History & Commemoration
Immigrant Life Stories from the Indenture Era in Mauritius (1834-1889):
— Satyendra Peerthum
Researcher & Historian – Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund
On 2nd November 2012, the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund (AGTF), with the collaboration of the Ministry of Arts and Culture, is commemorating the 178th anniversary marking the arrival of the indentured labourers in Mauritius at the Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site.
It is during this auspicious ceremony that the Government of Mauritius and the Mauritian nation pay a vibrant tribute and remember the toils, struggles, and sacrifices of our immigrant ancestors. It is an important ‘devoir de mémoire’ which was first observed, on each 2nd November, by the late B. Ramlallah more than forty years ago at the then ‘Coolie Ghat’.
Over the past one and a half years, one of the important research objectives of AGTF has been to document and analyse the lives of more than 100 early immigrants among the 458,000 indentured labourers who came to work and live in our small Indian Ocean island between 1826 and 1910. Among these early immigrants, the long and productive lives of Immigrants Lotah and Omeron have been fully researched at the MGI Indian Immigration Archives, the Mauritius National Archives and the Office of the Registrar General.
The Life-Story of Immigrant Lotah (No. 3158)
Lotah (No. 3158) was 30 years old when he arrived in Port Louis from Madras, India, as an indentured labourer. He was a Hindu who belonged to the Rajput caste and was born in the village of Attur in the Madras Presidency in 1804. It is important to note that he arrived on an individual indenture contract and did not come to Mauritius with the 29 indentured labourers on the ship the Sarah from Bombay in August 1834 and the 36 contract labourers on the Atlas in November 1834.
Between 1834 and 1839, Lotah served a five-year indenture contract as a worker engaged to Mr Hardy on a sugar estate in Flacq district. He was engaged to the same employer until 1863, when he signed a new labour contract in the same district with a different employer. Lotah was arrested on three different occasions as a vagrant in 1865, 1881 and in 1886 at the age of 82.
The pictures of Immigrant Lotah were taken at the Immigration Depot in 1881 and 1886, when he was required to obtain a duplicate copy of his Old Immigrant ticket. On both occasions, just like tens of thousands of other Old Immigrants, he paid more than £ 1 to replace his old ticket which represented the salary of more than two months for an elderly Old Immigrant estate labourer. Between 1879 and 1885, Lotah was in his late seventies and was working and living on Constance Sugar Estate.
In 1889, he petitioned the Protector of Immigrants for a free passage to India which would have otherwise cost him between £ 2 to 3. This request was granted because of his old age. Lotah returned to Madras, India, in 1889 at the age of 85, on the steamship the Wanora, after having spent more than 55 years in Mauritius. According to the records of the Madras Police Office, he died there in 1891 at the age of 87.
Ex-Indentured Immigrants Returning to India
The experience of Lotah was not unique, but it was very rare, because there are an estimated 250 to 300 Old Immigrants, so far recorded and analysed, who lived and worked for more than forty to fifty years on the island’s sugar estates and in Port Louis and eventually returned to India. Therefore, this means that around 0.5% to 0.6%, of the 52,000 contractual labourers who arrived in Mauritius, between 1826 and 1843, eventually returned to India between the 1870s and 1890s.
At this stage of current research, it is difficult to determine the exact reasons for the return of these Old Immigrants to their native land, after having resided in Mauritius for such a long time. In addition, Immigrant Lotah was among more than 168,000 indentured workers, out of a total of 458,000 contractual labourers, or 36%, who returned to the Indian subcontinent between the late 1830s and early 1900s. However, the bulk of them, an estimated 290,000 indentured labourers, or more than 64%, remained in Mauritius. This can clearly be seen in the case-study of Immigrant Omeron.
The Experience of Immigrant Omeron (No. 8356)
Among the early immigrants who arrived in the 1830s and, unlike Lotah, adopted Mauritius as their new home was Immigrant Omeron whose life story stands out in the archival records. Omeron (No. 8356) arrived in Mauritius in 1837 from Calcutta, when he was thirty years old. He came to work on a group-contract for five years and was brought to Port Louis by Griffiths and Company Limited on behalf of Messrs Langlois and Joseph Lavoquer, the owners of Triolet Sugar Estate in Pamplemousses district.
Omeron was born in 1807 in the village of Cheetar in the district of Gaya in Bihar. He was described as a Bihari and a Hindu who belonged to the Jelli caste. Just like many other early Bihari immigrants, he worked as a labourer ever since he was a child in his native village. During the late 1820s and early 1830s, he worked and lived in the city of Calcutta before being recruited as an indentured labourer.
