In Search of Our Bihari Heritage

A Profile of Immigrant Deewonarain Bissessur

The Extraordinary Life of a Bihari Sugar Estate Owner in 19th Century Mauritius

By Satyendra Peerthum
(Historian, Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund)

On 22 March 2013, Bihar Day will be celebrated at the Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site. Two years ago, it was celebrated for the first time in Patna and in other parts of Bihar and also at the Aapravasi Ghat (the former Immigration Depot). During most of the 19th century, Bihar was the most important regional source of indentured labour recruitment in British India for Mauritian sugar estates. Between 1826 and 1910, more than 184,000 indentured workers came from Bihar and were landed and registered at the Ghat.

The Arrival of Immigrant Bissessur

In the Mauritian archival records, there is the life story of a former Bihari indentured worker called Bissessur which clearly stands out and is worthy of being narrated and analysed. Immigrant Bissessur, also known as Deewonarain Bissessur, was 34 years old when he arrived in Mauritius in 1859. He spent almost a week at the Immigration Depot in Port Louis before being sent to work on a five-year contract as a labourer for Pierre Victor Lanougarede, the owner of Solitude Sugar Estate.

Immigrant Bissessur was born in Bihar in 1825. He worked as a labourer since he was a child and when he reached his twenties, he went to work in Calcutta, like tens of thousands of other young Bihari men. In early 1859, he was recruited as an indentured labourer by a labour agent who was based in Patna and with links to labour recruiters in Calcutta.

In June 1862, within three years after his arrival at Solitude Sugar Estate, Immigrant Bissessur was able to free himself from his contractual obligation with his employer. He paid Mr Lanougarede 24 pounds sterling for the remaining two years of service and his former employer issued him a certificate of discharge. In the course of the same month, Bissessur went to the Immigration Depot where he paid a four-shilling tax for an early discharge. At the same time, he was registered as an Old Immigrant and obtained his ticket.

The Sirdar, Job-Contractor and Landowner

Bissessur continued to work on Solitude Sugar Estate on 12-month contracts which were renewed annually. By 1864, thanks to his hard work and perseverance, he became one of the estate’s sirdars. He was in charge of 52 New Immigrants from Bihar and also assisted the estate manager with the day-to-day running of the sugar plantation.

During the following year, Bissessur purchased his first plot of land, which extended over an area of 4 arpents near Solitude Sugar Estate, for 280 dollars. The land purchase deed hints at the fact that he had been negotiating for three years with Mr Lanougarede for that particular plot of land. It was there that by the late 1860s Bissessur built a large wooden house with modern amenities for his wife and children. The next year Pierre Victor Lanougarede sold Solitude Sugar Estate to Peter Adophus Wiehe.

As a result, Deewonarain Bissessur left Solitude and established himself as a job contractor. He was able to offer employment, and house and feed more than 100 labourers on his land near Solitude; he constructed proper living quarters for them. He also acted as a moneylender for his workers when they urgently needed money. During the second half of the 1860s and the 1870s, he provided labourers when required to work in the sugarcane fields of Solitude, Beau Plan and the Mount.

Between 1865 and 1869, Bissessur bought nine plots of land for a total of 7,000 dollars or Rs 14,000, covering a total area of more than 50 arpents in different parts of Pamplemousses district. It was during that period that he was able to learn and write, since the land deeds contain his signature and often he wrote a few lines in Hindi concerning specific details about the land purchases.

During the second half of the 1860s, Bissessur sold five of these plots of land at a profit and kept four which he used for the cultivation of vegetables. On his four plots of land, he employed more than fifty Old Immigrants or ex-indentured workers, and provided vegetable produce to the village of Pamplemousses and to sugar estates such as Solitude, Beau Plan and the Mount. By 1869, Bissessur became one of the most important of the Indian landowners, independent cultivators and suppliers of vegetables in Pamplemousses district.

It is interesting to note that despite the fact that Bissessur was a rich and successful ex-indentured labourer, when he lost his immigrant ticket in 1886 he had to get a new one from the Immigration Depot, just like any other Old Immigrant. It was the only time that he was photographed, and he paid one pound sterling for a duplicate copy of his Old Immigrant ticket. At the same time, he had to get a new pass from the police station from the village of Pamplemousses. Thus, the labour and vagrancy laws did not make any difference between a former indentured worker who was a rich estate owner and an ex-indentured worker who still worked and lived in poverty on a sugar estate.

