Indentured labour and land in Mauritius

The decision to acquire a plot of land is perhaps the most influential event in the life of the Indian immigrants as well as in the history of the island

A visit to a friend in a village in the south provided a moment to reflect on the social mobility of a number of families descended from Indian immigrants. The immigrant central to this article had come to Mauritius in 1901, worked for two consecutive contracts of five years in the Savanne District, then became a job contractor and small planter and was canvassed by Dhunputh Lallah and the Raffrays in the 1930s.

What is remarkable for this Indian immigrant was that he acquired several plots of land, and was able to bequeath to each of his six children about 3 plots of land with buildings including commercial premises. Today, in only one of the plots of land of not more than 300 toises, there live four grandchildren and several great-grandchildren with their children. Altogether there are 8 families totaling 27 people living on that plot of land.

The grand children have rebuilt their houses and a few of them have also bought additional plots of land. The total rent of all the building could easily reach Rs. 70-80 thousand per month. This gives us an idea of how important the plot of land left by one immigrant has been for these families in terms of money saved on rent or source of revenue for those who want to rent out the residential property or the commercial premises.

Social mobility

This story of social mobility can be applied to thousands of Indian indentured labourers who settled in Mauritius. Today if the overwhelming majority of the descendants of Indian labourers have not felt the need to buy a plot of land to construct their houses, this is due to the vision and the determination of these early immigrants to secure a plot of land and build their houses outside the estate camp.

This decision to acquire a plot of land is perhaps the most influential event in the life of the Indian immigrants as well as in the history of the island since the middle of the nineteenth century. The land deed of the Indian immigrant became their charter for freedom and that emotional attachment to land is one the fundamental values which has been bequeathed to their descendants.

It was not unusual in the past to hear that one should never part with one’s ancestral land. In the family that I visited I was even told that the room in which the Indian immigrant used to live was eventually stopped from being rented to anyone outside the family. Any outsider who had tried to live there was only able to do so for a very brief time. Up to now it is being used as a store and not as a living place. Whether one gives credence to this story or not, the fact that this notion still prevails among the elders of the family indicates some strong links between the ancestor and his descendants.

To explain this passion among Indian indentured labourers to acquire a plot of land in Mauritius, one has dig down in history and this will necessarily take us back to India. In all societies which rely on agriculture for food, land is always a fundamental resource for survival. In India the history of land ownership is still a very complex and controversial issue among historians but for our purpose we can attempt a few tentative generalizations.

Land rights, ownership or land control constitute important dynamics in rural life in India. In a typical Indian village in the nineteenth century, all the villagers were dependent on the produce of the land for food and the majority of the villagers were involved in the cultivation of the land directly or indirectly. Even when they did own the land, they had land rights or for those who did other occupations in the village they could exchange their services for food.

The various jatis at the village level were organized in a hierarchy which differed from village to village across the land; the names of these various jatis indicate to us the different occupations in the village such as Lohar, Thakur, Kumhar, Chamar, Dhobi, Ahir and Telli, and those coming from South India included Kallar, Vellalar, Padayachee, Pillay, Naidu, Mudaliar and Thevar among others.

In some villages some of the jatis may own land, or sometimes have land rights while in other villages some may also be landless. Whatever be the status of the villager, he was nevertheless aware that land was an important resource which confers economic security, status, economic as well as social power.

Havoc in many parts of India

With the coming of the British, changes were introduced in the rural areas which deeply affected the Indian cultivator. The creation of the Zamindari class of landowners, the heavy taxes on land, the introduction of commercial capitalism and a thriving land market wrought great havoc in many parts of India.

A general consequence of these changes resulted in many cultivators losing their land rights or their land and were reduced to being landless labourers or wage earners after they had lost their ancestral land which they had been cultivating for ages. The trauma of losing their land and the fragility of life as a landless labourer as well as the importance of land in the rural areas must have shaped the minds of many immigrants who reached Mauritius in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Given the traumatic experience of land loss in India, one can reasonably assume that Indian immigrants would seize any opportunity to acquire land if they were allowed to do so. In nineteenth century Mauritius, there were some opportunities to obtain a plot of land for those who had enough savings. Most Indians could not save a lot. Those who did remitted their money to relatives in India or went back home with their money.

Land was not always available and amounts available varied from district to district and depended on a number of factors. In the 1890s Grand-Port, Flacq and Moka cultivated more sugarcane than the remaining districts. The land under cane cultivation in Grand Port was 11,038 arpents compared with Pamplemousses (3484 arpents) and Riviere du Rempart (2635 arpents). Lack of water for irrigation in the northern districts meant that land prices were cheaper.

The Petit Morcellement and the Grand Morcellement made more land available in the northern districts and Flacq than in the districts of Grand Port and Savanne. The closure of factories in Plaines Wilhems led to the sale of small plots of land more for residential purposes than for cane cultivation. Indentured workers employed in the docks would not be able to secure even a small plot for residential purposes. In districts where labourers acquired between one half to 5 acres of land, they could grow sugarcane and came to constitute the small planter class.

The uneven supply of land for sale through morcellements meant that some districts saw the emergence of a greater number of small land proprietors compared with others. Those Indian indentured labourers who could afford small or bigger plots of land were usually sirdars, job contractors or the metayers and in some cases many could combine all three positions. Though the reasons for the emergence of a land owning class were many, according to the Almanach of 1921. In 1890, there were 99,729 Indian males in the colony over the age of 15 and there were about 30, 000 Indian planters, which was about 30% of the adult male population. We know that there were women also who were small planters.

Fragmentation and consolidation of land holdings

For all the disabilities under which Indian labourers lived in Mauritius, the fact that they acquired 45% of the cane land meant that they were able to secure an economic base for their survival. From the land, they and their descendants built their livelihoods during the last 100 years growing canes, vegetables and rearing animals, and taking up non-agricultural jobs. In 1861 the occupations of Indians included 940 blacksmiths, 2051 carters, 1571 hawkers, 4045 masons and bricklayers, 3686 shopkeepers, 5829 carpenters and joiners,1779 sirdars, 5027 woodcutters, 5318 gardeners apart from the 84727 labourers.

Over the years there was both fragmentation as well as consolidation of land holdings. Population increase, partible inheritance resulted in fragmentation while marriages and investment in land could increase land holdings. From the produce of land or the sale of their land and from other sources of revenue, descendants of immigrants could provide better education for their children or could construct new buildings. There were many who lost their land in unfortunate circumstances, sometimes of their own making such as alcoholism or simply living beyond their means especially in the younger generation.

Today creeping consumerism and keeping up with the Joneses, or abandoning agriculture because of labour shortage are some of the factors which can result in further loss of lands. On the other hand, diversifying land use can help many to survive and live a decent life in the future. In Japan an automated factory farm produces 10 thousand heads of lettuce per day. When one travels abroad, one should look around when one visits villages and towns and discover some of the intelligent uses people make of land.

Over more than a century by simply saving on rent and living on a plot of land inherited from the past, we were provided with a ladder for survival into the future. Even though today we are told that in a knowledge economy, we need little or no capital for becoming an entrepreneur, those who still have land can more easily convert it into other assets. Therefore, those who still have that ladder that has helped to build their resilience up to the present-day should keep it in trust for future generations and not throw it away.

Finally the experience of indentured labour teaches us that if one wishes to get out of poverty, one needs to invest in more than one asset – whether it is land or education or a wage. We need to build multiple assets including our own resourcefulness for a sustainable future for both the individual and the country.

* Published in print edition on 22 July 2016

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