Between 1837 and 1842, Omeron worked as a cane-cutter on Triolet Sugar Estate. He travelled to Mauritius along with two other Bihari indentured immigrants; Kissen (Immigrant No. 8357), a Hindu, who was forty years old and Sooma (Immigrant No. 8358), a Muslim, who was forty-five years old. They were also brought by Griffiths and Company to work as cane-cutters at Triolet. Between 1837 and 1839, Langlois, Lavoqeur and their other partner, Louis Francois, employed more than one hundred apprentices. Their estate covered an area of between 1300 to 1400 arpents and possessed a sugar mill run by steam power. For a period of two years or less, Omeron and his fellow Bihari immigrants worked side by side with the apprentices in the sugar-cane fields of Triolet Sugar Estate.
Omeron continued to work for the same employer for several more years. By 1847, he became a sirdar and signed successive 12-month contracts with the same sugar estate which were renewed on an annual basis. In January 1848, he was registered as an Old Immigrant and obtained his ticket as required by Ordinance No. 22 of 1847. This particular colonial law created the categories of New and Old Immigrants. In 1859, Omeron worked as a sirdar on Belle Alliance Sugar Estate, which later on became known as Antoinette Sugar Estate and today as Pulliyar, in Rivière du Rempart district.
In January 1860, he was arrested as a vagrant close to the sugar estate where he worked and lived because he did not have his Old Immigrant ticket. Omeron spent one day in one of the prison cells of the Poudre d’Or village Police Station. He was released on the following day, thanks to the intervention of Mr Langlois, one of the owners of Antoinette, through his estate manager, who sent a note to the local Stipendiary Magistrate. Omeron was provided with a temporary pass and required to report to the Office of the Protector of Immigrants and obtain a duplicate copy of his Old Immigrant ticket at his own expense, which he was able to acquire a few days later.
By August 1870, Immigrant Omeron was able to accumulate enough money to purchase a small plot of rocky and uncultivated land of three arpents and six perches near Labourdonnais Sugar Estate from Mr Wiehe and Mr Audin. His land transaction suggests that he had been negotiating for several years with the owners of Labourdonnais Sugar Estate in order to obtain this particular portion of land.
Omeron employed six Old Immigrants to work on his newly-acquired land and became a small vegetable cultivator and sold his vegetables to Labourdonnais Sugar Estate. Furthermore, he constructed a small wooden house and along with his wife and five sons, he left the estate camp of Labourdonnais and went to live on their own land. During the 1870s, while he supervised the cultivation of his land, Omeron continued to work as a sirdar on Labourdonnais Sugar Estate for the Wiehe family. In 1880, he retired from his work on that particular sugar estate when he was seventy-two years old. It becomes evident that Omeron reached a stage in his life when he was preoccupied with his vegetable cultivation and because of his advanced age.
In April of the same year, Immigrant Omeron lost his Old Immigrant ticket, which he reported to the Poudre d’Or Police Station. The following day, he went to the Immigration Depot to obtain a new one which cost him more than £ 1 sterling, in accordance with Ordinance No. 12 of 1878. On 23rd April 1884, Omeron was photographed for the first time when he was seventy-six years old at the Office of the Protector of Immigrants. By then, he had become an important vegetable cultivator and supplier in Rivière du Rempart district. He passed away several years later in 1890, at the age eighty-two, near Labourdonnais Sugar Estate and his death was recorded at the Civil Status Office of Mapou village. His land was distributed between his wife and five sons.
Immigrant Omeron is one of several early Bihari indentured labourers who, by the 1870s, had achieved some measure of social and economic mobility. Furthermore, when compared with Immigrant Lotah, who remained a labourer all his life, Omeron moved up the complex plantation hierarchy from being a simple cane-cutter to a sirdar. At the same time, he was able to mobilize enough capital to purchase a large plot of land and employ other Old Immigrants to work his land, where he built a small house for himself. Over time, Immigrant Omeron became an important vegetable cultivator and supplier in Rivière du Rempart district.
Through their long and productive lives, Immigrants Lotah, Omeron, and tens of thousands of other estate workers like them played a central role in converting the rocky and uncultivated rural districts of Mauritius into a garden of sugar. Between the 1830s and 1870s, it was through their sheer determination, arduous labour and the sweat of their brows that Mauritius became the largest producer of sugar in the British Empire and eventually, one of the most important sugar producers in the world.
Each 2nd November, it is the major contribution of immigrants like Lotah and Omeron, to the development of our country, which is remembered and honoured by the people of Mauritius at the Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site.
* Published in print edition on 1 November 2012