The End of Indentureship in Mauritius: A Preliminary Investigation

Indian nationalism as well as economic and social changes on the ground paved the way to the abolition of indentureship

Besides the pressure from Indian nationalists, economic and social changes on the ground were also driving towards abolition, particularly in the case of Mauritius

A number of countries and organisations have been commemorating the centennial of the abolition of the Indian indenture system which came to an end on 10 March 1917. Events and conferences have been organized in India, Fiji, Trinidad and in other countries as well. In Mauritius, two international conferences are scheduled in August and September this year.

It was in March 1917 that recruitment of indentured labour became illegal under the Defence of India Act 1915. Historians have usually highlighted the role of the Indian nationalists in the abolition of indentureship and sometimes indicated the practical reasons behind the decision. While the contribution of Indian nationalists is widely acknowledged, other contributing factors have not been given their due importance. This brief article is an exploratory one, and a summary of an ongoing research into the socio-economic factors which resulted in the ending of Indian immigration in Mauritius.

Nationalist pressure in favour of the abolition of indentured labour can be traced back to the early efforts of Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Mahatma Gandhi to expose the plight of Indians in South Africa as a major issue of imperial politics. In his first letter to Gokhale, at the beginning of the century, Gandhi wrote: “The question affects not only South Africans but Indians in all parts of the world outside India.’’ In 1901, at the Calcutta Congress, Gandhi succeeded in passing a resolution on the plight of British Indians in South Africa in the Subjects Committee and at the plenary session of the Calcutta Congress.

From that time onwards, the Indian National Congress passed yearly resolutions denouncing the policies of Imperial governments in South Africa but little action followed. In 1910, Gokhale presented a resolution in the Imperial legislative Council to ban emigration to South Africa. Six years later, on 20 March 1916, Madan Mohan Malaviya moved a resolution in the Legislative Council for abolishing indentureship and recruitment of indentured labour became illegal only in March 1917 under the Defence of India Act.

Although Indian nationalists like Gokhale, Gandhi, Malaviya, Manilal Doctor, Charles Freer Andrews and a number of other nationalists and Indian organisations played a crucial role in bringing about abolition, there were a number of socio-economic factors operating both in India and in the colonies which were also important and needed to be taken into consideration. In the case of Mauritius and in other colonies, these factors operated at different periods and shaped the push-and-pull factors in both India and Mauritius.

Arrival of Male Indian Immigrants


1834-1844 64941 1878-1888 13455
1844-1855 95805 1889-1899 9376
1856-1866 74990 1900-1910 10954
1867-1877 26679 1911-1921
 1834-1877   262,415  1878-1921  33,785

 If we divide the period on indentureship in Mauritius into three periods — 1834-1877, 1878-1900 and 1900-1925 — it is evident that the number of Indian immigrants who came to Mauritius after 1878 was on the decline.

The fall in the number of immigrants coming to the island can be explained by certain factors in India. Mauritius had to compete with other colonies for labour. For example, Madras immigrants preferred to go to South Africa, Malaysia and Ceylon rather than Mauritius. Similarly, many immigrants from Bihar not only went to the Caribbean but preferred Fiji to Mauritius. The findings of the 1872 Royal Commission of Inquiry on immigrants in Mauritius damaged the reputation of Mauritius as a destination for indentured labour with the effect that Mauritius became less attractive to potential immigrants.

A second factor, which reduced demand for labour in Mauritius, was the financial difficulties of the sugar industry from the 1860s.

By 1860, the sugar industry had completed its first phase of development. Low sugar prices, competition from beetroot and the abolition of sugar duties in Britain forced the reorganization of the sugar industry for it to remain competitive. The planters reduced the demand for labour while increasing productivity in the industry. New machines, centralization, the intensive use of guano, new varieties of cane, the introduction of railways and the partitioning of land to labourers — all these helped to expand the industry without necessitating the import of as much labour as during the first phase of its development.

The stabilization of the sugar industry was accompanied by the stabilization of the labour force. In the second part of the nineteenth century, the majority of Indian labourers lived outside the sugar estates in villages. The sugar industry employed a core of labourers on the estates while making having recourse to casual labour outside the estate whenever the need arose. There was greater use of female and child labour for certain tasks in the fields. The shortage of labour was offset by the use of job contractors, sharecropping and the employment of labourers-cum-small planters.

In India, apart from competition from other countries, in the second half of the century, there were difficulties to recruit labour for Mauritius because the emigration agents could not fulfill the quota for women for Mauritius. With the development of indigo plantations in Bengal, textile industry, mining and tea plantations in Assam, some nationalists found that there was no reason for Indians to emigrate when they could obtain better conditions and wages in India itself.

In the late 19th century Indian nationalists and organisations carried intensive campaigns against indentureship through public meetings and pamphleteering. As a result, many potential immigrants were influenced not to go overseas. It is possible that to overcome the reluctance of labourers to come over to Mauritius, sugar estate owners started sending their sirdars to directly recruit labour from their villages of origin or from their own relatives in India.

In the third period of indentureship, in the first quarter of the 20th century, the outbreak of the First World War and later the epidemic of Spanish influenza (1918) had some impact on labour recruitment for the colonies. The government of India did not want competition with military recruitment. About one million Indians were recruited for the war to serve overseas. In 1918, the Spanish influenza had killed about 17 million Indians. These two events must have had an adverse impact on the labour available for the colonies. Although it is sometimes argued that these two events had negligible impact on the labour market given the population of India was about 330 million inhabitants, yet one can also argue that the geographical areas for recruiting labour were confined to certain regions and the shortage of labour resulting from these two events must have intensified internal migration from the areas of recruitment and consequently reduced the supply of labour for the colonies.

Finally, there is little evidence that the Imperial Government wanted to prohibit immigration to the colonies for the economic development of those colonies contributed to the wealth of the mother country. Even when they suspended immigration temporarily or even stopped it, they were still exploring ways to improve the indenture system so as to resume immigration.

In 1922, the British Government of India was willing to consider lifting the ban on immigration to colonies such as Fiji, Ceylon and Mauritius if certain improvements were made in the labour legislation. In Mauritius, the local government responded to the demand of the Government of India by passing the 1922 Labour Act by removing penal clauses in the 1878 Immigration law.

In spite of the resumption of immigration in 1923, the experiment proved a failure and the immigrants who had come here were not satisfied with conditions in Mauritius and had to be repatriated. On the other hand, the report of Kunwar Maharaj Singh in 1925, which recommended the termination of indentureship, found that there was adequate supply of labour in the island and concluded that no recruitment was necessary. It also noted that more than half of the sugar estates found that the supply of labour was adequate in the island. Except for a few big Indian planters, the majority of Indian planters and small planters, labourers were against immigration. He also found “unanimous opposition (to immigration) on the part of independent and thinking Indians from all walks of life.”

For all these reasons, one may venture to say that Indian immigration died a natural death in Mauritius.

Given the importance of economic and social forces impacting on the push-and-pull factors in both India and Mauritius, one can tentatively conclude that these factors must be given some weight in explaining the abolition of indentureship. One cannot deny the crucial role of Indian nationalism during the first decade of the 20th century which compelled the Imperial Government to grudgingly make a number of concessions on the issue of immigration, but in parallel, economic and social changes on the ground were also driving towards abolition, particularly in the case of Mauritius.

 Sada Reddi & Anwar Janoo

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