It is high time that as a nation we cut loose from our real or imagined hangovers to finally reconcile ourselves with our history
As we commemorate the 183rd anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Mauritius on 1 February 1835, this week, we are reminded of the tremendous suffering and heinous treatment of slaves in Mauritius and in numerous colonies and countries across the world.
In the heyday of the slave trade in the late 17th and 18th centuries, it is estimated that between12 to 20 million people were captured and uprooted from their homes in raiding expeditions in central and western Africa and sold to European slave traders. They were shipped as cargo in cramped conditions and sold as slaves in various colonies established by the Portuguese, Spanish, British, French and Dutch to work in plantations, mines, construction work and diverse other activities.
Some 15% of the slaves died during the difficult sea voyage owing to the inhuman conditions on board. The great majority of the slaves were shipped to the colonies of the New World in the Americas, namely Brazil (some 4 million), Spanish colonies (2.5 million), British West Indies (2 million), French West Indies (1.6 million), the Dutch West Indies (500,000) and the US and British North America (500,000).
Slavery was a cruel and inhuman regime of servitude, oppression and exploitation. Slaves were considered by their owners as a form of property and chattel which could be bought and sold as any other property. Slaves had no rights and were forced to work without remuneration and suffer the most abject treatment. Any protest or revolt was dealt with severely. How could the owners of slaves morally thrive on such a disgraceful economic system?
Slavery has been an appalling blemish on society from the most ancient times. Throughout history until colonization, those defeated and captured in battles were either kept or sold as slaves as spoils of war. However slavery had never reached such a massive scale as witnessed during the colonization of the world by European powers in the16th to 18th centuries.
Thriving on human bondage
The narrative of slavery in the colonies and in Mauritius is a story of humiliation, acculturation and terrible suffering. The system spawned racism. Till today the people of African descent in the Americas still endure discrimination, marginalization and human rights abuses.
Slaves were first introduced from Madagascar in 1641 by the Dutch commander Van der Stel, who also introduced sugar cane to the island. 97 slaves were bought from a chieftain in exchange of some trinkets and cloth. At the time of the abolition of slavery 194 years later in 1835 under British administration, there were some 87,000 slaves in Mauritius. Slaves had during that period been a key element of economic development and wealth in the island. This was so much so that there was robust opposition from the white planters’ community against any proposal to abolish slavery on the island.
In the wake of the French revolution in 1789, France abolished slavery in all its possessions. However the rich planters refused to free their slaves and execute the French National Assembly’s decree making all slaves free French citizens. They also prevented the payment of a pay to slaves and chased out two agents of the French Assembly who had been sent to Isle de France to enforce the decree.
In 1807, Britain had outlawed the slave trade with The Slave Trade Act. There was therefore great hope among the slaves in Mauritius that they would finally be free of abject servitude when the British took possession of the island from the French on 3 December 1810. However, the first British governor Sir Robert Farquhar instead proclaimed that the planters would be allowed to keep their slaves.
The slave trade continued surreptitiously with the collusion of the local authorities. The census of slaves was falsified. The British Governors were surrounded by local administrators who were themselves slave owners. There was therefore again stout resistance against the abolition of slavery by planters. It must be said that despite the slave trade having been outlawed by Britain as from 1807, the number of slaves which stood at 60,000 in 1809 increased to 87,000 in 1815 whilst the island was under British rule and governed by Farquhar and his successors since 1810.
Two years after the UK Parliament had voted the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 throughout the British Empire, slavery was finally abolished in February 1835. A handsome sum of £2,112,632.10 was paid to the slave owners to free their slaves.
After retirement as Governor, Farquhar was appointed as London agent of the anti-emancipation planters’ lobby! The cause of the slaves had been betrayed and their freedom inordinately delayed by the planters who wanted to continue to benefit from a cruel and heinous system of human exploitation. This mindset seems to have been carried forward when dealing with indentured labourers imported from India as from 1834 despite the agreed terms of their contract of work and the protection of a designated Protector of Immigrants enshrined in the Emigation Acts enacted by the British government of India to protect its citizens. The planters continuously reneged on and watered down the agreed terms and conditions.
The early British administration of the island was also tainted by the summary execution of Ratsitatane, the leader of a slave revolt. Ratsitatane, a Malagasy chieftain, was sent as a prisoner by King Radama of Madagascar who wanted to put an end to the appalling slave trade, became the hapless victim of the tug of war between the planters and the British government on the abolition of slavery. He was instigated to head a slave revolt and betrayed by the same person. He was beheaded at Plaine Verte in April 1822 and his head was displayed in public. Ratsitatane remains a symbol of revolt and freedom.
Museum on slavery
The deplorable narrative of the slaves in Mauritius has to be anchored on history and a museum on slavery. It is a shame that nearly 50 years after independence, we are yet to set up a museum on slavery. There has been no momentum since 2011 when the Truth and Justice Commission made the proposal to set up a museum on slavery. Seven years later we are still at the stage of inviting interest from consultants. Those in the know blame a cocktail of lame reasons which inordinately delay such a key project. These reasons include a lack of government leadership, the fear of descendants of slave owners of being stigmatized, the choice of an appropriate place for the museum, etc. We need to cut the balderdash. Now that the old Military hospital has been chosen as the location to house the museum, it is time to get on with it.
We cannot continue to bury our heads in the sand or sweep important periods of our history under the carpet. It is high time that as a nation we cut loose from our real or imagined hangovers to finally reconcile ourselves with our history including with all its most sordid moments, gore and muck.
After 50 years of independence we need to know, take stock and exorcize the deep scars of the ignominious parts of our history and come to terms with them with the common resolve to make amends by ensuring inclusiveness, fairness, equal opportunities and a level playing field for all at all times. Let us creatively conceptualize the museum on slavery with the help of professionals in the field with a new and unifying mindset.
It is also important that the teaching of History in schools be started at the earliest, ensuring, especially in respect of Mauritian history, that prescribed texts meet the test of scholarly scrutiny and are free from selective amnesia. Every component of our society need to find, assume and be proud of their true identity by discovering through history and research the narrative of their forebears and their roots.
Some still appear so confused about their real identity or want to be somebody they are obviously not. It is time to shed all artifice and disguise to assume one’s real identity to build a stronger nation. It is great that Kreol, another anchor and cement of our national identity has finally been freed from the shackles of narrow snobbism and found its true place and status.
We must also be reminded that despite laws and international conventions, slavery is still very prevalent in the world today. In November 2017 a video of African migrants appearing to be sold at auction in Libya for $400 has shocked the world and focused international attention on the exploitation of migrants and refugees in the North African country. This is yet another deplorable treatment meted out to helpless migrants on their arduous journey to Europe. There are also so many shameful reports of enslavement of captured Yazidis and other captives of war by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
According to the global slavery index, there were an estimated 45 million people in some form of modern slavery in the world in 2017 such as forced labour, bonded labour, human trafficking, forced sexual exploitation, domestic work, etc. 71% of these are women who suffer all kinds of abuse. Modern slavery is a scourge which must be relentlessly fought and quashed.
Slavery will always remain one the most odious and condemnable crimes against humanity. Just like the holocaust it will also remain a raw scar and an appalling chapter of the world’s history. Expressing honest and deep regret will help catharsis. The world has a duty to remember and aptly honour its millions of hapless victims.
Main source – ‘Mauritius in Transition’ by Jay Narain Roy
* Published in print edition on 2 February 2018