The diversity of the indentured labour population: their origins and faiths
By Satyendra Peerthum
This year marks the 183rd anniversary of the arrival of the 36 Indian indentured workers on Sunday, 2nd November 1834 in Port Louis harbour near to the Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site. They were dhangars or tribals from the Chota Nagpur plateau in the present-day state of Jharkand, however, this was one of several regions of India from where the indentured workers originated.
During the 1950s and after, it was B. Ramlallah, K. Hazareesingh, A Beejadhur, and other Mauritian writers, who in their writings and speeches, reminded Indo-Mauritians of the diversity of the Indian indentured labourers who reached Mauritian shores between 1826 and 1910. They also emphasized that our indentured labour ancestors came from all the states and even the most remote regions of the former British India such as Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Burma.
During the late 1830s and early 1840s, the overwhelming majority of the Indian contractual labourers hailed from the Bengal and Madras Presidencies, and transited through the ports of Calcutta and Madras, while thousands more arrived from the Bombay Presidency through the port of Bombay. In addition, tens of thousands of other Indian workers also came from Madras, Kerala, Pondicherry, Cochin, Cuddalore, Karikal, and Tranquebar and were registered as coming from the Madras Presidency.
One of the major consequences of the importation of more than 452,000 Indian indentured men, women, and children, between 1826 and 1910, was the emergence of an extremely diverse indentured labour population. It was a dynamic and productive workforce comprising of Hindus, Tribals, Muslims and Christians who were employed mostly on the sugar estates and in Port Louis. It contributed massively to the demographic revolution which Mauritius experienced between the mid-1830s and early 1860s, as the Indian indentured workers became the majority population.
These emigrants originated from all the major present-day states of India such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Gujerat, Maharashtra, Haryana, Kashmir, Jammu, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra and Telangana, Orissa and Kerala. (See Tables)
Indentured Workers Adhering to the Hindu Faith
Hinduism was the dominant faith among the Indian indentured labourers throughout the entire indenture era. Between 1826 and 1842, an estimated 57% of the total number of Indian indentured workers proceeding to Mauritius were classified as being Hindus. It is estimated that between 1826 and 1910, Hindus consisted around 316,451 or 70% of the total number of indentured workers arriving from India.
Among the earliest Hindu Indian indentured labourers who landed on Mauritian shores was Immigrant Bactuon. He arrived in Port Louis from Calcutta in 1829. He was born in a village in Bihar in 1784 and was 45 years old when he engaged to work for five years for Mr Tribolet on a sugar state in the district of Flacq. Bactuon lived and worked his entire life in Mauritius in the same district where he died on 15 March 1860 at the age of 66.
Indentured Workers Adhering to the Muslim Faith
During the entire indenture era, the Muslims formed an integral part of the indentured labour population. It is estimated that between 1826 and 1910, Muslims consisted more than 67,810 or 15% of the total number of indentured workers arriving from India. The majority came from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Bengal, present-day Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andra, Telangana, and Pondicherry.
Indentured Workers Adhering to the Christian Faith
Christians consisted around 1% or more than 4520 of the total number of indentured workers arriving from India from 1826 to 1910. They emigrated to Mauritius mainly from the Tamil-speaking districts of Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Karikal and a few were from Bihar. One notes an intensive inflow of the Indian Christian workers from present-day Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry between the 1840s and 1870s, which coincided with the arrival of some of the Liberated Africans, Malagasy, East African, Comorian and Chinese indentured workers who were already Christians or converted to Christianity in Mauritius.
The Tribal or Adivasis Indentured Labourers
As from 1834 up to 1843, thousands of tribals or adivasieswere recruited as contractual workers to work in Mauritius. Geoghegan, a senior British colonial official, explained that from 1834 to 1870 “the so-called adivasies, or hill coolies [were] being much sought after.” However, in the late 1850s and 1860s, the demand for the labour of tribals from north east India changed as “the proportion of tribals in overseas migration had declined as a result of heavy mortality.”
Indian workers, known as tribals or adivasies, are estimated at around 63,289 or 14% of the total number of indentured labourers introduced in to this small Indian Ocean island between 1826 and 1910. They came mostly from the Chota Nagpur, Ranchi, Hazaribagh, and Ramghur districts of Bihar and present-day Jharkhand, and some from Uttar Pradesh and Bengal with thousands of others originating from the Tamil, Telugu, and Orissa regions of southern India. Between the 1830s and the early 1900s, there are hundreds of Indian tribals who achieved some measure of social and economic mobility. This can clearly be seen in the interesting life-story of Immigrant Gopal.
Each 2nd November, the contributions of Immigrants Gopal, Anthone, Bavasaid, and Luchmunand more than 452,000 Indian immigrant men, women, and children who helped to transform Mauritius into a multi-cultural society must be remembered and honoured.
This article is from a sub-section of a chapter from SatyendraPeerthum’s publication entitled ‘They Came to Mauritian Shores: The Life-Stories and History of the Indentured Labourers in Mauritius (1826-1937)’, published by the AapravasiGhat Trust Fund and launched on 2 November 2017
* Published in print edition on 10 November 2017