Untold Stories: The Emergence of an Endogenous Work Force & the Experience of the Mauritian Indentured Workers (1870-1910)
“In recent years the number of Mauritian born Indians laboring on the sugar estates has increased considerably. It is becoming evident that the colony’s laboring population is undergoing a period of prolonged change”
(Observation of Sir Henry Leclezio, Chairman of the Council of Government Committee on Indian Immigration and Mauritian Planter to Governor Sir Charles Bruce, 19th September 1901)
This year marks the 180th anniversary of the arrival of the indentured workers in Mauritius. It is being commemorated at national level by the Government of Mauritius and the Mauritian people at the Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site on 2nd November 2014. Between 1826 and 1910, an estimated 467,000 Indian and non-Indian indentured men, women, and children set foot on Mauritian soil. They transformed this small and rocky island into a garden of sugar.
One of the largely unexplored themes of Mauritian indentured labour historiography is the emergence of an endogenous or a local-born work force that played a crucial role in the survival and consolidation of the sugar industry and the economy of Mauritius during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Between the 1870s and early 1900s, there were tens of thousands of Indo-Mauritians, or Mauritians of Indian origin, who served one-year written and oral labour contracts on the island’s rural sugar estates. By the mid-1880s, they were taking part in a long, complex, and silent labour revolution where they at first supplemented, and then gradually replaced the Indian indentured immigrants on the Mauritian sugar plantations.
The Genesis of a Mauritian Work Force
According to the Annual Report of the Protector of Immigrants for 1859 and the papers of the Council of Government Committee on Immigration, a total of 20,209 individuals of Indian origin were born on the island since the large-scale importation of indentured labourers in 1834. During the early 1860s, Indo-Mauritians comprised 10% of the local population of Indian origin. More than a decade later in 1871, the Indians and Indo-Mauritians together made up around two-thirds of the local colonial population. By the 1870s, two generations of Indo-Mauritians had already emerged and became an integral part of the local colonial population. In 1873, the Indo-Mauritians made up more than 8% of the estate work force, employed under short labour contracts which were renewed each year.
In 1881, there were 113,000 Indo-Mauritians, equaling around 45% of the total number of individuals classified as Indian or of Indian descent. Even more importantly, they made up more than 28% of the work force on the island’s sugar estates. Barely four years later, this figure increased to more than 33%. Between 1873 and 1885, there was a dramatic rise from 8% to 33% in the number of Indo-Mauritians who worked on the island’s sugar plantations. The majority of the Mauritian estate workers were Hindus and Muslims, with some Creoles who were Christians and descendants of the former Afro-Malagasy slaves and apprentices. During the 1880s and 1890s, Afro-Malagasy contract workers like Emilien Dureau, Willie Leonore, Francis Thara, and Henri Maugendre worked on 12-month contracts on a sugar estate in Pamplemousses district.
During this period, an increasing number of Mauritian labourers decided to get ‘engaged’ for a period of 12 months because of poverty, difficulty of getting a stable job, proper housing, and the need to support their families. In addition, by the 1860s and after, many Indo-Mauritian workers were born and grew up in the estates camps and were the children and grandchildren of indentured Indian immigrants. As a result, they were familiar with life on the sugar estate and decided to work on the same plantation in order to be close to their family, friends, and the familiar places where they grew.
The Life-Stories of the Mauritian Contract Workers
During the 1870s and 1880s, as there was a dramatic increase in the number of Indo-Mauritians working on the sugar plantations, it became very common for them to be arrested and convicted as deserters and vagrants. They were treated almost like the Indian indentured labourers and the Liberated Africans under the labour and vagrancy laws. In accordance with the Labour Law of 1878, all Mauritian contract workers had to be registered, photographed, and issued a pass. Between the late 1870s and early 1900s, hundreds of these Mauritian workers were photographed.
In the MGI Immigration Archives and the Mauritius National Archives, there are the stories and experiences of several Indo-Mauritians, or first generation sons and daughters of Indian indentured workers, such as Ramalingum Andiapen and Ramsamy Ramen, who clearly stand out in the local archival records. These are some of the untold stories of the Indo-Mauritians during the indenture era.
Between the 1860s and the early 1900s, there was a trend among the Indo-Mauritians of leaving the sugar estates and gradually gravitating towards newly established villages, towns and Port Louis. In 1871, more than 33% of the Indo-Mauritians lived in the villages, towns and some in Port Louis. More than three decades later, the Mauritius Census of 1901 indicates that more than 60% of the Indo-Mauritians did not live on the sugar plantations, but still worked or had some economic links to the estates. During early 20th century, the Indo-Mauritians comprised more than 50% of the work force and by then it was this endogenous labour force that became the motor of the island’s sugar-producing economy.
During the last decades of the indenture era, many of the Indo-Mauritians also left estate labour; they became semi-skilled and skilled workers and others purchased land. In addition, in his academic studies, Richard Allen, an American historian, has observed that the Indo-Mauritians gradually became vegetable cultivators and small sugar planters, engaged in trade and commerce, and achieved some measure of social and economic mobility. In their own way, just like the Free Indian Immigrants or deck passengers they participated fully in the grand morcellement movement, business, the evolution of politics, education, and intellectual life of the colony. Definitely, the Indo-Mauritians made an important contribution to the demographic, economic, political, and cultural development of Mauritius. It is only now that the untold stories of this endogenous group for workers are being discovered, recorded, narrated, and preserved for posterity. Their achievements are also being commemorated and honored on each 2nd November.
1 Endogenous work force means a local-born or locally created labour force, it is a term occasionally used by historians of colonial labour history.
* Published in print edition on 31 Ocotober 2014