Daughters of Indentured Labour

The Untold Story of Immigrant Rimoney – 1813-1905

Researcher and Historian

On 2 November 2016, the Government of Mauritius and the Mauritian nation commemorated the 182nd anniversary marking the arrival of the indentured labourers in our country. On such an occasion, it is important to highlight that one of the important themes in Mauritian indenture historiography which was largely neglected is the study of Indian female labourers who came to work and live in our country during the 1800s and early 1900s.

Between 1829 and 1910, it is estimated that between 100,000 to 105,000 female Indian and non-Indian immigrants, or 22% to 23% of the total number of indentured workers who came to Mauritian shores were females. They were mostly between the ages of 10 and 50. Furthermore, the experiences of dozens of the early indentured women workers who came to Mauritius between 1825 and 1843 have been carefully documented and analyzed from local archival records over the past five years by the Research Unit of the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund.

These rare and precious archival sources are located at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute Indian Immigration Archives, the Mauritius National Archives, the Civil Status Office, the Registrar General Office and the National Archives, the Supreme Court Archives and the private family archives of descendants of Indian indentured immigrants. These records clearly show that there were some early women labourers who were able to empower themselves. They were strong individuals and were able to achieve some measure of social and economic mobility. This can clearly be seen in the life experience of Immigrant Rimoney.

The Arrival of Immigrant Rimoney

Rimoney was 30 years old when she arrived in Mauritius with Cootry (also called Cootry Madhar), her 12-year old son, on the Emerald Isle on 23 January 1843. Her ship dropped anchor in Port Louis with 213 male and 19 female labourers and one child after a journey of almost two months. Two days later, Rimoney, her son and their fellow travellers were landed and spent three days in a temporary Immigration Depot in the vicinity of Port Louis harbour. On 28 January, they were sent to their respective employers. The immigrant labourers of the Emerald Isle were recruited by Barbe & Lortan and Company, an Anglo-Mauritian company, for several Mauritian planters in November 1842 in the port of Calcutta in eastern India. During the first week of December of the same year, after obtaining their emigration certificates they proceeded to Mauritius to work on five-year labour contracts.

It is important to highlight that Rimoney was the first female immigrant to be recorded and given an immigrant number by the newly-established Immigration Department in 1843. Between 1826 and 1839, indentured immigration was a private initiative funded and controlled by Franco-Mauritian and British planters and merchants; this was suspended by the British imperial government in May 1839. It was renewed in 1842 when it became controlled and partially funded by the British government of Mauritius between 1843 and 1910. The Emerald Isle was the first ship to reach Mauritian shores under this new indentured labour importation plan.

Rimoney’s Life in India

Rimoney was born in the village of Dakah in northern Bihar in 1813. Her parents were Juggoodess and Begum Fakim who were vegetable cultivators and sellers in their native village. During the early 1820s, Rimoney, her parents and two elder brothers emigrated to Calcutta, the major port-city of eastern India, where they were street hawkers.

In 1830, Rimoney married Madhar, a Bengali Muslim shopkeeper. During the following year, she gave birth to her only child Cootry. Between 1830 and 1840, Rimoney helped Madhar manage his small shop located near the port area of Calcutta. Her husband was literate and was able to teach her to read and write in Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and English and even some basic math. In 1838, Rimoney’s parents passed away and her husband died in 1841. At the same time, a few years earlier, her two brothers left Calcutta as they worked as sailors on ships belonging to the British merchants in different Indian ports.

By 1842, more than a year after Madhar’s demise, Rimoney was unable to successfully run her husband’s small shop alone and could not pay the loans which he had incurred with some local Indian merchants. As a result, they seized her property in order to recover their money. In November of the same year, with her business gone and with no relatives left in Calcutta, Rimoney decided to emigrate. Hyder Allee, a well-known duffadar (or labour recruiter) working for Barbe & Lortan and Company in Calcutta, recruited her as a “shopkeeper” and Cootry as a skilled worker under a 5-year contract for two important Franco-Mauritian planters.

