Remembering the past, looking towards the future

A visit to Aapravasi Ghat should be part of routine educational tours, and so too to the Slavery Museum when it is ready. It will open many eyes

Aapravasi – Indian Immigrants – 1930s. Photo – Vintage Mauritius

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

A few days ago there was the inauguration of the first phase of the Intercontinental Slavery Museum, and on Monday 2nd November will be held the annual commemoration of the arrival of Indian immigrants, beginning with the period of indenture that was to last for about 90 years until 1923. These are occasions for us to remember the past, and render homage to our ancestors who were brought to the island to toil under the very harsh and restrictive conditions that were imposed on them.

Fortunately for us, there are historians and other interested laymen who have been documenting these aspects of our colonial history and have been presenting them for public consumption, though how many people actually take the trouble to reward their labour by reading the published material is another matter. Given the volume of documents that are available and that continue to be added to, it is well nigh impossible to keep up with the lot, unless one is also researching or is professionally interested. But there is no doubt that they offer a rich and informed insight into how the island has evolved since our beginnings, and that I think should appeal to more and more people who should make more of an effort to discover their roots and become more culturally anchored.

There is a saying to the effect that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. It is also said that the version of history that we have been made to learn is that of the victor, and if we are to have a more objective version we must also get to know the past from the standpoint of the victims or subjects.

Bur even without looking at the country’s trajectory from this angle, there is lot to be gained from official historical records. Though I must confess to – here we go again! – lack of time, what with my fingers being in so many pies, I have had a continuing interest in medical history, and until recently this was mainly about western history given my training. Of course we do get bits and pieces as it were during our medical training, for example about medical discoveries and the pioneers behind them, but here again as our focus is on becoming practising doctors that’s as far as we go.

But clearly there is much more, and as far as our country is concerned there is much that is of great interest – to me at least – in some recent documents. For example, there is one volume of the Truth and Justice Commission (that was set up under the Labour Government) that deals with the health of slaves and indentured labour. It is really well researched, and covers all aspects of the topic from nutrition to various disease conditions, issues pertaining to the rations supplied and the improvements made in them, the surveys carried out to assess the health of the workers, the measures taken and so on, and concluding with the current situation where we see that the pattern has changed from the earlier killer infectious diseases to the new killers that the non-communicable diseases have become now.

Another document of great interest to me is the book by Raj Boodhoo, a medical historian, ‘Infectious Disease and Public Health in Mauritius 1810-2010’ at whose launch I was present and which I wrote about in this paper. I only wish my doctor colleagues would dip into it to learn about how we have reached where we are today, among other things overcoming epidemics and improving the health of our people by the by.

It has never been easy, and this is true for our life in general. I wonder how many footfalls the Interpretation Centre at Aapravasi Ghat has received to date. With the Slavery Museum that will be gradually developed, these two will constitute a significant portion of our ‘lieux de mémoire’ which will educate, inform, and also entertain us – with stories of yore, but also around the more recent narratives on the same themes. Who doesn’t like to reminisce about the past that is not too distant – letan lontan – and listen to parents and grandparents telling about how they used to cook in black pots over open fires which had to be kept aflame by blowing down metal tubes, the notorious phouknis that blew smoke into one’s eyes and lungs at the same time – and could also be weaponised by fighting couples or partners!

Some years back on a visit to the US, we drove down to Virginia and went on a tour of a former plantation site, and I was pleasantly surprised to find how much some of the structures on display there, such as the cooking implements, the hutments, the fireplaces resembled what I myself had experience of in my childhood. Revealing, to say the least.

I wish that our children and grandchildren would be a bit more curious to know about their past. It is important for them to understand and appreciate what kinds of hardships their forbears have undergone, and learn how they faced them through thick and thin, sacrificing and saving so as to prepare a better future for those who would come after them.

Today’s generation takes too many things for granted, enjoying as they are doing levels of material comfort that were unimaginable even a few decades ago. As far as their ancestors are concerned, not in their wildest dreams could they ever have imagined what sort of a life their descendants would have. The latter do not have to undergo the same uphill struggles – but it would certainly help them to give more value to their present situation if they delved into some the realities of the past. A visit to Aapravasi Ghat should be part of routine educational tours, and so too to the Slavery Museum when it is ready. It will open many eyes.

Unless we know our past, we will miss the right direction to take for the future. November 2nd and similar commemorations are a simple, easy opportunity to orientate or re-orientate ourselves. It should be a sacred duty to participate.

* Published in print edition on 30 October 2020

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