Gleanings from the lives of the Indian immigrants

19th century Mauritius  —

History is about the study of the past but it is not the past. It deals with explanations and processes, trends in the past, the pattern of events and what is significant out of this pattern. In brief, history is about generalisations and concepts. Facts are important in so far as they contribute towards generalisations; by themselves they are not important for history. Yet sometimes facts and events, however insignificant, can contribute some insights about and from past experience. This article will bring out some of the factual information which lay buried in our archives. Even if atypical, it can nevertheless enlighten us a little more about Indian immigrants in 19th century Mauritius and add to the vitality of their experience.

One is often left with the impression that Indian immigrants had developed a support system on the sugar estates. There was solidarity and cooperation among them but many also lived in relative isolation and solitude. Family and community support systems developed much later and immigrants were always coming and leaving the estates all the time; there were a few who could not nurture strong relationships on the estate and were thus vulnerable to the hazards of life.

It is well established in historical literature that Indian immigrants resorted to suicide in their efforts to cope with humiliation and the rigours of plantation life. Between 1870 and 1875, there was an average of 40 cases of suicide per year, and these were mostly men. There were also a few cases which were only indirectly linked to plantation life. One immigrant, for example, after receiving his pay gambled and lost it. The following day he hung himself.

One may read several meanings in such a desperate act. It may reflect on how Indians spent their free time but it also indicates the lack of support system at that time or the sense of shame and humiliation which afflicted many immigrants when they committed something wrong.

The lack of a support system is obvious in the case of another immigrant who absconded from the Barkly Asylum where he had spent some time and was found to have hung himself on a tree at Trianon. According to the Inspector of Police’s report, he had been suffering from a double cataract and it was supposed ‘that disheartened (at) living in a stage of semi-blindness, he preferred to terminate his life’.

One can only imagine that Barkly Asylum was not the place for people who suffered from blindness, but there was at that time no alternative support for immigrants without a family.

There is the case of a woman who, accompanied by her daughter, had gone to live with her sick mother for some time and on her return found that her husband had died. No one, not even the Sirdar, had informed her of her husband’s death and worse, when she asked for his belongings, no one could provide any information. The poor family had 2 boxes, 3 pots, one cock, one hen, one bench, armlets, earrings and the husband’s papers, which appeared to have vanished after his death. This tells us a lot about the poor communication which prevailed on the estate at different levels.

Even if immigrants were poor, some of them saved a little money at the Savings Bank. According to Marina Cater, we lack precise figures of their savings at different dates and when the figures of a minority of immigrants are available, the average size of their deposits is not given. A few immigrants provided money or land for their children. Immigrant Gangabeeson had put money in the Savings Bank for his minor son who was aged 19 years. When the latter died, his brother who was the only heir wrote to the Protector of Immigrants to claim the Rs 21 and the reason put forward was that he had spent Rs15 for the funeral and burial at the new Pailles Cemetery. Members of the family felt it necessary to give their relatives a decent funeral. That was not only a religious obligation but also reflected the status of the person and the family.

Another immigrant from Calcutta bought, jointly with her concubine, a plot of land and drew a land deed in which they left the land to their daughter with usufruct to the concubine. The man left and settled in Calcutta. Later when he died, the concubine and the daughter laid claim to the land as the daughter wanted to sell the land. She obtained her claim but the concubine also inquired whether her husband had any property in Calcutta. The inquiry was carried out diligently in Calcutta and the answer was positive. In fact he owned 2 cows, I buffalo, 8 bullocks and 4 bighas of cultivated lands (one bigha1 = 1/5 arpent) but these had passed on to his two sons in Calcutta. What we do not know is whether he was already married before he came to Mauritius or did so after he left.

A further anecdote about Indian immigrants relates to surnames. Some Indian immigrants had two names – a first name and a name for the family or clan or jati, which often became a surname. There were many more who did not have a surname. They had only one first name and a number on their immigrant card and they were also given their jati.

Lack of surnames posed innumerable problems for any state as well as for the colonial state. The development of the modern state necessitated some mechanisms for controlling its subjects. Such mechanisms ranged from marking the bodies of subjects, giving surnames, providing identity cards, fingerprints as well as putting in place institutions like the prisons, the hospitals, the schools, the law courts and other bureaucratic institutions for both control surveillance and above all for power.

In the absence of surnames, the work of the state became complicated. For example, one immigrant named Ramsamy who worked as a gardener at Roche Bois, lost his ticket and applied for a pass and he was given one. Soon, it was found that that an immigrant with the same name and ticket number had re-engaged at Richefund, possibly with a view to obtaining a gratuity, and had absconded .The police was suspicious that he might be the same person and escorted Ramsamy to Richefund but it was found that it was a different person: the one who absconded had two moles on his cheek whereas he had none. Later, Ramsamy was given an additional name.

One does not know when the Indian immigrant, who did not have a surname, acquired one. In the case of Immigrant Gangabeeson, who had only one name and a number, it can be seen from the birth certificate of his son that the latter was given a first name Ramessur and Gangabeesun became the surname. It appears that generally it was the first generation of immigrants who were nudged into acquiring a name and a surname as the birth certificate specifically provided a column for the children to register both a name and a surname.

One last example of the experience of immigrants on sugar estates relates to what today would be referred as an industrial accident. Such accidents were a common occurrence and they added to the vulnerability of Indians at work. Many labourers were also disabled by ill health or even old age. Such immigrants had to apply for a pension of Rs 2 monthly. In the month of October 1894, there were 17 immigrants receiving a pension after their cases had been scrutinized and processed by Medical and Financial Committees. Immigrant Woozeer, whose limb had been amputated six inches below the knee and who subsequently received a pension, gave this account:

‘I was in charge of a cart loaded with cane tops. The mule dragged the cart into the gutter and the cane tops slipped to the back of the cart lifting the shaft. I hung on the shaft to lower them. I had no whip in my hand. The mule knocked me on the shin, and I fell to the ground. The mule went off, and the wheel of the cart went over my leg and broke it. Dr Bouchet and Dr Portal amputated the lower part of the limb. I have a boy of 6 years of age. I have no wife and have been begging for a living since the accident.’

Many of those incidents and anecdotes will appear in historical writings only if they have some historical significance. If not, they are usually passed over. However, they can serve in a very limited way to get a feel of the past and make certain aspects of the day-to-day life of the immigrants more meaningful for many of us.

Sada Reddi

1. The bigha is a traditional unit of land in several parts of South Asia. Sale and purchase of land (particularly agricultural land) is still done unofficially in this unit. However, the area is recorded in hectare or square metres in official land records. Bigha varies in size from one part of India to another. It is usually less than one standard acre (4,840 square yard or 4,047 square metre) but can extend up to 3 acres (1.2 hectare)

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