A Woman Indentured Shopkeeper

Between 1843 and 1848, Rimoney worked as an estate shopkeeper for Mr Langlois and Mr Lavoqeur who were owners of Triolet Sugar Estate in Pamplemousses district. She was given this particular work because she could read and write and do some basic math. During the mid-1840s, they brought in more than 100 indentured Indian labourers to work as cane cutters and in their sugar mill. Rimoney reported directly to the head sirdar and estate manager. At the same time, Cootry also worked in the estate shop as a skilled worker.

In January 1848, Rimoney completed her five-year industrial residence and it was only on 23 September of the same year that she went to register as an Old Immigrant at the Immigration Depot in Port Louis. This was required through a colonial ordinance which was enacted the previous year and she was provided with an Old Immigrant ticket. Cootry also completed his labour contract around the same time and went to register as an Old Immigrant in March 1848.

What is interesting is that more than a year and a half later, in September 1849, Cootry requested the Protector of Immigrants for a return passage to Calcutta and left on the ship the Atiel Rohoman. More than three years later, he returned with a small group of indentured workers as an assistant sirdar. He worked for Mr Pitot and Mr Gaillardon, the owners of Saint Aubin Sugar Estate in Savanne district in the south of the island where more than 121 indentured labourers were employed. Between 1849 and 1852, Cootry had worked as a labour recruiter for Anglo-Mauritian companies which recruited indentured workers for the Mauritian and British planters in the colony.

Rimoney as a Landowner and Cootry Madhar, her son

During the late 1840s and most of the 1850s, Rimoney continued to work as a shopkeeper on the same sugar estate and at the same time was able to become a small landowner. Between 1852 and 1859, she purchased three different plots of land totaling more than 10 arpents for more than 1000 rix dollars from landowning free coloured individuals near the village of Pamplemousses. By 1859, Rimoney, at the age of 46, left Triolet Sugar Estate and settled near the village of Pamplemousses. She became a vegetable cultivator and was able to employ a small group of Old Immigrants and ex-apprentices to work on her plots of land. Rimoney was able to sell her vegetables at the local village market and at Port Louis market. The notarial acts of the Mauritius National Archives indicate that she was the earliest female Indian immigrant and one of the first Old Immigrants to purchase land in the district of Pamplemousses.

Rimoney never remarried after the death of her husband and in her lifetime, Cootry, also called Cootry Madhar, was her only child. In 1856, he became a sirdar on Saint Aubin Sugar Estate. In the following year, at the age of 26, he got married to Begum Ameena, who was born in Mauritius and the daughter of an early Muslim immigrant who arrived in the colony during the mid-1830s. They had two sons Mamade and Auckbar. Just like his mother, in 1860, Sirdar Cootry managed to purchase three arpents of land near to the sugar estate where he worked and lived. He eventually left Saint Aubin and settled with him family on his land.

In January 1869, Cootry was stricken with fever and passed away at the age of 38. He was buried in the Muslim section of Cimetiere Marin in Souillac; his death was recorded in the Civil Status Office of the same village and at the Immigration Depot. During the following months, Ameena struggled to make a living out of the property which her husband left her and raise her two teenage sons. However, by 1870, she sold her land for 300 rupees and with the money she obtained she went to live with Rimoney. In the following year, the two women combined their financial resources and purchased five arpents of land near Long Mountain. Ameenah and her two sons, Mamade and Auckbar, provided a lot of help to their grandmother in the management of her properties and vegetable business.

The life story of Immigrant Rimoney is complex and eventful and its full details cannot be covered in a newspaper article. However, she is an important paradigm of human and worker agency, and entrepreneurship of an indentured female immigrant in nineteenth century Mauritius. Definitely, she had a strong character and empowered herself as she was able to carve a place for herself in a paternalistic, socially stratified and racist Mauritian colonial society.

Rimoney’s accomplishments and that of thousands of female immigrants, just like her, must be remembered and honoured by all Mauritians each year on 2nd November. After all, we are their descendants, we carry their names, their blood flows in our veins and our history is a continuation of their history. Truly, Immigrant Rimoney led a long and productive life that we can only but admire and emulate as the citizens of the Mauritian Republic.

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