The Estate Owner and Business Owner

Bissessur was an extremely creative and hardworking entrepreneur and did not limit his activities only to job contracting, land speculation and large-scale vegetable cultivation. He had greater ambitions: between the early 1870s and early 1890s, he bought and sold three sugar estates and established two shops near the Port Louis Central Market. As a sugar cane planter and estate owner, he became one of the most important and active participants in the Grand Morcellement movement of the late 19th century.

In 1870, Bissessur, in a partnership with his friend, Immigrant Ramrattan, bought Bon Espoir Sugar Estate which extended over an area of 109 arpents and was located close to the village of Fond du Sac. Ramrattan, who also came from Bihar, arrived in Mauritius during the early 1860s. He was also an ex-sirdar and a small landowner who aspired to acquire a sugar estate just like Bissessur. They bought this estate from Louis Michel August Gonnet for the sum of 37,500 dollars or Rs 75,000. Bissessur had put in 20,000 dollars or Rs 40,000 and Ramrattan around 17,500 dollars.

This land transaction indicates that Deewonarain Bissessur was able to raise this large amount of money thanks to his vegetable growing business, land speculation activities and job contracting assignments. In 1870, Bon Espoir produced around 100 tons of sugar annually. However, between the mid-1870s and late 1880s, Bissessur was able to increase his sugar estate’s output to some 130-50 tons through the introduction of new varieties of cane, better agricultural techniques and maximizing land use.

In 1888, he sold the remainder of the estate to Ramruttan for Rs 70,000 or 35,000 dollars. In the process, he made a profit of Rs 30,000. Bissessur used this money along with his other sources of revenue to purchase L’Industrie Sugar Estate, located close to the village of Creve Coeur, for Rs 410,000 from Henri Darne. L’Industrie extended over an area of 814 arpents and produced more than 800 tons of sugar. Once again, Deewonarain Bissessur managed to increase the amount of estate land under sugar cane cultivation, leading to an increase in sugar output to 840 tons per annum. Barely three years later, he sold it to Louis Dagincourt Martin and Edouard Seneque for Rs 462,000. In the process, he made a profit of Rs 51,000.

However, the ambitions of Immigrant Bissessur did not end there. In 1892, he bought Rouge Terre Sugar Estate from Alphonse Lavoipierre for Rs 210,000. It was located close to the village of Fond du Sac and extended over an area of 333 arpents with an annual output of more than 300 tons. Two years later, he sold the sugar estate to Immigrant Seegopaul for Rs 235,000, making a profit of only Rs 25,000. Seegopaul was also an ex-Bihari labourer who arrived in Mauritius during the 1850s and bought Bon Air Sugar Estate during the 1880s.

During the second half of the 1890s, Bissessur used the money from this land sale to establish a hardware store and a general domestic goods store at Royal Street, Port Louis. By the early 1900s, his two newly established businesses proved to be successful. He was the owner of a total of more than 220 arpents of land on seven different plots scattered in different parts of Pamplemousses district. During the 1880s and 1890s, the properties of Bissessur were mainly engaged in small-scale sugar cultivation and some vegetable cultivation.

Reflections on the Life of Bissessur

After a long and productive life, Bissessur passed away in 1910 at the age of 85. In 1896, he had already drafted a will and left his properties and money to his elderly wife, several sons and daughters and many grand children. Immigrant Bissessur was one of the most successful and dynamic Bihari ex-indentured labourers who achieved some measure of social and economic mobility. After all, he became a sirdar, job contractor, independent vegetable producer and seller, small business owner in Port Louis and money lender. Even more importantly, within his lifetime, he was a prominent land speculator and sugar cane planter who bought and sold three large sugar estates and several much smaller plots of land in the north of the island.

Between 1864 and 1900, there were hundreds of ex-Bihari labourers who bought land in the districts of Pamplemousses and Riviere du Rempart, and Bissessur was the most important among them. During that same period, ex-indentured Indian workers and their children spent more than Rs 24 million in buying land. Deewonarain spent a total of more than Rs 700,000, which represents almost 3% of the total amount of money spent by the ex-indentured population for land purchases.

* Published in print edition on 22 March 2013

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