“An Untold Story”: The Genesis of Indian Indentured Labour in Mauritius

Indentured labour and the Independence of India will be discussed next week by academics from around the world

In the context of GOPIO International Conference on
Indentured Labour

Between 18th and 20th August 2017, the Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) International is organizing a milestone International Conference entitled ‘The 100th Anniversary of The End of Indenture in Mauritius and the British Empire and the 70th Anniversary of the Independence of India’ at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Indian Culture, the Ramayana Centre, and at the French Institute of Mauritius. This historic conference will be held in collaboration with the Indian High Commission in Mauritius, the Indian Council of International Co-operation (ARSP) – New Delhi, and the International Indenture Girmityas Foundation.

The major objective of this international conference will be to bring together scholars, government officials, public figures, community leaders and NGOs who are carrying out research on the history of indentured labour, the Indian global diaspora, the modern history of India and Indian independence. It will also see the participation of different branches of GOPIO International from around the world such as from La Reunion, Sri Lanka, Singapore, South Africa, Australia, France, and Guadeloupe. There will be academics, professors, and eminent personalities from more than 15 countries from around the world at the conference. One of the important themes of this conference will be the genesis, ending, and the historical importance of indentured labour in Mauritius and in other parts of the world.

The Genesis of Indentured Labour in 1834 to be Reconsidered?

Even before the arrival of the Atlas with its 36 Indian contract workers on 2nd November 1834, there were hundreds of indentured labourers who reached Port Louis. After all, between January1826 and July 1834, there were an estimated 1751 indentured labourers who came to Mauritian shores to work on individual and group indenture contracts of five years mostly on the sugar estates, and some in Port Louis. It is interesting to note that this represents more than half of the total number of contractual workers who were introduced in Reunion Island between the late 1820s and early 1830s.

Immigrant Luchmun or Lutchmun, a Bihari worker, arrived in Mauritius in 1830 from Calcutta, India and passed was photographed at the Immigration Depot in 1881 at the age of 85. He was a small property owner and gardener in Flacq district. (PG Series, MGI Indian Immigration Archives)

These very first pioneer indentured labourers formed part of what may be described as being a constant trickle of Indian indentured workers coming to Mauritius prior to 2nd November 1834 and the ensuing massive introduction of contractual labourers. At the same time, during this early period of the history of indentured labour in this small Indian Ocean island, Vijaya Teelock emphasizes: “Uninterruptedly, the Indian contractual labourers were introduced in Mauritius in small groups at the requests of individual local planters.”

The Indentured Labour Experiment in 1829

Between January 1826 and July 1834, an estimated 1751 Indian and some Chinese contract workers were brought to work mostly as domestics, babysitters, semi-skilled and skilled workers mainly from Calcutta, Bombay, Pondicherry, Tranquebar, Madras, Singapore, and Penang. They were brought to work for anywhere from 2 to 4 years under “Articles of Agreement”. However, it was only in 1829 that some of the planters made a serious attempt to experiment with the first large-scale importation of indentured workers.

Enock, Abraham, and several indian workers arrived in Mauritius in Pondicherry in October 1829 for 4 years to work under the Articles of Agreement by Mr Langlois, a Franco-Mauritian planter (Z2D Series, Mauritius National Archives)

Between June and October of that same year, an estimated 802 Indian and 398 Chinese indentured labourers were introduced into Mauritius. They came from Indian Ocean port cities such as Madras, Calcutta and Singapore with Gaillardon, Mr Thompson, and Company playing a key role in their importation. In October 1829, John Finiss, the Chief Commissary of Police, mentioned to Colonel Barry, the Chief Secretary to Government in Port Louis, that: “I think it my duty to state these circumstances at the outset that if the experiment succeeds, further importations will no doubt take place”.

In 1829, 249 of the 398 Chinese indentured mechanics and labourers who were brought to work on Mauritian sugar estates by Mr Gaillardon, Mr Thompson, and Company from Singapore (Z2D Series, Mauritius National Archives)

As early as 1829, local colonial officials, such as the colony’s main law enforcement officer, were already referring to the importation of hundreds of indentured labourers, to work on the island’s sugar estates, as “an experiment” which was being carried out by the Mauritian planters. However, within a matter of a few weeks, this labour experiment proved to be a dismal failure, as some of Franco-Mauritian sugar estate owners and their subordinates mistreated the indentured workers.

In addition, they either paid their wages late or did not pay them at all and did not fulfill their other contractual obligations to their workers. As a result, the Indian and Chinese indentured workers refused to work, deserted the sugar estates, were arrested as vagrants and resorted to petty crimes. This proved to be a source of major concern for the local British colonial authorities and the police force. By the end of 1829 and early 1830, the British colonial authorities gradually repatriated the majority of the indentured workers to Madras, Calcutta and Singapore.

The Experience of Immigrant Peerkhan

During the late 1820s and first half of the 1830s, important examples of indentured workers coming on individual contracts can be seen in the experiences of Peerkhan and Bactuon. In 1828, Peerkhanarrived in Mauritius from Calcutta with his three sons who were in their twenties and he was was a widower. He was 50 years old and engaged to work for Mr Sampson on Belle Mare Sugar Estate for five years on his sugar estate as a black smith in Flacq. Peerkhan was also a Bengali Muslim who was born in 1778 in the town of Purohli. By the late 1840s, he left his employer and became a small landowner and gardener and then later on, a sugar cane cultivator. He passed away in the village of Poste de Flacq in 1872 at the age of 94.

Immigrant Peerkhan was photographed at the Immigration Depot in 1868 at the age of 90. (PG Series, MGI Indian Immigration Archives)

Extract from an archival register showing the arrival of Immigrants Peerkhan and Bactuon in Mauritius in 1828 and 1829 respectively (PE Series, MGI Indian Immigration Archives)

 

* Published in print edition on 11 August 2017

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