantations. They could not adapt to local working conditions, Chinese workers being mainly rice growers. They were repatriated as this measure failed. Later on Chinese workers were tricked into coming to Mauritius by Kapitan (Captain) Ahime Log Choisanne, a Fukien trader. He was authorized by Governor Farquhar in 1821 to bring workers and they were housed in the Royal Street which led to the development of China Town. By 1830 there were 26 Chinese and in 1861, 1552 Chinese migrants were recorded. They opened up small shops all over Mauritius, to serve the Indian villages, and learnt to converse in Bhojpuri.
The Rejection of African Indentures: Between 1835 and 1836, importation of a small amount of indentures from Africa took place but that too failed. A small number were introduced from Anjouan in the Comores and East Africa. This was not viewed with a good eye because the system of slavery had just been abolished. Importation of workers, though on contract, from Africa was frowned upon and rejected as it was akin to the earlier system which was still not forgotten or erased. Planters had recourse to illicit trading of manpower from pockets along East Africa.
Indian Traders as Deck Passengers: Free Indian deck passengers such as traders and merchants followed the labour girmitias and set up shops and trade in Port Louis. They were mostly Gujarati Muslims from Kutch, Surat and other places of Bombay, and some Sindhi and sonar (jewellers) too. Tamil traders too had established prosperous business in Port-Louis.
MK Gandhi’s landmark arrival
On 29 October 1901 MK Gandhi came to Mauritius on board the SS Nowshera on its journey from South Africa to Bombay or Colombo, staying for 20 days. He was hosted by Indian traders, namely Mr Ahmed Goolam Mohammed. But he was anxious to see the Indian Immigrants. He was appalled by the squalor in which they were living and he urged them to join politics and educate their children. As he could not stay longer in Mauritius, being called by the liberation movement Swaraj in India, he delegated a French-knowing barrister Manilal Doctor who would take up the cudgel on behalf of Indian traders, planters and labourers. He set up the Hindustani newspaper and helped in establishing the Arya Samaj Movement. This was the beginning of social mobility of girmitias and their descendants. He inspired them to set up the Mauritius Co-Operative Bank too.
Jahaji Bhai: The Jahaji bhai concept developed on board the long travail on the coolie ships. The girmitias developed a deep sense of bonding among themselves which they maintained on arrival and which has been further sustained through successive generations to date across differences of caste and creed.
From Girmitia to President of Republic: The Indian Indentured immigrants – the Girmitias came with very little material possessions, but they were armed with their faith and tenets, values and cultural and linguistic heritage. Despite the physical and inclement climatic and harsh work conditions, humiliations and suppression, alien cultural and linguistic environment, through their hard work, courage and determination they have carved out a prosperous niche for themselves and contributed significantly to the development and prosperity of Mauritius.
The descendants of the Girmitia have moved progressively through different walks of life to have reached into all the top profiles of economic, administrative, professional and political life of Mauritius. Their social mobility and status from indenture to Prime Minister and President of the Republic is a success story that should be told and retold to future generations.